In life and education, individuals who stray from the norm are branded as delusional outcasts instead of innovators or visionaries. Jon Krakauer investigates this in his book, Into the Wild. The book explores the final months of adventurer and transcendentalist, Christopher McCandless; McCandless abandoned the trappings of wealth and higher education to explore the Alaskan wilderness. While some Americans have questioned McCandless’s motives and legacy, Krakauer’s Into the Wild shed light on McCandless’ desire for enlightenment and what inspired his journey. He asserts that McCandless was not thoughtlessly rejecting his family or education; he had a purpose and reason behind his perceived delusional behavior. When the rescue teams found McCandless’s body, they also discovered works of Thoreau and other esteemed authors, which shows that he maintained the link to his formal education, which was important to him. These two authors preached the importance of immersing in nature to become enlightened; McCandless lived out the teachings of these two authors to the literal. In Into the Wild, Christopher McCandless successfully claims his education because he disregards societal norms and even his own safety to achieve the education he desires; he lives out the theories he read with complete conviction in an attempt to reach the level of enlightenment he needed.
Christopher McCandless embodies the ideals of Thoreau through his abandonment of material goods, society, and traditional education. McCandless was following the mandate of Thoreau when he decided to embrace a minimalist lifestyle. The book opens up with McCandless hitchhiking to Alaska under the name of “Alex.” The man who picked up McCandless described his encounter to Krakauer. He said, “Alex admitted that the only food in his pack was a ten-pound bag of rice. His gear seemed exceedingly minimal for the harsh conditions of the interior” (Krakauer 5). McCandless’s minimalist approach to camping in Alaska parallels Thoreau’s rudimentary lodging at Walden Pond. McCandless had only what he needed to exist, but not enough to thrive in the wilderness. His time in Alaska was not meant to be fun but was solely intended to enrich his mind. His journey relates to the essay, “Walden,” where Thoreau writes that the only necessities of life are food, shelter, clothing, and fuel. All of which Thoreau reduces to heat (Thoreau 1773). Similarly, McCandless’s actions mirror this philosophy prior to his journey to Alaska. McCandless graduated with an impressive GPA and with many accomplishments from the prestigious Emory University, as McCandless spent the majority of his life achieving what society encourages young adults to do. As a graduation present, his parents give him a large sum of money; however, McCandless rejects it. He donates as much as he can and then burns the rest (Krakauer 1). The burning of the money is symbolic of both McCandless’ rejection of traditional society and his decision to only need “heat.” Thoreau rejects other comforts as weaknesses (Thoreau 1774). He also mandates that goods beyond these parameters are unnecessary luxuries. McCandless follows this literally when he packs up and journeyed to Alaska.
McCandless adopts transcendentalist attitudes throughout his travels in a way that illustrates his dedication to pursuing education on his own terms. Towards the end of his life, McCandless hunts and kills a moose, but is unable to preserve all of the meat (Krakauer 167). The moose’s rotting greatly upsets McCandless as he interprets the situation as being wasteful and “luxurious” as he had an excess of food. McCandless was trying to live a life free of temptation and distraction so that he could educate himself about topics he was curious about and give his studies undivided attention. His academic background inspired him to study in a non-conformist way to see if he could better understand his purpose, similar to Thoreau’s time at Walden . McCandless was not looking for further academic self-instruction but instead was looking for more self-discovery and education on his spirituality. The killing of the moose was formative for McCandless, as it solidified his belief in living a transcendentalist life. While McCandless was not religious, the moose’s deterioration and McCandless’s subsequent feelings are evidence of his enlightenment and understanding of nature.
From Walden to Alaska, McCandless adopted the idea of solitude and its role in self-education. McCandless chose to live his life in isolation because his academic experiences before his journey were stifling his individuality and pursuit of education. When McCandless leaves for Alaska, he feels freed from the expectations of the world around him. Krakauer describes this as, “…he was unencumbered, emancipated from the stifling world of his parents and peers, a world of abstraction and security and material excess, a world in which he felt grievously cut off from the raw throb of existence” (Krakauer 22). Krakauer asserts that McCandless’s world was suffocating him; McCandless was not feeling intellectually stimulated, thus needing to change his life completely. McCandless believed that if he changed his life so dramatically, he would be able to reach his full potential, not just what society expected of him. However, solitude is not sustainable for an extended time frame, which is what would ultimately lead to McCandless’s death. Despite claiming the virtues of solitude, Thoreau had his sister care for him during his time at Walden, as he recognized that extreme loneliness could be more harmful than helpful in his journey to enlightenment. McCandless believed in Thoreau so much that he followed his essays too exactly when even Thoreau could not have lived his teachings.
McCandless was looking for a greater purpose than just following the mold of traditional American life. To do this, McCandless believed he needed to give up the materialistic nature of everyday American life to remove distraction and temptation from his life. McCandless went to the wild to learn about himself and the natural world; he believed that he needed to change his educational style to attain this greater education. In Emerson’s “On Education,” he writes, “Your teaching and discipline must have the reserve and taciturnity of nature” (Emerson 257). McCandless followed Emerson just as strictly as he followed Thoreau. McCandless was very rigid with himself and his decision to be in solitude with nature. McCandless was ill-prepared to live in the outdoors, but he did so with a ferocity because he was passionate about his enlightenment. McCandless was so determined to be enlightened that it blinded him from seeing the genuine peril he was in. When he was found in the cabin, there were more books than supplies (Krakauer 12). McCandless valued being one with nature and his education over his physical well-being. His journals are detailed with his survival and adventures in the Alaskan frontier but are also evidence of how little time he spent taking care of himself. McCandless’s careless behavior is unsurprising due to how little mention Emerson makes of self-care in his writing; Emerson focused completely on education and neglected the necessity of being alive to be educated. It is unrealistic for a person to have the “discipline of nature” as to be human is to have the desire to survive, which, unfortunately, McCandless did not develop until it was too late.
Krakauer’s Into The Wild explores the motivations and methodologies of Christopher McCandless’s journey into the Alaskan frontier; Into the Wild reveals that McCandless’s desperation for enlightenment blinded him from valuing his well-being. McCandless was just a young adult trying to find his place in the world and, unfortunately, used nineteenth-century authors to guide his path to enlightenment and subsequent isolation. Thoreau’s insistence on extreme rudimentary living and Emerson’s strict view on education are all reflected in McCandless’s erratic and self-destructive behavior. Ultimately, McCandless was unable to differentiate the theoretical from the literal in his quest for education.