Into the Wild

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Themes and Colors
The American Wilderness Theme Icon
Risk and Self-Reinvention Theme Icon
Arrogance, Innocence, and Ignorance Theme Icon
Luck, Chance, and Circumstance Theme Icon
Materialism and Idealism Theme Icon
Isolation v. Intimacy Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Into the Wild, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Materialism and Idealism Theme Icon

Chris McCandless's reinvention into "Alexander Supertramp" is marked by his rejection of money and material objects, as well as his quest for a "raw, transcendent experience." McCandless donates the remainder of his college fund, $24,000, to OXFAM, thereby renouncing his affluent upbringing. He abandons his yellow Datsun in the Mojave Desert, forgoing the convenience of a car to travel on foot. During this time he also burns his leftover cash in a gesture that clearly points to his rejection of capitalistic society.

Underlying McCandless's rejection of money and materialism is his devotion to his ideals, which take shape through the authors and books McCandless reads during his journey. A fan of Leo Tolstoy, (a great novelist who renounced his wealth and privileged background to lead a simple life among the poor), McCandless's itinerant and impoverished lifestyle is almost mirror-like reflection of the ideals Tolstoy espoused in his works. Additionally by hitchhiking across the country, McCandless appears to live his personal philosophy—"that you should own nothing except what you can carry on your back at a dead run"—to the fullest.

Yet McCandless's rejection of material culture comes into friction with society, eventually becoming so extreme that it is unsustainable. While traveling with Jan Burres and Bob he is ticketed for hitchhiking. When crossing the U.S.-Mexican border he is arrested for not carrying an I.D. At the same time, McCandless shows an ambivalent attitude towards work and charity. He expresses discomfort about getting a job and carrying an ID in Los Angeles, and displays listlessness and rebelliousness when flipping burgers at McDonald's in Bull City, but enjoys doing manual labor on Wayne Westerberg's grain elevator in Carthage, South Dakota. Moreover, McCandless is very willing to give away his money and belongings to others in need, but resists receiving help from others, such as food and boots from Jim Gallien and money from Jan Burres, even though his primary mode of transportation—hitchhiking—inherently relies on the goodwill of strangers.

Further, McCandless's resistance to help only goes so far against the elements of the wild. Krakauer notes, "[McCandless] was an extremely intense young man and possessed a streak of stubborn idealism that did not mesh readily with modern existence." He also highlights a journal entry from the time McCandless was camping in the Grand Canyon. McCandless describes the "toll" of such Spartan traveling on his body—severe malnutrition and 25 lbs. lost—but declares that, "his spirit is soaring." While McCandless believes heartily in the transcendence of his soul, Krakauer is quick to point out the unsustainability of Chris's idealism within the physical world. In calling attention to McCandless's laser-focused scrutiny of his soul over his physical wellbeing, Krakauer does not assert that McCandless's search for a "raw transcendent experience" is nearly impossible, but suggests instead that McCandless's idealism is ultimately unsustainable. That McCandless's pursuit of ideals—an idyllic existence in nature cut off from human contact—leads to his downfall appears to prove Krakauer's point.

Materialism and Idealism ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Materialism and Idealism appears in each chapter of Into the Wild. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Materialism and Idealism Quotes in Into the Wild

Below you will find the important quotes in Into the Wild related to the theme of Materialism and Idealism.
Author’s Note Quotes

Some readers admired the boy [Chris] immensely for his courage and noble ideals; other fulminated that he was a reckless idiot, a wacko, a narcissist who perished out of arrogance and stupidity—and was undeserving of the considerable media attention he received.

Related Characters: Jon Krakauer (speaker), Chris McCandless
Page Number: xi
Explanation and Analysis:

Krakauer has already made clear that he has a personal investment in the story, and that although he is a journalist, he wants to stress that he will not be an impartial observer. Indeed, here he notes that the nature of Chris's tale prompts a host of various and even contradictory responses. This very diversity suggests that the story is deeply powerful to people in a number of ways – indeed, that it strikes at the heart of competing values that we hold. 

Despite all of Krakauer's research, he suggests that this book will not provide the definitive account on whose version of the story is correct. Even with all the facts at hand, he suggests, one can still interpret certain actions as arrogant or innocent, naive or willfully obtuse. It is not, Krakauer implies, that one of these narratives is more "correct" than the other. Rather, even while noting where he lies on the spectrum of opinions, he leaves it to the reader to draw his or her own conclusions – claiming all the while that these conclusions will depend on the reader's own deeply held beliefs about character and society.  


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Chapter 3 Quotes

The trip was to be an odyssey in the fullest sense of the word, an epic journey that would change everything. [McCandless] had spent the previous four years, as he saw it, preparing to fulfill an absurd and onerous duty: to graduate from college. At long last 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.

Related Characters: Jon Krakauer (speaker), Chris McCandless , Walt McCandless, Billie McCandless
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

In describing Chris's decision to leave his family and expectations and begin his journey, Krakauer does his best to enter into his subject's consciousness, to "get into his head," in order to try to understand what Chris was thinking. In large part, we learn that Chris is running away from everything that he grew up with – security, comfort, material possessions – that is, everything that many people strive to achieve for much of their lives. For Chris, though, these things suggest not what life can offer but the opposite of life itself. 

Chris doesn't think that he can simply choose to live less materialistically than his family, for instance. Instead, he considers it necessary to cut off all connections to his prior life and to entirely reinvent himself. This idealism, Krakauer suggests, is at the root of both his greatest experiences and of his ultimately fatal end.

Chapter 4 Quotes

Chris was very much of the school that you should own nothing except what you could carry on your back at a dead run.

Related Characters: Billie McCandless (speaker), Chris McCandless
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:

Chris's parents, who have hired a private investigator, have learned that Chris donated the rest of his college fund – $24,000 – to charity. Although they are worried about Chris, here his mother, Billie McCandless, shows that his actions are not altogether shocking. Billie seems to know Chris's character well, at least well enough to note his disdain for material possessions and desire to remain simple and self-sufficient. 

This passage suggests that Chris's idealism and lack of materialism were not new, hastily adopted values, but instead went back a long time. In a way, Billie's description of her son suggests that his escape is a logical continuation, if an extreme one, of values that he held for long before.

Can this be the same Alex that set out in July 1990? Malnutrition and the road have taken their toll on his body. Over 25 pounds lost. But his spirit is soaring.

Related Characters: Chris McCandless (speaker)
Related Symbols: Hunger and Starvation
Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

By this time, Chris has lost or abandoned almost all of his worldly possessions, and he is wandering from place to place even more than before. Here, he writes in the third person in his own journal, as if he is viewing his own path from a distanced perspective. Chris refers to himself as "Alex," the new identity that he has taken on – this new identity, along with the way Chris describes his feelings, suggests that he is delighted that he has, in fact, been able to start anew by running away from his life and from his past.

Another quite physical manifestation of Chris's new identity can be seen in the changes in his body. "Malnutrition and the road" are, specifically, the source of these changes. But instead of complaining about his physical weakness, Chris takes it as just another sign of how much he has succeeded in reinventing himself. The way he describes this process is idealistic in the philosophical, not just pedestrian, sense: he embraces "spirit" over matter, as if his physical losses have allowed him to reach what is true. Chris has left behind the comfort of his former life, and he finds the struggle that he now must face to be uplifting, an indication of his closer and more authentic interaction with the world.

It is the experiences, the memories, the great triumphant joy of living to the fullest extent in which real meaning is found.

Related Characters: Chris McCandless (speaker)
Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:

Writing in his journal, Chris continues to express his feelings of happiness, indeed of euphoria, that characterize his increasingly nomadic, transitory life. Here he provides an alternative way of extracting meaning in life, one that has nothing to do with the goods or possessions that one accumulates. Indeed, rather than accumulating possessions, Chris suggests that one must accumulate experiences and memories in order to truly understand what is important and what isn't. According to this perspective, even the greatest trials and hardships that Chris has experienced and will experience become important and even positive in the development of his character.

Chapter 5 Quotes

[Chris] was so enthralled by [Jack London’s] tales, however, that he seemed to forget they were works of fiction, constructions of the imagination that had more to do with London’s romantic sensibilities than with the actualities of life in the subarctic wilderness.

Related Characters: Jon Krakauer (speaker), Chris McCandless
Related Symbols: Alaska , Chris’s Books
Page Number: 45
Explanation and Analysis:

Krakauer is describing how Chris helps Jan sell secondhand books by recommending the works of Jack London to the visitors. Jack London set a number of his works in the Klondike area of Canada and Alaska. Here, Krakauer suggests that Chris let himself be carried away by the romantic vision of the wilderness as described in London's literary works.

Although Krakauer is very sympathetic towards Chris, he doesn't shy away from attempting to explain his actions based on his own mistakes. In particular, Krakauer identifies a potentially dangerous strain of Chris's idealism, in that it can blind Chris to seeing reality – in particular, the potentially treacherous realities of life in the wilderness.

Chapter 7 Quotes

Both father and son were stubborn and high-strung. Given Walt’s need to exert control and Chris’s extravagantly independent nature, polarization was inevitable. Chris submitted to Walt’s authority…but the boy raged inwardly all the while. He brooded at length over what he perceived to be his father’s moral shortcomings, the hypocrisy of his parents’ lifestyle, the tyranny of their conditional love. Eventually, Chris rebelled—and when he finally did, it was with characteristic immoderation.

Related Characters: Jon Krakauer (speaker), Chris McCandless , Walt McCandless
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Krakauer returns to Chris's past in order to explore his relationship with his father, a relationship which Krakauer believes helps to explain a number of Chris's later motivations and actions. Krakauer argues that similarities as much as differences caused discord between Walt and Chris, who yearned to break out not only of his father's control but also of his father's identity, which didn't allow him to develop his own. 

Some of Chris's problems with his father, as characterized by Krakauer, are not all that different from the frustrations that many children develop regarding their parents. What distinguishes Chris, Krakauer suggests, is the intensity with which he reacts, and the stubbornness that ensures that he'll follow through in his radical rejection of his family. But even this "immoderation," Krakauer suggests, can be traced to Chris's father, who's more similar to Chris than he would like.

No, I want to hitch north. Flying would be cheating. It would wreck the whole trip.

Related Characters: Chris McCandless (speaker)
Related Symbols: Hitchhiking
Page Number: 68
Explanation and Analysis:

Wayne Westerberg has offered to fly Chris out to Alaska, but Chris refuses. Here, as elsewhere, he shows an unwillingness to accept the way most others move throughout the world, choosing instead to think long and hard about every decision he makes. For Chris, hitchhiking is preferable to flying for several reasons: it's cheaper, more sustainable for the environment, and doesn't require even the basic kind of involvement in society that one would need (including, for instance, an ID) in order to fly.

But here, Chris seems concerned not only for the social implications of his choices but also for what these choices say about him and his own journey. Characterizing flying as "cheating" suggests that Chris sets high, pure standards for himself, standards that almost become a kind of game for him to win. The book does portray Chris's decisions as authentic and sincere, as idealistic, even if at the same time it is possible to argue that he sets such high standards for little apparent reason other than his own stubbornness.

[Chris] was hungry to learn about things. Unlike most of us, he was the sort of person who insisted on living out his beliefs.

Related Characters: Gail Borah (speaker), Chris McCandless
Page Number: 68
Explanation and Analysis:

In describing Chris, to whom she grew close during the time he spent with her and Westerberg, Gail Borah, like many others, depicts him as an idealist. But unlike those who express suspicion about Chris's reckless choices, Gail paints an admiring portrait here. For her, Chris's hunger for learning was sincere and intense.

While many of us claim that we believe in certain things, she suggests, few of us actually take those beliefs to their logical conclusions. In this, Chris was different. Trying to figure out how to live in a way most consistent with his professed beliefs was always going to be risky, but for Chris, according to Gail, these risks were worth it – something that she portrays as a lesson for others.

Chapter 13 Quotes

More even than most teens, he tended to see things in black and white. He measured himself and those around him by an impossibly rigorous moral code.

Related Characters: Jon Krakauer (speaker), Chris McCandless
Page Number: 122
Explanation and Analysis:

As Krakauer spends time interviewing Chris's family, he continues to try to understand the dynamics based on both what the family members say and how Krakauer himself can fit their perspectives into a fuller picture. Here, Krakauer attempts to balance his sympathy towards Chris with a sympathy towards those that Chris judged, perhaps overly harshly.

Chris's idealism, in this framework, is something to be admired, but also as something that could make him morally righteous and make it difficult, or impossible, for others to live up to his expectations. Such unattainable expectations could only, Krakauer suggest, lead Chris to disappointment – helping to explain, perhaps, Chris's aversion to intimacy with others even once he left his family behind.

Chapter 18 Quotes


Related Characters: Chris McCandless (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Stampede Trail , Chris’s Books
Page Number: 188
Explanation and Analysis:

This handwritten phrase is scrawled in the margins of one of Chris's books, Doctor Zhivago, which he reads in Alaska as he grows weaker and thinner, though still continuing his hunting and gathering. In a way, the phrase is consistent with Chris's general idealism: here, his conviction that truth and meaning are to be found in literature, and can be applied to real life as well. But in addition, the passage tragically suggests that Chris went through a belated epiphany, one that it was too late to act upon.

Throughout the book, Chris has been unwilling to grow too close to other people, wary of intimacy and instead embracing isolation and solitude as ensuring real happiness. Now – perhaps thanks to his reading, perhaps as a result of other thoughts during his time alone – Chris has come to realize that he must be open to sharing experiences with other people in order to achieve real happiness. Of course, it is impossible to know whether this was a complete epiphany, or whether it was simply a passing thought scrawled in a book, but we know that it at least occurred to Chris at some point during his time in the Alaska wilderness before he died, alone.