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.
Risk and Self-Reinvention Theme Icon

McCandless's journey into the wilderness is ultimately one of self-discovery and reinvention. Through his travels he transforms from a willful recent graduate, eager to break away from his stifling family, into a practiced wanderer and amateur mountaineer. Underscoring his transformation is his transition from his given name, "Chris McCandless," to "Alex," or "Alexander McCandless" on the road, to finally "Alexander Supertramp," on the Stampede Trail. McCandless's name changes document his shift in character and speak to the creation of his new identity. In casting off his family name, McCandless derives his new name, "Supertramp," from his life on the road, creating an identity that evokes this itinerant and trying lifestyle.

Krakauer pairs McCandless's reinvention of himself with the risky behavior he exhibits throughout his travels. For instance, Krakauer surmises that McCandless abandons his beloved yellow Datsun in the desert, instead of seeking help from the authorities, so that his parents won't find out and end his cross-country road trip. While Krakauer suggests that McCandless's new identity stems from his flirtation with danger, he also aligns his own daring climb on Devil's Thumb with McCandless's venture into the Alaskan bush. The young Krakauer believes that scaling this treacherous mount will transform his life for the better, paralleling McCandless's belief that living off the land in Alaska will also change his life for good. In the end, however, Krakauer realizes that such a risky escapade did nothing to fundamentally change him. What Krakauer does recognize in himself is a deep urge to test his limits and live on the edge, a willfulness he suspects McCandless of possessing. By inserting his personal experience into his investigation of Chris McCandless's quest for a "raw, transcendent experience," Krakauer shows that the path towards self-discovery is fraught with unnecessary risks that are more often life-threatening than life altering. Even so, he recognizes that such risks for "young men of a certain mind"—stubborn, passionate, idealistic and proud—hold an incredibly compelling power, like the thrilling unknowns of death or sex.

In describing his state of mind on Devil's Thumb, Krakauer writes, "At that stage of my youth ÉI was stirred by the dark mystery of mortality, I couldn't resist stealing up to the edge of doom and peering over the brink. The hint of what was concealed in those shadows terrified me, but I caught sight of something in the glimpse, some forbidden elemental riddle that was no less compelling than the sweet hidden petals of a woman's sex." While Krakauer indicates that a "raw, transcendent experience" is an elusive, almost inaccessible state of being, he does acknowledge the appeal of discovering one's self along the edges of death and danger, thereby suggesting that risk is a temptation, rather than a necessary component, of reinventing one's self.

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Risk and Self-Reinvention ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Into the Wild related to the theme of Risk and Self-Reinvention.
Author’s Note Quotes

In trying to understand McCandless, I inevitably came to reflect on…the grip wilderness has on the American imagination, the allure high-risk activities hold for young men of a certain mind, [and] the complicated, highly charged bond that exists between fathers and sons.

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

As Krakauer introduces the subject of his book, he is straightforward with the reader about the major themes that will characterize his treatment of Chris McCandless. This passage also gives us an understanding of Krakauer's own interest in the story. Having been assigned to write about it for Outside magazine, he finds himself drawn to pursue the tale in greater detail, not only because of his interest in the protagonist, but also because of what Chris's story reveals about larger themes in American culture.

Krakauer will insist throughout the book that the story only makes sense within a larger trajectory of literary representations of wilderness. Chris McCandless is one of many young men in American history drawn to nature because of the excitement it can inspire, the enticement of both personal challenge and ideological "purity" involved in leaving civilization behind, and also because of the broader context and history of high-risk involvement in the wilderness. Finally, Krakauer suggests that Chris McCandless's relationship with his father – as well as with the various other male characters he develops relationships with along the way – are also indicative of a broader trend that can be instructive for learning something about American society in general.


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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.

…[McCandless] intended to invent an utterly new life for himself, one in which he would be free to wallow in unfiltered experience. To symbolize the complete severance from his previous life, he even adopted a new name. No longer would he answer to Chris McCandless; he was now Alexander Supertramp, master of his own destiny.

Related Characters: Jon Krakauer (speaker), Chris McCandless
Page Number: 22-23
Explanation and Analysis:

In addition to leaving behind his family and his material possessions (apart from his beloved Datsun), Chris feels that he needs to assume an entirely new identity. It's not enough for him to make certain small changes – to choose to live several degrees more simply, for instance. Instead, he must reinvent himself in order to be open to such "unfiltered experience."

Chris's self-invention becomes literally evident in his assumption of a new name. "Alexander Supertramp" will leave no traces of the old Chris McCandless behind, with that old name's connection to his parents and to choices that have been made for him, rather than choices he wants to make himself.

Chapter 4 Quotes

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 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.

[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 8 Quotes

McCandless didn’t conform…well to the bush-casualty stereotype. Although he was rash, untutored in the ways of the backcountry, and incautious to the point of foolhardiness, he wasn’t incompetent—he wouldn’t have lasted 113 days if he were. And he wasn’t a nutcase, he wasn’t a sociopath, he wasn’t an outcast. McCandless was something else…. A pilgrim, perhaps.

Related Characters: Jon Krakauer (speaker), Chris McCandless
Page Number: 85
Explanation and Analysis:

In attempting to determine his own conclusions about Chris's character and responsibility, Krakauer takes a more nuanced approach than a critic like Nick Jans, for instance. To Krakauer, there are some parallels between Chris's saga and that of other "bush-casualty" tales, but also ways in which Chris's particularly stubbornness and independence make him break away from the norm. Krakauer dismisses various simple explanations for Chris's death – but he is unable to confidently replace such characterizations (that of a sociopath or an outcast, for instance) with another, instead adding a tentative "perhaps" to "pilgrim."

Krakauer prefers to situate Chris's experience at the confluence of various individual, social, and even national trends. Chris can be described as "rash," according to Krakauer, but he's also competent, and his desire to go out into the wilderness is bolstered by a long, rich tradition of similar activities in American history and literature. Only by delving into all these trends, according to Krakauer, can one hope to fully understand what happened to Chris, and what it means for some of the values that others like and unlike him continue to hold.

Chapter 11 Quotes

Chris was fearless…He didn’t think the odds applied to him. We were always trying to pull him back from the edge.

Related Characters: Walt McCandless (speaker), Chris McCandless
Page Number: 109
Explanation and Analysis:

Walt has described a family camping trip when Chris was twelve, and how even then he was always eager to take risks. As Walt recollects events from his and Chris's past for Krakauer, he, like others, characterizes Chris as "fearless" but also reckless. In a sense, Walt implies, Chris thought of himself as invincible, unwilling or unable to think that he could be harmed even despite his dangerous behavior.

This passage, like several other instances of testimony from Chris's family, suggests that Chris's character remained largely consistent over time. Rather than being an impetuous, even random act of asserting his independence, then, Chris's odyssey might be better understood as the logical extension of the kind of person he always was. In that interpretation, his self-reinvention is in some ways the fullest expression of his original self.

Chapter 14 Quotes

As a youth, I am told, I was willful, self-absorbed, intermittently reckless, moody. I disappointed my father in the usual ways. Like McCandless, figures of male authority aroused in me a confusing medley of corked fury and hunger to please. If something captured my undisciplined imagination, I pursued it with a zeal bordering on obsession, and from the age of seventeen until my late twenties that something was mountain climbing….Climbing mattered.

Related Characters: Jon Krakauer (speaker)
Page Number: 134
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Krakauer moves to a first-person account of his own experience with a risky adventure in the wilderness. Until now, he has only alluded to several points of comparison between Chris McCandless and himself. Now, he makes explicit connections between Chris's life and his own, particularly regarding both their complex, difficult relationships to their fathers. Stubbornness, too, is something that he and Chris also share, as evinced by Krakauer's relationship to mountain climbing.

By linking his own narrative to that of Chris, Krakauer suggests once again that there is something broader to be learned in Chris's story, something shared by many people as a result of both individual and social circumstances. Krakauer's choice also helps to humanize Chris's character even while acknowledging his weaknesses. By admitting that he too can be stubborn, impetuous, and overly inclined to take risks – even while also being capable of impressive research and narrative skill – Krakauer helps us see that Chris too is more than the arrogance of his choices. At the same time, Krakauer makes it clear also that he himself, in different circumstances, could well have been as unlucky as Chris.

Chapter 15 Quotes

…like McCandless, I was a raw youth who mistook passion for insight and acted according to an obscure, gap-ridden logic. I thought climbing the Devils Thumb would fix all that was wrong with my life. In the end, of course it changed almost nothing. But I came to appreciate that mountains make poor receptacles for dreams. And I lived to tell the tale.

Related Characters: Jon Krakauer (speaker), Chris McCandless
Related Symbols: Devil’s Thumb
Page Number: 154
Explanation and Analysis:

After relating the story of his near-death experience on the Devils Thumb, Krakauer draws further connections to the story of Chris McCandless. Once again, Krakauer acknowledges how his own mistakes and hubris prompted him to act the way he did. He suggests that certain young men in particular may be especially inclined to take risks and push themselves, even if all that they learn as a result is that there is not much to learn from such adventures.

However, in order to learn that lesson one must, of course, survive. And by putting his own experience in parallel with Chris's, Krakauer suggests that chance alone is what distinguishes their trajectories, rather than any advantage in intelligence or logic that he held over Chris. Krakauer doesn't excuse either his or Chris's mistakes, but he does attempt to give us a broader, more sympathetic viewpoint on how similar choices, combined with different circumstances, can lead to radically different consequences.

Chapter 16 Quotes

Two years he walks the earth…an aesthetic voyager whose home is the road….After two rambling years comes the final and greatest adventures. The climactic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual revolution….Ten days bring…him to the great white north. No longer poisoned by civilization he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild.

Related Characters: Chris McCandless (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Bus
Page Number: 162
Explanation and Analysis:

As Chris settles into his new life in the wilderness, he scrawls graffiti in several places on the bus where he has made his home. The quote included here is described by Krakauer as the most eloquent, even if it is also among the most rambling and bombastic, example of that graffiti.

As he does elsewhere, here Chris speaks of himself in the third person, as if he is imagining the journey he has taken from a distanced perspective. His language and imagery are almost apocalyptic, a dramatic narrative of escape and salvation in a new, pure land, where Chris is finally free to reinvent himself. Civilization is portrayed as dangerous, even poisonous, as contrasted to the powerful and indeed spiritual healing to be found alone in nature.

Of course, with the benefit of hindsight this language also sounds ominous. While Chris most likely meant his "final" adventure to mean his last, most extreme experiment before finding a middle ground in or near society, this time in Alaska would indeed turn out to be Chris's final adventure. Nature indeed will turn out to be just as mighty and powerful as Chris suggests it to be here, but its power is uncaring, and will be unleashed against him rather than for his benefit.

Chapter 18 Quotes


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

Thanks to Chris's journal, Krakauer is able to piece together, little by little, what Chris's last weeks and days were like – and perhaps to find a key to what caused his death. Here, a passage in Chris's journal provides a clue, as the tone suddenly shifts to one of desperation. We see quite clearly here how one small choice, one minor circumstance, can turn out to be a wild risk when alone and far from civilization. By citing Chris's journal verbatim, Krakauer makes it evident to us just how easily one can slip from safety into danger – and just how easily an idealistic journey can be compromised by lack of knowledge or expertise.

Epilogue Quotes

Many people have told me that they admire Chris for what he was trying to do. If he’d lived, I would agree with them. But he didn’t, and there’s no way to bring him back. You can’t fix it. Most things you can fix, but not that. I don’t know that you ever get over this kind of loss. The fact that Chris is gone is a sharp hurt I feel every single day. It’s really hard. Some days are better than others, but it’s going to be hard every day for the rest of my life.

Related Characters: Walt McCandless (speaker), Chris McCandless
Page Number: 202
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Walt shares his thoughts with Krakauer, after the two of them, with Billie McCandless, traveled to the site of Chris's final adventure and death in Alaska. Walt is clearly struggling to come to terms with what Chris's death means, if anything. He is also evidently thinking of how many people have been affected by the story, which has reached a national audience.

Ultimately, Walt refuses to accept that Chris's story is positive and redemptive, even if some people found things to admire about his journey. What prevents Chris's odyssey of reinvention and isolation from ultimately being a powerful, inspiring tale, of course, is the fact that Chris did not live to learn from it himself. Walt's pain is a daily reminder of the lasting effects of Chris's risky decisions, not only for Chris himself, but for those close to him.