Into the Wild

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The American Wilderness Theme Analysis

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.
The American Wilderness Theme Icon

McCandless's journey is part of a long tradition of men seeking to find themselves in nature, including naturalists like John Muir and writers such as Henry David Thoreau. Krakauer points out that McCandless had a particular fascination with Thoreau's Walden, an extended personal essay in which Thoreau documents his experiences living in the woods of Concord, Massachusetts. Not only did McCandless carry a heavily annotated copy of the text with him throughout his travels, like Thoreau, who lived in a secluded cabin to simplify his life, McCandless made camp at an abandoned bus in the middle of Denali National Forest in order to find himself. By closely observing the quality of animal behaviors, as well as deeply analyzing the effect of the passing seasons upon his personal development, Thoreau idealized such self-isolation within the wilderness, beautified nature, and romanticized its transformative ability, establishing an American legacy steeped in reverence for those who seek themselves in the wild.

In Into the Wild, Krakauer explores the "grip wilderness has on the American imagination" by recounting the stories of Everett Ruess, Gene Rosellini, John Waterman, and Carl McGunn, young men like McCandless who perished in the wild searching for transcendent experiences. But Krakauer also interrogates the romantic mythology surrounding the portrayal of the American wilderness, its adventurers, and their mysterious disappearances. Juxtaposing literary passages that idealize nature against the actual rough circumstances that McCandless encounters in the wild, Krakauer complicates the inspiring image of the American wilderness. In one instance, casting the desert as a place of "revelation" with a quote from Man in the Landscape, Krakauer then moves into a detailed description of the bear-paw poppy's majestic habitat, but ultimately leads the reader to the morbid discovery of McCandless's abandoned car in the Mojave Desert.

Even while drawing inspiration from nature, Krakauer is quick to point out its unforgiving and ferocious qualities, never shying away from depicting the precarious situations McCandless encounters—barely escaping from a flash flood in the Mojave Desert, getting lost in the Colorado River's channels, nearly dying off the Mexican coast during a storm. Krakauer also uses his own harrowing climb on Devil's Thumb to demonstrate the intense cruelty of nature. He almost falls to the bottom of an ice crevice when he makes a false step on the glacier and nearly plummets to his death when the ice that holds his pick ax drastically thins.  Both instances choke Krakauer with a sudden fear of death at nature's hands, but also force him to recognize nature's awful power and terrible beauty. In characterizing the wilderness as both idyllic and brutally uncaring and dangerous, Krakauer underlines that whether one is an experienced mountaineer or naive explorer, all who enter Mother Nature's domain are subject to her laws.

The American Wilderness ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Into the Wild related to the theme of The American Wilderness.
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 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 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 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.