When news of McCandless's death of apparent starvation breaks, native Alaskans ridicule him, assuming that Chris's lack of preparation for the frontier indicates the young man's incompetence, arrogance, stupidity, narcissism, and fundamental misunderstanding of the wild. Yet Krakauer questions whether McCandless's death is just another instance of a young man getting in over his head and suffering the consequences. In this way, Into the Wild is not just a biography of McCandless's "brief and confounding life," but also an inquiry into McCandless's death, much like the investigations that drive mystery novels, or crime dramas. Like a sleuth, the book circles around the question of "how and why did Chris McCandless die?"
For Krakauer the answer lies within McCandless's character—his arrogance—as well as his lack of experience—his innocence and ignorance. Though Krakauer concedes that McCandless did possess a certain degree of arrogance in venturing into the woods underprepared and ill-equipped, he characterizes this incautiousness as stemming from McCandless's overestimation of his ability to survive off the land alone, rather than a haughty disregard of nature's might and mercurial ways. Krakauer attributes McCandless's death to "one or two seemingly insignificant blunders"— his inability to circumvent a system of dangerous rapids on the Stampede Trail and mistakenly eating potato seeds laced with a poisonous mold. Both are honest mistakes made on sound judgment. McCandless would have risked life and limb if he tried to ford the river's powerful floodwaters on his own. McCandless also ate the potato seeds, based on the advice of an authoritative edible plant guide, which left out some little known, yet important information about swainosine that could have saved McCandless's life.
Instead of indicting McCandless of unforgivable hubris, Krakauer characterizes McCandless as the victim of his own ignorance and innocence, an inexperienced young man whose death resulted—in part—from his severe naivetŽ, rather than any sort of extreme arrogance. In doing so, Krakauer uncovers the tragedy of McCandless's death—in pursuing self-knowledge and experience, he fell victim to his lack of both. Krakauer thus reveals the paradox underlying all ventures of self-discovery—though motivated by a thirst for knowledge and experience such journeys are inevitably underwritten by a lack of both.
Arrogance, Innocence, and Ignorance ThemeTracker
Arrogance, Innocence, and Ignorance Quotes in Into the Wild
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.
This is the last you shall hear from me Wayne…If this adventure proves fatal and you don’t ever hear from me again I want you to know you’re a great man. I now walk into the wild.
Such willful ignorance [on the part of McCandless]…amounts to disrespect for the land, and paradoxically demonstrates the same sort of arrogance that resulted in the Exxon Valdez Spill—just another case of underprepared, over-confident men bumbling around out there and screwing up because they lacked requisite humility…McCandless’s contrived asceticism and a pseudoliterary stance compound rather than reduce the fault.
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.
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.