Into the Wild is the true story of Chris McCandless, a young Emory graduate who is found dead in the Alaskan wilderness in September 1992, when he is twenty-four. McCandless grows up in wealthy Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., and is a very gifted athlete and scholar, who from an early age shows deep intensity, passion, and a strict moral compass. After graduating from high school McCandless spends the summer alone on a road trip across the country, during which he discovers that his father secretly had a second family during Chris’s childhood. McCandless returns home and starts as a freshman at Emory, but his anger over this betrayal and his parents’ keeping it from him grows worse over time.
By the time that McCandless is a senior at Emory, he lives monastically, has driven away most of his friends with his intensity and moral certitude, and barely keeps in touch with his parents. He lets his parents think that he is interested in law school, but instead, after graduating with honors, he donates his $25,000 savings anonymously to charity, gets in his car, and drives away without telling anyone where he is going, abandoning the use of his real name along the way. He never contacts his parents or sister, Carine, again.
Not too long after leaving Atlanta, McCandless deserts his car in the desert after a flash flood wets the engine, and from then on, he hitchhikes around the Northwest, getting jobs here and there but not staying anywhere for long, often living on the streets, and keeping as little money and as few possessions as he can. During this time he gets to know a few people rather closely, and everyone admires his intensity and willingness to live completely by his beliefs, but he avoids true intimacy.
After about two years of itinerant travel, McCandless settles on a plan to go to Alaska and truly live in the wilderness, completely alone, and with very few supplies, to see if he can do it, to push himself to the very extremes. He spends a few months preparing, learning all he can about hunting, edible plants, etc, and then he leaves South Dakota, where he’d been working, and hitchhikes to Fairbanks. Those whom he tells about the plan all warn him that he needs to be better prepared, or should wait until later in the spring, but he is adamant and stubborn.
In April of 1992 McCandless gets dropped off near Mt. McKinley, and hikes into the wilderness. He spends the next sixteen weeks hunting small game, foraging, reading, and living in a deserted bus made to be a shelter for hunters, not seeing a single human the entire time. He is successful for the most part, although he loses significant weight. In late July, however, McCandless probably eats some moldy seeds, and the mold contains a poison that essentially causes him to starve to death, no matter how much he eats, and he is too weak to gather food anyway. McCandless is quickly incapacitated by the poison. Realizing he is going to die, he writes a goodbye message, and a few weeks later some hunters find his body in the bus.
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The impossibility of total self-reliance
Christopher McCandless wants to be perfectly self-reliant. He quests for this ideal independence and isolation, but it escapes him at every turn. The sheer number of interviews included in the book testifies to how many people helped McCandless at the same time he claimed he wanted to leave everyone behind. Nowhere is the illusory nature of McCandless’s self-reliance more clear, however, than when McCandless heads down the Stampede Trail in what is to be the last trip of his life. McCandless decides to remain in an abandoned bus instead of making a shelter of his own. The pre-existing structure, which is kept in good condition by hunters, proves too convenient to pass up. Perhaps most significantly, McCandless cannot save his own life when he becomes too weak to forage. If he had not decided to leave human contact behind entirely, he might have been able to receive help.
Nature confounding human intentions
The unconquerable, unpredictable side of nature appears in the first pages of Into the Wild and continues to appear throughout the book. Alaska residents, for instance, insist that people like Christopher McCandless are fools to approach the wild with the idea that its vast beauty will solve their emotional or spiritual difficulties. No plan laid by any of the book’s explorers seems to succeed. Nature confounds nearly all of them. In his personal narrative, Krakauer stresses that he was unspeakably lucky to have survived his attempt to summit the Devils Thumb glacier, because of storm conditions he could not have foreseen. McCandless studies his edible plant guide and makes no mistakes in identifying species he can use to supplement his diet. He succumbs, however, to a mold growing on a seed he thought was safe to eat. A flooded river blocks his way when he decides he wants to head back to civilization. Many of the book’s events, including its final outcome, reflect the tragic irony of the idea that nature can be controlled. Too much of nature is both invisible and too unpredictable for McCandless to survive.
The difficulty of escaping familial influence
Christopher McCandless rejects his father, but the same qualities he hates in Walt McCandless reappear in his own decision to head into the wild. McCandless found his father overbearing, but at the same time, he frequently lectures his own parents. He also persuades vulnerable people, including his friend Ronald Franz, to take up his self-reliant, tramper’s philosophy as their own. Perhaps most importantly, McCandless is angered at his father’s secret family. He maintains that Walt McCandless lets him and his sister live in ignorance. He then keeps his own location secret from his family. This mirroring of his father’s behavior links Christopher McCandless to Walt McCandless and demonstrates a likeness between them precisely where Christopher might have least wanted to see it. In addition, the narrator explicitly ties his own childhood recklessness to his father’s influence.
More main ideas from Into the Wild