Into The Wild - Rebecca LaMarche          

Into The Wild Essay

Matters of Independence:
A Study of Self-Reliance in Into the Wild

Rebecca LaMarche, May 2010

In Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer, the focus of the book, Christopher McCandless, displays self reliance very nearly to the point of monomania and self-absorption. It was not until he took off on his Alaskan Odyssey however, that those closest to him realized the intensity of that independence. Through careful research and a personal connection to McCandless, Jon Krakauer gives the reader an inside look at a young man who did not let many people close. To assert his independence and become entirely self-reliant, McCandless took drastic measures to uncover the Truth. Many parallels can be drawn between Chris’ ideals and Emerson’s essay, Self Reliance, in which he teaches that people must seek solitude to hear their own thoughts, because society, and its inhabitants urges men to conform. The increasingly common theme of self-reliance and independence in American literature is a commentary on the ideals people still value. Some of the values that many people in modern society seem to have forgotten are; the quest for personal knowledge, the pursuit of individual happiness while not taking it from others, and above all, the ability to be comfortable in solitude and independence. Emerson goes so far as to call society “a conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members” (Emerson, Self Reliance). This quote is just one of many examples of Chris’ beliefs that he took to heart and in this case, he could not allow himself to conform.
To assert his independence Chris McCandless threw away subtlety and immersed himself in the values he thought were worthwhile and pursued the ideals that he felt were important. He alienated his family, invented a new name, and created a new life as Alexander Supertramp. Many people call his actions selfish and cruel, but others believe that while it may have been self-centered, it was a noble and necessary change for him. By not even communicating with his sister, Carine, with whom he was quite close, Chris made it quite clear that he did not want to be found. Chris pushed himself throughout school; academically and athletically. Then later he pushed himself to be completely self-reliant because: “…it was important for him to see how independent he could be” (Krakauer 125). This quote demonstrates the side of Chris that is testing himself, not only for the romantic aspects of independence and solitude, but for the experimental part as well. To bring this to the reader’s attention, Krakauer connects Chris with Gene Rosellini, a well-educated man from an affluent family who was, “interested to know if it was possible to be independent of modern technology (Krakauer 74). With this statement, Rosellini is showing similarities to McCandless through his interest in the science of independence, not only from people, but material objects and tools as well.

Christopher McCandless saw the world in black and white, good and bad, right and wrong, rather like a child does. The way he reacted to his family’s secret about the circumstances surrounding his parents’ marriage illustrates this: “Children can be harsh judges when it comes to their parents, disinclined to grant clemency and this was especially true in Chris’s case. More even than most teens, he tended to see things in black and white” (Krakauer 122). Even thought Chris was willing to forgive and overlook the flaws in the authors and philosophers he admired, he could not forgive his father for the mistakes he made in the past. What made matters worse for Walt McCandless’ relationship with his son was that he concealed the fact that Walt had a relationship with Chris' mother and fathered Chris, while still being romantically involved with his first wife. By Chris’ high moral standards, this was inexcusable. The absolute way that Chris viewed and judged those around him is also childlike in its loyalty.

In his essay, Self Reliance, Emerson writes of self-reliance not as anti-people, or even anti society. Instead Emerson advocates self-reliance as a starting point or a way to be, instead of a goal to reach, “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace like the triumph of principals” (Emerson, Self Reliance). This quote is clearly reflected in Chris’ actions, “He needed his solitude at times, but he wasn’t a hermit. He did a lot of socializing. Sometimes I think it was like he was storing up company for the times when he knew nobody would be around” (Krakauer 45). This shows that Chris valued self-reliance the way Emerson did – he needed to be his own person, with his own vision and way of thinking so that others would not inadvertently influence him along the way. He recognized that the only way for him to find his own Truth would be to be self-centered and focus on his own being first, without others clouding his sense of being.

Krakauer views Christopher McCandless’ stubborn nature, even pigheadedness, as important and meaningful because, “”McCandless distrusted the value of things that came easily. He demanded much of himself – more, in the end, than he could deliver” (Krakauer 184). With this quote, the author is saying that Chris went into the wild with minimal supplies entirely on purpose. His goal was to test and challenge himself every step of the way, and so he did. He knew the risk and what might happen to him, but it was important for him to be truly alone, without human companionship or human resources, to provide an honest test of his independence. As Jack London put it, “It was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life. It was the Wild, the savage, frozen-hearted Northland Wild” (London, White Fang). This quote says exactly what Chris was up against – what he knew he was up against. He wanted to live simply, in the raw, harsh wilderness and he did. Toward the beginning of his trip, upon being asked if he has a hunting license, McCandless replies: “Hell no…how I feel myself is none of the government’s business. Fuck their stupid rules” (Krakauer 6). With this statement, Chris reveals that he is the ultimate non-conformist, nearly bordering on anarchy, and proving that he would be a “rebellious subject” in Stanley Milgram’s experiment on obedience to authority. The experiment involved a “teacher” asking a “learner” questions and for every question answered incorrectly, the “administrator” would administer an electric shock to the “learner”. The experimental part was too see how long the “teachers” would let the “learners” suffer before standing up to the “administrator”. The entire experiment was controlled and no one was actually harmed, although the “teachers” didn’t know that.

In the experiment, Milgram tested people’s reluctance to challenge those who abuse their power. After viewing the results of the experiment, Milgram concluded that: “Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority” (Milgram). Through the ideals, letters, and actions of Chris presented by Krakauer, most readers would conclude that he was one of the few people who would resist authority. Even though he escaped entirely into the wilderness to avoid that authority, the extreme nature of his independence and adversity to government, rules, and money, suggest that Chris would be able to resist just as well in the city.
Through his commentary about the nature of his death, Krakauer suggests that Chris was not necessarily ready to die, but content with what he had accomplished and discovered for himself: “McCandless, in his fashion, merely took risk-taking to its logical extreme. He has a need to test himself in ways, as he was fond of saying, “that mattered”. He possessed grand – some would say grandiose – spiritual ambitions” (Krakauer 182). Because of Chris’ strongly opinionated, idealistic, and rather stubborn mindset, Krakauer believes that the only way his life would have been meaningful is if he was doing exactly what he wanted for himself, and he does. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, self-reliance is the, “reliance upon one’s own efforts and abilities”. Since Chris made sure that everything he gained was through his own efforts and the success of his abilities, he maintained true self-reliance throughout his Alaskan odyssey.

Chris was strongly opposed to any kind of unnecessary material possession. He wrote a letter to his sister before he took off to Alaska, complaining about his parents: “I can’t believe they’d try and buy me a car” (Krakauer 21). He reasoned that he has a perfectly capable car, despite its age, and that receiving a new one was nothing short of ridiculous. This connects to Emerson’s Self Reliance once again, “Men have looked away from themselves and things so long, that they have come to esteem the religious, learned, and civil institutions as guards of property, and they deprecate assaults on these, because the feel them to be assaults on property. They measure their esteem of each other by what each has, and not by what each is” (Emerson, Self Reliance). Chris sees this in his parents and the “rich kids at Emory”, and he detests it. Chris is embarrassed by his family’s modest wealth, believing that “wealth was shameful, corrupting, inherently evil” (Krakauer 115). Like Emerson, he believed that people ought to be held to higher standards and not judged by what they had, but who they were.

Humanistic physiologist Maslow set up a hierarchy of five levels of basic human needs. Beyond these needs, higher levels of need exist, including the need for understanding, esthetic appreciation, and purely spiritual needs. However, upon examination of Chris McCandless, the reader would notice that although he requires Maslow’s five basic needs, such as the physiological and self-actualization, the higher levels he spoke of are prevalent as well. This further demonstrates the Tolstoyan values, such as simplicity, truth, and pure goodness, which Chris holds to such a high regard.

Through Chris’ idealism, independence, and true self-reliance, he was able to create a new life for himself. That life was filled with meaning, purpose, and, “the raw throb of existence” (Krakauer 22). That life meant more to Chris than anything or anyone ever could. This deeply romantic story is one of many American literacy works that holds people all over the world captive. The fierce idealism and searing self-reliance are seen as unattainable qualities that are mysterious and wonderful, but frightening and dangerous all the same. As Leo Tolstoy said, “There is no greatness where there is no simplicity, goodness, and truth”. And Christopher McCandless found greatness in himself, the world, and the people in it on his Alaskan odyssey.

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