Chris McCandless was an American itinerant who embarked on journey into the wilderness of Alaska with little food in a bid to live a solitary life. The character can be analyzed in the light of Stephen Cook’s “Open Space and American Culture”. He takes on a desperate search for his true self believing that solitude would address all of his problems. On his way to self-discovery, he meets death caused by starvation. His life is marked by his desire to “clinch a thirst for adventure” and “taking risks, experiencing nature, and discovering ultimate freedom.” The movie deals with the themes of mobility, transformation. The movie lives up to the new genre of open space with the major character McCandless opting to find open space as a way to renew his personality.
His character cannot be well understood without a reference to open space and American culture. In the context of United States at least, one cannot overlook the interlaced aspects of culture, history, and environment. The history of United States is replete with such adventures as it provided a cornerstone for the people to create a national story and heroic narrative. The character of McCandless can be seen in that vein. The adventure of Columbus was much like a similar journey but one that remained successful. As Turner puts it “Since the days when the fleet of Columbus sailed into the waters of the New World, America has been another name for opportunity.” (Cook, 2000)
The story and adventures of McCandless continued the American legacy of open space that still captures our mythology and reality. The Alaskan odyssey of McCandless can be interpreted as one of America’s few organic art forms. The term which Cook defines as the open-road epic can be applied to the character of Into the Wild. But he deludes himself with the false promises and prospects of a pleasant solitude. The whole civilization that he leaves behind in order to seek happiness certainly leaves him unhappy eventually. He somehow attempts to fulfill the promise of transformation. Much to the analysis of Ehrlich and Lopez who treat open space in spiritual terms, the journey of McCandless is also driven by the desire to attain spirituality in the wilderness. He sees nature having its own mechanism to “find something more dear and congenial than in streets or villages.”(Outka, 2008)
McCandless shuns all the material gains because he views money as an inherent source of evil and greed. He donates all his money to famine relief and guts all cash in his pocket. Since spirituality is a nebulous and vague concept therefore the significance of geography and private space cannot be ignored. McCandless avoids human intercourse mainly because he wants to discover sheer privacy in an open space. He turns away from the crowd and complexities of civilizations and societies and takes delight in the nature and open space. Just before his death caused by starvation, the journal entry reads “beautiful blueberries”—an evidence for self-assumed but meaningful journey into the wild. (Korda, 2010)
He exercises fanatically and severely, eats only what he could find from the jungle, and resolves not to use any modern technology or tools except for those he himself is able to make. Despite his colossal efforts to stay alive entirely off the forest, he finally agreed that "it is not possible for human beings as we know them to live off the land." His apparently joyful and keen rejection of his own assumption made it appear as though he had also approved of the need for the balance between wilderness and civilization.
The lives of McCandless, Krakauer, and many others bring out the pitfalls of living an extremely solitary life. Humans have a natural tendency to live in order and cherish balance in life. To refuse to entertain one’s need brings about a certain death. Although the behavior of McCandless often elicits irritation, anger and laughter on the part of readers who are a bit reckless and drastic while analyzing his character. Finally, he succumbs to the need of social intercourse realizing its significance in one’s life. As Edward Abbey says in Desert Solitaire, "How could I be against civilization when all which I most willingly defend and venerate-including the love of wilderness-is comprehended by the term?" The need for a sporadic isolated existence can be integrated into a everyday life that also includes human contact. He dies because he fails to strike the balance in life.(Moore, 2007)
McCandless quest for “ultimate freedom” and his roaming around west may be said to symbolize the spirit of Columbus. McCandless dubs his activity and what he is looking for on his odyssey, particularly on the Alaska trip, as “ultimate freedom.” At the outset, it seems that his tendency represents liberation from other people’s rule and authority. Nobody in the wild can hold sway over him. Throughout his whole life he finds authority particularly oppressive, especially when exercised by anyone who he feels only has such power over him for capricious reasons. To live completely alone, in a world where the only laws he feels the need to follow are those of nature that provide him ultimate freedom. He tries to extricate himself from the bonds of society. The freedom that he can enjoy in an open space is hard to find in the walled cities and societies.
Nevertheless this level of freedom demands absolute seclusion because the worldly possessions only serve as the major impediments and obligations. Thus, McCandless’s pursuit for freedom becomes, as well, a denial of any and all relationships with others. This sort of freedom is essentially dangerous. By living only according to his own rules and those of nature, no matter how upright and profound, McCandless is implicitly living only for his own best interest. For example, he refuses to get a hunting license because he doesn’t think it is any of the government’s business what he eats; were everyone to act this way, animal populations would be destroyed, and food supplies threatened. McCandless's ultimate freedom is thus limited in scope, for on any larger scale it would be dangerous and potentially disastrous. The life in an open space is certainly fraught with dangers.
The whole journey of McCandless is marked by his attempts to make himself inaccessible. However, much like Castaneda he is finally defeated because he does not fully acknowledge the importance of healthy human relationships. It is a balancing act in which an individual nurtures his relationships with fellow creatures and endeavors to sustain it which is no less a daunting task. “Co-dependency, the dissolution of boundaries, the loss of emotional or physical that one may call one’s own are death blows to personal sovereignty.”(Cook, 2000) This is what happens to the character of McCandless who does not bother to understand the importance of personal relationships and personhood.
But on the positive side of the story, the story of Candles accentuates the importance of risk in one’s personal life. Sometimes it is worth taking a risk for a cause and this is what exactly he does. The character of McCandless indicates a smattering of American value in the sense that he takes on a daunting task that eventually costs him his life. The discoveries can only be made in open spaces and nothing such can take place in the urban jungle and world of civilization.
The most valuable quality that McCandless continually exhibits is his adherence to principles. He does not merely bemoan that his parents are too materialistic, or say that he will not nurture greed in himself as others are doing. He lives a completely anti-materialistic giving away all of his life savings to charity, only keeping the bare minimum of money necessary for his survival and keeping as few possessions as he possibly can.
Korda, Lerryn, (2010) “Into the Wild” Candlewick Press
Moore, Emily,(2007) “Character Analysis: Christopher Candles & Alexander Supertramp from into the wild” retrieved from:
Outka, Paul,(2008) “Race and nature from transcendentalism to the Harlem Renaissance” Palgrave Macmillan
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