Jon Krakauer Brings Adventure to the Masses

Kathleen Norris, a famous novelist, once said, “In any free society, the conflict between social conformity and individual liberty is permanent, unresolvable, and necessary.”  This quote provides a generalization for one of the core issues in both Into the Wild and Into Thin Air--that issue is the level of self-reliance with which we must live.  At a certain point, we are limiting ourselves and our society that we live in by reducing ourselves to the consistencies of “the system.”  In order to progress, one must discover their self within a society.  Christopher McCandless from Into the Wild would say that our self-discovery is the only truth.  Jon Krakauer is a firm believer in these ideas; and the fight between material conformity in a society and individual reliance is a consistent theme throughout many of his books, which just happen to be non-fiction.  He just so happens to have grown up in Corvallis, OR; and he has a broad background in mountaineering and nature-related topics.  Krakauer uses characterization and the motif of nature to express his theme, which calls for independence in reaction to a society that uses money, love, and materials to create a general culture for those in the culture to conform to.

Throughout Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer uses the thoughts of his main character, Christopher McCandless, which he has recovered from his personal journal, to create a picture of the main character and to express a major theme.  It enhances the author’s goal to get the correct story about Chris to the public and to enhance his thoughts relating to nature, society, and self—reliance.  One of Chris’ former friends recalls what Chris would talk about before he passed, “‘He’d tell us to think about all the evil in the world, all the hatred, and imagine ourselves running against the forces of darkness, the evil wall that was trying to keep us from running our best.  He believed doing well was all mental, a simple matter of harnessing whatever energy was available” (Krakauer 112). 

Independence is what we must strive for; and in order to reach that independence, we must recognize what’s wrong in our world.  According to Chris, hate and evil are the driving forces of darkness.  Although evil is a broad term, Chris goes on to specify later in the book what he views as evil.  The following is a quote from Henry David Thoreau, whom Chris cites as one of his main idols, along with Jack London, “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth” (117).   This is where Chris equates love, money, and fame with the broad term aforementioned: evil.  The author takes these thoughts from Chris and forms a character out of them for the reader to see.  We can really see what his deepest beliefs are regarding philosophy, especially concerning life and truth.  Truth is something Chris believes can only be found through one’s own thoughts, and not by following the societal norms.  Major themes can be interpreted because of Jon Krakauer’s characterization of Chris McCandless that really cause the reader to think about life.

Into Thin Air follows a similar type of structure as Into the Wild; however, the author uses the characterization of himself and his teammates as he learns many life lessons and proclaims them to the reader.  Near the beginning of the book, the author addresses the commercialism and how it has affected life at the base of Mt. Everest, “Most of the people who live in this rugged country seem to have no desire to be severed from the modern world or the untidy flow of human progress” (55).  This describes his thoughts about how the economy has changed in Nepal and Tibet.  Although those who work at the mountain live in a very natural environment, they also give in to the commercialism of the mountain.  Krakauer is mocking this thought process; he believes that they shouldn’t conform to the society.  It is surprising that they follow along with the society created there.  Another example of characterization that Krakauer uses is through a minor character’s words; Beck Weathers says, “Finally I woke up enough to recognize that I was in deep shit and the cavalry wasn’t coming so I better do something about it myself” (316).  It is that idea that we cannot depend on others for our survival or, based on further interpretation, truth.  There will be times when one will not have the support of the society, their teammates, etc.  Krakauer is trying to get across the message of independence.  We must leave behind the society that tells us what is right or wrong--that is something we should discover on our own.  His themes come across strongly in this novel, especially in relation to the Sherpa’s, who live in a commercialized society; the characters that he develops are against that type of establishment.

Nature has to be a strong symbol when one is talking about Thoreau and London; their works embody the relevance of nature, and Krakauer uses that mindset to develop Chris’ character.  Chris is already known to be a fairly distant person; but when we find out about his connection with nature, we really discover who he is as a person.  Krakauer comments on Chris’ thoughts regarding the origin of his thoughts, “McCandless went into the wilderness not primarily to ponder nature or the world at large, but rather, to explore the inner country of his own soul” (183).  Nature is a way for Chris to escape the pressures of his old world and to explore his inner being.  He has been locked up in cage, mentally, for the last eighteen years, and now he just wants to find out who he really is.  Krakauer uses nature to represent the distance between the society in which he used to live and the one he chooses to live in now.  They are completely different--one is restricting while the other is freeing. As Chris is upon the threshold of the end of his journey, Krakauer states, “Two years he walks the earth.  No phone, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes. Ultimate freedom.  An extremist. An aesthetic voyager whose home is the road.  Escaped from Atlanta.  Thou shalt not return, ‘cause “the West is the best.”  And now after two rambling years comes the final and greatest adventure.  The climactic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual revolution.  Ten days and nights of freight trains and hitchhiking bring him to the great white north.  No longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild.” (163). This line encompasses all that he has been through in the past two years.  He has given up his material world and moved on with his life.  Now, it is time for his spiritual journey to come full circle, from a “poisoned” mind to a free one.

Into Thin Air lacks the same pure connection to nature that Into the Wild has; however, it is undeniable that nature is used symbolically to demonstrate that in the end, you’re on your own.  It also creates a realistic aspect to the book that would not be present without it.  The next quote is from an entry by Charles Bowden that Krakauer chose to put in the work, “I dream…of women, the songs of birds, the smell of soil crumbling between my fingers, and the brilliant green of plants that I diligently nurture…we will come to the water’s edge…and there will be a sign that says, ‘This is the real world, muchachos, and we are all in it’” (295).  In the end, nature is something that we must deal with, whether we embrace it as Krakauer says or we ignore it.  It’s all around us, and we have a very large impact on the environment and vice-versa.  According to the quote, we should not become entranced in nature to the point that we become lost though, because then we lose the sense of reality.  There is the real world, and we all have to make independent decisions; you cannot base it off of a dream or an illusion.  Another excerpt that Krakauer grabs is from Wes Unsworth, and the line he cites is, “The American public had no inherent national sympathy for mountain climbing…unlike the British…though the man in the [streets of Britain] might on the whole consider it a reckless risk to life, he acknowledged that it was something that had to be done.  There was no such acceptance in America” (139). 

Americans are so used to doing things the American way, and many people in foreign countries would argue that it’s the ignorant way.  Specifically, American’s do not really worry about results of such adventures; they are more interested in following the latest material fad as aforementioned.  In general, the use of nature as a motif is scaled back in Into Thin Air in comparison to Into the Wild, but it still plays a significant part in the development of themes.

The use of characterization and nature as a symbol leads the reader to themes that include the liberation of the mind against a society that has poor values.  In order to succeed and be happy with ourselves, we must determine what makes US happy and not necessarily those around us.  One great writer that McCandless could relate to was Emerson, and an inspirational quote by Emerson that I enjoy is, "To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment."  I agree.