Into the Wild Summary

Jon Krakauer

Into the Wild

  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us.

Into the Wild Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Into the Wild  by Jon Krakauer.

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer chronicles the true story of Christopher McCandless. Following his college graduation, McCandless decided to travel into the wild, which ultimately leads to his untimely death. By the time he graduates from Emory University, McCandless has family, money, a degree, and a car, and decides to give it all up. He gives away his money, abandons his car, and decides to live as a homeless man, traveling from place to place and completing odd jobs in exchange for food and temporary lodging.

While he meets many different people from all walks of life during his trek, McCandless doesn’t form lasting or meaningful connections with anyone. He is influenced by the writers of the Existentialist movement, such as Henry David Thoreau, to live completely in and off of nature as much as he can. After a few years traveling around the United States as a drifter, he decides to go and live in the wilds of Alaska. He procures a van and goes to live by himself, hunting and living off of the land. No one from his old life back in Washington, DC, or California where he’s from, or from Atlanta, where he went to school, or even in the states he visited throughout the continental US hears from him.

In 1992, moose hunters in the Alaskan wilderness discovered McCandless in a converted bus used as a backcountry shelter. He was dead. When news reached the public, there was outrage at his parents. How could he go off into the wild like that? How could he abandon his family, his career, everything he had going for him in society? McCandless became a cautionary tale, and a target for widespread anger. People wondered whom he thought he was, going off into the wild, thinking he’d survive without proper equipment, food, or training. Krakauer uses his book Into the Wild to share the results of his journalistic findings, showing readers the real McCandless and some of the reasons for his actions.

One of the main themes of Into the Wild is man’s role in nature. This is a common theme in Krakauer’s writing. Like Thoreau, McCandless believed that true happiness could only be found when living in concert with nature. However, that harmony can turn into a cacophonous disaster when man is unprepared for nature’s challenges. Predators, weather, and food shortages—all of these can contribute to a swiftly declining situation for humans out in nature. Nature can provide for life, or it can take a life. McCandless is rewarded with nature’s bounty, however, despite his knowledge of edible plants, he mistakenly eats a poisonous one, which ends up killing him. Krakauer concludes that nature is neutral—it provides as many dangers as opportunities, and it is up to the person to succeed or fail. McCandless, like many before and after him, felt the need to test himself against the force of nature.

Another theme explored in Into the Wild is the relationship between fathers and sons. Until the end of his college career, McCandless idolizes his father, who is successful and, in Chris’s eyes, the epitome of fatherly perfection. However, as he finishes school, he discovers that his father is not perfect, and so the image of the perfect man that he has been trying to embody no longer exists. This thrusts Chris into an existential crisis, which he believes will be sorted by his going into the wild. This decision is as much about finding himself again as it is revenge against his father, who considers Chris’s decision a failure, not a success.

The third major theme of the book is self-denial. For Chris McCandless, his self-denial—giving away his money and abandoning his car to embark on a journey with no creature comforts whatsoever—is more about rebelling against his parents and what they stand for than embracing the lifestyle of his favorite authors. He determines that those who have what they need and what they want suffer for it, that those with food and homes are the cause of the world’s evils. He believes that by denying himself these comforts and conveniences, he is free from society and therefore self-sufficient. However, he proves time and again by relying on others to feed and transport him before he goes to Alaska, that he is not self-sufficient, but is dependent on others, on society, and on the comforts and conveniences they too rely on.

One of elements that makes this book unique is that as Krakauer is describing the circumstances of Chris McCandless’ situation, he draws upon his own life as well to compare and contrast, helping the reader understand McCandless and his journey into the wild.