What Is Supposed To Be Noble About Chris McCandless?

Yglesias gets Into the Wild exactly right:

Jon Krakauer’s book version of the story is already far too kind to Christopher McCandless and his antics and the film erred even further in that direction. But if you believe — as Sean Penn seems to — that McCandless’ recklessness and cruelty toward his immediate family were, in fact, a noble spiritual journey worthy of celebration, then Penn’s done a brilliant job of transforming the story into a film that sees what Penn sees. I feel like that’s a bit of an irresponsible thing to do, but it’s good filmmaking; a very good movie, just one promoting a weird and wrongheaded point of view.

There was an early showing of the film version at Dartmouth as part of Telluride@Dartmouth, and I purposefully avoided it because I found the book so infuriating. I don’t know what people see in this kid. In case you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, McCandless graduated from Emory in 1990, gave all of his savings to Oxfam, spent the next two years hitchhiking through South Dakota and California while finding intermittent employment (all without maintaining contact with his family), and then hitchhiked to Alaska to “live off the land”. Not surprisingly, he died due to his incompetence.
I read the book in the overly generalized freshman English course my school requires all students to take (and, yes, I think reading Jon Krakauer, Barbara Kingsolver, Edith Wharton, Sophocles, and Lorraine Hansberry in the same course renders said course “overly generalized”), and began all of my written assignments about it with the same sentence: “What is supposed to be noble about Chris McCandless?” And in none of them was I able to answer it. The only thing I could come up was the Oxfam donation, but if he gotten an actual, you know, job he would have been able to give them more; the opportunity cost, for Oxfam, seems to exceed the actual donation. All of his other actions – cutting off his family, living as a transient, accidentally committing suicide through excessive stupidity – are despicable bordering on pitiful. It’s disappointing and confounding that people like Sean Penn try to make a martyr of this fool.

37 thoughts on “What Is Supposed To Be Noble About Chris McCandless?

  1. I’ll agree that there wasn’t really anything noble about what McCandless did; being a fuzzy-headed twenty-something who has fights with his family is par for the post-adolescent course. And his personal philosophy was a mix of bad Romanticism and self-reliance gleaned from misreadings of Thoreau (who left Walden on weekends to eat with his mother) and Moby Dick, unironically holding up Ahab as a figure of strength while failing to realize that it was Ahab’s obsession that led to his death. “Alexander Supertramp” apparently didn’t pay attention in English class.
    That said, I tend to agree with Krakauer’s argument that McCandless wasn’t stupid or unaware of the potential danger. He wrote friends saying that he might not return (understanding that Alaska might prove fatal). And I’ll also go along with Krakauer’s evaluation of certain type of daring free-spirit (not ever wanting to climb mountains or live in the wilderness myself).

  2. Not only is McCandless not noble, he’s not even interesting. Fools like him are a dime a dozen. Most of them don’t get themselves killed, but they do waste other people’s time and money, and even compromise other people’s safety, when they casually put themselves at risk. Maybe there is also a tragic side, to the extent that McCandless was consciously suicidal. But that’s not interesting either; a lot of people are suicidal.
    For his part, Krakauer freely conflates stupid with interesting. That is a problem with a lot of his stories.

  3. “Fools like him are a dime a dozen.”
    He graduated from the top of his class at Emory, that would put him somewhere in the top 5% in intelligence.
    I suspect you are suffering from Courage envy.

  4. I think the guy was mentally ill – possibly suffering from schizophrenia. I think there’s a fine line from suffering from mental distress (re: parents, society, whatever; and lots of people suffer from these things, btw, who don’t kill themselves needlessly) and full-on mental illness, but I think the warning signs were definitely there (burning his ID, changing his name, inability to ask for help [hello! how hard would it have been to build a raging fire beside his bus???). So, besides being an over privileged white boy, I really wish someone would have gotten him a psychiatric evaluation – from what is written, it sounds like this stuff came on in high school for him.

  5. Skipping the 9-5 job security path and choosing one of self-discovery.
    That, to me, takes courage.
    If his choices make you angry, you’re suffering from Courage Envy….but don’t worry, it seems every Alaskan is suffering from the same.

  6. If McCandless wanted to skip the “9-5 job security path”, perhaps he could have done something constructive for humanity. Like joining the Peace Corps, or the foreign service. Instead, he managed to get himself killed 20 miles from a highway. Courage only means something if it’s for a decent cause. Not being an imbecile helps.

  7. Look, I skipped the 9-5 job security path for a journey of self-discovery too. It doesn’t take courage – all it takes is the desire and the will to carry it through. As for intellect, it’s all well and good to be in the top 5%, but if you don’t apply that intellect the result often makes you look a fool. Now Chris McCandless may have been a genius for all I know, but if he went into the Alaskan wilderness without a map, without adequate food and without learning how to adequately store the game that he caught, he was acting like a frigging idiot. All the intelligence in the world won’t help you unless you apply it, and McCandless actively CHOSE NOT TO.

  8. Anyone who can’t see what Chris’s real journey was for or about is just demonstrating worryingly little imagination. It’s not about going to Alaska and getting poisoned. It’s about emotional and spiritual survival, it’s about being true to your own nature, it’s about being in an environment that is killing you bit by bit and needing to escape that in order to endure. It’s about love and punishment and forgiveness, it’s about bullying and fighting back the only way you know how, it’s about ambition and it’s costs, and hearts closing (as Chris’ did) and opening (as his parents’ did). It’s about the souls longing for pure interaction with nature away from the mess we humans make. This is a film for people who haven’t found a way to survive in society as themselves, and who long for the sense of acceptance and freedom, where they are at liberty to be who they are, as we all should be. If you have never experienced being bullied or simply not being allowed to be yourself, then you might have a tendency to bully yourself, or you are just extremely fortunate, that you have had enough love and acceptance, in your life to not feel this sense of being outcast. Maybe life hasn’t challenged you in the way it did Chris in the sense that you are similar enough to your family and work collegues, and share enough of the same views to more or less tick along okay. If you don’t get it, you may indeed end up having children who teach you such lessons in their own ways, i hope for your sakes not as extremely as Chris. I imagine that Chris’ parents do understand what he did and why and i’m sure they dramatically changed from it. You seem to share the same view of the situation as the parents did at the beginning, before their loss made them dig deeper. Now i would imagine that they share Sean Penn’s view. This is a beautiful story of indeed a true but sadly tragic hero. He was courageous, not because he went into the Alaskan outback and try to live off the land , nor because of any of his external physical decisions he made about his living situation. He was a hero because he stuck to his convictions. Instead of being miserable and staying in a life that made him unhappy, he followed his own truth, and indeed it was his salvation. The trouble is, is that what saved him, then went on to kill him. .Such is life. We are meant to grow and change as we live through the lessons it presents, to adapt to our ever changing environment. . Too much of anything is never good, but his heart remained too closed to people, and with an ambition of steel he carried on against all of life’s gentle guidances and offerings, on his mission to Alaska. His realizations came too late, but we can learn from his mistakes and make sure we let people in to our hearts and allow them to change us and guide us before we go too far out on our own to be able to come back.

  9. I have read over these posts and come to the concusion that there are two schools of thought on Chris Mc Candless. One group would submit that he was a loon, albeit a very intelligent loon, who was more concerned with himslef than his family. A guy who wanted to live on the edge, but never quite learned how to. Then we have the group whom idolize him as one would a mystic or a genius deep thinker, who’s every move had an underlining reason that needs to be explored for its true meaning. Lets face facts, Chris was a tragic individual. A person who found it easier to run from his problems than to confront them head on. He was neither a hero or particularly courageous. For all of his considerable intelligence, he had little responsibility. I have known many people who are smart beyond belief, yet dumb as a rock when it comes to life itself. I have come to the realization that Chris was a dreamer, and as he lived out his adventures, he always interacted with other people. But Alaska was different, with noone to interact with…then the lonelyness set in , then dispair, then hopelessness. Thats why he wrote the true happienss must be shared. He found out the real message, only too late for himself.

  10. I don’t think he was stupid, crazy, or suicidal, but his lack of life experience at the outset of his trek was astounding. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was one of those kids who got to college and didn’t know how to do his own laundry. I’m not an experienced backpacker, but he made so many basic and obvious errors just in the first couple of chapters of the book that it would have been funny had it not eventually gotten him killed. He never did become independent–he didn’t eat for days until somebody felt sorry for him and fed him; he got lost in Mexico; even at the end, he left a note on the bus begging to be rescued. Courage is not the same thing as ignorance of what you should fear, and awe of nature is not the same thing as respect for it. My grandfather was an excellent outdoorsman and had a tremendous amount of respect for nature, but he knew perfectly well that it was not his “friend”.

  11. we must remember that all we know of Chris McCandless’ actual intentions are either second hand or educated guesses. We cannot look at his ideaas and philosophies, taking them as complete. Chris was an obvious dreamer, actively building his philosophy. Yes, he was unprepared and many of his decisions were rash, but many of us are unprepared when entering new situations ( most of our new situations are nowhere near as ambitous as Alaska). However, I find it hard to argue his courage. Leaving the comfortable status quo always takes courage. I do not share the same ambitions or ideas that Chris does and I believe that it would have been better forr him to tell his family of his plans. I cannot fault him for what he was trying to accomplish. As an individual, he was finding his own path. Too often people haven’t the courage to do this and end up with miserable lives as accountants or dentists(not that there is anything wrong with these proffesions). All should be able to choose ther life path regardless of the societal norm. He was a dreamer and different than most, but to call him ignorant or an imbecile would be quite closed-minded. Would that not be ignorant of you?

  12. we must remember that all we know of Chris McCandless’ actual intentions are either second hand or educated guesses. We cannot look at his ideaas and philosophies, taking them as complete. Chris was an obvious dreamer, actively building his philosophy. Yes, he was unprepared and many of his decisions were rash, but many of us are unprepared when entering new situations ( most of our new situations are nowhere near as ambitous as Alaska). However, I find it hard to argue his courage. Leaving the comfortable status quo always takes courage. I do not share the same ambitions or ideas that Chris does and I believe that it would have been better forr him to tell his family of his plans. I cannot fault him for what he was trying to accomplish. As an individual, he was finding his own path. Too often people haven’t the courage to do this and end up with miserable lives as accountants or dentists(not that there is anything wrong with these proffesions). All should be able to choose ther life path regardless of the societal norm. He was a dreamer and different than most, but to call him ignorant or an imbecile would be quite closed-minded. Would that not be ignorant of you?

  13. I just rented this movie. It ended with the journal entry that read that “happiness is best shared.”
    Did it take Supertramp two years living like a hobo to figure that out?
    I regret the senseless loss of his life. If this example of poor judgment and ill-used intelligence is the result of four years at Emory University, his parents are due a tuition refund.

  14. I think to continually mock a person 16 years after his death is one of the stupidest, immature, and inanely futile attempts to make us look like we know anything. Who cares if he didn’t bring a map, didn’t do things by the book. He died and yet we call him a “friggin’ idiot”, “Fools like him are a dime a dozen”, “I think the guy was mentally ill – possibly suffering from schizophrenia”, “an over privileged white boy” and “hello! how hard would it have been to build a raging fire beside his bus???)”. I don’t know why people even write half of the things they do in these posts. What’s the point? Is he going to come back from the dead, take all of your criticism as constructive, pat you on the back and thank you for your advice? Think about how absolutely offensive and harsh you are being on someone who has been dead for 16 years, you are exactly the type of people he wanted to get away from in the first place, and I can’t blame him.

  15. Jason wrote:
    “Think about how absolutely offensive and harsh you are being on someone who has been dead for 16 years, you are exactly the type of people he wanted to get away from in the first place, and I can’t blame him.”
    Hey dude, this is the internet. We don’t care about feelings here.

  16. Hey Internet Guy
    You are an absolute shit head. Did I hurt your feelings? oh that’s right, we don’t care about feelings on the internet.

  17. “This is the Internet. We don’t care about feelings here.”
    Wow. Profoundly put. Are you going into the ninth grade next year, or the tenth?

  18. “This is the Internet. We don’t care about feelings here.”
    Wow. How pathetic are you internet guy? No feelings, huh? You are a complete jackass. So are you going into the eighth grade next year? Or ninth? What you are saying makes you a complete and undeniably stupid person. Think about it, Einstein – or since this is the internet, do you not think either? What about act? See? I’m confused, I wasn’t sure when to switch one off. Absolutely pathetic post there Internet Guy. Great name too. Internet guy, it’s no wonder a bland name gets a bland person who can’t feel. Real original.

  19. For a guy that wanted to embrace and live in harmony with “the wild” too bad it was so one sided and only on his terms. He killed a tremendous amount of wildlife. It is not necessary to have that much kill if/when the meat is dressed with the most basic of hunting skills. What a waste of animal life. Thanks alot Chris!!!

  20. Kerry,
    What the hell are you talking about? What do you think he was supposed to eat while he was embracing and living in harmony with the wild, as you so elegantly put it? He tried eating plants and that ended up killing him. What do you know about living in the wild, Kerry? You’re probably sitting in your little cubicle working your 9-5 job just waiting for the clock to strike 5 so you can go home and end another miserable day at a miserable job. So before you go accusing him of wasting animal life, try doing something worthwile with your life instead of pointing out the faults of someone who died 17 years ago. Read the book Kerry, it tells more than the movie.

  21. I think this movie either appeals to-or irritates- the viewer depending on what stage in their life they see it in. I also think one’s perspective also comes from where they live.
    If I had seen this as an angst ridden teenager or even as a confused, recent college grad, I’m sure I would probably relate to McCandless. In fact, when I think of it, I can remember periods of my life when I felt out of touch with the world around me and wished to go somewhere totally dfiferent or even be someone else.
    Now, of course, I have to think hard to remember those feelings because I don’t feel like that at all. I watched the movie and felt mildly irritated with McCandless at times. I wasn’t familiar with the story so I didn’t know how it was to end but I wasn’t surprised that he died.
    I’ve been to Alaska to visit friends who are Native Americans. Even in my short time there, I understood that it takes a community of people to live in the environment. There are periods of happiness shared amongst the community, but I would never romanticize a trip into the bush. In fact, this is cause for alarm if someone doesn’t return at an anticipated time because people know what survival is like.
    In the end, I think McCanldess could have learned a lot from people around him-instead of relying solely on book. That would have required him to listen instead of trying to enlighten everyone else.
    Poor Kid. RIP.

  22. Um ok so i have this paper due for school, and i need three spacific reasons from the book for why or why not chris mccandless was courageous.can any one help me out please?

  23. From Webster, NOBLE:
    1 a: possessing outstanding qualities : illustrious b: famous, notable
    2: of high birth or exalted rank : aristocratic
    3 a: possessing very high or excellent qualities or properties b: very good or excellent
    4: grand or impressive especially in appearance
    5: possessing, characterized by, or arising from superiority of mind or character or of ideals or morals : lofty
    I think Alex meets the definitions in 1a, 1b (post mortem) and 5; I think he was noble in that he was extremely altruistic. How many 20 year olds have that kind of money, and if you think about it, he could have done the same exact things that he did (disappear from family) and kept the money, but instead gave it to OXFAM. How ironic and tragic it is that he died from starvation. On another note, his whole journey took tremendous “guts” and that in itself is noble.

  24. Christopher’s life,short as it was was at least interesting.How many of us can say that.I do wish he would have used better judgment at the end.But he did not.That is the true tragedy.I believe have was courageous in one way.Ever spent the night alone in the woods??Scary..But he did not have the courage to face everyday life and its problems.We all can learn a valuable lesson from this mans life.It’s Ok to dream, or even act on your dreams,but life must be based in reality.

  25. I’ve watched the movie on Direct TV a few times this week.
    At first I found some respect for the guy, but after thinking about all the events, and watching the movie a few more times, I can’t get past some of the inconsistancies in his thinking.
    He burned money, but didn’t have trouble excepting money though handouts. He left his car in the desert, but accepted the transportation from other people with cars as if it wasn’t the same as him driving up to Alaska in his own car. He didn’t believe in taking a compass or map [a tool even used by explorers and travelers hundreds of years ago] for his own personal reasons, but easily accepted a mass produced bus as his home in the wilderness. He didn’t believe in the 9 to 5 job, but sold him self out when he worked at Burger King, a corporate giant responsible for the unhealthy feeding of millions of Americans.
    Aside from all the speculation, the fact is Chris did not want to die. He wouldn’t have tried to go home if he wanted to stay there and die. He wouldn’t have left a sign begging possible passer-bys to remain and “save” him. He may have wrote things like “if this is the last time you see me”, but his actions don’t support that he actually believed it. If anything can be said about the guy, it is that he was naive.
    There are so many people in this world who are sick and pray to God everyday to have the chance to live a life with friends and family. This guy just took it for granted, and treated life as if it was something he could just throw away if things didn’t work out the way he wanted them to in Alaska.
    I think this is what angers people today, even 16+ years after he died.

  26. Alex was a sponge, who got into the woods where there was not one to sponge from, and he starved to death. He was filled with resentment towards his family and society. Never good at listening to feedback from others, he victimized himself by going into the woods unprepared fueled only by his toxic resentments and misguided notions of what is freedom. He was willful to the point of self destruction…and will be quickly forgotten.

  27. I am of the belief that Christopher Johnson Alexander Supertramp McCandless was suffering from either extreme Bipolar disorder or onset Schizophrenia. He didn’t just go off into the wilderness of Alaska and starve to death, he trashed his car, gave away all his money, disowned his parents, who could not have stopped his excursions anyway, he was 22 at the time of his spiral into his eventual search to destroy the “false being within”. And that remark alone is a creepy enough to lead anyone close to normal to acknowledge he was a bit touched. Not to mention a lot of other near death experiences he encountered on his bizarre meandering as Alexander Supertramp. The fact that he did not die before he ever made it to Alaska is just pure fate. The fact his his true personality is never really shown. He was definetly on the run from something more than his dysfunctional childhood, which by the way doesn’t even compare to what some kids have gone through. Living the liofe of a homeless, vagrant, mooching bum is not anything close to sane. With the high forclosure rates of today people are living in fear not to face what this kid did by choice. He was not a hero, but was through no fault of his romanticized by “Into the Wild” both the book and movie. The shame of it is he could have gotten some help had he ever stuck around anyone long enough for them to figure out what he was concealing, mental illness in the form of early stages of Schizophrenia that definetly progressed and perhaps rapidly near the end of his two year tramp across the U.S.A. and then Into the Wild. During his last relationship with the old man his illness had already reached the point where he would go into rants about his parents and other things he had no control over like the coruption of the Government just to name a few. Yet was he doing anything to try to make things better, no? If he was really not nuts he could have devouted his life to social work and been trying to help the peole he ranted that he ranted about their situations. Instead he died a tragic, sad death alone breaking the hearts of the people who loved him deeply. I can’t imagine what his family had to go through. And it is a kindness to him that I consider that he was mentally ill otherwise I would consider him a sadistic, self centered little prick. Because he was surely crazy he at least can escape being labeled in that realm. Not a life to admire, rather a life to pity. Peace, Michael Angelo

  28. No doubt about it, this person suffered from schizophrenia. Most schizophrenics I’ve encountered are highly intelligent, and they have well developed persecution-complex theories, shun commitment and social contact.
    The kid clearly wanted to die. His fanatical romantic idealism is a trait seen in many schizophrenics, because it makes sense of their illness. It sounds in his case that the disease set in during his teen years, and the romantic idealism that pervades that period of a person’s life became carved in the stone of his chemical imbalance. This is abundantly clear from the contradictions of his story, and his ‘philosophy’. He did not shine with the purity he thought he espoused, or required. He was just sick, plain and simple. And this was certainly not his fault.
    As callous is this may sound – he’s probably better off dead. I don’t think life had much to offer him, and he is clearly someone who would never have accepted the medical help he so obviously needed.

  29. the open road was his canvas, the camera was his brush, and lifes breath was his driving force
    through this young man hope lives on

  30. @Jason – because his kind of influence is dangerous. It encourages a type of thinking to idolize foolish acts and then act upon them. I’m all for culling the herd, but fools like him encourage selfish acts in next generations that are potentially fatal. I’m all for self discovery, but he needn’t have died had he only exercised some common sense. Hermits have existed for millenia; it isn’t like he was breaking any new ground.

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