Transcendentalism in the Novel into the Wild

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Transcendentalism, defined as the era that transcends the limits of intellect, reason, and society; which allows emotions and soul to aid in creating a relationship with the universe or nature to achieve perfection. This era took place in the 1800s, which was created from the start of controversial debates between New Light theologians and the Old Light opponents. The New Light members believed religion should focus on the people's personal experience, unlike the Old Light members who valued to have reason in their religious approach. Jon Krakauer, in Into the Wild, utilizes the ideas of Emerson and Thoreau, two significant writers of the transcendentalist period, to create a sense of Transcendentalism. In Thoreau's book, Walden, Thoreau went to live out in the wilderness alone with nothing for two years; during his experimentation at Walden Pond, he wrote about the simplicity, unity of nature, the faith of humanity, and individualism. Whereas Emerson believed that a person's potential was limitless, and people should have a free spirit rather than conforming to society's way of living. These idealistic philosophers wished for others to look at nature, at themselves, and art to find the answers to life's hardest questions. Based on the ideas of these two writers, it is believed that Chris McCandless, the main character in Into the Wild, fits the mold of a truly worthy transcendentalist. The main characteristics of Chris McCandless prove he was indeed a transcendentalist because he followed the path of transcendentalism; supporting the ideas of rejection of socialization in favor of isolation by nature, the insignificance of materialistic wealth, and the importance of self-reliance for living in this world.

In the novel Into the Wild, it is apparent that Chris McCandless is dispassionate towards society and socializing. McCandless only socializes and sends letters to individuals that help him throughout his journey. After McCandless had finished college, he left his parents and Atlanta and he intended to invent an utterly new life for himself, one in which he would be free to wallow in unfiltered experience (Krakauer 23). McCandless makes it evident that he wants nothing to do with his parents or anyone in general and planned to go to Alaska to live a new life for himself. He intended to go into the woods and isolate himself from society, so he can live the new life that he had wanted since he left Atlanta. Even though McCandless met people that helped him throughout his journey, he never intended to stay with them when they had asked him to. It is unclear why his motives led him to carry out these actions, but many of them leave the reader thinking that he may be a transcendentalist.

In the novel, the author states He had not seen or talked to another soul in thirty-six days. For that entire period, he subsisted on nothing but five pounds of rice and what marine life he could pull from the sea (Krakauer 36). This quote from the novel explains that McCandless never intended to socialize with anybody, preferred to be left alone with no help, and wanted to rely on certain foods. McCandless has many characteristics that a transcendentalist would have which would leave many individuals to believe whether Chris McCandless was attempting to practice transcendentalism. Just like the transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau once isolated himself from society, it seems like Chris McCandless was trying to follow into his footsteps by attempting to live in the wilderness.

The purpose of Thoreau's isolationism from society by going to the woods of Walden Pond for two years was to gain a better understanding of what life has to offer and to live a purposeful life. Because Thoreau is a transcendentalist and believes in self-reliance, his actions also set an example of self-reliance by relying on himself to live rather than relying on others. Similarly, McCandless's actions are like Thoreau's in ways that transcendentalism may play a role. McCandless isolates himself from society including his own parents, plans on going to the woods in Alaska to live a new life, and only eats food from nature such as berries and fish. These similarities lead many people to be convinced that McCandless could have possibly been a transcendentalist.
As the reader progresses through the story, it becomes more apparent that Chris McCandless is worthy of being called a transcendentalist when he showed that he was not a materialistic person and preferred to live simply. For instance, During his senior year at Emory, Chris lived off campus in his bare, spartan room furnished with milk crates and a mattress on the floor. Few of his friends ever saw him outside of classes (Krakauer 124). This quote proves that he does not require excessive materials to live out his life, and he should not make things to be more complex with items; he only needed the necessities for his daily life. This can be tied to Thoreau's Where I Lived and What I Lived For, this essay shares similar ideas to Chris McCandless; they both favor keeping their life simple and not having an obsession with materials as society does. Thoreau writes in Where I Lived and What I Lived For, Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail, he emphasizes to keeping it simple. (Thoreau)

An example of this mindset in Into the Wild is when Chris graduated from high school, his parents bought a brand new vehicle as a congratulations gift; they even offered to pay for law school if there was not enough money in his college fund. However, Chris did not approve of this and denied the gift given to him. Chris believed he had the perfect car, a car that has traveled from Miami to Alaska and has not given him any problems; he did not see why he needed another one, and he stated this about a hundred times to his parents. He complained in a letter to his sister, Carine, ...they ignore what I say and think I'd actually accept a new car from them! I'm going to have to be real careful not to accept any gifts from them in the future because they will think they have bought my respect (Krakauer 17). This just goes to show that Chris McCandless truly fits into the transcendentalist ideals and mindset; his respect would not be bought with material objects, it would be earned through their listening and letting him grow as an individual.

Furthermore, there is an additional purpose as to why Chris McCandless decided to live in the wild rather than live comfortably in a house; he wished to prove to himself that man can survive without objects that society glorifies, and McCandless thought the way to do this was to start fresh. He went through such lengths to make this happen, he cut off any connections with his family, donated all of his money, and even changed his name to Alex Supertramp; his old life was tossed away. When it came down to making these choices, they were irrefutable. To the readers, his actions would be significant to be the inspiration for all to follow, and for others, to learn from his mistakes. The fact that he wanted to get closer to nature, start new and considering the lengths he took to get there is proof the man is a transcendentalist.

In Into the Wild, Chris McCandless strived in extremes to be a self-reliant transcendentalist in relations to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Throughout the course of Jon Krakauer's book, Krakauer thoroughly describes to the audience about McCandless' life in college, before his attempt to live in the American wilderness. As stated, . . . Chris lived off campus in a monkish room...And he didn't have a phone, so Walt and Billie [Chris's parents] had no way in calling him. (Krakauer 22). The novel itself portrays how rootless Chris desired to live. Following that, he also refused in accepting a car which his parents attempted to give him and decided to willingly donate his entire twenty-four thousand dollar college fund towards the OXFAM America charity; money, including any sort of materialistic belongings, clearly obtained no sentimental connection towards Chris.

In Emerson's Self-Reliance, McCandless seemingly fits the description as Emerson wrote, Is it so bad then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus. . . To be great is to be misunderstood. . . (Emerson 392). In this essay, Emerson discusses in arguments about his beliefs towards society to which contains an adverse effect on one's own personal perspective and growths. Adequately, through his writings, objectifies the freedom in unveiling one's spirituality and independence. After studying through Chris McCandless' life in Into the Wild, we are given the opportunity to personally understand that he never once allowed his life to stand in the way of something he wished to accomplish. The only person you are fighting is yourself and your stubbornness to engage in new circumstances. (Krakauer 58). In comparison to a true transcendentalist, Chris allowed his individuality to course through his dreams and continued his refusal towards conforming in our prosaic society.

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Transcendentalism In The Novel Into the Wild. (2019, Mar 22). Retrieved June 24, 2024 , from

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