A Thematic Analysis of the Intertextual References to Transcendentalism in Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild” and their Role in the Portrayal of Christopher McCandless

Visionary seeker or foolish greenhorn?

Term Paper, 2017

40 Pages


Table of Contents

uthor’s Declaration of Originality



Chapter One: Nature and Wilderness

1.1 Krakauer’s use of epigraphs
1.2 The Allure of the Wilderness
1.3 Nature as an opposing force

Chapter Two: Religion and Spirituality

2.1 Krakauer’s portrayal of McCandless as a spiritual being
2.2 Intertextual references to a non-transcendental writer
2.3 Transcendentalist elements of McCandless’ Spiritual beliefs

Chapter Three: Self Reliance and Nonconformity

3.1 McCandless portrayed as a self-reliant individual
3.2 McCandless defiance against government




The aim of this study is to identify Transcendentalist intertextuality used by Jon Krakauer in his non- fiction narrative Into the Wild and the role they play in the characterisation of protagonist Christopher McCandless. Krakauer predominantly references work by Henry David Thoreau but also borrows themes and concepts from the Transcendentalist movement as a whole. This thesis will adopt a thematic approach to identifying areas where Krakauer makes intertextual references to transcendentalist writers. Each chapter will broach a key tenet of Transcendentalism and discuss the ways in which Krakauer applies various themes such as nature, spirituality, and self-reliance to his narrative. This analysis will then move to look at the effect of the intertextual references on the reader’s perception of McCandless and conclude that Krakauer, through using intertextuality has as a literary device, has mythologised McCandless as a literary hero thus creating polarisation amongst readers in their interpretation of him.


This thesis aims to critically analyze the intertextual references in the book Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, to the transcendentalist movement which occurred in in 19th century America. The thesis will develop a thematic analysis of the differences and similarities between Transcendentalist literary icons, such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Christopher McCandless, the book’s protagonist. It will explore various themes from the transcendentalist doctrine and identify areas where Krakauer applies Thoreau’s ideas and principles in an effort to characterize McCandless in the narrative. The result of Krakauer’s formulated parallels between the transcendentalists and McCandless has created a long- standing polarisation amongst readers where some accuse Krakauer of using Thoreau and Emerson to create a highly romanticized and idealized portrayal of McCandless and criticize him for not representing McCandless’ death as foolish and senseless. Others seem to think that the analogies drawn are justified because they accentuate McCandless’ transcendentalist qualities and provide an accurate depiction of his moral nature and idealism. Each chapter of the thesis will encompass a specific concept or theme belonging to Transcendentalism and explore Krakauer’s intertextual use of the movement with the aim of exposing both sides of the argument. It will also establish how these references have shaped the reader’s perception of the protagonist and how intertextuality in Into the Wild has contributed to the cult phenomenon surrounding Christopher McCandless.

In a broad sense, the term intertextuality can be defined as the study of a presence of a text within another text and it is most often employed in literary analysis. It describes the intricate relationship and interconnectedness which exists between works of literature with the general assumption that texts gain their meaning through evocation of other texts. The concept was developed in the late 1960s by poststructuralist Julia Kristeva who states that “a text is a permutation of texts, an intertextuality in the space of a given text ͙ in which several utterances, taken from other texts, intersect and neutralize one another” (Kristeva qtd. in Allen). Essentially, all texts contain traces of other texts. Intertextuality is the concept of texts using ideological concepts, themes, stylistic technique or even just certain words and phrases borrowed from another text. We as readers have come to understand texts only insofar as they relate to other texts. When a text is read in light of another text all the assumptions and effects of the other text gives the original text at hand a new meaning and trigger an emotional response or a specific interpretation. To put this into context for this thesis, Krakauer used intertextuality as a literary device to characterize McCandless as he deemed appropriate for the biography Into the Wild. “Examining texts “intertextually” means looking for “traces,” the bits and pieces of text which writers and speakers borrow and sew together to create a new discourse. The most mundane manifestation of intertextuality is explicit citation [or in Krakauer’s case, the use of epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter] but intertextuality animates all discourse and goes beyond mere citation” (Porter 34). Krakauer borrows the primary themes and concepts of transcendentalism and makes intertextual references to renowned authors from the movement in such a way that it influences the reader’s perception of McCandless. The portrayal has sparked an intriguing debate and divided readers into two camps; those who revere McCandless as a visionary seeker and those who view him a foolish greenhorn. (Krakauer 73). Throughout Into the Wild the author Jon Krakauer makes a plethora of references to great literary icons such and Jack London, John Muir and Leo Tolstoy as it seems that McCandless was an admirer of these writers and many of their books were discovered alongside McCandless’ body. However, it is the famous transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau which Krakauer alludes to most often in the text, citing passages from his work at the beginning of certain chapters.

The story of Christopher McCandless first garnered public interest when journalist Jon Krakauer reported on his death for Outside magazine in the January edition of 1993 entitled Death of an Innocent. After committing many years to researching McCandless’ adventure Krakauer later developed his article into an international best-selling biography called Into the Wild which was published in 1997 and remained on the Bestseller list of the New York Times for over two years. Almost a decade later, the story was revived in the form of Sean Penn’s major motion picture of Into the Wild thus cementing McCandless’ place in pop culture. The site of the dilapidated bus was made famous through the Academy award nominated adaptation and has become a huge point of interest for anyone who has ever seen or read Into the Wild. People from all over the world travel to interior Alaska to undertake this treacherous 2-day pilgrimage in the hope of witnessing the bus with their own eyes to paying homage and leave tributes to Christopher McCandless (Saverin). By retracing his final steps and trekking Stampede, these pilgrims hope to experience firsthand the romantic appeal of the Alaskan wilderness and feel that bit closer to their idol. Their fascination with their idol has much to do with the way McCandless was portrayed. In a forward of Into the Wild, Krakauer divulges how the book came about;

In April 1992, a young man from a well-to-do East Coast family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. Four months later his decomposed body was found by a party of moose hunters. Shortly after the discovery of the corpse, I was asked by the editor of Outside magazine to report on the puzzling circumstances of the boy’s death. His name turned out to be Christopher Johnson McCandless. He’d grown up, I learned, in an affluent suburb of Washington, D.C., where he’d excelled academically and had been an elite athlete. Immediately after graduating, with honors, from Emory University in the summer of 1990, McCandless dropped out of sight͙ And then he invented a new life for himself, taking up residence at the ragged margin of our society, wandering across North America in search of raw, transcendent experience. His family had no idea where he was or what had become of him until his remains turned up in Alaska. Working on a tight deadline, I wrote a nine- thousand-word article, which ran in the January 1993 issue of the magazine, but my fascination with McCandless remained͙ I was haunted by the particulars of the boy's starvation and by vague, unsettling parallels between events in his life and those of my own. Unwilling to let McCandless go, I spent more than a year retracing the convoluted path that led to his death in the Alaska taiga, chasing down details of his peregrinations with an interest that bordered on obsession. In trying to understand McCandless, I inevitably came to reflect on other, larger subjects as well: the grip wilderness has on the American imagination, the allure high-risk activities hold for young men of a certain mind͙The result of this meandering inquiry is the book now before you. (Krakauer ix)

One example of a pilgrim who was equally as touched by McCandless’ story was hiker Claire Ackerman. “To stay put is to exist; to travel is to live.” (Saverin) are the words inscribed on Claire’s metal memorial plaque which sits on the banks of the river Savage. In 2010, The 29- year-old Swiss backpacker lost her footing and tragically drowned while she and her boyfriend, a Frenchman, attempted to cross the glacial river located in interior Alaska northeast of Denali National Park. The Savage river is the first of the two significant ice-cold river crossings on the Stampede trail along with the Teklanika which can be equally as life threatening. Like many before them, Ackermann and her boyfriend were trekking out to visit the Fairbanks City Transit 142 derelict bus, the site where the decomposed body of a young adventurer named Christopher McCandless was found in September 1992. The antiquated bus on Stampede trail, which was abandoned in the 60’s and provided a makeshift shelter for ranger patrols and local trappers (Saverin), remains intact yet exposed to the harsh elements of the Alaskan bush. The people, or pilgrims as they’re known, have come from all over the world to hike to the area whether it be out of respect or superstition and have left the site largely untouched. Despite being a point of interest for fans of the book, the ‘magic’ bus has long been a subject of controversy amongst the inhabitants of Healy, Alaska, the closest town to Stampede trail and coal mining capital of the state. The tourists who are determined to see the bus for themselves and pay their respects often get into trouble en route and are forced to call for assistance with the Alaskan taxpayers left to foot the bill for costly search and rescue operations. In the Summer of 2013 alone there were over a dozen search and rescue operations carried out to assist stranded hikers who had intended to make their way to the ‘magic’ bus (Saverin). In his book Into the Wild, Krakauer mentions the negatives reactions of people to his article which was published in Outside Magazine only a few months after McCandless’ death. He states that much of the negative mail was sent in by Alaskan natives who accused Krakauer of glorifying a senseless death of a young man. Some of the mail senders cited mental health issues as the reason for his death, others brand him as a ‘half-cocked greenhorn’ who has no business living of the land in the laskan bush (73). The aversion and lack of sympathy towards McCandless is still evident today almost twenty- five years after his death. Independent Alaskan journalist and outdoor lifestyle blogger Craig Medred is renowned for his scathing articles towards the McCandless phenomenon. One such article published last year in Alaska Dispatch News was entitled The beatification of Chris McCandless: From thieving poacher into saint attempts to find fault with the lifestyle that Chris had chosen for himself. He suggests that Krakauer had embellished certain aspects of his novel not because he wanted to paint McCandless in a positive light but because he “seems interested in nothing in life so much as book sales” (Medred). Medred makes clear his position of those who idolize or admire McCandless in his last paragraph. “It is richly ironic to think of some self-involved urban Americans, people more detached from nature than any society of humans in history, worshipping the noble, suicidal narcissist, the bum, thief and poacher Chris McCandless” (Medred).

The haunting tale Into the Wild and the enigma that surrounds the life and death of Christopher McCandless continues to be debated today. ccording to Matthew Power, a journalist for Men’s Journal, the debate falls into two camps: Krakauer’s transcendentalist visionary seeker, the tragic hero who dared to defy social conventions and live an unmediated life or die trying; or as many Alaskans see it, the unprepared fool, a greenhorn who has fundamentally underestimated the wilderness he so desperately wanted to commune with. Whichever camp you belong to has much to do with the way Krakauer portrayed McCandless in this biographical novel. it is inherently important to consider Krakauer’s use of literary amplification and the extent of which he used intertextual references to create Into the Wild.

Chapter One: Nature and Wilderness

This chapter will address the theme of nature and wilderness as it appears in Into the Wild. It will begin by providing a brief explanation of the origins of Transcendentalism before delving into areas of Into the Wild where Krakauer uses intertextuality. The chapter will first deal with the use of the epigraph as a stylistic technique and how this might sway reader’s interpretation of McCandless. Following this, the chapter will continue to point out intertextual references to a romantic and transcendentalist perception of the wilderness and lastly there will be a section on Krakauer’s use of natural imagery as an opposing force that Chris must overcome and how this portrays him as a positive saint-like light.

The natural world has always been regarded as a powerful theme for many writers and is not an aspect that is exclusively dealt with by transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, two of the most influential and defining figures of the literary and philosophical movement. The Transcendentalist movement emerged in the late 1820s and stemmed largely from the English romantic movement which formed as a response against the age of Enlightenment and its prevailing rationalism and logical thinking about the natural world (Wayne ix). There is no one true definition for the movement, it should rather be looked upon as a set of ideals which were developing in New England during the 19th century. Wayne states that Emerson refers to Transcendentalism as “idealism as it appeared in 1942” (vii) with an emphasis “on the power of Thought and Will, on inspiration, on miracle, on individual culture͙Transcendentalism at its core was a tendency toward new literary explorations, a belief in progress and renewal, and a spiritual quest for self-development and self-knowledge” (vii).

Emerson had a considerable influence on Henry David Thoreau’s transcendentalist philosophy. His essay on Self Reliance formed the basis for Thoreau’s social experiment at Walden Pond and his subsequent reflective novel Walden; or life in the Woods which documents simple living in a natural environment, in solitude and distanced from a “superficial” society “ruined by luxury” (Walden 67). On commenting on Walden, Marx writes that “The combined influence of geography and the romantic idea of nature - sublime Nature - gives rise to attitudes held by a long line of American literary heroes from Natty Bumppo to Ike McCaslin ͙ The organizing design is like that of many American fables: Walden begins with the hero’s withdrawal from society in the direction of nature” (242). The same can be said for Christopher McCandless in that he deliberately sought out the wilderness in order to escape from “the stifling world abstraction and security and material excess, a world in which he felt grievously cut off from the raw throb of existence” (Krakauer 22). It is therefore necessary to analyse various ways in which Krakauer makes references to Thoreau’s idealised view on nature and what purpose this might serve in the depiction of McCandless in the narrative Into the Wild.

1.1 Krakauer’s use of epigraphs

Krakauer provides much of his intertextual references through the form of one or often two epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter. The purpose of these contextual pieces is to set the theme of what each chapter entails and to articulate what McCandless must have been feeling at a certain moment in the story. Krakauer includes thought-provoking extracts from McCandless’ close friends and his literary idols such as Jack London and Mark Twain.


Excerpt out of 40 pages


A Thematic Analysis of the Intertextual References to Transcendentalism in Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild” and their Role in the Portrayal of Christopher McCandless
Visionary seeker or foolish greenhorn?
University of Limerick
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
1480 KB
Analysis, Transcendentalism, Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild, Chirstopher McCandless
Quote paper
Claudine Callaghan (Author), 2017, A Thematic Analysis of the Intertextual References to Transcendentalism in Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild” and their Role in the Portrayal of Christopher McCandless, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/388597


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: A Thematic Analysis of the Intertextual References to Transcendentalism in Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild” and their Role in the Portrayal of Christopher McCandless

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free