ENG 204


November 10, 2002

McCandless and Intimate Relationships

            It is said that the most basic function of a human is to live and connect with other humans, to form personal and emotional connections.  My roommates say that this is the ultimate experience.  Philosopher Thomas Hobbes suggested that deep down, humans only form human connections out of need, whether it be material or safety.  Aristotle, on the other hand, said, “Without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods”.  In class, we discussed Chris McCandless’ apparent desire to cast off all connections, with people and places.  Indeed, Jon Krakauer, the author of Into the Wild, seemed to want to portray the image of McCandless as an individualistic transcendentalist, walking into the wild alone, with only the words of the authors he so loved as company.  I began my first attempt at this response ready to argue that McCandless’ journey was not solitary, as we had discussed in class. 

I wanted to say that McCandless did develop relationships with others, he did care for those relationships, and he only appeared to be alone.  But as I began to think about Hobbes’ theory, in which people are considered egotistical and will only form relationships with others on the basis of need, whether it be material possessions or safety, I realized that McCandless was more like this.  In the three main relationships he formed, including Wayne Westerberg, Jan Burres, and Ronald Franz, he only seemed, in my first readings, to need people.  In his many interactions with these three people, he was said to have talked a lot; he was the life of the party.

Jan Burres said of one instance of interaction, “He had a good time when he was around people, a real good time.  At the swap meet he’d talk and talk and talk to everybody who came by” (Krakauer 44).  She ended this particular statement by saying, “He needed his solitude at times, but he wasn’t a hermit.  He did a lot of socializing.  Sometimes I think it was like he was storing up company for the times when he knew nobody would be around” (Krakauer 44-45).  In my first, and even second reading, Burres opinion of McCandless suggested that Alex did not like to be alone; he just felt a desire to be alone at times.  He did need people; this is what I wanted to think.  But if I look later in the story of ‘Supertramp’, and his many other instances of interaction with people, it does not seem that he needs to be with people, it is just something that tides him over, allows him to impart his worldly knowledge and experiences onto others.  It then occurred to me; he was selfish.

This idea of Alex being selfish can be found in both of my readings of him.  In the first reading, he was selfish because he tried to ignore those connections he had with people and went off to do a foolish “stunt”.  In my second reading of Alex, his interactions with people were two-fold.  First, he wanted to have someone miss him, to think he was pretty special for going off on such an adventure.  Second, Alex seemed a verbal thinker.  By this, I mean that he would work out his plans and ideas by not only reading authors like Jack London, Thoreau, and Tolstoy, but also by asking questions of others and verbally organizing his ideas through extended conversations with others.  People were only needed to be there to admire Alex’s ideas and to answer his questions, and, as Burres suggested, to help him store up conversations for the times he would be alone.

Moving on to other aspects of Alex’s egotism, one may also look at the points in which Alex would contact his “friends”.  He only seemed to contact them out of need of something or another.  With Wayne Westerberg, it was for work.  With Jan, it could have been for the motherly behavior and for the unusual lifestyle.  And with Ronald Franz, it was to change someone into his likeness.  Ron was older, but Alex saw in him someone who was held in his ways.  Ron was another person he could talk to, spout his ideas to, and have that person look back at him with admiration.  Ron provided Alex many services, including rides, money, food, and company. 

In one letter from Alex to Ron, Alex wrote, “You are wrong if you think Joy emanates only or principally from human relationships.  God has placed it all around us.  It is in everything and anything we might experience” (Krakauer 57).  This presented some problems for me at first.  In class, some people thought that McCandless was saying that “Joy” did not come from human interaction at all, but from other natural sources.  I thought that McCandless was saying that “joy” comes from nature and interaction with it and people.  I still think this is so, but with an added element.  Alex wanted Ron to give up his sedentary lifestyle and follow not necessarily to Alaska, but his example by forging his own adventure.  He wanted to be idolized, for people to think of him, to miss him.  Just before Alex walked into the Alaskan wilderness, he sent short notes to the three people discussed in this response.  Basic in all letters was that they probably wouldn’t hear from him again, and they were great to have known. 

When Alex finally went into the wild, he was given many cautions.  Many people tried to stall or to stop him completely.  Alex would have none of it.  He did not make many connections, if any, after he left Ron.  Why?  Because he didn’t feel he needed anything else, in my opinion.  He thought he was ready to face his big challenge.  Had he needed something, he probably would have formed more connections. 

Alex died in the wild; he starved to death.  He made many foolish decisions, I feel, when entering into the Alaskan wilderness; despite the many warnings he was given.  Had Alex’s connections with people been real, I feel certain that there would have been some hesitancy on his part.  He might have worried how people would have been affected by his absence.  In class, we were told that many of us wouldn’t have done what Alex did, and that is true.  Most of us have personal connections that would be hard for us to break from.  Most of us have common sense as to how to approach such a feat as the one Alex was attempting.  I do not mean to speak ill of the dead, but Alex did not think of the consequences his actions would have.  He did not think about the people who would miss him, just that they would miss him.  He thought of himself, and what would give him an exciting story to tell later.  This experience, had he survived, would have been a bragging right, proof of his power, his survival skills.  I have to wonder; in his stories, how often would he recall the people who helped him survive as long as he did?