Into the Wild as Greek Tragedy
Scott Malia received his PhD in drama from Tufts University, and he currently works in theater and education. In the following essay, Dr. Malia discusses the similarities between the book Into the Wild and ancient Greek tragedy.
Whether he was a vagabond, genius, whack job, free spirit, rebel, or poet, Christopher McCandless (also known by the pseudonym Alexander Supertramp) was unique among men. At an age when most upper-class kids begin their arduous climb toward becoming the next big thing, Christopher McCandless went in the opposite direction—he became a nobody. His two-year descent into the furthest margins of society baffled and fascinated many, including author Jon Krakauer. Following an article he wrote for Outside magazine, Krakauer authored a painstaking reconstruction of McCandless’s odyssey, Into the Wild. In committing the story to paper, Krakauer attempts to answer one question: why did McCandless do it? It is an impossible question to answer no matter how earnestly Krakauer pursues it.
Krakauer acknowledges his own obsession in the introduction, and his crafting of the story raises its own questions. By fashioning the last two years of Christopher McCandless’s life into the book Into the Wild, is Krakauer making it a modern-day tragedy? Does Into the Wild invite parallels to notions of tragedy originating in ancient Greece? If so, what elements apply? Much of what we know about how the ancient Greeks developed and evaluated tragedy comes from Aristotle—or so some think. His treatise, Poetics, may not have been written by him and instead may represent the notes of a student or students at one of his many lectures. Either way, the document is still considered the starting point for any discussion of the nature of tragedy and includes analysis of tragedy’s composite elements. To examine Into the Wild's fitness for comparison, Aristotelian notions of tragic heroes and the definition of tragedy must be considered, along with staple structural elements like choruses and poetic language.
All tragedies center on a hero, so in order to determine whether Chris McCandless has been transformed into one in Krakauer’s book, McCandless’s resemblance to a tragic hero must be established in specific terms. In the Greek model, tragic heroes usually come from noble families. While Chris was neither a prince nor the son of a politician, he did come from an upper-class background. He also went on a journey, as many tragic heroes do. Yet the real test of his status as a tragic hero is his embodiment of a trait the Greeks called hamartia. Since it is a translated term, its exact meaning is often debated but can generally be interpreted as “tragic flaw,” a trait that blindsides the hero and leads him to his own ruin. While some would certainly argue that McCandless was fanatical or hubristic in taking on nature itself, that definition does not quite fit the McCandless depicted in Into the Wild. After all, Krakauer’s whole purpose in writing the book was to try to determine what trait led McCandless down his ultimately terminal path. Mere pride or adolescent stupidity seems like an incomplete answer.
Another interpretation of hamartia presents it less as a character flaw than a misunderstanding of one’s place in the world. In this light, hamartia seems to fit Chris McCandless quite well. The rich kid who leaves the material world, his family, and his identity behind to pursue enlightenment in the natural landscape seems the very definition of someone looking for his place. In some ways, Krakauer presents McCandless’s transformation into Alexander Supertramp in this light in Into the Wild: an ambitious young man who erroneously saw himself as an adventurer in the outdoors. Linking hamartia to the fate of a tragic hero is crucial to this interpretation. According to Into the Wild, Chris McCandless died because of his own misconception of himself.
In the Greek tragic model, a chorus typically served many purposes, one of which was to try to warn the tragic hero of his own hamartia. In order for the results to be a true tragedy, however, the hero does not listen. Krakauer portrays McCandless’s descent into death in a similar fashion. Krakauer structures the whole story as a flashback, often retaining narrative details from the present. Throughout the book, he includes minutiae about his interview subjects’ appearance, manner, gait, and living conditions. In each chapter, the reader is keenly aware that the subjects are reflecting back upon McCandless’s life armed with the knowledge of his death (and the emotions brought on by his passing). As a result, the reflections of the people whose lives McCandless touched are tinged by sadness, regret, and a potent sense of foreboding. In this structure, McCandless’s friends and acquaintances serve as a kind of Greek chorus. Their stories all contain warnings they gave McCandless or ways they tried to alter his path in life. The man who dropped McCandless off in Alaska for his final hike tried to talk the headstrong Chris out of it, or at least get him to improve his gear before the dangerous jaunt. The elderly Ron Franz, whose own life is filled with family tragedy, offered to adopt Alex/Chris as a means to fortify their tie and keep him close. Throughout the story, Chris McCandless’s bonds to his friends in South Dakota seemed strongest of all, as if perhaps they had the best chance of keeping Chris/Alex from taking off for Alaska. Much of the structure of Into the Wild is built upon this chorus of people charmed and warmed enough by McCandless’s spirit to try to stop him from going too far.
Author Krakauer’s own voice joins this chorus in fashioning even more pointed warnings about McCandless’s recklessness. Krakauer includes accounts of other self-styled adventurers who made similar Alaskan treks. In the interest of perspective, some of the tales are of seasoned climbers who succumbed to the dangers of the wilderness; others are simply reckless endeavors that were poorly planned and executed, yielding tragic results. Still others tell of real insanity, of fanaticism that bypassed hubris and suicidal tendencies because the traveler’s mindset was so clearly unfit. While Krakauer uses these stories to provide counterpoints to try to explore the reasons behind McCandless’s drive, they increase the sense of impending doom in much the same way as choral odes do.
Another structural staple of tragedy (and one much discussed by Aristotle) is poetic language. At first glance, the plainspoken, everyday chitchat and regional patois found in Into the Wild may seem an unlikely fit. In truth, Krakauer goes out of his way to capture the “characters” in McCandless’s life without linguistic hyperbole. Yet in including excerpts from McCandless’s diaries and letters, Krakauer does achieve an element of poetry. In Krakauer’s assessment, Chris McCandless was somewhat precious on the page. His diaries often refer to himself in the third person, and his letters certainly bear the influence of the literary works that he so loved. Yet structurally, Krakauer achieves a kind of inversion of the implementation of poetic language used in Greek tragedy. Where in traditional tragedy, the scenes of dialogue are interrupted by the more poetic choral odes, in Into the Wild the plainspoken chorus of McCandless’s friends is interspersed with McCandless’s more florid (and affected) writings. Though the technique is inverted in his book, Krakauer achieves the balance of different types of language employed in traditional tragedy.
In the Aristotelian sense, tragedy also has to have a catharsis—a purgation of two emotions most frequently translated as pity and fear. Where scholars tend to differ is whether this catharsis is felt by the tragic hero, the audience, or both. Whether Chris McCandless/Alexander Supertramp experienced a catharsis is also a matter of debate. Certainly the written materials he left behind indicate a growing dread about his circumstances. The bigger question, and one that perhaps drove Krakauer to write Into the Wild in the first place, is whether McCandless ever truly recognized his own misconception of his place in the world. Readers are left without an answer.
Whether or not Into the Wild is ultimately cathartic for the reader, Krakauer certainly edges the story in that direction. Despite Chris/Alex’s repeated efforts to hold people at a distance, his inherent gregariousness created bonds throughout his travels. One woman became enraptured by his passion and intelligence after spending only one night with him in a spirited discussion of life and literature. The passing of McCandless is more keenly felt because of these attachments, so it is at least cathartic for his friends, regardless of the reader’s response.
Finally, tragedy is often translated as being “whole” or “complete” and having “weight” or “magnitude.” Does nto the Wild give McCandless that importance? After all, he was just a kid who wandered the country looking for the meaning of life and trying to find himself. He did not start a cultural revolution, nor did he incite changes in government or education. If he had not died in that bus in Alaska, the article in Outside magazine that Krakauer wrote would never have appeared. No one would know about the journey of Alexander Supertramp. Still, Christopher McCandless did die, and because of that, Krakauer penned the successful book Into the Wild. In doing so, he crafted a modern-day answer to Greek tragedy that gave Christopher McCandless’s life the magnitude it deserves.
Scott, Malia. "Into the Wild: Into the Wild as Greek Tragedy." Beacham's Encylopedia of Popular Fiction. Ed. Kirk H. Beetz. Vol. 9. Beacham-Gale, 1996. eNotes.com. January 2005. 17 July 2006 .