The Influence of Transcendentalism on Into the Wild’s Chris McCandless
Society is founded on monotony and security, and it is nearly impossible for its innocent youth not to be drawn into its façade. As they journey into the world, young adults seek solace in the confines of conformity and are soon drowning in superficiality. The recognition of value is stripped from their minds and replaced with the predisposition to “carelessness, ignorance [and] wastefulness” (Eighner 150). While Lars Eighner’s On Dumpster Diving exemplifies the profligate nature of America’s youth, it also expresses transcendentalist ideas much like those illustrated in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature and Self-Reliance. And even though Chris McCandless never got a chance to explore Eighner’s piece, it is evident that the same optimistic, spiritual ideas of Thoreau and Emerson—those later discussed by Eighner—all manifested deeply in McCandless’ character.
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Chris McCandless wanted something deeper and more significant than the shallow, misdirected lifestyle of society’s youth, and Emerson’s writing pointed him toward the purity of the wild. “In the wilderness [there is] something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature” (Emerson, Nature). Like many transcendentalists, McCandless believed there was more substance to life than conformity to social norms and material fixations, and he wanted to be “emancipated from the stifling world of…abstraction…and material excess” (Krakauer 22). Emerson’s Self-Reliance showed McCandless that “society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members [and] self-reliance is [conformity’s] aversion.” Because of this, McCandless felt inclined to test his self-sufficiency and prove to himself that he didn’t need the things that dictated the lives of so many others. He “shed unnecessary baggage” and ventured into the wild with “nothing except what [he could] carry on [his] back” (Krakauer 31-32).
Not only did Emerson’s words steer McCandless into the wild, but Henry David Thoreau’s Walden also helped him see its intrinsic simplicity. “[Lives] are frittered away by detail…ruined by luxury and heedless expense…the only cure…Nature” (Thoreau 203-204). McCandless was discontented by such unnecessary complexities in society and wanted to “front only the essential facts of life” (Thoreau 203). He felt caged by the triviality around him, but it was Thoreau’s captivating experiences at Walden that helped steer McCandless toward the refuge of nature.
While McCandless didn’t live to read Lars Eighner’s On Dumpster Diving as he did Thoreau’s and Emerson’s writings, it is evident that he and Eighner shared a similar dissatisfaction with the way society operated. Both men focused their energy on self-sufficiency and not getting caught up in the mindsets of those around them. McCandless braved the Alaskan wilderness not only to escape the shallowness of society but also to push his limits and prove to himself that he could survive on only the bare necessities. He “had a need to test himself in many ways…‘that mattered’” because he believed that “a challenge in which a successful outcome is assured isn’t a challenge at all” (Krakauer 182). And despite not ever reading Eighner’s piece, McCandless embodies his message that there is great value in living independently. Eighner viewed scavenging as a “modern form of self-reliance” because it “rewards initiative and effort,” and McCandless utilized nature as his own form of independence.
It is debatable whether Chris McCandless was a true transcendentalist, yet it is clear that the transcendentalist ideas of Thoreau, Emerson, and Eighner deeply resonated within him. The spirit of adventure radiated through McCandless’ being, and he personified the transcendentalist philosophy that the three authors were trying to expound. Attempting to explore every crevice of thought can be a frightening, confusing experience, but one transcendentalist belief that all these men had in common is that the experience goes beyond what anyone ever thought possible. The transcendentalist part of McCandless’ character is what exposed him to a world he never knew existed. And it made him realize that the meaning of life—the reason for existing—is made up of minuscule complexities that can’t be sorted out with only the tools provided by society.