Both protagonists undertake a kind of “work of the self,” whereby they simultaneously come to terms with trauma – in one case, paternal betrayal, in the other, maternal abandonment by death – and make or remake themselves into their “better selves.” This is a spiritual (and I use that term broadly) quest as opposed to an “adventure” or “communing with nature” story, however much adventure and nature inform the individual journeys. For McCandless, there is the desire to burn off the false, self-satisfied glow of bourgeois prosperity represented, to a large extent, by his successful, upwardly striving father, now judged to be morally contemptible. The harder work, that of forgiveness, is not undertaken till he is near death. Strayed, by contrast, must learn to individuate herself from her mother, to find a path that is both “wild,” and by that I mean (in the terms of the narrative) a female-centered kind of waywardness, and yet beholden structures not inconsistent with patriarchal norms.
* * *
The story of Chris McCandless is compelling because he dies. The story of Cheryl Strayed is compelling, precisely, because she does not. Let’s be clear about this. If McCandless, the subject of Into the Wild (2007), had emerged from his three-month residency in a deserted bus located a couple of days’ walk beyond the Alaska’s Stampede Trail, albeit thirty pounds thinner, his “great adventure” would have received scant attention. If Strayed, author of Wild and subject of the 2014 film of the same name, had slipped on an icy patch and plunged to her death or died of dehydration somewhere on the Pacific Crest Trail, it would have been newsy but not narrative. This seeming paradox suggests something about our gendered notions of risk and reward. Using gender as an organizing principle by which to unpack these narrative representations of wilderness travel, one is struck by the extent to which the desire to make or unmake the self is conditioned by norms that reveal divergent paths to subject constitution. Into the Wild is a tale of self-dismantling, Wild one of self-making, and this makes sense given the “male as default” history of selfhood. Not only that, the price for going “astray” reveals the continuing sway of patriarchal ideals. Strayed is “recuperated,” her story told from the perspective of a married mother of two. McCandless’ narrative ends, of course, in death. This is not to reduce biography to schema, but to reflect upon the way the construction of gender in these films both encodes and complicates a subject’s encounter with the wilderness, from its animating principle, to its spiritual/psychological underpinnings, to its planning and execution, to its culmination. I am not concerned here with the actual lives of McCandless and Strayed or the films’ fidelity to the books upon which they are based, but rather the deployment of images, juxtapositions, voice-overs, that are the language of cinema and tell a story of their own.
Both films are based on best-selling books, one a memoir and the other a work of reportage. Coincidentally, both McCandless and Strayed were born in 1968, and both started their journeys in 1990, although McCandless does not reach Alaska for another two years. Into the Wild, directed by Sean Penn and starring Emile Hirsch, grew out of Jon Krakauer’s book of the same name. Krakauer, himself a daredevil journeyman, weaves together narrative strands drawn from copious interviews, letters, McCandless’ own journal entries, carvings, and the lives of other risk-taking young men – himself included – to form a kind of prismatic view into the psyche of McCandless. Was he suicidal, stupid, careless, or unlucky? The explanation, to me, is less interesting than the fact of his death, because to put oneself in conditions where death is possible, if not likely, is to court death. That much seems certain. To walk “into the wild” is to tread in the shadow of death.
Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, an award-winning best seller, was made into a well-received film of the same name starring Reese Witherspoon. Strayed undertakes a 1,100-plus-mile hike by herself along the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), great stretches of which are, indeed, wilderness areas. No cell phones. Just so we know. Unlike Into the Wild, we have her words, her own representation of the experience. For Strayed the term “wild” is at once the landscape of her lived existence and the presence of an unanticipated rattlesnake. The wild is both within and without, and this sets up an interesting contrast with McCandless, whose wanderings, prior to his final, and tragically brief, sojourn in Alaska, are more in the nature of hobo-ing (hence his self-stylization as “Alexander Supertramp”). Strayed pointedly rejects the term “hobo,” which is altogether correct, but interesting because it’s another point of self-fashioning that inflects both of the stories. “I’m not a hobo!” she retorts to “Jimmy Carter,” reporter for the Hobo Times. “Women can’t walk out of their lives. They’ve got kids to take care of, parents to look after.” Strayed has neither parents nor children. And this is a highly gendered take on the nature of personal responsibility.
There are a number of striking parallels between McCandless’ and Strayed’s narratives, not the least of which is the centrality of family trauma. As a point of departure, then, the films backtrack through the starkly divergent family backgrounds of their protagonists. These, interestingly, are represented in terms of familiar binary representations of gender. McCandless’ narrative emerges in response to a powerful father figure who sits astride his wife and children, Strayed’s in relation to a freewheeling, “anti-bourgeois” maternal figure who imbues the household with a kind of preternatural maternal glow. Juxtaposed thereby are dualities of warmth and coldness, emotion and reason, order and disorder, insufficiency and sufficiency. I could go on.
Flashbacks show that McCandless was raised in a prosperous, upper-middle-class home dominated by a stern and unsympathetic father. Walt McCandless, played by William Hurt, is not a warm and fuzzy guy; he is depicted as joyless, rigid, and authoritarian. He is also physically abusive. Chris’ life changes when he finds out, inadvertently, that his father had been a bigamist. This occurs after his graduation from high school in Virginia when he takes off on a solo cross-country trip. Visiting his family’s old neighborhood in California, he learns that his father began an affair with his mother while still married to his first wife. Though he enjoyed a common law marriage with Chris’ mother, Billie (Marcia Gay Harden), he continued relations with his first wife and lived, effectively, as a bigamist for a number of years. Ultimately, the “second” family moved east and the first marriage was legally terminated and the second formalized. The knowledge of his father’s betrayal marks a turning point in his relationship with his parents, and especially his father, though he suppresses his outrage for the first few years of college, during which time he seems to play the part of a high achiever.
McCandless family values include material success, discipline, and obedience, as evidenced in the sequence following Chris’ graduation from Emory College and told in flashback. When Chris and his younger sister arrive at the restaurant where the family will be celebrating Chris’ graduation, Walt rebukes his daughter for driving Chris’ car, an old Datsun, in Georgia with only a learner’s permit. Then he reacts with outrage to a group of college revelers who boisterously make their way through the restaurant where the family is dining. “They’re going to stay in the bar, right?” he challenges the staff. Chris suggests to his parents that his grades will be good enough to get into Harvard Law School. Walt wants to know what is left in Chris’ college fund, and Chris responds, “24,500.68,” accounting for such accuracy by stating that he has just been to the bank. We shortly understand why. Walt, his approval evident, offers to contribute the balance. Chris’ mother then proudly tells Chris about his graduation present – a new car – a gesture that is roundly rejected. Chris doesn’t want any “things, things, things.” In the following sequence he packs his favorite books – Tolstoy, London, Thoreau – and donates his college fund to Oxfam. He throws out photos of his parents, cuts up his identity and social security cards, and hits the road. A caption reads: “My own birth,” and the latter stages of the narrative are further tracked as Adolescence and Manhood. There are no contemporaries or romantic attachments. He seems driven by a kind of emotional ascesticism. According to the voice-over of Carine McCandless, his sister, “Chris measured himself and those around him by a fiercely rigorous moral code.” Unable to forgive his father, he seems to want to expurgate whatever aspects of his father he has internalized and, in so doing, compensate for his father’s moral failings.
Strayed, by contrast, grows up in a female-centered household. Flashbacks show us that she and her brother were raised by a single mother, played by Laura Dern, in an unorthodox household filled with warmth and spontaneity. There was an abusive father from whom the family finally escaped, but Bobbi, as her mother was known, is the radiant center of her children’s lives. Far from dominating her children, Bobbi is sometimes identified with them. She attends college with Cheryl, who sometimes scolds her: “Why are you happy? We have nothing, Mom.” “We’re rich in love,” Bobbi responds. “If there’s one thing I can teach you, it’s how to find your best self. And when you do, how to hold onto it for dear life.” Other times Cheryl condescends to her, as when she dismisses James Michener as “crap” when she discovers her mother is reading The Novel. Throughout flashback sequences, we see Bobbie dancing joyfully, embracing her children, making poverty seem like a gift. As if tacitly offering Strayed the pathway toward self-becoming, she tells her, “You can choose to put yourself in the way of beauty.” The household is also characterized by a noteworthy sense of material insufficiency, as when Strayed cries out to Bobbi, “We have loans we’ll be paying off for the rest of our lives. Our house is falling apart. You’re on your own because you married an abusive alcoholic asshole. And you stand there singing!” Just as McCandless seeks to counter-identify with his father, Strayed will seek a path reliant upon structure without, however, the violent sense of repudiation that dominates McCandless’ narrative.
Bobbi’s early death of cancer precipitates a crisis of such internal devastation that Strayed nearly destroys herself. Despite what, to all appearances, seems like a happy marriage, she plunges into an “orgy” of promiscuity, reaching rock bottom when she starts shooting heroin with one of her lovers. She also discovers she’s pregnant and then promptly terminates the pregnancy. It’s around this time that she stumbles upon a book about the Pacific Crest Trail, and the idea takes hold. In a strange way, the trek portends a kind of labor that enables her to birth a “best self.” If McCandless is the moral ascetic, Strayed is the “anti” ascetic, a female subject dominated by needs and emotions, drowning in what is conventionally understood as amorality.
So, both protagonists undertake a kind of “work of the self,” whereby they simultaneously come to terms with trauma – in one case, paternal betrayal, in the other, maternal abandonment by death – and make or remake themselves into their “better selves.” This is a spiritual (and I use that term broadly) quest as opposed to an “adventure” or “communing with nature” story, however much adventure and nature inform the individual journeys. For McCandless, there is the desire to burn off the false, self-satisfied glow of bourgeois prosperity represented, to a large extent, by his successful, upwardly striving father, now judged to be morally contemptible. The harder work, that of forgiveness, is not undertaken till he is near death. Strayed, by contrast, must learn to individuate herself from her mother, to find a path that is both “wild,” and by that I mean (in the terms of the narrative) a female-centered kind of waywardness, and yet beholden structures not inconsistent with patriarchal norms. There is, too, the act of renaming. As I alluded to above, McCandless starts calling himself “Alexander Supertramp,” frequently referring to himself in the third person in letters and journal entries. He seems thereby to gesture toward a double displacement of the “inherited” self.
When Strayed gets divorced, shortly before the trip, she chooses “Strayed” as a new last name. Separating herself from her husband, her first step in remaking is the choice of a name. She tells the registrar: “I needed a new name and I saw that word in a book – and you know all the meanings – to wander from the proper path, to be lost, to be without a mother and father … to become wild.” Both McCandless’ and Strayed’s names stress an affinity for marginality, though Strayed’s cannot be separated from the long literary history of women who stray and the trope of “the wild woman” who resists the containment strategies of patriarchy. Her solo hike along the PCT, constituting a new representation of what it means for a woman to stray, revalues and sanctifies the term, reclaiming it from the patriarchal pejorative.
McCandless’ “project” can be better understood, I think, with reference to a long tradition of pushback against bourgeois subjectivities. As was pointed out over a half century ago by Richard Chase,
The American imagination, even when it wishes to assuage and reconcile the contradictions of life, has not been stirred by the possibility of catharsis or incarnation, by the tragic or Christian possibility [as in the English novel.] It has been stirred by the aesthetic possibilities of radical forms of alienation, contradiction, and disorder. (2)
But I would like to suggest that what Chase calls the “American imagination” had, until the latter half of the twentieth century, been a distinctly and unproblematically male one. We might turn to that American classic, Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle, to explore the American imagination’s take on male prerogative. Old Rip eschews any notion of productivity, and, in the end, he is richly rewarded by a life of leisure free from the demands of his querulous wife. Ever disparaged as the quintessential nag, Dame Van Winkle’s only sin is asking Rip to do his job. And, for a colony on the verge of statehood, doing one’s job is important – and very American. Consider Ben Franklin’s virtue of industry. Think of Max Weber’s theorization of the link between the development of capitalism and the Protestant work ethic.
Even so, there is something in the American imagination (gendered male) that pushes back, as Rip pushes back – and gets rewarded for doing so. Then there is the lure of the West and of the open road as against the world of commerce and domesticity, the cult of radical individualism as against the ideal of civic duty. The American (male) psyche is ever rent, divided against itself, and many of its enduring narratives emerge from disequilibrium. So McCandless’ story, his embrace of the hobo life, free of acquisitions, of steady work, even a home, can be understood as partaking of this tension. Bound as they have historically been to the home, women have had little opportunity for the radical adventurism that has characterized so many of our cultural narratives. In the eyes of the law, moreover, they did not exist as individuals capable of owning and disposing of their own property until the late 1800s. One must be a self to squander a self!
Yet the “burdens” of selfhood, characterized by the embrace of instrumental reason, productivity, and a code of self-sufficiency and set against an ever more disenchanted world, empty of spiritual presence but bound to a joyless moral severity, must also be acknowledged. Associated as they are with privilege, the burdens of selfhood – from which women and non-white individuals of either gender have historically been excluded – are not rejected with impunity. Indeed, literature is rife with narratives of mostly men who disappear in the desert, at sea, or the frozen north in search of authenticity, beauty, freedom, whatever. These are trials, though, and not adventures. They require a certain asceticism, a strength of will, and a measure of unreason. They are narratives about the self’s undoing. And yes, they are, for the most part, stories about, or told by, white men.
Into the Wild can be viewed as a part of this tradition. The opening sequences include a deceptively benign quote from Byron: “There is pleasure in the pathless woods.” Cut to McCandless’ mother awaking suddenly from a dream in which she hears her son crying “help me.” Cut to a bird’s-eye view of the frozen north and the words of the last individual to see him alive. “If you make it out alive, give me a call.” The pathless woods, though, juxtaposed as they are to the figure of the mother, suggest to me a kind of “feminine” disorder, a domain beyond the power to rationalize and cultivate. What are roads, after all, but a means to exercise control and authority? Perhaps McCandless’ narrative is leading us back to “the feminine,” a constellation of signifiers that can encompass both a nurturer and a fearsome devourer of the masculine spirit, an angel of the hearth and a temptress, as well as what Julia Kristeva calls “the semiotic,” a kind of pre-Oedipal state that resists the coercive power of language. To escape from the toxic father to the all-devouring mother is to choose your poison – and poison is McCandless’ downfall. Ironically, McCandless’ mother is shown to offer no countervailing force to the all-powerful father figure.
The opening sequences of Wild are similarly invested in a juxtaposition of wilderness distress and scenes of home. Since Strayed, we later learn, has become compulsively promiscuous in response to her mother’s death, it is fitting that the film begins with the sexualized sound of heavy breathing, only instead of sex, it is the hard breathing of physical exertion, the exertion of trekking the PCT. Both the book and the film begin with the loss of a hiking boot. Strayed sits on a mountain ledge to remove her shoes and rest her damaged toes. One shoe tumbles into the abyss. Looking stunned, she then tosses the other over as well. She utters the primal scream, we see the abyss, and the film cuts to flashbacks of sex.
In the next sequence, when she arrives at a motel in the Mojave Desert, her starting-off place for the hike, carrying shopping bags full of supplies, the business of checking in establishes her homelessness. We understand her to be an orphan. These early scenes foreground her sexual voracity, her need. Unlike McCandless, her needs are limitless. Unlike McCandless, she starts from a place of total abjection. Her goal: “to walk my way back to the woman my mother thought I was.” Fast-forwarding to Bobbi’s death, we find ourselves back in scene 1, the primal scream now rooted in context.
In a matriarchal household marked by a kind of loose “seat of the pants” existence, what little structure there is resides in Bobbi, Strayed’s mother. She holds it all together with limitless stores of love and a kind of grace that can only be characterized as eccentric. The film differs from the book in its omission of Bobbi’s long-term boyfriend, a surrogate father who lives with the family for most of Strayed’s life. This gives the narrative a different spin. Does the lack of a male presence suggest – at least from the point of structure – that the female paradigm is an insufficient basis for subject constitution? That absent the maternal figure, there is unmitigated chaos? If that is the case, the excessive grief experienced by Strayed feels, then, like something more … a self-mourning, perhaps. Her marriage – an ostensibly good one – offers no form of stability at all.
Two sequences, in particular, provide important insights as to the nature of Strayed’s attachment to her mother and, by extension, the “work” the trek is intended to accomplish. The first is a voice-over in which she describes Bobbi as the “love of her life.” In this articulation, the mother is a love object – the clichéd phrase is almost always associated with romantic attachment. Strayed pointedly does not refer to her recently divorced husband, Paul, in those terms. And, by all accounts, he was a good and loving partner. In a second sequence, she swallows chunks of her mother’s ashes. On the one hand, she keeps her mother alive by ingesting her. On the other, the mother’s death is experienced as Strayed’s death – or as producing a death wish. As I suggested above, the maternal household is characterized by a kind excess that nevertheless reads as insufficiency according to patriarchal norms. Strayed needs to be a subject. Explicitly, Strayed’s intention is to reclaim a better self after the joyless debauchery engendered by her grief, and even here, the “better self” is constructed under the “sign” of the mother. Implicitly, however, there is the idea of individuation from the mother and, by extension – perhaps – the feminine, where the feminine is marked by an insufficiency that must be, literally, overwritten.
What is also interesting, however, is that by succeeding at a male-coded form of self-testing (men don’t stray, they have adventures), she both supersedes the male model both within the narrative – she pushes on despite the snow whereas her fellow hiker Greg, gives up – and without – as compared with McCandless. By owning the term “stray,” she invests it with new meaning, one that pushes back against its limiting sense as a lapse of female virtue and redefines the path as one of empowerment. She walks her way “in” to the system, just as McCandless walks his way “out.”
WhileMcCandless’ fate is, perhaps, overdetermined, (not so much Strayed’s), it is a useful point of contrast to examine the “methodology” by which each of the protagonists progresses through the wilderness trek. We can say that McCandless’ journey has two stages. Before he heads out to Alaska, he spends a couple of years wandering around the western and upper midwestern part of the U.S. His identity as “Alexander Supertramp” seems to come naturally to him. At one point he exclaims, “I’m not destitute! I’m living like this by choice!” These sequences are built around various relationships with father figures and one significant mother figure. He travels light, and his days are carefree and effortless – and this carries over into his Alaskan misadventure. There is also a sense of fearlessness. In an early sequence, he tells a character that he is afraid of the water. Later, though, he impulsively buys a used aluminum canoe and braves the rapids of the Colorado River all the way down through the Gulf of California and on into Mexico. Such overconfidence is hard to separate from the white male privilege that allows for a certain taken-for-grantedness.
We get hints of the essential wrongheadedness of McCandless’ project through his encounter first with Jan and Rainey, a hippie couple living a marginal existence as “rubber tramps.” They function, however briefly, as surrogate parents. Jan (Catherine Keener), a “good mother” figure whose own son has taken off and disappeared, asks if his parents know where he is. McCandless deflects. Later he meets Ron Franz (Hal Holbrook), an elderly man who offers to adopt him. McCandless is deeply invested in a life without intimacy. He tells Franz, a “wise old man” figure, who has cut himself off from life after the death of his wife and son, “you’re wrong if you think that the joy of life comes principally from human relationships. God’s placed it all around us. It’s in everything. It’s in anything we can experience. People just need to change the way they look at those things.” He thereby rationalizes his own condition.
Franz, though, also has something to say:
From the bits and pieces I put together, you know, from what you told me about your family, your mother and your dad. And I know you’ve got your problems with the church, too. But there’s some kind of bigger thing we can all appreciate, and it sounds like you don’t mind calling it God. But when you forgive, you love. And when you love, God’s light shines on you.
As he speaks, his figure is suffused with sunlight and the vision of a rainbow, lending cinematic truth to his words. This is important, because it is a shot that resonates at the end of the film.
McCandless follows his literary and philosophical guides, Thoreau, Tolstoy, and, most importantly, Jack London, into a final act of grandiose self-deception – to live off the land for a few months somewhere off the beaten path in Alaska. His quest is a kind of bovarism run amok. From Krakauer we learn that the last person to see him alive was Jim Gallien, who picked McCandless up outside of Fairbanks. According to Gallien, for an individual who intended “to live off the land for a few months” (Krakauer 4), he was traveling alarmingly light. The only food he carried was a 10-pound bag of rice. His rifle was too small to kill the large animals whose meat would sustain him. He wore cheap hiking boots and minimal gear – “no ax, no bug dope, no snowshoes, no compass” (Krakauer 5). He had a state road map, not likely to be useful off the beaten path. Gallien tried to talk him out of his plan, but McCandless dismissed his concerns. One can’t help thinking of the hapless protagonist of London’s “To Build a Fire,” whose failure to heed the advice of the old timers or to respect the overwhelming power of the Arctic wilderness cost him his life. McCandless was not stupid … and yet. He is aware that he might not survive, writing in a letter, “If this adventure proves fatal.…”
Several months later, he is undone by a few terrible errors of judgment. First, he fails to recognize that the Teklanika River that he easily fords in late spring will become a raging torrent in summer, barring his return. Then, he is unaware that, far from being in the middle of nowhere, he is only several miles from a park service cabin, stocked with provisions. Finally, he misreads the guide to local flora and consumes poison berries that so weaken him that he eventually starves to death.
The stages of Strayed’s trek are marked by the painful accretion of skill. While McCandless’ narrative is divided up according to life stages, Strayed’s progress is measured by the number of days out on the trail. These unfold in sequences that detail her trials: the painstaking erection of a tent for the first time once she is already on the trail, following the instructions step by step; buying the wrong kind of gas for the portable stove; wearing shoes that are too small; and, of course, carrying way too much stuff. There is the sheer physical exhaustion of trekking under the burden of her weighty pack, her body itself bearing the traces of her struggles: the giant bruises, the loss of her toenails, the stench of being unwashed. There is terror: the sheer isolation of nights alone on the trail; the sudden appearance of a rattlesnake; the chasms below into which she might plunge. She is not without carelessness, nearly dying of thirst when, ignoring advice to bring additional water, she discovers the water tank listed in the guidebook is barren. Being a woman, of course, she faces an additional risk – that of being raped, a fate that she narrowly avoids. Her growing confidence as a long-distance hiker is hard won and richly deserved. Strayed is dubbed “Queen of the PCT.” Hers is a woman’s story of wilderness travel, of earning rather than owning her privilege.
Inside the abandoned bus that becomes his home, McCandless scratches onto a piece of wood,
TWO YEARS HE WALKS THE EARTH, NO PHONE, NO POOL, NO PETS, NO CIGARETTES, ULTIMATE FREEDOM. AN EXTREMIST. AN AESTHETIC VOYAGER WHOSE HOME IS THE ROAD. ESCAPED FROM ATLANTA, THOU SHALT NOT RETURN, ’CAUSE “THE WEST IS THE BEST.” NOW AFTER TWO RAMBLING YEARS COMES THE FINAL AND GREATEST ADVENTURE. THE CLIMACTIC BATTLE TO KILL THE FALSE BEING WITHIN AND VICTORIOUSLY CONCLUDE THE SPIRITUAL REVOLUTION. TEN DAYS AND NIGHTS OF FREIGHT TRAINS AND HITCHHIKING BRING HIM TO THE GREAT WHITE NORTH. NO LONGER TO BE POISONED BY CIVILIZATION HE FLEES, AND WALKS ALONE UPON THE LAND TO BECOME LOST IN THE WILD [emphasis not mine.]
There are many ironies here, not the least of which is that in fleeing the poison of civilization he succumbs to the poison of the wild. In a later entry, he writes that he is “trapped” in the wild.
McCandless’ death is a fitting end to a narrative that is uneasy with compromise, where lessons learned come only at the forfeiture of “reentry.” Thinking of the stages of the hero’s journey, a concept popularized by Joseph Campbell – the departure (or separation), the initiation (a period of trial), and the return (after the hero’s transformation through enrichment) – we see that McCandless’ journey is incomplete. But it is true to Chase’s measure of the American imagination, an imagination gendered male. To opt out heroically, as opposed to eking out a marginal existence in the interstices of the system, is the privilege of those who can afford to squander. Those for whom squandering is a primary good. We seldom imagine a woman who could so effortlessly forfeit such hard-earned entry into the echelons of power by which modern life is structured. We would imagine her to be insane. There are those who think McCandless was insane, or at least screwed up. At the same time, we find something that is admirable. At one point, McCandless tells Rainey,
I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong, but to feel strong, to measure yourself at least once, to find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions, facing the blind, deaf stone alone with nothing to help you but your hands and your own head.
And yet, such mastery is coded as quintessentially masculine. Strayed, too, refers to her project as a kind of self-testing, but of a far less elemental kind.
We might say that Strayed’s relationship to the “wild” is more metaphorical than literal. Women are traditionally linked to nature, instinct, an ethic of care that includes care of the self. At the same time, her female-centered upbringing is coded as marginal, irregular, lacking in material prosperity and, generally speaking, warm but insufficient. She needs to “get over” her outsize obsession with her mother, overcome her compulsive and (and compensatory) self-destructive desires for sex and heroin, the very representation of an “excess” that, in a woman, needs to be expurgated. And – this is also significant – she needs to own her vocation as a writer. Wild is all about process, the goal of completing the trek less important than the trek itself. There is a purposeful program of something like self-mortification. She has separated herself, and this includes separating herself from a good marriage; endured an initiation-like experience; and she has returned transformed and enriched with the tools by which to enlighten others. She is the very embodiment of Campbell’s hero.
McCandless is trapped, not so much in the wild as in a set of patriarchal values against which he must identify. His asceticism goes hand in hand with the squandering of material goods; he has pared his entire life down to the contents of a backpack. And yet, he is not content to squander material goods, he must put himself in the way of danger. (Let us not forget Strayed’s mother’s admonition to put oneself in the way of beauty.) He is drawn to risk. Into the Wild is about getting off the grid. But nature/the “wild” is adversarial, as spectacularly represented by a raging river and McCandless’ shooting of a moose whose hideous butchery fails, in the end, to produce sustenance. The graphic representation of his starving body is, at times, almost Christlike. Life on the trail enlarges Strayed. Life off the grid reduces McCandless to a skeletal essence. Being off the grid is inimical to being.
Final sequences are important. Near death, McCandless encounters a large bear outside the truck. There is a stare down, till the bear snorts and wanders off. He’s not even bear bait. There is a flashback to his final moments with Franz, who, just before parting with McCandless, offers to adopt him. Chris deflects, asking if they could put it off till he gets back from Alaska. There are cutaways to Walt and Billie, Walt finally humbled and humanized in unspeakable grief. The juxtaposition of scenes and images allow us to weigh the power of forgiveness against the cost of apostasy.
McCandless has been reading Dr. Zhivago. On one of the pages, he scribbles, “HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED.” He performs what we may interpret as a ritual cleansing before crawling into his “bed,” from which there is a direct view of the sky. The camera cuts away to the following message he has penned: I HAVE HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND THANK THE LORD. GOODBYE AND MAY GOD BLESS ALL and then cuts away to one of his first carvings:
But the voice-over repeats a line from Dr. Zhivago: “to call each thing by its right name,” and the camera pans down to the bottom of his farewell message, revealing the signature “Christopher Johnson McCandless.” The voice-over repeats the phrase “by its right name,” and the camera zooms in on the name. By casting off the invented name together with the third-person voice that so often contained it, McCandless reclaims his identity and opens himself up to the possibility of intimacy. In “dream time” there is a scene of forgiveness and reconciliation as McCandless is embraced by both of his parents. In real time, he stares into the open sky, bringing us back to Ron Franz’s words about the relationship among love, forgiveness, and god’s light. That he belatedly enters into a state of grace seems crucial to our understanding.
Voice-overs are also vital to the final sequences of Wild. I will reproduce a few of them. This is Strayed several weeks before she reaches the end of the trek:
There’s no way to know what makes one thing happen and not another. What leads to what, what destroys what, what causes what to flourish or die or take another course … What if I forgive myself? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do a single thing differently? What if I’d wanted to sleep with every single one of those men? What if heroin taught me something? What if all those things I did were the things that got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?
The camera cuts away to an image of Bobbi and then to birds in flight. Her words suggest both an acceptance of contingency and a refusal to repudiate all those acts of “moral laxness,” those self-destructive behaviors that led her to the PCT. There is, too, the suggestion that the road to redemption may be nonlinear, that it may be inseparable from the darkness of sin. Strayed is able to harmonize the redemptive energies with the destructive ones without flattening their shattering powers.
Then it is Day 94. The voice-over tells us,
It took years to become the woman my mother raised. It took me four years, seven months, and three days … without her. After I lost myself in the wilderness, in my grief, I found my own way out of the woods. I didn’t even know where I was going till I got there … on the last day of hike.
It’s interesting to contrast McCandless’ accuracy, down to the penny, when describing how much is in his college fund, with Strayed’s accuracy above. The former represents a disinvestment in patriarchy, the latter an investment in subject construction that will, ironically, lead her – for the first time – into a “normative/bourgeois” domestic structure. As Strayed approaches the Bridge of the Gods, the end point, she expresses her gratitude for everything she had learned on the trail and everything she “couldn’t yet know:”
How in four years I’d cross this very bridge and marry a man in a spot almost visible from where I’m standing. How in nine years that man and I would have a son named Carver, and a year later have a daughter named after my mother, Bobbi.
The final voice-over occurs on the Bridge of the Gods (above):
I only know I didn’t need to reach with my bare hands anymore. To know that seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water was enough. That it was everything. It was my life – like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me. How wild it was, to let it be.” [italics mine]
The words “mysterious, irrevocable and sacred” seem to contain all that is lost in McCandless’ narrative, because the male narrative is too much in thrall to the disharmonies of the “American imagination.” One way Strayed accomplishes her reconciliation is through art. But, it must be emphasized, the culminating moment is also tied to marriage and motherhood – the end of all romance narratives.
So, both films work out their logic within a set of assumptions about gender, and this logic infuses the poignancy of their protagonists’ final reckonings. Moments of revelation seem to contrast ways of knowing, and by extension, ways of coming to terms with the world. I wish particularly to juxtapose the idea of “calling each thing by its right name” with its connotation of precision and logic and that of apprehension: knowing that “seeing the fish below the surface of the water was enough. That it was everything,” where the end might not be to know with precision – one knows by naming – but, rather, to be mindful, present. Knowing and being present are ways of being that tie each of these characters to the problematic parent and the gendered nature of their struggles. McCandless’ dilemma cannot be reconciled within the logic of the film, Strayed’s can. Finally, and this is by way of metaphor as well, both Into the Wild and Wild end with their protagonists staring up at the sky. McCandless’ eyes are wide open. Strayed closes hers.
Now that the American imagination is replete with many diverse voices, it’s interesting to note the continuing power of Chase’s analysis while at the same time recognizing its limitations. Into the Wild and Wild are narratives that chart the self’s progress in a social context littered with assumptions about one’s “proper” course in relation to a patriarchal armature whose lineaments are still readily discernible.
Special thanks to Drs. Nancy Gerber and Sophia Richman for their comments on an earlier version of the manuscript. Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from the films.
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Chase, Richard. The American Novel and Its Tradition. 1957. Johns Hopkins, 1980.
Into the Wild. Directed by Sean Penn. Paramount Vantage, 2007.
Krakauer, Jon. Into the Wild. Anchor, 1997.
Strayed, Cheryl. Wild. Knopf, 2012.
Wild. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2014.