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Analysis of Rhetoric in “Into the Wild” by Jon Krakauer

The author of any novel has a vital role in the portrayal of his subject to the audience. Author Jon Krakauer is no exception to this principle. In his 1996 novel Into the Wild, Krakauer masterfully manipulates the elements of rhetoric to convince his audience that his subject, the elusive Chris McCandless, was not merely a crazy, arrogant and ignorant kid and that McCandless’ quest for truth in the wild is the same quest that every man goes through. Unfortunately, Krakauer writes under the assumption that most of his audience has a negative perception of McCandless, seeing him as one of the “others,” a category of crazy adventures whose suicidal predispositions lead them to meet their fate in the wild.

Krakauer contradicts this through the use of different rhetorical appeals- logos, pathos, and ethos. He uses emotions and logic to prove that no, Chris McCandless was not who the audience believed him to be and that there is much, much more to the story than a single gravestone in the Alaskan wilderness. The most obvious rhetorical appeal in this novel is Krakauer’s appeal to logos, which he establishes through factual evidence. When describing McCandless’ family history and past achievements, Krakauer notes that “… Chris graduated from Emory University in Atlanta, where he’d been a columnist for, and editor of, the student newspaper, The Emory Wheel, and had distinguished himself as a history and anthropology major with a 3.72 grade-point-average” (20). Krakauer uses factual details from McCandless’s life to show the audience that McCandless was not, in fact, crazy.

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In this example, Krakauer relays McCandless’s high achievement throughout college- good grades in a well-established major, participation in extracurricular activities, and committing to graduating college. By stating credible facts, Krakauer creates an appeal to logos, otherwise known as an appeal to logical thinking. It cannot be denied that McCandless indeed had his act together throughout his life. Krakauer continues this appeal in the presentation of McCandless’ journal, relaying, “Although the tone of the journal… often verges towards melodrama, the available evidence indicates that McCandless did not misinterpret the facts; telling the truth was a credo he took seriously” (29).

Throughout the novel, Krakauer takes excerpts from McCandless’s journal throughout his travels, allowing the audience a first-hand account of the ordeals that McCandless went through in his time in the wild. Krakauer states here that the journal was reliable and can be used as sufficient evidence for his argument; McCandless may have been dramatic in his accounts, but he didn’t lie. Again, this is an appeal to logos (as well as ethos) in that it provides logical facts to show that McCandless was not insane as the audience had believed; if he were indeed crazy, his journal accounts would have shown evidence of this wayward thinking, as in the case of the demented “countercultural idealist” from 1970 whose journal contained incoherent ramblings about “truth.”

Krakauer continues his appeal to logos by using inductive reasoning and examples from experience to conclude McCandless’s character and situation. Krakauer starts at the beginning of McCandless’ life, drawing from evidence found in McCandless’ early years, where the author states, “At the age of two, he got up in the middle of the night, found his way outside without waking his parents, and entered a house down the street to plunder a neighbour’s candy drawer” (106). Krakauer recounts how McCandless was known for over-the-top, risky behavior at a young age, escaping his house at two to travel in the dark to a neighbour’s house for candy.

McCandless obviously had a desire to seek danger, even as a two-year-old, and an apparent disregard for his own safety, as well as not having a grasp on the concept of his own mortality. He here reasons McCandless always had these traits; they were innate and would be born and die along with him. McCandless could not help the fact that he was supremely overconfident; he was born that way. Evidence from McCandless’ disposition in his childhood years then can pertain to his disposition at the time of his Alaskan adventure, proving again Krakauer’s point that McCandless was not stupid, just simply overconfident in his abilities.

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To further his claim about McCandless’ sanity and outlook going into Alaska underprepared, Krakauer recalls when McCandless survived in Mexico with limited supplies, recounting, “For that entire period he subsisted on nothing but five pounds of rice and what marine life he could pull from the sea, an experience that would later convince him he could survive on similarly meager rations in the Alaska bush” (36). In this example, Krakauer recounts how McCandless survived his entire Mexican trip on nothing more than the minimum food supplies: rice, water, and hunted animals. Having survived on so little before fed McCandless’s hubris, his overconfidence in his abilities despite the apparent faults that come with this Achilles’ heel of his.

Krakauer points out to the audience that McCandless, while supremely overconfident, had some experience in surviving in the wild on meagre rations; he knew what he was dealing with and what it would take to obtain the needed food, although the Mexican desert cannot be compared directly to the harsh Alaskan tundra. By using factually-based reasoning, Krakauer proves to his audience that many logical reasons explain why McCandless made the decisions he did and that blatant stupidity and a death wish were not a part of these reasons.

While establishing an appeal to logos, Krakauer continues to inundate his work with more rhetorical appeals, including an appeal to pathos or emotion. Krakauer uses one specific strategy to make this appeal: excerpts from other literature at the beginning of each chapter. For example, in introducing the third chapter, Krakauer uses an excerpt from Tolstoy’s “Family Happiness,” which goes as follows: “’ I wanted movement and not a calm course of existence. I wanted excitement and danger and the chance to sacrifice myself for my love. I felt in myself a superabundance of energy which found no outlet in our quiet life’” (15). By using moving, emotional passages, Krakauer creates an emotional attachment between the values of McCandless and the values of the audience.

The audience can identify with the longing that the author of the quotes feels for an escape from ordinary life; more than likely, the audience has had similar desires, which were brought out by hearing them told eloquently. Krakauer demonstrates that McCandless is not that much different than everyone else in the audience; McCandless had the same passion, longing, and dreams that the rest of the society feels too. The second example of this strategy occurs in the introduction to the fourteenth chapter when Krakauer uses a passage from “Letter From a Man” by Menlove, which goes, “’ I grew up exuberant in body but with a nervy, craving mind. It wanted something more, something tangible. It sought for reality intensely, always as if it were not there…But you see at once what I do. I climb’” (133).

Before reading Krakauer’s account of McCandless’s life, the audience has already made the judgment that McCandless is a part of the ambiguous “other,” a group of people who aren’t a part of “normal” society and therefore cannot be identified with. Thus, the only possible explanation they could find for McCandless’s actions was that he was not right in the head, not an able member of society. However, through this quote, Krakauer connects emotionally with the audience with their need to find a different, more intense existence in life. Menlove’s outlet to his “craving mind” was to climb, just like Krakauer’s solution was to climb the Stikine Ice Cap, and McCandless’ was to escape into the wilderness. All the quotes at the beginning of each chapter are dramatic because they each consist of a universal theme; this quote, in particular, ties to the theme of a search for truth.

A second strategy in creating an appeal to pathos is Krakauer’s use of individual stories to “paint a picture” for the audience. Krakauer devotes an, for example, an entire chapter in telling the story of another individual, Everett Ruess, in which he proclaims, “Everett Ruess’s correspondence reveals uncanny parallels between Ruess and Chris McCandless…[An excerpt from Ruess’s letter]’ I have always been unsatisfied with life as most people live it. Always I wanted to live more intensely and richly’” (91). Both young and both “called to the wild,” Ruess and McCandless share a similar story in which they essentially abandon their family’s expectations and make their way solo into the wild, with little more than the clothes on their back and essential supplies.

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Krakauer, never having known McCandless personally, must rely on stories with people similar to McCandless to “paint a picture” to the audience of McCandless’s character. As Ruess himself stated, a reliable account being firsthand, he went into the wild not seeking death or being completely deranged but to live “more intensely and richly,” to find meaning in the midst of a turbulent world. Listening to another person’s story from another perspective, the audience can connect to the story of a boy seeking meaning in his life on an emotional level and then attach this story to the story of McCandless. Krakauer also uses examples that directly relate to the audience, such as in his comparison of danger in McCandless’ life and danger in the average life, where he contemplates, “It is hardly unusual for a young man to be drawn to a pursuit considered reckless by his elders… Danger has always held a certain allure.

That, in large part, is why so many teenagers drive too fast and drink too much and take too many drugs, why it has always been so easy for nations to recruit young men to go to war” (182). Krakauer understands as an author that many members of his audience cannot understand why McCandless went willingly into a situation where he knew he would face insurmountable danger and even certain death. To the reader, McCandless’s instinct to face situations directly in the face of danger is not typical for most people. However, Krakauer argues the opposite. He states here in this passage that McCandless’s attraction to danger is the same as any young person’s desire for reckless pursuits; the only difference between McCandless and any ordinary young person is that McCandless chose to face danger in an environment unfamiliar to most people- the wild.

To the younger population, things such as speeding, drinking, and fighting in war do not appear to be dangerous but, in hindsight, are just continuations of the young generation’s desire to live dangerously. Krakauer’s final rhetorical Thus, theeal in Into the Wild, appealed to ethos or author credibility. Krakauer’s first strategy to achieve this appeal was to acknowledge the opposing view, the view that McCandless was an ignorant suburban boy who was out of his mind even to consider going into the Alaskan wild unprepared. In the beginning, his refute on the belief, Krakauer acknowledges, “The prevailing Alaska wisdom held that McCandless was simply one more dreamy half-cocked greenhorn who went into the country expecting to find answers to all his problems and instead found only mosquitoes and a lonely death” (72).

The author acknowledges these opposing viewpoints to establish to the audience that, while he is biased in some senses, he has formed his opinion based on factual evidence and understanding the other side’s opinion. He allows the audience to see the viewpoints of the opposing side. He then uses factual evidence and reasoning to convince the audience that his opinion of McCandless is the correct one. This all contributes to Krakauer’s credibility as an author and narrator and assists him in his main purpose by building trust between the author and the audience to trust his account and opinions. Krakauer also acknowledges the suspicions that his article in Outsiders Magazine arose, that McCandless was hellbent on suicide.

The author recognizes, “When the adventure did indeed prove fatal, this melodramatic declaration fueled considerable speculation that the boy had been bent on suicide from the beginning, that when he walked into the bush, he had no intention of ever walking out again” (134). Krakauer is confident that, while he states the opposing views, his arguments for his opinion on the McCandless matter are convincing and credible enough that the audience will undoubtedly come to see his opinion as being the valid one. While the first quote focused on McCandless’s character, this quote is more directed towards the opinion that McCandless went into the wild to kill himself, an opinion that Krakauer finds void and without evidence.

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Krakauer argues against this opinion immediately following the quote by providing insight from his own personal experiences, another example of Krakauer’s appeal to ethos. He simultaneously discredits the opposing viewpoints with evidence-based firsthand experience and boosts his credibility as an author by using such a personal account. Krakauer used the technique of using his own personal experiences to create an appeal to ethos, and chapters fourteen and fifteen are both dedicated to telling Krakauer’s own personal story. Krakauer highlights his pure desire and determination to climb the Stikine Ice Cap as a cause for his adventure and dangers, relaying, “Because I wanted to climb the mountain so badly because had thought about the Thumb so intensely for so long, it seemed beyond the realm of possibility that some minor obstacle like the weather or crevasses or rime-covered rock might ultimately thwart my will”(151).

Here, Krakauer demonstrates that his motivation and pure want to climb the ice cap blinded him to the impossibility of the feat, leading him to forget the own essential truth of his own mortality. Krakauer sees much of himself in Chris McCandless and uses his own personal experiences to show the audience a firsthand view of the mind of an adventurer. The audience here can see where Krakauer’s bias comes from and where Krakauer comes from in writing this novel; they can trust him more after seeing his credibility as an author. Likewise, Krakauer’s concluding statement in his side of the story offers a conclusion drawn upon personal experiences, where he testifies, “The hint of what was concealed in those shadows terrified me, but I caught something in the glimpse, some forbidden and elemental riddle…

In my case- and, I believe, in the case of Chris McCandless- that was a very different thing from wanting to die” (156). Both Krakauer and McCandless were in search of something in the wild, something to bring them closer to the ultimate truth in their own lives. Krakauer draws his argument that McCandless was not “crazy” because Krakauer himself was not; Krakauer sees McCandless as a continuation of Krakauer’s own desires, and one of the desires was not to die. Krakauer’s manipulation of the three rhetorical appeals convinces the audience that the young Chris McCandless had many attributes and qualities that much of the audience overlooked in their evaluation of him and his Alaskan ordeals.

Krakauer intertwines appeals to logos, pathos, and ethos throughout Into the Wild with such delicacy that the audience cannot put down the novel without being fully convinced of the depth and elusive nature of McCandless’ character. He recognizes in writing the story of Chris McCandless that a majority of society already has a negative perception of McCandless, one built from misinformation and perhaps even fear. As best summarized by Romain Dial at the end of the account, “’ And I’m sure there are plenty of Alaskans who had a lot in common with McCandless… Which is why they’re so hard on him. Maybe McCandless reminded them too much of their former selves” (186).

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Analysis of Rhetoric in "Into the Wild" by Jon Krakauer. (2021, Sep 12). Retrieved May 20, 2022, from