“Into the wild” (1996) by Jon Krakauer and “Lead us into temptation: the triumph of American materialism” (1999) by James B Twitchell are two books with similar themes – the only difference being that one is an antithesis of the other. Before beginning on the journey of the exploring these themes and understanding what each of the author sought to achieve in writing the respective books, let us take a brief look into the story of each of these aforementioned books.
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
“Into the Wild”, though seemingly a fiction, is essentially a non-fiction book, which was written as an extension of an article Jon Krakauer published regarding the death of Christopher McCandless. Christopher McCandless had graduated from Emory University in Atlanta, when he decided to go on a cross-country trip in his beloved yellow Datsun. This sudden urge of going on a trip came from a heartbreak Chris had from the very knowledge that his father had a secret second family at the same time. This led to a sort of disillusionment within Chris and he set out to follow his ideal, namely Thoreau, into finding his exact identity at the hands of raw nature expeditions. He set his sight at “the great Alaskan odyssey” and ventured out of Atlanta. As he proceeded with his journey, the disillusionment he faced led him to shun his present identity and adopt a new one.
He donates $25,000 of his college fund to OXFAM, leaves his beloved car (which was damaged in flash floods and would have helped his parents find him and dissuade him from his self discovery journey), burns the cash money in his wallet and buries some of his belongings – taking with him only as much was required (even less) for survival in the wilderness. Throughout his journey, he meets a lot of people, some of whom become his adopted family. Even though Chris or as he takes up a new name Alex, is wary of getting too close to these people, namely Jan Burres (motherly figure), Ronald Franz (who wanted to adopt Alex), Wayne Westerberg (fatherly figure and employer of Alex), it is evident towards the end that even though Alex wanted to be rid of all expectations and the hindrances that relationships led to eventually, he had understood that the true happiness of life was in sharing it with others. This feeling of loneliness and wanting of social interaction can be much conceded from the letters and post cards that Alex sent to his sister, Jan Burres and Wayne Westerberg through his journey.
Nevertheless, Alex continues on in his journey, albeit ill-prepared for what waited for him in the Alaska, as noted by Jim Gallien, the last person to see him alive. As Alex sets up his base in an abandoned bus in the Alaska’s stampede Trail, he notes in his journal how hungry he is and faces an eminent danger of dying from starvation. Despite carrying a book on edible plants in the wilderness, Alex consumes potato seeds which were infected with a poisonous mould. This poisoned Alex and he became too weak to even hunt or scavenge for his food. Ultimately, this led to his death from starvation. When a few hitchhikers found his SOS message on the door of his bus, Alex was already dead. The very fact that he ate poisoned potato seeds that led to his starvation came out towards the end, when his decomposed body is tested in the lab.
The main theme weaved within the backdrop of the book is basically that of an American youth facing disillusionment and shunning all materialistic wealth and luxury to go on a journey of self discovery. Towards the end of the book, the reader realizes, as is also asserted by the author, that it was a sardonic analogy that led to the death of Christopher McCandless – it was lack of the very ignorance and wisdom that Christopher sought from his journey that led to his ultimate death.
Lead Us Into Temptation by James B. Twitchell
Just as the name suggests, Lead Us Into Temptation is a book where the author glorifies consumerism and the very act of shopping. He travels to various shopping places and malls to observe and understand the behavior of those venturing into the mall. He explains that those who proclaim the shunning of consumerism are actually hypocrites. He compares shopping to the act of praying. He explains how those advertising the products are equivalent of the angels on the walls of the church. The shopping mall itself is a great big church where people go to when they are in stress or need some mental peace. The very act of shopping is like praying, which gives mental peace and satisfaction to the shopper. After all, it is the goods that we are talking about (not bads!!).
Then again, the author explains how today, we are what we shop. Explaining this aptly he says, “Tell me what you buy, and I will tell what you are and who you want to be.” According to the author, the present is a commercial age, where every person is identified by the brand he wears. The culture now is where we wear our labels sewn on the outside for the whole world to see. In fact, this materialistic culture is so strong that people identify themselves by the things they own and the brands they wear. As he says, “things are us.” It is the things we own that define us. When we want to change ourselves or do change, our things change with us as well.
However, the author ends the book on more thoughtful lines when he says that the age of mall culture is now seemingly on a decline. According to him, the generation today has reached a stage of mall atrophy. The age which hankered after the malls is now becoming old and is spending more on health and wellness. Hence, a new sort of culture is emerging where the conglomerate hospitals are now functioning as a mall. It is not to say, however, the prevalence of malls is downtrodden. The entire book is about the highflying mallcondo culture and further glorifies the same.
Comparing “Into the Wild” and “Lead Us Into Temptation”
Both the books and their themes form a kind of a paradox. While “Into the Wild” denounces the materialistic world and culture of America; “Take us into Temptation” exuberates the very consumerism and materialism so vehemently flouted in the former. In the former, the protagonist Chris McCandless becomes so disdainful of the consumerism that he gives away everything he has and even refuses to take materialistic help from people he meets on his journey. This attitude ultimately led to his demise. Nevertheless, his morals and attitude did not change even in the wake of adversities he faced. In the latter, however, in complete defiance of any sentiments of anti-conglomerates, the book completely glorifies and magnifies the consumerism in the American culture. The book announces that consumerism is a way of life and a one that provides immense satisfaction to people so much so that their entire identities are based on it.
What protagonists wanted and what they found
Chris McCandless wanted to rediscover himself in the American wilderness just the way his idol Henry David Thoreau in Walden preceded. In the end, Chris failed to find that key moment where he could say that he had found himself. Nevertheless, the journey completely transformed him. While mentally he could not achieve that great a transformation, physically and personality-wise he did undergo a transformation. This transformation can be well seen in the way his name changes over the journey. From Christopher McCandless, he becomes Alex to Alexander and finally Alexander Supertramp – thus, completely shunning his former identity and taking up a new wandering one.
In the latter book, Twitchell goes to various shopping malls and looks into the inherent culture of mall shopping. He wants to understand what it is that drives a shopper to shop and why consumerism is reining the American culture. He finds it and explains it, equating shopping experience to a religious experience that provides as much satisfaction to the shoppers as in an earlier era, religious sermons and prayers used to provide to a believer. Twitchell further explains how shopping and consumerism has become a sort of therapy for all those unhappy. In his observations, he found that most of the early shoppers in the mall were ladies, shopping for apologizing cards etc and hence, seemingly unhappy or worried to some extent. In such a scenario, the fact that shopping works as a therapy that uplifts spirits holds its ground firmly. The advertisements advertising a product claim the product to have healing powers proclaiming – if you buy that product all your problems will go away. Thus, Twitchell was able to establish ground for consumerism, almost convincing the reader of the goodness and necessity of consumerism in their lives.
An Insight on the life in American Culture
Nevertheless, the incidence of the death of Christopher McCandless has brought to light that the process of disillusionment amongst certain sects of American is still happening. One of the main reasons that Chris died was because of lack of preparedness and proper guidance. Then again, let us first mark out the reason for his disillusionment all together.
With the kind of American culture where there are broken families and half parents and brothers, it becomes difficult for children to find an association with a figure. In Chris’s case, the realization that his father has a second, secret family led to him becoming disillusioned and hence, he denounced the American materialism, his upper-middle-class upbringing and even his parents. This is one aspect that brings to the light some of the hidden faults in the American culture. Further looking into this aspect of the American culture where families are broken, one can pinpoint that apart from the fact that breaking up is easier to do, the very fact that even relationships these days defined by the materials we own has a big impact on our understanding of consumerism. Despite all the glory that Twitchell showers on the benefits of consumerism, the incidence of Chris McCandless throws a sad light upon it.
Krakauer, Jon. Into The Wild. Pennsylvania: Anchor Books, 1996. Print.
Twitchell, J.B. Lead Us Into Temptation: The Triumph of American Materialism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. Print.