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Jon Krakauer uses the adrenaline narrative to explore identity in his two books, Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, as he learns how high adrenaline adventures influence a person’s livelihood. The adrenaline narrative is a term coined by Kristin Jacobson of Contemporary Literary Criticism. She describes it as a branch of the adventure genre, and narrative that primarily focuses on humanity engaging with extreme environments. These extreme environments include but are not limited to the wilderness, mountaineering, going off of the grid, etc. In Jon Krakauer’s books, he uses this adrenaline narrative to explore the lives of both he and McCandless as they are exposed to the harsh realities of nature and both seen navigating a fine line of life and death. By choosing to write in the adrenaline narrative, Krakauer is able to captivate a receiving audience of these extreme adventures that provide insight on several aspects of life. Jon Krakauer uses himself and McCandless to explore Kristin Jacobson’s idea of the adrenaline narrative to display what can be learned about oneself through experiencing intense amounts of adrenaline in life or death situations.
The adrenaline narrative is non-fiction writing about life threatening exhibitions set in exotic locations. This narrative is often autobiographical or biographical and describes the events of an adventurer, with Into Thin Air being an autobiography, and Into the Wild, being a biography. According to Jacobson, the setting of an adrenaline narrative is critical, as she writes, “Adrenaline narratives are set in a natural environment and involve some element of exploration, and include adventures involving ice (i.e. polar explorations), water (i.e. rafting, kayaking), and height (i.e. mountaineering, climbing) in a remote natural setting,” (1). While Jacobson’s definition describes a very narrow experience, the adrenaline narrative should go beyond ice, water, and height, and encompass all adrenaline intensive situations. Nonetheless, these settings are critical for the adrenaline narrative to exist because they push people to their mental and physical limit. These settings allow for a thrilling story to be told as the protagonist is consistently on the cusp of life and death when exposed to these elements.
This genre tends to be most popular in America, where many Americans have become desensitized to regularly experiencing adrenaline as modern-day luxuries and technologies have made life a simple task. According to Jacobson, “Adrenaline narratives suggest that American culture lacks necessary rituals and sensory connection to nature. Americans seek in adrenaline narratives what we used to find in cultural rituals,” (1). What Jacobson is suggesting is that American culture has confined the natural sense of adrenaline as modern comforts and technology has made daily tasks significantly easier. Humanity no longer has to depend upon hunting game and gathering to place food on the table, thus taking away a huge part of what used provide adrenaline. These luxuries allow for many things to be purchased instead, but at the cost of not experiencing natural adrenaline. To find this lacking adrenaline, readers look to this literature to satisfy these needs. Jon Krakauer has provided two exhilarating stories about himself and Christopher McCandless abandoning society and taking on the natural world without the luxuries of everyday life. This narrative allows one to experience adrenaline without having to directly engage with it, otherwise known as armchair adventures.
Something that people tend to learn in the midst of an adrenaline-fueled journey is their reliance on religion in frightful situations. As these people are tested to their limits, they tend to fall back on a religious or spiritual desire as the last resort miracle to keep going. Jacobson describes these situations as “miraculous events”. These events can be perceived as a religious intervention and a phenomenon that cannot be explained other than by a higher powers interference. In times of trouble, Jacobson also notes how, “nature might bring out spiritual desire even among agnostic travelers,” (Jacobson). In times of peril in the hour of death, the last resort of hoping for a miracle or a reference to the afterlife proves to provide comfort. This is seen through Krakauer and McCandless in both texts.
In an adrenaline heavy journey, the narrative allows for one to explore themselves religiously and spiritually. Overall, adrenaline narratives can cater to any religion or spirituality, however, in the purpose of this essay, Krakauer and McCandless appear to share a Protestant belief, so the terms religion will be used instead of spirituality. In Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, both McCandless and Krakauer resort to their Protestant faith each time either of them is faced with a fatal situation. Specifically, McCandless does this with his dying plea, proclaiming, “S.O.S. I NEED YOUR HELP. I AM INJURED, NEAR DEATH, AND TOO WEAK TO HIKE OUT OF HERE. I AM ALL ALONE, THIS IS NO JOKE. IN THE NAME OF GOD, PLEASE REMAIN TO SAVE ME,” (Krakauer 197-198). In his final moments, McCandless resorts to his faith and gives a religious plea to save him from death. As Chip Brown of The New Yorker describes McCandless’ situation with, “The vain hope of rescue that seems most heartrending in retrospect: the road warrior suing the spruce and the sky for help,” (Brown). McCandless pleading to the sky for help is a parallel to his journey, as McCandless sought out to be a self-reliant man who believed the odds did not apply to him. However, as he is consequently faced with death, as with other adrenaline narratives, he is united with his faith to seek solace in his final moments.
Another observation with religion is its appearance in fatal times. For example, McCandless does not appear to be a very religious man, or Krakauer does not depict him to be one. The only mention of religion from McCandless is seen at towards the end of the book, saying things such as, “In the name of God, please remain to save me,” (Krakauer 197), “I HAVE HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND THANK THE LORD. GOODBYE AND MAY GOD BLESS ALL!” (199). The observance of his faith coming out only in his time of death demonstrates his lack of faith until he needed a miracle to survive. This suggests a lack of faith among the adrenaline narrative for those who seek to run away from society to the woods looking for solitude in nature where others may find this solitude in an organized religion. McCandless appears to follow what Joseph Kramp of Psychological Exploration says are “‘Nature religions’, these worldviews focus on purification of falsehood, ritualized through enduring extreme physical pain, social isolation, and extreme weather conditions in hopes of experiencing reality more authentically,” (Kramp). If McCandless were to exclusively follow any religion, it appears to be a nature religion, as McCandless displayed each and every one of these aspects throughout the text. This is present throughout the books he reads, as he is scanning a book and writes an annotation of, “NATURE/PURITY” (189), alluding to the fact that one can find a transcendental experience in nature. McCandless seemed to take more solace in the words of Thoreau and Jack London than Jesus Christ, or another protestant figure for he appears to be of a Protestant descent. Nonetheless, in his time of fatality, he did call back upon his original protestant faith in a last-ditch effort to formulate a miracle of recovery for himself, which proved to fail as well. Adrenaline narratives display people’s faith and when they choose to be loyal to it.
The adrenaline narrative allows for mortality to be explored through the use of natural settings as people expose themselves to life or death situations. This adds a thrilling layer to the narrative and attracts a large audience as readers witness individuals battling for their lives. The adrenaline narrative explores why people will undergo these harsh conditions. Krakauer describes why he succumbs himself to these journeys with, “I quickly came to understand that climbing Everest was primarily about enduring pain. And in subjecting ourselves to week after week of toil, tedium, and suffering, it struck me that most of us were probably seeking, above all else, something like a state of grace,” (Krakauer 140). Krakauer describes that his decision to undergo the monumental task of Everest led to a state of grace, or, allowed him to make a spiritual connection that released him from sin. This adventure provided a transcendental experience that brought him closer to his own spirituality when he was fearing fatal consequences, and this sense of peace found in the suffering allowed him the strength to keep going, suggesting that in high adrenaline adventures, a deep sense of peace can be experienced through the pain, making the bliss worth the experience.
Further along, a majority of individuals who appear in each book display a sense of invincibility. It appears that many people are not concerned with death as they ignore precautions while they are just inches away from it, expressing an arrogant sense of invincibility. Kramp describes this attitude Krakauer and McCandless seem to share, with how, “They [Krakauer and friends] seem to think McCandless and the others who perish in the wild are just plain unlucky,” (Kramp). This attitude preaches invincibility because they do not consider preparedness, weather, or any real reason why someone would perish in nature, and instead, they believe it to be to sheer dumb luck. This is apparent in Into Thin Air with many of the examples of climbers who perished in attempting to climb the mountain. Krakauer gives an example of an Englishman named Maurice Wilson who attempted to show the world how illnesses can be cured through the power of fasting and faith in God. He ignored many signs to retreat from his trek, as Krakauer says, “And he still wouldn’t quit. On May 28, he wrote in his diary, ’This will be a last effort, and I feel successful.’ One year later, a man came across Wilson’s frozen body lying in the snow at the foot of the North Col,” (Krakauer 94). While in the face of death, adrenaline narratives show humanities ignorant feeling of invincibility and the odds not applying to them. The death found in this genre escalates the tone of the story making these adventures appear very dangerous.
This attitude of dying due to unlucky circumstances rather than one’s own ignorance appears to be a common theme of adrenaline narratives. Krakauer and his team’s demise is accredited to the random fatal storm that took his crew with a vengeance. Krakauer states, “It would be many hours before I learned that everything had not in fact turned out great- that nineteen men and women were stranded up on the mountain by the storm, caught in a desperate struggle for their lives,” (203). No one had been prepared for this storm, and this storm was not predicted. It was accredited to being an unpredicted fatal storm, further proving how in this adrenaline narrative, people are quick to blame the randomness of an event, such as this storm, than they are to blame themselves and their lack of preparing. McCandless, however, was truly struck by a random event. McCandless was able to identify what poisoned him, saying, “EXTREMELY WEAK. FAULT OF POT SEED…” (Krakauer 191). McCandless is not at fault for being poisoned by the potato seeds, for Krakauer provides extensive detail on how potato seeds were never identified as being poisonous. Since no documentation of these lethal seeds existed, McCandless had no way of knowing. However, the seeds were only fatal if the illness had gone untreated. McCandless purposely did not bring a map, and if he had, he would have known he would have been able to contact the outside world and receive medical treatment. That is where McCandless is at fault, as his death appears to be accidental but his negligence of bringing a map sealed his fate. This theme of unluckiness and death encompasses the adrenaline narrative and makes death appear as random, rather than avoidable. The attitude of the hikers shows how they are quick to blame their surroundings and anything other than themselves, as they do not take responsibility for their own actions.
In the face of death, the adrenaline narrative shows the connection between death and loved ones. This is seen in Into the Wild through McCandless’ dying S.O.S plea, “I AM OUT COLLECTING BERRIES CLOSE BY AND SHALL RETURN THIS EVENING. THANK YOU. He signed the note ‘CHRIS MCCANDLESS’” (Krakauer 198). This notion of signing his birth given name rather than Alexander Supertramp showed how McCandless recognized the severity of his situation that he may perish. By giving his birth name, he is allowing himself to be discovered and found by his loved ones. If he wanted to be remembered by those he encountered on his journey, he would have signed it Alexander Supertramp, because surely, those who crossed him would remember his unique name. This was his attempt at letting those who knew him before his great adventure aware of his final whereabouts, and to no longer worry if he is still out there. In his final moments, in the face of mortality, McCandless is seen rekindling the once burned connection of his loved ones, demonstrating how people who partake in high adrenaline adventures are faced with death, they resort to their loved ones. McCandless had also perished in the sleeping bag his mother had made him. Seeing as though he made a large sum of money working for Wayne, he could have replaced his sleeping bag with a new one that did not hold any meaning. His final resting spot of his mother’s sleeping bag proved to show a connection between him and his loved ones.
Further along, Into Thin Air also shows loved ones in a time of death. When Rob Hall was stranded above the rest of his team, what appears to be just in the nick of time, his wife calls and asks to speak to Rob. Rob says, “I love you. Sleep well, my sweetheart. Please don’t worry too much,” (Krakauer 247). In his last moments, he reassures his loved ones of his feelings and of his safety. Although Rob was not aware that this would be his last human contact, the theme of loved ones and death is portrayed nonetheless. Unfortunately, adrenaline narratives portray many instances of actual mortality, but through the death, the message of keeping your loved ones close speaks volumes from both McCandless’ and Rob’s actions. Rob’s actions additionally reflect a feeling of invincibility near death, as he conveys to his loved one feelings of optimism while he is in the face of death. In his final dialogue with his wife and teammates, he remains very positive and completely sure that he will survive the night, as he says, “In the context of the altitude, I’m reasonably comfortable,” (Krakauer 247). Rob recognizes the danger of his high altitude but ignores the danger in the face of death, assuring those around him that he is safer than he actually is. Rob’s communication between his loved one and his teammates shows how invincibility is seen in the face of death, as well as the importance of reassuring love to those who matter the most in dangerous situations.
According to some scholars, the adrenaline narrative is tailored to men. In Martin Green’s book, The American Adventure, he explicitly explains the genre’s tendency to favor men, as he states how, “The adventure tale was written almost exclusively for a masculine audience,” (1). Notice how he does say adventure tale, but throughout his narrative, he often references adrenaline like adventures where men face life or death consequences, or essentially, the adrenaline narrative. However, there can be a distinct difference between the adrenaline narrative and the adventure narrative, as an adrenaline narrative can be an adventure narrative, but an adventure narrative is not always an adrenaline narrative. Every adventure narrative does not always feature the key element of a heightened sense of adrenaline, thus separating the two. For the purpose of this essay, his views are included, as his definition seems to align closely with the adrenaline narrative.
The adrenaline narrative can include the adventures of females; however, most scholars tend to single out the male gender and highlight how nature is a catalyst for the greatest masculine qualities to be portrayed. Because of this, masculinity will be explored in this essay, regardless of how the genre can be positively benefitted from women. Green does not only explain the audience being primarily men, but he goes forward in stating how, “‘Adventure’ is linked to ‘manliness’,” (1). Green states how through taking these adventures, it separates the men from the boys. Green says, “Adventure (the experience) has been a great rite of passage from boyhood to manhood, as in the boy scout movement,” (6). Green believes men entering nature is a ‘rite of passage’. Green explains masculinity through the use of binaries, explaining what men are by showing what they are not.
‘Manhood’ was also paired with some contrasting term- as the affirmed or superior value- in dozens of polarities of thought. Any male had to strive to always to be a man and not a boy, a man and not an animal, a man and not a coward, a man and not a mouse, a man and not a woman. At the same time, manhood also- being such a sacred value- spread out to 1 all humanity, spread out beyond these antitheses to include the inferior of the rejected term. (Green 7)
Notice how Green captures masculinity as being civilized, as well as having strength and courage, and uses a binary of comparing male to femaleness to emphasize the inferiorities of the female, condemning the gender as weak and incapable of taking such journeys. While Green gives a very interesting insight into how masculinity is defined by nature, he does this by isolating femaleness and rejecting it as a whole. The impression of superior masculinity in the adrenaline narrative can suggest themes of misogyny, especially as Green contrasts the strong man with the weak woman. Therefore, under Green’s analysis, adrenaline novels highlight the male strength and give them their natural ability to conquer.
Furthermore, Jacobson continues to comment on the male focus of the adrenaline narrative by saying, “The high proportion of white men who write within this genre may in part explain why patriarchal desire dominates the genre,” (1). Jacobson states throughout the article how men seek to dominate nature and conquer it, making it their own, therefore applying ideologies of the patriarchal complex to adrenaline novels. In both McCandless’ and Krakauer’s journey, they each address the patriarchy in different ways. McCandless’ inherent right to explore, dominate, and take nature as his own, displays his participation in the patriarchy. He is fully capable of taking this adventure due to the male privileges of being born male, being born white, and coming from a family with a wealthy enough background to permit an interest in exploration in nature. These factors, more so white male, allow for McCandless to venture around with very few worries, as opposed to a female of color taking this journey. Krakauer’s gender and ethnicity are not as prominent in his journey but still highlights masculinity as the journey consists of more men than women. This speaks volumes upon the journey he is taking because this is demonstrating how mountain climbing is a predominantly male hobby.
One of the earlier adrenaline narratives was the writing of Jack London. In these books, masculinity is definitely a prominent theme, specifically in London’s “Call of the Wild”. McCandless’ obsession with Jack London’s The Call of the Wild demonstrates his own masculinity as he chooses to identify with it. Leonard Ashley of Reference Guide to American Literature illustrates how the story is, “A symbol of what man can do to overcome obstacles and become the leader of his fellows,” (Ashley). Meaning, a man rises to power and saves the day, which is an ideology highlighting masculine strength and heroism. Contrary to finding strength, McCandless finds weakness instead, as he fails in his adventure to become his own hero and save himself. Caroline Hanssen of American Literary Realism refers to McCandless as being, “A collective cliché of young men who underestimate the Alaskan wilderness,” (Hanssen). McCandless’ arrogant approach of the Alaskan wilderness proved to be an asset in his death and disproved his masculine desire to overcome his own obstacles that inevitably led to his demise.
The setting remains to be a crucial aspect of the adrenaline narrative. It is important to observe Krakauer’s choice of destination in Into Thin Air, as he desires to climb Mt Everest. Douglass Sackman of the Reviews in American History attributes this goal to how men, “Celebrated taking possession as a manly act,” (1). Or, in Krakauer’s case, how he and his team attempted to conquer the top of Everest as the ultimate prize of mountain climbing. Mountain climbing in itself is a predominantly masculine sport, focusing on the strengths that normally pertain to the male gender. Julie Rak’s article on “Gender in High-altitude Mountaineering Narratives” states these strengths to be, “Male strength, heroism to be male heroism, leadership to be the heroic model of a leader as an unchallenged decision-maker, and the community of climbers to be a brotherhood of the rope,” (Rak 117). Rak uses the brotherhood of the rope to state in a cleverly way of how men are responsible for each other when climbing. Coining the term brotherhood of the rope places an exclusive look on masculinity, single handedly excluding women with brotherhood referring to only men. This further indicates the masculine nature of climbing. However, in this innate feeling of responsibility of those around each other, Krakauer feels this responsibility, especially during the end of the book, when the storm comes and wipes out most of their team on the final summit of Everest. Upon losing their leadership, “Hutchinson stepped up to fill the leadership vacuum,” (Krakauer 259). In times of tragedy, the sport of mountaineering encourages male strength and leadership, and that is exactly what occurred in Krakauer’s predicament, as Hutchinson filled the leadership role with both of their previous leaders down. In this chaotic time, the adrenaline narrative demonstrates these masculine qualities coming to life because in times of fatal trouble men seem to rise to the case of showing leadership and strength to make it through.
While Jon Krakauer’s mountain climbing was a display of masculinity, McCandless’ journey found masculinity in different ways. Sackman describes how some men find solace in these journeys, with how men, “Climbed and hiked and wrote of their adventures as ways to simultaneously fulfill and contest complex and contentious ideas of what it meant to be a man. What they sought-variously, the escape from society’s expectations that they struggle with each other and with the natural world.” Into the Wild focuses on McCandless’ journey across America before his fatal trek in Alaska. Krakauer uses both the adrenaline narrative and McCandless to explore in what Sackman says, what it means to be a man. McCandless proved to be self-sufficient, for at one point he is seen burning his cash and abandoning his car, and was still able to provide for himself and live another day.
Further along, McCandless does demonstrate objective masculine behavior, referring to women in biological terms instead of human terms. From Krakauer’s description, McCandless does not appear to have a strong sexual drive, with only briefly mentioning one woman throughout the entire book to slightly capture his interest. In his final days, McCandless writes what he perceives to be the meaning of life: “A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful for people to whom it is easy to do good for… and on top of all that, you for a mate, and children, perhaps- what more can the heart of a man desire?” (Krakauer 169). McCandless’ initial hint to work in the country and provide useful tasks to people he deems as good suggests a laborious job, often occupied by men. Regardless of his college degree, McCandless appeared to wish to return to society and find a manual labor job, perhaps such as the one he required in South Dakota with his friend Wayne. Additionally, his masculinity appears when he refers to women as a mate. Here, he is referring to a woman as the biological function instead of a potential lover and human being. While it is clear he wants to meet a woman and have children, his message is conveyed in a degrading way to women, as he refers to what they can do for him, such as birthing his children, instead of what he could do for them, provide for them and take care of them. This choice in language was very peculiar, as McCandless appeared to be very respectful to both men and women throughout Krakauer’s retelling. The adrenaline narrative allows for these masculine ideologies to be seen, as they cater primarily to men. McCandless places himself in a very primitive state, living off of the land without the use of maps. So, the narrative also depicts his primal view of women, seeing them as a source of offspring instead of humanity.
In conclusion, the adrenaline narrative displays many aspects of life through the lives that are depicted. Through experiencing heightened amounts of adrenaline, the narrative depicts people’s feeling of invincibility, coming to terms with their masculinity, and what is most important to them in the time of death. These narratives are explored in times of peril in extreme locations, whether it be across America, or in Krakauer’s case, Mt Everest. Through the lives of Jon Krakauer and Christopher McCandless, readers can receive a sense of adrenaline that is commonly lost in American society. These adrenaline narratives offer different views on aspects of religion, how people respond to situations in the face of death, and how masculinity is represented in nature. These narratives are told to a receiving audience who experience the real-life thrills of adrenaline in something critics call armchair adventures. These adventures serve to inspire others, provide cautionary tales to life threatening situations, and tell of thrilling one of a kind adventures to electrify audiences worldwide.
- Ashley, Leonard R.N. “The Call of the Wild: Overview.” Reference Guide to American Literature, edited by Jim Kamp, 3rd ed., St. James Press, 1994. Literature Resource Center.
- Brown, Chip. “I Now Walk into the Wild.” Chip Brown, The New Yorker, 8 Feb. 1993
- Green, Martin. “Adventure, Manliness, Nationalism.” The Great American Adventure, Beacon Press, 1984, pp. 1–9.
- Hanssen, Caroline. “‘You were right, old hoss; you were right’: Jack London in Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild.” American Literary Realism, vol. 43, no. 3, 2011, p. 191+. Literature Resource Center.
- Jacobson, Kristin J. “Desiring Natures: The American Adrenaline Narrative.” Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Jeffrey W. Hunter, vol. 248, Gale, 2008. Literature Resource Center.
- Krakauer, Jon. Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster. 1999. Print.
- Krakauer, Jon. Into the Wild. New York: Anchor Books, 1997. Print.
- Kramp, Joseph. “Call of the Wild: The Negative Tendency in the Nature Religions of American Youth.” Journal of Religion & Health, vol. 54, no. 1, Feb. 2015, pp. 61–75. EBSCO host.
- Rak, Julie. “Social Climbing on Annapurna: Gender in High-Altitude Mountaineering Narratives.” Julie Rak | University of Alberta – Academia.edu, University of Alberta, 25 Aug. 2010, ualberta.academia.edu/JulieRak.
- Sackman, Douglas. “The Gender Trouble with Wilderness.” Reviews in American History. 2nd ed., vol. 34, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006, pp. 208–213.
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