According to Chris McCandless, society is the place to leave behind because living within it leads to unhappiness:
“So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.” (Krakauer)
McCandless goes on his modern day Odyssey because he was unhappy with the life that he’d created under society’s expectations. However, when McCandless leaves behind civilization, society revoked any titles he initially had and gave him new labels. Homeless, trouble, and crazy are negative labels assigned to him by society because he left behind the rules. All through his journey McCandless met up with hippies, immigrants, and hermits. When those people were introduced to the story these characters all had their own advice and morals for living life, but because they weren’t the ones society expects they’re often given those labels to encourage people to look down on them. Society negatively labels those that don’t fit within their expectations in order to encourage people to conform.
First off when people conform that means they are accepting the customary means people in society achieve goals and they are accepting those customary goals society has set for them (Ferris and Stein 154). For example, when McCandless went to Emory College and graduated with high marks he was doing what society expects of young adults. From there McCandless would have continued his education at Harvard Law, graduated with high marks, got a secure job, and started a family, if he continued to live by society’s set means and goals. Although following those standards would have lead McCandless to have follow in his parents’ footsteps of living a life of misery and fake fronts. McCandless instead choose to rebel which is a result of rejecting society’s means and coming up with his own means as well as rejected society’s goals in favor of new goals (Ferris and Stein 154). McCandless isn’t the only one to reject society’s means and goals to some degree. In between rebels and conformists are innovators, who reject the means but accept the goals; ritualists, who accept the means but reject the goals; and retreatist, who reject both the means and the goals but don’t come up with new ones (Ferris and Stein 154). These are all effects of how people choose to react to peer pressure, parent expectations, and self-image.
Next, socialization is the process where most of society’s values, beliefs, and norms are taught so people can become a functioning member of that society (Ferris and Stein 97). The key social group that teaches the means and goals of society is the family, since this is the group most people spend the most time around at the most influential phases of development (Ferris and Stein 107). That would make McCandless’s main teachers of society his arguing, lying, and miserable parents. This taught McCandless that society needed to lie to be successful and that society’s definition of successful was miserable with a fake front. Therefore, it’s not surprising that McCandless ran out of society when he saw the opportunity to look for something better. He wasn’t happy with the means of lying and faking it to reach success and he wasn’t happy with the goal of miserable family life. McCandless followed in the path of transcendentalists because he wanted to change the current way society functioned. He therefore dropped social interaction with the educated elite and cookie-cutter families and instead went into the world of honest outcasts and their makeshift groups. Parent example is a key factor in getting their kids to buy into society so bad parenting is probably the largest cause for McCandless’s rebellion against society.
Next another key object in socialization are institutions because this is another place where children spend a lot of their time. The two big influencing factors in institutions are students with peer pressure and teachers with content and authority (Ferris and Stein 108). McCandless isn’t shown interacting in school much so it can’t really be determined how he dealt with peer pressure. From what can be inferred from his character it seems like he ignored it. Although a popular topic taught in college is transcendentalism so that is something that definitely influenced McCandless. He is shown throughout the movie reading Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and his favorite author, Jack London. Since his parents weren’t the greatest reasons to support socialization into society this probably caused McCandless to look closer to school and he probably connected well with the transcendalist because they were also questioning society’s ways. Therefore, McCandless rebelled against society since he’s preferred influence was also encouraging it through the transcendentalism teachings.
Finally, the last cause of McCandless’s rebellion was the desire to find the self since he was probably questioning the merit of society from the influences of bad parents and transcendentalism teachings. The self is who the person is without the influence of others or in McCandless’s case society (Ferris and Stein 100). Following the transcendentalist teachings that would be separating oneself from civilization and connecting closer to nature caused McCandless to head out on his own journey. That is what McCandless did by leaving his processions and heading into more and more deserted terrain until he died. He went on a journey to find himself because he didn’t like what society was trying to tell him to be. Therefore if people don’t get the socialization into society that they like they look for methods and reasons to leave it behind.
People should care because everyone has to make the decisions on whether or not to conform to society and how far they want to conform to society. It’s also important to know what influences people’s choices when they are making the decision so they make the one that fits them. Also, some people will make the choice to be parents themselves one day so they need to know that their actions also reflect to their children about their roles in society. If they paint something unhappy like McCandless’s parents did, they run the risk of their children rebelling against society in an attempt to change it to something more suitable for their tastes.
Parental figures, peer pressure, and self-image are key factor when determining whether or not to conform or rebel against society. In McCandless’s case, they were as important as life and death. Everyone needs to understand it is possible to live in society happily without lying, fake fronts, and misery. It’s not only in the wild, where people can be as McCandless said:
“The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.” (Krakauer)
New experiences can come to people that conform to society as well if you can find the right situations and met the right people. It’s not always necessary to jump into rebellion like McCandless did.
Ferris, Kerry, and Jill Stein. The Real World: An Introduction to Sociology. W.W. Norton & Company, 2016.
Into the Wild. Directed by Sean Penn, Paramount Vantage, 2007.
Krakauer, John. Into the Wild. Villard, 1995.