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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
At almost every stop along Christopher McCandless’s route, he left behind or discussed books. His paperbacks, including Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden become a symbol of his intelligence, and his paradoxical search for others who viewed the world as corrupt. McCandless’s guide to edible plants shows his dedication to practical learning and the application of knowledge. On occasion, Krakauer uses an annotated passage from one of McCandless’s books as an epigraph to a chapter of Into the Wild, inviting the reader to puzzle over them just as he and McCandless did.
As much as Christopher McCandless reads, he also writes, which further expands the use of books as symbols for his independence of mind. His journal entries intersect with and provide a model for the narrative of Into the Wild. The reader thus understands McCandless as a kind of author figure, alongside Krakauer himself. This is especially true in that certain sections of his diary are written in the third person, as if he were a character in a story. The annotations in the margins of his books establish a symbolic exchange of knowledge and wisdom through literature. Indeed this exchange could be said to represent a disembodied, alternative society whose personalities and ideas make McCandless feel more at home than actual people.
The abandoned school bus in which Christopher McCandless makes his home proves a powerful symbol for the ambiguous solitude he seeks. The bus is by no means a naturally occurring object, which would suggest that McCandless by no means achieved the “wild” he sought. At the same time it has given shelter to other loners who felt some communion with the wild. Worth noting, too, is that the bus originally had a mundane, human purpose. McCandless takes the bus as a sign of good fortune during the first days of his trip. He leaves it for precisely that reason: he now thinks his trip will proceed auspiciously. He then returns to the bus after weeks of struggling without it, in an apparent reversal. This toggling back and forth between the idea of the bus as a boon and as a regrettable compromise reflects the very fact that it symbolizes ambiguity. Among other things, the bus symbolizes shelter and exposure, success and failure, and independence and dependence at the same time. After Christopher McCandless’s death, the bus becomes a kind of tomb. Krakauer is indeed disturbed to find so many of McCandless’s intimate possessions inside it. McCandless’s parents visit the bus ten months after his body has been identified, underlining the idea that acts of pilgrimage and memorialization are central to the book.
Christopher McCandless makes his belt with the veteran Ronald Franz, who teaches him leatherworking. The belt stands out amidst the dozens of objects McCandless eventually leaves behind and could be read as the most important of his many belongings. Both useful and beautiful, the belt symbolizes the promise of tramping life. Despite McCandless’ avowed desire to leave society behind, his construction of the belt would not have been possible without Franz’ friendship. After McCandless’s death, it becomes a commemoration of his talent, though it also attests to the fact that McCandless’s gifts can no longer be used or retrieved. It offers the narrator an alternative account of McCandless’s journeys. It also extends the visual testimony offered by photographs and videos of McCandless, which are frequently described in the text.