“There is pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society where none intrudes,
By the deep sea and the music in its roar;
I love not man the less, but Nature more.”
Following these words of Lord Byron begins Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, the story of 22 year old Chris McCandless. Simply put, Chris’ story is that of the romantic renegade. His adventure begins on the day of his college graduation, and from Emory University no less. Without a word, he leaves his family, his belongings, and his life savings behind in order to embark on a journey of self-discovery in the wild.
All complaints about melodrama and overly romanticized notions of freedom aside, I really loved this movie, although probably not for the reason it was meant to be loved. Chris’ belief is that society has corrupted the pure nature that man was meant to enjoy. God has given us the world so that we may play in it, but civilization has commanded otherwise. Therefore, the film’s notion of salvation is in a return to paradise, a restoration of the primal harmony. Unfortunately for Chris, nature didn’t see it quite the same way.
Without spoiling the ending, I will simply say that Chris has a brush with the ugly side of nature. God’s great gift wasn’t exactly as altruistic as he once thought. The denouement of the film takes a definite stance on the issue of nature, and man’s relation to it – and it is the classic romantic/idealistic move. Penn’s liberalism shines through as the film ends with a seemingly melancholy scene, buttressed by a triumphant, “Flight of the Valkyrie”-like march into the credits. This courageous walk into the void, Chris’ brave embrace of a “proper” end left a bad taste in my mouth. However, I understood his final confession in a different way.
As Chris accepts the inevitability of nature’s dominance over man, he scribbles these words into his book: “Happiness only real when shared”. Living an authentic life isn’t as easy as being true to oneself. Escaping the corruption of society is all well and good, but there is no realm of pure nature waiting at the doorstep for its prodigal sons to return. His final realization is a confession, a repentance; not an announcement. Penn may have wanted his protagonist to exemplify courage in the face of tyranny. The audacity to say “no” to all relationships, to all forms of exchange, and to all points of authority. Ultimately, however, Chris must return to his former life (via the act of reviving his given name) full of remorse, but without an avenue for penitence.