Jim Casy and Chris McCandless: Transcendentalism Gone Wrong
The philosophy of transcendentalism has played a major role in shaping American literature for the last 150 years. At its core, transcendentalism is a set of principles designed to guide a person to happiness through their relationships with God, nature, others, and his or herself. The transcendentalist movement that spread around the country in the late 1800s preached ideas of the importance of nature, the sanctity of life and the ability of humans to be moral beings, and the value of individualism. Transcendentalism appealed to many Americans because they stated that tradition and societal values were not as valuable as the ability to learn and individual morals. In particular, these ideas had a great pull on many American authors. In fact, transcendentalism and its tenets heavily influenced one of America’s most successful and iconic authors, John Steinbeck. His novel The Grapes of Wrath, widely regarded as an American classic, draws heavily from the ideas of the transcendentalism. The story, which is set in 1930s America, has elements of transcendentalism embedded in throughout. Steinbeck mainly uses the character of Jim Casy, a retired minister, as a tool to spread transcendent ideas to other characters. As a result, the main characters of the book also become subscribers to transcendentalism. Many years after the Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath, a young man named Chris McCandless would take up the ideas of transcendentalism in his quest for personal freedom. The transcendentalist movement heavily influenced his story, recounted in Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. His desire to live free of societal influences as well as his fiercely independent nature would push him to risk life and limb in the pursuit of independence. He was an admirer of the author Henry David Thoreau and subscribed to the belief that the only way to truly live is to live in nature, seeing the world without prejudice and the opinions of others obscuring the world. Although theses two works may seem to have very little in common, they are, in fact, similar on the most fundamental level. The transcendent values that Jim Casy represents also play a key role in the life and death of Chris McCandless.
Throughout the two works, both protagonists the tenets of transcendentalism guide the two men. Specifically, the tenets of self reliance and the importance of nature drove these two men to dedicate their lives to a cause in which they firmly believe. In subscribing to the beliefs of transcendentalism, specifically the importance of nature and self reliance, Jim Casy and Chris McCandless force themselves to take risks and in doing so, sowed the seeds of their demise. Perhaps the most most obvious connection between Chris McCandless and Jim Casy is their shared passion for nature and the clarity it can bring to life. Clinging to their ideals, consequently, forces them to accept the fact that they will have to take many risks. Both men experienced life changing moments in the wilderness that would affect their personal values and their relations with others. For Casy, this event occurred shortly before Tom Joad met him on his way to the Joad’s farm. Later in the novel, after Grandpa dies, Casy provides insight as to the value he places on nature and the land. “You fellas can make some kinda new life, but Grandpa, his life was over an’ he knowed it. An’ Grandpa didn’ die tonight. He died the minute you took him off the place…He was that place, an’ he knowed it” (Steinbeck 146). Casy understands how important the land and nature were to Grandpa because he had experienced the same kind of connection himself. Steinbeck uses metaphor to state that Grandpa and the land were one and the same. By doing this, Steinbeck exposes the extent to which Casy understands Grandpa’s situation. This reveals Casy’s true wisdom and intuition in addition to reinforcing one of the most important tenets of transcendentalism. “Thus, the individual’s soul mirrors the world’s soul, and we can arrive at these truths with the beauty and goodness of nature” (Quinn 1). The idea that nature and the human soul are permanently connected resounds throughout The Grapes of Wrath as well as Into the Wild. Chris McCandless shared many of the same sentiments as Casy. Like Casy, he realizes that the connection between man and nature is fundamental to a meaningful life. “You are wrong if you think joy emanates only or principally from human relationships. God has placed it all around us. It is in everything and anything we might experience” (Krakauer 57). By tying together human experiences and God and connecting the two to happiness, Chris reveals his views on the importance of nature, which he later uses to justify risking his life over and over again. For example, when Chris comes home from his summer trip out West, he informs his parents that he almost died on several occasions. In this belief, Chris believes that God intended for nature to be man’s principal source of joy, and consequently, he views nature as part of his identity. In this belief, Chris and Casy are identical.
Both men understand that the appreciation of nature must be a basic part of human existence. However, not everyone feels the same way and as a result, these two men make many risky decisions to stick to their beliefs. In order to find this clarity through nature, these men have to take on great risks to satisfy their own desires and wishes. However, since both men are very firm in their convictions, they accept these risks willingly because they are confident that they are making the right decisions. For Jim Casy, these risks mainly comes as a consequence of the revelations he has while in the wilderness. Shortly after Tom meets up with Casy, Casy reveals that he has changed from his days as a preacher. “‘I’ll be everywhere- wherever you look…Wherever they’s a fight so that hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beating up a guy, I’ll be there. An’ when our people eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build- why, I’ll be there’” (Steinbeck 419). The time Casy spends in nature puts him on a path that leads him to unify the Okies and fight for their rights. Casy knows that this was the right thing to do because it would would help hundreds of families, but he also knows that it puts him in extreme danger. “His selfless struggle eventually leads him to become a strike organizer and leader. He is killed for this activism… Casy’s new personal identity is an expression of a larger self…although such self-realization earns society’s disapproval and is responsible for his murder.” (Stanley 1). Casy knows, even before he organizes the strike, that it is a risky proposition for everyone involved, especially him. However, the transcendent values he adopted in the wilderness force him to look beyond his own life and take the risk. Chris McCandless also takes on innumerable risks to experience nature the way he wants. These risks are often more obvious and perilous than the ones Casy experiences. “The desert sharpened the sweet ache of his longing, amplified it, gave shape to it in sere geology and clean slant of light” (Krakauer 32). Chris is enthralled by the desert and the discomfort it brings. Since this is one of his early adventures, he feels more connected to nature than he ever had. Being alone in the desert serves to amplify his desire to connect with nature even more. For Chris, this is the beginning of his passion for, bordering addiction to, nature. Additionally, Chris justifies his new found passion by explaining that the solitude and brutal conditions of the desert made him experience life more acutely and hold on to every little detail. The willingness to take risks, therefore, is another connection between Casy and Chris. The value these two men place in nature pushes them to risk their lives and the lives of others in their pursuit of fulfillment.
Eventually, the value these two men place in nature turns against them and they began to suffer horribly for their actions. While they escape safely from some of their endeavors, sooner or later, reality catches up to them. In the case of Chris McCandless, nature begins to turn on him and show him that there are consequences to living in the woods. “For two days I couldn’t tell whether I was dead or alive. I writhed and twisted, with swarms of ants and flies crawling over me, while the poizon oozed and crusted on my face and arms and back” (Krakauer 71). In spite of the tortuous case of poison ivy he contracts every year, he continues to galavant through the woods. This is only one example of the consequences Chris suffers for being so attached to nature. Chris later dies of starvation in the Alaskan wilderness, his life taken by the perilous conditions he chose to embrace. Similarly, Casy also suffers the consequences of his relationship with nature. “Says one day in he went out into the wilderness to find his own soul, an’ he found that he didn’t have no soul that was his’n. Says he foun’ he jus’ got a little piece of a great big soul” (Steinbeck 418). Casy’s decision to become the leader of the Okies’ strike was made back in Oklahoma when he went out alone into the woods. The tenets of transcendentalism that he adopted during his time in the wilderness left him no other choice- he was almost obligated to lead the strike. Nature clearly had a great influence on these two men. Both went to extreme lengths to hang onto their connections with nature. The transcendent ideal of nature being a crucial element of everyone’s life is clearly evident in their actions. The second aspect of transcendentalism that would eventually result in the deaths of these two men is the importance they place on self-reliance. Jim Casy spent years as a preacher, proclaiming rules and morals that he himself did not truly believe in. Eventually, he decides that the only way to determine right from wrong is through self reflection. “There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue…And some of the things folks do is nice, and some ain’t nice, but that’s as far as any man got a right to say” (Steinbeck 23). Contrary to the ideas of the Christian faith, Casy believes that everyone should determine what they believe to be right and wrong, based on their own experiences and beliefs. He rejects the idea of a universal moral code that everyone must believe in, despite the fact the he preached such a code for years. This form of self reliance is fundamental to transcendentalism and Casy fully embraces it.
Chris McCandless is also consistent with this belief, although he took a more animalistic approach to it. “Chris was very much of the school that you should own nothing except what you can carry on your back at a dead run” (Krakauer 32). Chris is an example of self reliance to the nth degree. He believes that almost everything a person owns, save for a few bare necessities, is simply cluttering up their life with unnecessary complexity. McCandless believes that by letting go of one’s attachment material possessions, one can also let go of emotional and spiritual attachments that would otherwise restrain the human spirit. “Let men, true to their natures, cultivate the moral affections, lead manly and independent lives; let them make riches the means and not the end of existence, and we shall hear no more of the commercial spirit” (Olson 37).
Evidenced by their refusal to accept the social norms of their times, both men are clearly supporters of the idea of self reliance. Beyond that, both men are willing to put themselves in danger to maintain their independence. The self confidence and dedication that these two believe in wholeheartedly causes these men to take risks that someone who placed more value in conformity may not have taken. At one point in the novel, Casy puts himself in a dangerous position by volunteering to go to jail in Tom’s place in order to save the family. “‘Somebody got to take the blame. I got no kids. They’ll jus’ put me in jail, an’ I ain’t doing nothin’ but set aroun’” (Steinbeck 265). Casy sacrifices his safety and freedom to save Tom because he knows that he will be able to get by in jail. Volunteering to take Tom’s place in jail is one of the most risky situations Casy could have put himself in- he could have been beat, killed, or permanently separated from the family. However, he is used to taking his life into his own hands and willingly takes the risk. Chris’s belief in the importance of self reliance forces him to take risks as well. Most notably, Chris often wanders off into the woods extremely under equipped for the conditions he will face. “Alex admitted the only food in his pack was a ten pound bag of rice…he had no ax, no bug dope, no snowshoes, no compass. The only navigational aid he possessed was a tattered state road map…” (Krakauer 4). Chris takes extreme risks like this regularly during his time out West, this is only one case. For example, Chris crosses the US-Mexico border twice, while he is carrying a gun. Chris does not view self reliance as a noble idea or a vague concept that he finds interesting, to him, it is a way of life. Since both Jim Casy and Chris McCandless are willing to take these risks to maintain their sense of independence, it is only a matter of time before something drastic happens. They more often they take these risks, the greater the chance that, eventually, they will not escape unharmed. While their confidence in themselves is admirable, in the end, they overestimate their abilities, and it costs them their lives. In the case of Jim Casy, his demise comes at the hands of a mob of vigilantes attempting to break up the strike Casy organized. “Them cops been sayin’ how they’re gonna beat the hell outa us an’ run us outa the country. They figure I’m a leader ‘cause I talk so much” (Steinbeck 385). By leading the strike, Casy distinguishes himself as a target. The reason he feels the need to lead the strike, instead of letting someone else do it, is because he believes firmly in the concept of self reliance. Pushing someone else to do the right thing instead of doing the right thing himself goes against one of his fundamental values. He relies only on himself to lead the strike because he knows that it has to be done, and relying on anyone besides himself to get it done would be wrong. “From this idea it follows that every individual will trust those instincts which he shares with all men… It will rather seek social freedom or mass democracy… If this mass democracy leads to the abandonment of genteel taboos and to the modification of some traditional ideas of morality, that is inevitable” (Carpenter 1). Casy abandoned religion long ago and replaced it with a new sense of self reliance and independence. Now, he pays the price for going against the ideas society wants him to accept. Although Chris’s approach to self reliance resulted in a different set of circumstances, they were nonetheless fatal as well. “S.O.S. I NEED YOUR HELP. I AM INJURED, NEAR DEATH…I AM ALL ALONE…IN THE NAME OF GOD, PLEASE REMAIN TO SAVE ME’” (Krakauer 197). Chris’s determination to survive in the woods without the help of anyone culminates in his death. He refuses to take anything aside from the absolute bare minimum, and it costs him his life. Anything else he could have brought would only have made it easier to survive- taking away the reason he was conducting the trip in the first place. Casy and Chris are both fiercely independent, self reliant people. The priority these two men place in being self reliant leads to the death of both men. Despite their best efforts, they both sacrifice their lives to adhere to what they believed in.
Throughout their lives, the transcendent tenets of self reliance and the importance of nature guide Jim Casy and Chris McCandless into making decisions that eventually result in their deaths. For Casy, nature was a teacher that revealed to him the beliefs and morals that would lead him to organize the migrant workers in California. For Chris, nature was the thing that gave his life purpose. The only time he felt truly happy was when he was alone in the wilderness, experiencing all life had to offer. However, nature soon turned against them and tested their dedication by forcing them into risky scenarios. The lessons Casy learned from nature would eventually push him to lead a strike in California, placing himself it severe danger. Chris faced serious physical damage, such as a full body case of poison ivy, as a result of his time in nature. Finally, their dependence on nature would eventually contribute to their deaths. Casty is killed for leading the strike and Chris dies of starvation in the Alaskan wilderness. The second transcendent principle that guided these two men through their lives was self reliance-the idea that you should not depend on anyone except yourself too heavily and that finding your own way in life is one of the keys to happiness. To Casy, self reliance filled the hole that religion had left when he stopped preaching. He came up with his own set of morals to replace the ones he no longer believed in. To Chris, self reliance was a lifestyle that required absolute dedication and huge sacrifices. However, to him, no price was too large because it allowed him to find purpose in his life. Consequently, both place themselves risky situations because of their desire to remain independent. Casy willingly went to jail and led a strike against a peach orchard, putting himself in severe danger on both occasions. Chris went into the wilderness totally under equipped constantly, risking his life every time. Ultimately, the importance they placed in self reliance, combined with their passion for nature, culminated in their deaths. Their dedication to the tenets of transcendentalism and their unwillingness to give up their morals was their undoing. In subscribing to the beliefs of transcendentalism, specifically the importance of nature and self reliance, Jim Casy and Chris McCandless force themselves to take risks and in doing so, sowed the seeds of their demise.
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