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By analyzing a text through different critical lenses, readers will be able to discover information and characteristics regarding the text, which go beyond what is written by the author. This is evident in Jon Krakauer’s, Into the Wild, since after examining it with both the archetypal, and reader response theories, readers will begin to establish a strong understanding of the text. In order to be able to use these critical lenses however, readers must first become comfortable with the literary theories themselves. The archetypal theory uses symbols, characters, and themes, common to many different texts, in order to create an intricate and entangled network between them. By exploring a text through this lens, a reader will “recognize story patterns and symbolic associations at least from other texts [they] have read, if not innately; [they] know how to form assumptions and expectations from encounters with black hats, springtime settings, evil stepmothers, and so forth.” On the other hand, the reader response theory forces readers to utilize their own thoughts and feelings surrounding the text, to connecting to it mentally, as well as emotionally. This theory is particularly unique, “Because individuals have different life experiences, [and so] it is almost certain that no two readers or reading sessions will form the exact same interpretation of a text.” After becoming familiar with these literary theories, readers will begin to notice that although all types of criticism are useful and allow for deeper understanding of the text, there are certain theories, which provide more insight than others, when regarding the same text. This is evident in Into the Wild, as the reader response theory is undoubtedly the most mentally stimulating type of criticism. Along the journey of Chris McCandless, the protagonist of the book, the author uses an abundance of techniques in order to enhance the experience of the reader, and aid them in thinking deeper into the meaning of the text. For the reason including, the emotional connection that readers develop, the critical thinking, which must take place, and the in depth comprehension that it forces reader to establish, the reader response theory certainly proves most insightful in regards to the text.
One of the best ways to understand a text is to develop an emotional connection to it, something that is quite easy to do with this book. When learning about Chris’s remarkable life for instance, readers will feel an instant sense of appreciation and respect for this courageous character, as he physically ventures out and tries to accomplish his dreams. In today’s society, “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.” Before his journey, Chris was no stranger to this way of thinking, but unlike many others who do nothing to help themselves, he takes the initiative, and makes his dream, of living in the wilderness, a reality. Chris goes out and tries; he gives it his best attempt even though he understands the danger of what he is doing. Once readers realize the courageousness that Chris possesses just to go out and try, they will feel an overwhelming sense of respect and admiration for him as a person, something made possible because of the analysis of the text through a reader response perspective. As a result of these likable attributes, readers will find themselves feeling sympathy for Chris, when learning about his tragic death. In the text, when Chris dies, Krakauer includes passages and statements from many people who he encounters along his way; a technique, which forces readers to feel compelled towards Chris. Regardless of the person, each passage has a common message; that Chris was kind, hardworking, and pleasant person to be around, and that they were sad to hear the disheartening news. One passage specifically, which encapsulates the overall feeling surrounding Chris’s identity, is from an interview Krakauer had with Mary Westerberg, the mother of Chris’s employer, at a grain elevator in South Dakota. In this, she proclaims, “he was fun to visit with; I didn’t want the night to end. I was greatly looking forward to seeing him again this fall. I can’t get him out of my mind…Considering that I only spent a few hours in [Chris’s] company, it amazes me how much I’m bothered by his death.” This quote accurately mirrors the emotions that readers will experience after analyzing this text through a reader response lens. Despite the fact that readers will never have met Chris, and only learned about him through a two hundred page novel, there is no doubting the fact that they will feel deeply saddened by his passing, all because of the ways in which others describe him. By reading this novel, people will understand how special Chris really is; he is someone this world is lucky to have had, and unfortunate to have lost. This realization is made possible all thanks to the surplus of insight that is uncovered, when analyzing this text through a reader response perspective.
Not only does this text promote understanding by allowing for a deep emotional connection, it also challenges readers to think critically, in order to produce solutions to puzzles throughout the book. One problem in particular, is the controversy surrounding Chris’s death. For the most part, people believe his death is the result of poisoning from eating a certain plant, which causes him to become weak and unable to care for himself. The plant that many people believe to be the cause of this, is the wild potato seed; one of these believers is Krakauer himself. In order to prove his concept, he decides to send the plant into a lab for further analysis. Instead of reinforcing his belief, the lab test only creates more controversy, since the examination “found no trace of any poisonous compounds. ‘I tore that plant apart,’ Dr. Clausen explained to Men’s Journal in 2007. ‘There were no toxins. No alkaloids. I’d eat it myself.’” (205). What was originally supposed to have settled the dispute, created an even larger gap in the problem. Instead of giving up on the situation however, Krakauer performs additional research, and determines another plant, which may have been the cause of Chris’s death: the wild sweet pea. He discovers, that this plant poisons the body, causing it to become weak by killing nerve receptors, matching what occurs with Chris quite well. By adding this into the text, Krakauer forces readers to think about, as well as question, the events of the book, and try to develop their own interpretation of the matter, to find a solution that they believe is correct. This type of analytical thinking, is an attribute unique to the reader response theory, and is one of the many reasons as to why this type of criticism provides the most insight for this particular text.
Critical thinking is an excellent way to learn more about the text, but where the reader response theory truly separates itself from the other theories in regards to this novel, is through the in depth comprehension that it assists readers in establishing. After reading and analyzing this text, readers will discover that although Chris is unable to complete his journey, and make it back to civilization, that does not mean he failed in achieving his goal. In actuality, Chris spends over two years experiencing the life he has always dreamt of, by adventuring across America. Although the destination is what most people think of as the sole reason to begin an adventure, that is not entirely true, Chris for instance, realizes the true reason for exploration: the journey. This is evident in a journal Chris writes, where he states, “It is the experiences the memories, the great triumphant joy of living to the fullest extent in which real meaning is found. God it’s great to be alive! Thank you. Thank you.” This passage proves that Chris not completing his adventure is beside the point, what truly matters is that he fulfills his dream of exploring the wilderness, while being in complete control of his own life. This realization is made possible through the reader response theory, as it allows readers to look deeper into the meaning of the text, helping them understand what otherwise would be overlooked. Along with realizing Chris succeeds in carrying out his dream, this critical lens aids readers in understanding the change that he goes through towards the end of his journey. Up until this point, Chris has tried so hard to separate himself from society; he ventures out into a life of hitchhiking and homelessness, ostracizes himself from the world, and shies away from human intimacy. In Chris’s last few days however, these peculiar attributes he possesses seem to fade away, as in a book he reads, Chris makes note of a passage stating, “‘And so it turned out that only a life similar to the life of those around us, merging with it without a ripple, is genuine life, and that unshared happiness is not happiness…. And this was the most vexing of all.’ [Next to this Chris writes] HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED”. Apart from this being arguably the most famous quote from Chris, it helps readers understand that he is finally letting go of his abnormal thoughts and beliefs, and in many ways is becoming a “real human”. This is one of the most important realizations that readers will come to understand once looking at this text through a reader response lens, a truly awe-inspiring conclusion that no other critical theory could provide. One of the best ways to gain insight into, and appreciate the rightful meaning behind a text, is to develop an in depth comprehension of it, something this type of analysis allows readers to do.
Through inspecting this text from a reader response lens, readers are able to gain a tremendous amount of insight and appreciation for it, as a result of the emotional bond that forms, the evaluative thinking that must be done, and the thorough understanding that is brought up by analyzing this book. Readers will feel an uncontrollable sense of respect, and sympathy for Chris, due to the many virtuous traits that he possesses, such as his courage, work ethic, and kindness. Together with emotional attachment, readers will think about the text in a deeper way, by examining puzzles within the writing, like the case of Chris’s death. Perhaps the greatest attribute of the reader response theory is that it forces readers to develop a stronger understanding of the book, by helping them realize the messages hidden deep within the text. Some of these messages include Chris’s inexplicit success in his adventure, and how he is beginning to change his perspective on life towards the end of his journey. By examining this text through different critical lenses, it allows readers to develop amplitude of information, which they can use to discover more about the text. Needless today, both literary theories used, aid readers in gaining insight in a text, but the one theory, which truly enlightens readers, and contributes to their understanding, is the reader response theory. Unlike any other type of criticism, each reader has the ability to create their own conclusions about the text by evaluating their interpretations of the work, making this theory stand out among all others.
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