Summary and Analysis Chapter 3 - Carthage


The action now moves to the small town of Carthage, South Dakota. Two months after the discovery of McCandless's corpse, a grain-elevator owner and combine crew manager named Wayne Westerberg reminisces about the "odd young man" he knew as Alex.

Westerberg picked up McCandless, who was hitchhiking, in Montana in the fall of 1990. McCandless was intense, talkative — and hungry. The boy's initial plan was to go to Saco Hot Springs, a place he had heard about from some "rubber tramps" (people who wander about via car or truck — versus "leather tramps," who wander on foot). It was raining hard when Westerberg was going to drop off McCandless, however, so he offered McCandless his nearby trailer to bunk in. McCandless stayed for three days, at the end of which Westerberg told McCandless to look him up in Carthage if he ever needed a job.

A few weeks later, McCandless showed up in Carthage and eagerly worked at a variety of physically challenging jobs at Westerberg's grain elevator. McCandless lived in his large house with a rotating cast of Westerberg's employees and friends. When Westerberg was jailed for pirating satellite television service, however, the work dried up and McCandless was on his own again.

Before leaving Carthage, McCandless gave Westerberg a 1942 edition of Leo Tolstoy's novel War and Peace, signing it "from Alexander." Westerberg had discovered earlier from tax forms that "Alex's" real name was Christopher and sensed that " . . . something wasn't right between him and his family . . . "

In fact, McCandless had grown up in Annandale, Virginia (a suburb of Washington, D.C.), with his younger sister, Carine; their aerospace engineer father; and their mother, who worked with their father in various business ventures. McCandless also had six half-brothers and half-sisters from his father's first marriage. In 1990 he graduated from Emory University in Atlanta with a degree in history and anthropology.

He had received a bequest from a family friend, but instead of using the money that remained (about $24,000) to attend law school, as McCandless's parents assumed he would, he donated it to OXFAM America, a charity dedicated to fighting hunger.

At his graduation ceremony in May 1990, McCandless told his parents he was going to take a road trip during the summer, saying, "I think I'm going to disappear for a while." By the time his parents realized that they had no way of contacting him, some three months later, their son had disappeared — and unbeknownst to them, he had chosen a new name: Alexander Supertramp.


This chapter begins to explore the character of Christopher McCandless in depth. Far from being a stereotypical slacker, he was hard-working, according to Wayne Westerberg. The fact that he had read the long and difficult War and Peace indicates that McCandless was intelligent and studious. (Indeed, we learn as well in this chapter that he was a success at selective Emory University.)

Most indicative of all with respect to McCandless's character are the things he renounced: $24,000 and his very name. In doing so, he seems to have been rejecting his family and what he saw as their materialistic values. This information doesn't fully explain why Christopher McCandless would forge alone into the Alaskan wilderness, but it begins to address the motivation for this bizarre act.

The fact that McCandless never told his parents what he planned to do could indicate a lack of resolve on his part, or even cowardice. It also shows that the young man thoughtful enough to present Wayne Westerberg with an inscribed copy of one of his favorite books was callous enough regarding his parents' feelings to leave them in the dark regarding their son's whereabouts.

Considering that he eventually would die of starvation, McCandless's gift of $24,000 to OXFAM, an organization dedicated to fighting hunger, is an example of irony.

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