Beyond the millions of quotes on Pinterest, happiness is a concept highly coveted, yet vaguely understood. Through their novels, David Foster Wallace, Truman Capote, and Jon Krakauer explore the elusive domain of contentment, along with the experiences and requirements that accompany “the good life”. Through death or distress, each novel’s protagonists eventually meet their demise. Yet, whether embarked on a lavish cruise, confined in a barren prison cell, or surrounded by the serene Alaskan wilderness, these character’s interactions, thoughts, and emotions comment on the meaning of “happiness” itself. Capote, Wallace, and Krakauer’s writings portray belief, freedom, and companionship as three essential elements of happiness and reveal their power to bring “the good life” to their beholder.
In Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and Capote’s In Cold Blood, a lack of faith leads to inevitable discomfort and despair. David Foster Wallace’s skepticism of the Nadir is evident from the moment he steps on board. After overhearing other passenger’s inquiries if “snorkeling necessitates getting wet” and “whether the crew sleeps on board”, Wallace adopts a more serious tone as he exhibits his feelings of desolation for cruises: “On board the Nadir – especially at night, when all the ship’s structured fun and reassurances and gaiety-noise ceased – I felt despair” (Wallace 261). While most guests on the Nadir appreciate the opportunity to relax, Wallace remains apathetic to the cruise’s offerings. Instead of enjoying the entertainment, the narrator perceives the seeming perfection of the Nadir as a cause of insignificance and “despair”. Wallace realizes that while the Nadir is promoted as an escape from the negativity of everyday life, it only masks the genuine, ultimate result of time: death. While Wallace’s skepticism appears intelligent and informed, it proves to prohibit his happiness. The narrator becomes disinterested with the events of his journey, and instead purely focuses on his impending doom. This obstructed mentality results in his mindset of paranoia, revealed as he analyzes the routine processes of room service, towel replacement, and numerous other happenings on board. While Wallace could avoid his negativity by simply focusing on the positive opportunities that surround him, he insists on dreading the impending doom of his life. In Capote’s In Cold Blood, Perry displays his similar mindset of despair: “Once a thing is set to happen, all you can do is hope it won’t. Or will – depending” (Capote 92). Perry’s lack of belief in his own efforts brands his faith as predetermined and permanent, leading to his characterization as a cold-hearted killer with an “innocent mind”. Just like Wallace, Perry dreads his fate, creating his despair, negative attitude and tragic loss of life. Later, Wallace again comments on the misleading façade of the Nadir, revealed in the narrator’s obsession with the cruise’s brochure: “An ad that pretends to be art is – at absolute best – like somebody that smiles warmly at you only because he wants something from you” (Wallace 289). From his analyzation of the brochure to oddities of other passengers on board, the narrator notes valid arguments, yet his fascination with the deeper meaning behind his observations obstructs his happiness on the Nadir. Wallace’s mistake portrays how enjoying one’s opportunities and blessings in the present, rather than obsessing over future events, or even death, is crucial to living a positive life. Similarly, Perry’s closed mindset is reinforced when he rejects the teaching of Christianity during his tenure on death row: “I’ve tried to believe, but I don’t. I can’t, and there’s no use pretending” (Capote 262). Throughout the world, religion’s images of faith, life, and meaning have opposed the depression of impending death. While Perry’s inability to connect with Christianity seems trivial, it represents the convict’s larger struggle to hold faith, literally and figuratively, a flaw that brings his demise. Perry’s poisoned mindset displays the power of belief to instill feelings of content, along with the tragedies that can occur in its absence.
While having faith is critical, its power lies in its application to unique events in one’s life. Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again reveal the importance of courage, audacity, and bravery in obtaining the coveted status of a good life. Further into the cruise, David Foster Wallace develops his mentality of impending doom in a different light. Wallace explains that while his life is inevitably expiring, he wields a single tool that can alter the future outcomes of his life: the power of choice. The narrator explains that making decisions for oneself is crucial to achieving a state of happiness: “If I want to be any kind of grownup, I have to make choices and regret foreclosures and try to live with them” (Wallace 268). While his tone remains depressing, Wallace’s realization of his duty to make choices as a “functioning member of society” reveals his emphasis on the influence of freedom. While independence on the Nadir seems amplified due to the variety of unique opportunities available, the immaculate planning restricts Wallace’s ability of choice. Later, Wallace further explains his feeling of containment, citing the negatives of nothingness: “How long has it been since you did Absolutely Nothing? I know exactly how long it’s been for me… I was floating, too, and the fluid was salty, and warm but not too-, and if I was conscious at all I’m sure I felt dreadless” (Wallace 268). While the Nadir brochure advertises the ability to do “Absolutely Nothing” as a luxury, Wallace argues the lack of choice promotes a disheartening state of mind. Wallace’s comparison of the promise of his time in his mother’s womb to the promise of “relaxation” on the Nadir is exaggerated, but his emphasis on “consciousness” strengthens a crucial aspect of his argument. To the narrator, happiness requires a certain amount of personal control, and the Nadir’s focus on limiting the anxiety of choice to prevent misery is the ultimate cause of misery itself. Conversely, Chris McCandless’s extreme choices seem reckless in Into the Wild, yet his understanding of the power of freedom leads to his state of happiness. Chris cites how while people believe the key to pleasure is a life of “security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which appear to give one peace of mind, in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future” (Krakauer 57). Chris highlights that while living a life free of anxiety, like the promise of relaxation on the Nadir, seems great, doing “absolutely nothing” inhibits the thrill of adventure and freedom that is essential to living a fulfilled life. Security, conformity, and conservatism, while comforting to have, limit human choice, thus inhibiting one’s spirit and happiness. While Chris’s ultimate death to this belief is tragic, the traveler’s state of content and bliss is apparent in a photograph taken as he starves to death in the Alaskan wilderness: “If he pitied himself in those last difficult hours… it’s not apparent from the photograph. He is smiling in the picture, and there is no mistaking the look in his eyes: Chris McCandless was at peace, serene as a monk gone to God” (199). Krakauer’s emphasis on McCandless’s “monk-like” passing serves as a tribute to his audacity to pursue his interests, making the most of his human freedom. To Chris, he had fulfilled his mission to explore the world, thus satisfying himself with a good life. Death was only a side effect. On the contrary, Wallace’s inability to experience Chris’s state of freedom on the Nadir leads to his dreadful week of monotony. Krakauer and Wallace highlight that despite common thinking that a life free of safety and choice will lead to serenity, embracing the unexpected and utilizing one’s freedom is essential to genuine peace and contentment.
While In Cold Blood and Into the Wild focus on individual traits that promote a good life, both novels portray the power of companionship. Chris and Perry become completely isolated from human interaction, leading to barren circumstances for both protagonists. After Chris abandons his colleagues, Krakauer highlights McCandless’s opposition to communication: “McCandless was relieved that he had evaded the impending threat of human intimacy, of friendship, and all the messy emotional baggage that comes with it” (Krakauer 55). Krakauer illuminates McCandless’s vision of outside influence as a “threat” rather than an opportunity, displaying the character’s ignorance of the positive aspects of a relationship. Human interactions render new emotions and thoughts critical to the growth of the mind. Without feelings of intimacy, trust, and companionship, Chris reaches a level of isolation before he even steps foot into the wilderness. As a result, McCandless develops a callous attitude toward society and a loneliness that detracts from the positive aspects of his life. Similarly, Perry’s sister warns her brother against the danger of detaching oneself from society, writing to Perry that “if you live your life without feeling and compassion for your fellowman – you are as an animal… & happiness & peace of mind is not attained by living thus” (Capote 142). While the message of Perry’s sister is evident, her tone elucidates the imminent danger of Perry’s isolated mindset. Comparing her brother to “an animal”, the letter displays companionship as a crucial element to “happiness and peace of mind”, and without it, life turns desolate, as it did with Perry’s brutal killing. In the Alaskan wilderness, Chris realizes his mistake and respects the genuine power of comradeship, writing “HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED” (189). While Chris’s satisfied feelings at the end of his life add a positive note to a tragic story, his realization of human experience is powerful. The recognition and respect for intimacy from an extremely isolated figure displays the essential qualities of trust and interaction in the promotion of human life. Unfortunately, Perry is unable to make the same recognitions before committing murder and being placed on death row. In his trial, the prosecution cites “Perry’s ‘paranoid’ orientation toward the world. He is suspicious and distrustful of others, tends to feel that others discriminate against him, and feels overly sensitive to criticisms that others make of him” (Capote 297). Serving in the prosecution’s argument, Perry’s inability to connect not only prevents him from a positive lifestyle but leads to his jail time and eventual hanging. Perry and Chris’s mistakes reveal how exchanges with others maintain one’s sanity, along with delivering the peace, excitement and happiness society strives for today.
Perry, David Foster Wallace, and Chris McCandless all highlight the abilities of belief, freedom, and comradeship in delivering a state of happiness and content in their beholders. While each character meets their eventual demise, their individual strengths, flaws, and philosophies highlight the fundamental elements of a good life itself. While seemingly conclusive, Wallace, Krakauer and Capote only begin to decipher the boundless aspects of happiness. While sometimes frustrating, the complexity of contentment serves as a positive: Each individual’s unique pursuit of their priorities, goals, and a “good life” adds the diversity and color of human experience.