On Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Wild’ and the Redemption Narrative

Reese Witherspoon in Wild.

Like Dante, then, Strayed is on a spiritual journey, beginning in damnation, bound for deliverance. That makes Wild a redemption narrative — and that, in turn, helps explain its popularity, because redemption narratives are some of the oldest, most compelling, and most ubiquitous stories we have. We enshrine nature writing in the canon — you were probably assigned Thoreau and Emerson et al. in high school — but it is redemption narratives that dominate our culture. Among other things, you can hear them in religious services all across the land and in AA meetings every day of the week.

Wild embodies this ancient story. Or, more precisely, it embodies the contemporary American version thereof, where the course is not from sin to salvation but from trauma to transformation: I was abject, dysfunctional, and emotionally shattered, but now I see. This version has more train-wreck allure than the traditional one (being a mess is generally more spectacular than merely being an unbeliever), and it is also more inclusive. Identifying with it requires no particular faith, beyond the faith that a bad life can get better.

The American redemption narrative, then, is entertaining, accessible, and privately comforting. And, in the case of Wild, it is culturally comforting as well. Before Strayed sets off on her journey, she embodies much of what America fears about young lower-class women: She does drugs, sleeps around, gets an abortion. Eleven hundred miles and 315 pages later, she has sobered up, sworn off the one-night stands, and become as wholesome and appealing as the girl next door.

In New York magazine, Kathryn Schulz takes a walk with the bestselling author and explores what made her book such a huge hit.

Read the story