With Resse Whitherspoon hauling in several major award nominations for her compelling performance in Wild, the movie-going public has been introduced to the complex character of Cheryl Strayed. It is not always easy for an actor to play an imperfect hero. However the fact that Witherspoon’s work in this film is being recognized by the movie establishment is a testament to the strength of her devotion to the role, as well as the quality of script writing and directing with which Witherspoon has recruited for the project.
The lead-up to the climax of award season on Oscar night might be a good time to evaluate how Cheryl Strayed will be viewed as a literary character. The history of literature (and film) is filled with women characters both strong and weak. Cheryl Strayed certainly falls somewhere in between the two, and appreciation for Strayed and her story runs the gamut of literary opinion. Many readers of Wild truly identify with Strayed and appreciate her account of a troubled woman setting off on a 1000-mile hiking journey with little preparation and even less experience. Others bristle at the idea of Stayed’s haplessness representing a model of feminine strength in literature.
This question of the scholarly value of Wild is as important as a critique of any work of literature. As a work of non-fiction, some would call criticism of Strayed and her sometimes outlandish actions as a personal attack on the author. However it is important to remember that a memoir is by definition personal, and that any evaluation of the work is just that: a literary critique. Any author who is willing to put their story out there for all to read should expect some popular response, and as with most books, not every review will be glowing.
Perhaps it might be best to separate Cheryl Strayed the character from Cheryl Strayed the author. Strayed completed her book 17 years after hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, and is no longer the same person. She is now in fact a successful author and sought after speaker, who has done quite well for herself and certainly needs none of our pity.
Strayed as a Role Model?
Does Strayed represent a tough and determined survivor who is an example for other women to follow? Or is she a hapless and irresponsible wanderer who should be pitied rather than praised? It depends on who you ask. For those who aspire to success and competence in outdoor pursuits, Strayed might serve as an example of how not to attempt a long-distance thru-hike. Her litany of blunders as she learns the ropes of long distance hiking are a testament to the importance of knowing and respecting leave-no-trace ethics in the outdoors.
On the other hand, for young people coping with the struggles of growing up and pushing past adversity, Strayed might have some insight to offer. It seems that her haplessness as the story unfolds that motivates so many readers to root for Strayed. That is why it is important to note that Wild should never be viewed as a guidebook for how to hike the PCT, but as a personal memoir of a woman who faced many of the same personal struggles we all face in life.
There is no question that Strayed had allowed her life to deteriorate to the point of desperation when she decided to hike the PCT. She admits that the destruction of her marriage was a product of her own doing. She was working odd jobs, taking hard drugs and falling into superficial and contentious relationships. It is clear that she then took this same mentality of recklessness to her time on the trail. Stayed’s big insight occurs when it becomes obvious that the trail does not accommodate irresponsibility, and she quickly realized that she had to get her act together if she wanted to reach her goal of hiking to Washington State. The important point here is that this epiphany was not a conscious choice for Strayed to adopt a mentality of personal responsibility, but a simple necessity if she ever wanted to make it past the first week.
So why do so many people seem to identify with Strayed’s narrative of deliberate helplessness moving toward purpose? Strayed is simultaneously pathetic and pitiful, yet also earnest, with an innocent, child-like sense of wonder. Perhaps we defend her because we see a bit of ourselves in Cheryl Strayed. We are all guilty to some degree of youthful folly, and have episodes from our past that we would probably rather forget. The only difference is that Strayed was bold enough to write a book about her youthful exploits and lay them on the table for all to read.
Whether you laud Strayed for her honesty and vulnerability, or pan her for her recklessness on the trail and in life, boils down to one essential question: Should we place a priority on taking responsibility for one’s actions? Strayed never really does. However as the story progresses, she does begin to cultivate a rugged determination not to quit and she finishes her journey in style. So perhaps we can retain a shred of respect for her character.