133 pages 4 hours read

John Green

Looking for Alaska

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2005

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Summary and Study Guide


Looking for Alaska is narrated by a sixteen-year-old boy, Miles Halter, who leaves behind his mundane life in Florida to attend a boarding school called Culver Creek. He is inspired by biographies detailing the adventures of notable figures during their days at boarding school. Most of all, he is motivated by the notion of a “Great Perhaps”. Miles has a fascination with famous last words, and particularly with the last words of the poet Francois Rabelais: “I go to seek a Great Perhaps.” This consequently provides the driving force for Miles’s attempt to forge a new life.


Miles settles in quickly at Culver Creek and becomes good friends with his roommate, Chip, whose leadership and planning skills have earned him the nickname “the Colonel.” He also becomes infatuated with one of the Colonel’s close friends, Alaska, who is beautiful, flirtatious, and enigmatic. While Alaska finds Miles “cute,” she already has a boyfriend and therefore takes it upon herself to set Miles up with a girl named Lara. However, while Lara is sweet, Miles is much more drawn to Alaska.


As time passes, Alaska shows herself to be moody and emotionally volatile. Most frustratingly, she refuses to explain the reason for these mood shifts, though she makes cryptic references to her ineptitude and claims that she has no home. Miles becomes annoyed and tells Alaska that he sometimes struggles to understand her. Her response is that he has fallen in love with an idealized image and that he only likes her fun, vivacious side.


Alaska is intrigued by the concept of “the labyrinth,” as featured in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s The General in His Labyrinth. This book concerns the final days of the military leader Simon Bolivar, whose last words are cited as “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!” Alaska initially wonders whether the labyrinth refers to life or death, but she finally decides that it refers to suffering. In her eyes, life is characterized by suffering.


Alaska is prone to thinking about existential issues, and attending a class titled World Religions encourages Miles to muse upon similar topics. He is in awe of the teacher, Dr. Hyde, who prompts him to take religion seriously for the first time, and he takes a particular interest in Buddhist concepts. When the students are asked to formulate an essay topic, Miles chooses to address the question, “What happens to people after they die?” He initially has only vague ideas, and he feels that people cling to the idea of an afterlife due to fear of the alternative.


The truth about Alaska emerges when she instigates a drinking game, which requires each participant to describe the best and worst days of their life. We learn some significant information during this section of the novel, but Alaska’s own response is the most illuminating. She classes the best day of her life as the day that her mother accompanied her on a school trip to the zoo, while her worst day was the day after, when her mother died of an aneurysm. Not only was this distressing for Alaska, she had been alone with her mother when it happened and was paralyzed with fear. She consequently failed to call 911, and she has been plagued by guilt ever since.


Despite being in a relationship, Alaska kisses Miles one evening as part of a game of truth or dare, and Miles feels the impulse to tell Alaska that he loves her. However, Alaska leaves to answer a phone call only to return in a state of hysteria. She will not say what is wrong, but she insists that she has to leave the campus. Though she is drunk and panic-stricken, she is so insistent that Miles and the Colonel let her go.


The next day, it is revealed that Alaska has died in a car crash, and Miles and the Colonel feel devastated and culpable. Hoping to gain some insight into what happened, they sketch out a plausible train of events. It would seem that Alaska had been drawing a picture of a flower while talking to her boyfriend on the phone and this led her to remember her parents putting white flowers in her hair when she was a child. This then brought about the realization that she had forgotten the anniversary of her mother’s death. This led to her frenzied departure from the campus, with her intention most likely being to place flowers on her mother’s grave (white tulips were found in her car). However, it remains a mystery whether her death was accidental or whether she made a last minute decision to commit suicide.


Having learnt all that they can about Alaska’s death, Miles and his friends attempt to move on with their lives. Still, Dr. Hyde leaves Alaska’s question—“How will we ever get out of this labyrinth of suffering?” (158)—on the blackboard for the students to ponder. Both Miles and the Colonel agree that life is marred by suffering, but the Colonel would rather stay in this “labyrinth” than depart in the same manner as Alaska. As for Miles, he believes that forgiveness is the only way out. It is easy to become plagued by guilt and recrimination, and Alaska had let her guilt destroy her. Miles could do likewise, but he regards Alaska as a cautionary tale.


Miles has now finished his own World Religions essay, and he no longer feels that death is the end. He believes that energy can manifest itself in different forms but can never be destroyed. He consequently imagines that Alaska is out there somewhere, and he hopes that this somewhere is beautiful.