Study Guide

Looking for Alaska Analysis

  • Tone

    Irreverent, Reflective

    Even in a novel that is heavy with death and grief and suffering, our characters find humor—not the slapstick sort, but the slightly inappropriate, wry variety of humor. It's not that the characters are irreverent about everything, but they are irreverent about things that make them uncomfortable, or things that are Debbie Downers and so they need to laugh to cope with them. Think about what the Colonel says on the way to Alaska's funeral:

    "I don't suppose I can wear the flamingo tie," he said as he pulled on black socks.

    "It's a bit festive, given the occasion," I responded.

    "Can't wear it to the opera," said the Colonel, almost smiling. "Can't wear it to a funeral. Can't use it to hang myself. It's a bit useless, as ties go." I gave him a tie. (6after.3-5)

    Or when Miles and the Colonel have to listen to their classmates (the ones who pranked Alaska) wax eloquently about a person they barely knew.

    The Colonel and I said nothing, while a bunch of people who didn't know Alaska extolled her virtues and professed to be devastated, and at first, it bothered me. I didn't want the people she didn't know—and the people she didn't like—to be sad. They'd never cared about her, and now they were carrying on as if she were a sister. But I guess I didn't know her completely, either. […]

    So they didn't bother me, really. But next to me, the Colonel breathed slowly and deeply through his nose like a bull about to charge.

    He actually rolled his eyes. (8after.12-14)

    Even in his grief, the Colonel gets annoyed about insincerity—which reminds us that though they're an irreverent bunch, they're also capable of being quite serious, of reflecting on the gravity of their lives and life in general.

    Green understands the paradoxical truth that life events have both more and less meaning than they should for many teenagers. So when Miles gets concussed, it's hugely important (though not so much in terms of the book as a whole), but the revelation that Alaska's mother died in front of her becomes "just another worst day, albeit the worst of the bunch" (2before.80) (though we readers recognize that this is a key moment in both Alaska's life and in the novel).

    Miles provides most of the reflection because he's our narrator. When Alaska tries to play of her mother's death as just another worst day, Miles knows the truth:

    She was scared, sure. But more importantly, maybe she'd been scared of being paralyzed by fear again.

    "We are all going," McKinley said to his wife, and we sure are. There's your labyrinth of suffering. We are all going. Find your way out of that maze. (2before.79-80)

    Green is careful not to let one tone tug control away from the other. He balances irreverence with reflection throughout—just consider the Alaska Young Memorial Prank alongside Miles's final for the Old Man, or the complexity of how Miles feels about Alaska balanced with the awkwardness he and Lara have. Finding this equilibrium isn't easy, but Green manages.

  • Genre

    Young Adult Literature; Coming-of-Age; Philosophical Literature

    Young Adult Literature

    John Green wrote Looking for Alaska for young adults. The characters are teenagers, the setting is a boarding school, there is explicit language and tomfoolery and pretty realistic conversations between characters. They deal with teenager stuff, like what am I supposed to do about my classes, or oh no I threw up on my date's shoes, or I like this one girl but also this other girl so eek. Sure there's a lot of other serious stuff that pops up, but there's plenty of traits of young adult lit to classify it as such.


    Miles knows that he hasn't experienced much in life—he's had no Great Perhaps, and that's what he seeks at Culver Creek. And if he doesn't find his Great Perhaps, he at least finds a part of himself. Miles hits some pretty important milestones in his short time at the Creek, milestones that usually indicate a transition from childhood to adulthood (or at least adolescence). He falls in love, he makes his first friends and copes with the complications of friendship, and he experiments sexually.

    And then there's the whole muddiness of grief and guilt at Alaska's death. Miles enters his labyrinth of suffering and is only able to leave after moving towards the rather adult concept of forgiveness.

    So while Miles definitely retains some of his childish ways—such as the Alaska Young Memorial Prank—we think he's moved beyond plenty of them to land in a more sophisticated world.

    Philosophical Literature

    We could argue that Looking for Alaska is only young adult lit, but careful readers will figure out that the novel is really philosophical literature, literature that uses a story to explore a philosophical point of view, masquerading as young adult literature.

    There are a lot of words devoted to major philosophical questions, particularly when Dr. Hyde/the Old Man is in the scene:

    "The most important pursuit in history: the search for meaning. What is the nature of being a person? What is the best way to go about being a person? How did we come to be, and what will become of us when we are no longer? In short: What are the rules of this game, and how might we best play it?" (126before.17)

    Even though Miles doesn't think about these words explicitly, that is the nature of what he is trying to do. He's trying to figure out who he is as a person, and especially what happens to us when we are gone, which he makes clear in his first semester final essay for the Old Man.

    The philosophical and theological weight of the novel become heavier after Alaska dies, and Miles, the Colonel (and off screen, Takumi, Lara, and the adults at the school) struggle to make sense of her death and their grief and personal responsibility. So let's look at the ways each major character might go about making meaning out of death.

    Alaska's world view is pretty confusing. Sometimes she thinks that she has control over her life (100before.11), but then she also is fatalistic in her belief that she will die young. Clearly she hasn't forgiven herself for her role in the death of her mother, and forgiveness is a rather theistic.

    The Colonel has a bit clearer world philosophy: he is a great believer in free will (his entire goal is to escape his rotten lot in life), and he actively pursues his dreams. One key to his philosophy rests in his statement, "I choose the labyrinth. The labyrinth blows, but I choose it." (122after.12). Suffering, for the Colonel, is inevitable but worth it. Do you think Alaska would agree?

    Finally, Miles (after a lot of soul-searching) comes to terms with his own view of the world, and it is probably closest of all the characters's views to the Old Man's description of "radical hope" (122after.3-4). For Miles, the way out of the labyrinth of suffering is forgiveness, both of oneself and of others.

    Green builds the complexity of each viewpoint throughout the novel, and because there's no right answer, because we're asked as readers to consider each viewpoint and think of our own way of making meaning, we think the novel is pretty philosophical.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Green went through a bunch of working titles (click here and scroll way down for a few of them), but he eventually settled on Looking for Alaska. Why?

    Well, looking implies a search for something, but there's no guarantee that the search ends. So it could mean that the characters are looking for Alaska both in the physical and the metaphorical sense. Miles wants to know who Alaska is when she is alive in the book, but he never really finds her, and after her death the Colonel and Miles search for an explanation, but they never really solve anything. The looking doesn't really give them peace.

    So the title's kind of misleading. The characters only come to terms with Alaska's death when they stop looking for her and accept her as she is and as she was. They only heal after they quit searching for the "real" Alaska and start to seek answers about grief and death in themselves instead.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    But that part of us greater than the sum of our parts cannot begin and cannot end, and so it cannot fail.

    So I know she forgives me, just as I forgive her. Thomas Edison's last words were: "It's very beautiful over there." I don't know where there is, but I believe it's somewhere, and I hope it's beautiful. (136after.17-18)

    Miles's ending is both climactic and anti-climactic. It occurs in the middle of the bustle of the end of term, when two of the major players have already left. Miles gets Takumi's letter admitting his own responsibility in Alaska's death, and Miles can't even get closure from him because he already left for Japan. The only person left on campus is the Colonel, but he's conspicuously absent from the last scene. Miles must, like everyone else, navigate his grief alone.

    And he does. For a book riddled with dialogue, it's notably absent in this last chapter. So Miles writes his way "out of the labyrinth" (136after.11) in the form of his final essay for the Old Man. The letter is a way for Miles to record his own last words about Alaska's death and a way for him to grasp that closure that eludes him.

    Of course he can't avoid getting one last set of famous last words in there: "Thomas Edison's last words were: 'It's very beautiful over there'" (136after.18). We can take this to mean that beauty means more than physical beauty, that it means the suffering Alaska experienced in life hasn't followed to wherever she is now. And although Miles never figures out whether Alaska's death was accidental or intentional, he is able to forgive himself and forgive her. Things look a lot brighter for Miles and Alaska after a tortuous journey through death and grief.

  • Setting

    Culver Creek Boarding School

    Everything important in Looking for Alaska takes place on campus at the Culver Creek boarding school in Alabama. What? No way, you say—Alaska died off campus, Thanksgiving was off campus, Miles began his story off campus in Florida, and he and the Colonel finally put Alaska's death behind them on the highway off campus.

    This is all true, and there's a reason that these things happen off campus.

    But if you really look at the eventsof the novel, the key ones all take place at the Creek or with people from the Creek. Miles doesn't really begin his Great Perhaps until he gets to campus and meets his roommate, the Colonel. And where does Miles meet Alaska? On campus… where they also spend Thanksgiving break together (though they do venture off campus to spend the actual holiday with the Colonel and his mom, the purpose of which is explained in more in the "Themes" section).

    Miles makes friends for the first time on campus, he gets sexy with a girl for the first time on campus, he says I love you for the first time on campus… You get the idea. Even when Miles leaves campus to go to McDonald's or another place, the people he interacts with are all from the Creek.

    We get the image of Culver Creek as this tidy, insulated place where Miles finds the possibility of his Great Perhaps. So when Alaska dies away from the Creek, the protected world that Miles has built for himself implodes. And when Alaska is gone, the Colonel has to leave campus to grieve, but Miles doesn't.

    Even though several key events do occur away from Culver Creek, the majority of the transformative experiences that Miles has are right there on school grounds.

    No Adults Allowed

    This is sort of the version of Culver Creek that readers are privy to. Because the narrator is a junior on a boarding school campus, the setting is almost devoid of adult authority in a way that teenagers don't usually experience in traditional schools. Miles is on his own for studying, for meals, for getting up on time, for getting to class—it's a huge amount of freedom.

    And the adults who are at the Creek fulfill fairly narrow roles that only broaden slightly as the story progresses. The Old Man is the theological mentor of Miles (in a fairly standoffish way). The Eagle is the token disciplinarian (for more on him, check out his Character analysis). And that's pretty much it. Teachers, except for the Old Man, are interchangeable.

    Much more important are the spaces where adults don't go or rarely go, such as the dorms, the Smoking Hole, and the barn.

    Living in the Dorms

    The dorms at the Creek are places where adult and teenage worlds overlap, so the shenanigans that take place there need to remain under the radar. The Eagle may pop up at any moment, or parents may call on the pay phones at the end of the halls, and people can visit one another's rooms with relative impunity.

    Much of Miles's and the Colonel's relationship develops in the dorms, over video games and snarking duels. Alaska, too, becomes integrated into Miles's dorm experience, though over Thanksgiving she introduces him to the secrets and mysteries dorm rooms have to offer.

    "God, I could have ratted out anyone," Alaska said softly as she unearthed a forty-ounce bottle of Magnum malt liquor from Longwell Chase's closet. […]

    Alaska found everyone's secrets so fast that I suspected she'd done this before. (49before.15-16)

    Even though the dorms are socially hoppin', secrets can still exist within their walls.

    The Smoking Hole and the Barn

    For real mischief though, students travel even farther from the authoritarian buildings of the dorms to places like the Smoking Hole or the barn. (For more on the Smoking Hole, check out the "Symbols" section.)

    The night of the great prank against the Weekday Warriors, the crew troops to the barn:

    Our watches synchronized, our clothes black, our backpacks on, our breath visible in the cold, our minds filled with the minute details of the plan, our hearts racing, we walked out of the barn together once it was completely dark, around seven. The five of us walking confidently in a row, I'd never felt cooler. The Great Perhaps was upon us, and we were invincible. The plan may have had faults, but we did not. (3before.27)

    Where the dorms still have a little of Orwell's Big Brother in them, the barn does not, and this total freedom gives the characters the space they need to share their deepest secrets, especially best day/worst day.

    Leaving the Creek

    While it's true that most events at the Creek take place on campus, at the end of the story Miles is meant to leave campus. The superficial reason is because the school year is over (duh), but there's a more symbolic reason too. So much took place at the Creek, and now Miles is leaving it in both a literal and a figurative way… though he plans to return to it next year. The Creek is part of who he is now, and we don't think he'd want it any other way.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (5) Tree Line

    John Green doesn't pull any punches with his material. Yes it's about a junior boy in boarding school, but the book is also full of philosophical musings (hello, last words of famous dead people, religious conversations, not to mention healthy doses of alcohol, cigarettes, and sex. The subject matter alone—teen drinking, death, grief, and suffering—bumps this book up to Tree Line.

    Not only that, but John Green has never dumbed down language for teenagers. There's swearing, of course, because of the voice John Green writes with, but there's also a lot of challenging vocabulary. The book's slightly more difficult than your average young adult novel in both content and language, but it's definitely worth the struggle up the slope.

  • Writing Style

    Conversational Contemplation

    Green wrote this book for teenagers, and boy does he know teenage-ese. We can't write most of the quotes, because there's a lot of explicit language and illicit references, but here's a sampling of how Green catches the rhythm of conversation:

    "Is there always a pre-prank?" I asked.

    "No, you idiot," the Colonel said. "If there was always a pre-prank, then the Eagle would expect two pranks. The last time a pre-prank was used—hmm. Oh, right: 1987. […]"

    "Your rote memorization is, like, so impressive," I said.

    "You guys are like an old married couple." Alaska smiled. "In a creepy way."

    "You don't know the half of it," the Colonel said. "You should see this kid try to crawl into bed with me at night."


    "Let's get on subject!" Alaska said.

    It's quick banter, and we're not bogged down with dialogue tags. It's fun to read. Because of the nature of Miles as the first-person narrator, most of what we find out about characters is through dialogue and actions, so it's important that Green is able to communicate traits, personality quirks, important events, and emotions through conversation without being too heavy-handed.

    In the same way as tone, Green switches style depending on what he wants his characters to communicate to his readers. The faster-paced descriptions and dialogue speed up parts of the book and communicate action, while Miles's contemplative musings, which are often much longer ramblings instead of bursts of dialogue, slow parts the novel:

    For she had embodied the Great Perhaps—she had proved to me that it was worth it to leave behind my minor life for grander maybes, and now she was gone and with her my faith in perhaps. (20after.23)

    This mellower pace gives us the time we need this time to process Miles's thoughts, and also rejuvenates us for the next fast-paced, dialogue-based exchange.

  • White Flowers

    During the sleuthing that occurs after Alaska's death, Miles and the Colonel get the sense that white flowers mean something more than what they think. They first get this inkling when they talk to the cop about Alaska's death and find out that she had white tulips in the backseat. The Colonel remembers a time with Alaska near the Smoking Hole to give the situation some context:

    "There was this little white daisy on the bank of the creek, and all of a sudden she just jumped waist-deep into the water and waded across and grabbed it. She put it behind her ear, and when I asked her about it, she told me that her parents always put white flowers in her hair when she was little." (13after.31)

    Because we don't want to give too much away (it's pretty fun to unpack what symbols mean for yourself), we'll leave you with just a few thoughts and references.

    White is commonly used in in literature as having something to do with innocence and purity. Think about why brides wear white and why baptism gowns are white. Now think about why the flowers might be white.

    Flowers are things that are alive. They grow and thrive in the right conditions. Turn these thoughts to Alaska and her parents.

    So what do the flowers mean when it comes to Alaska, her relationship with her parents (both of them and each of them singly), and her personality? We'll leave it to you to figure it out.

  • Names and Nicknames

    Probably one of the first things we notice about names in Looking for Alaska is that we don't see given names all that much. Chip Martin goes by the Colonel; Miles Halter is immediately nicknamed Pudge on account of his thin physique; and we hear the names the Eagle and the Old Man so often that we almost forget these characters's given names. Nicknames, either given or self-imposed, usually imply an attempt to form a new identity, and because of this, Miles is able leave his old self behind and become Pudge at the Creek.

    But names are still integrally tied to identity, to roots, and to family. The most obvious name meaning is that of Alaska, who got to choose her own name. (What's that tell us about her, by the way?)

    "It's from an Aleut word, Alyeska. It means 'that which the sea breaks against,' and I love that. But at the time, I just saw Alaska up there. And it was big, just like I wanted to be. And it was damn far away from Vine Station, Alabama, just like I wanted to be." (100before.5)

    More than that, Alaska the state is distant, vast, and almost unknowable… kind of like Alaska the character.

    Less obvious but no less important is the name Miles Halter. When Miles first meets the Colonel, the Colonel connects his name to the Robert Frost poem, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" (read the whole poem here). Then he calls Miles "Miles To Go Halter" (128before.60). Say it to yourself, and then think about what it means in relation to Alaska.

    Sometimes names identify the most important characteristic in a character. Think about what the nickname the Eagle implies about his character. What are eagles like? What are their defining characteristics? And how do they relate to the character of the Eagle in the novel? Dr. Hyde's nickname has a particular symbolic significance as well; for more on it, check out his write-up in the "Characters" section.

  • Last Words

    Miles is obsessed with last words of famous people. He says,

    It was an indulgence, learning last words. Other people had chocolate; I had dying declarations. (128before.52)

    These last words have more meaning for him than what many people think last words mean. He explains to Lara (after she asks):

    "A lot of times, people die how they live. And so last words tell me a lot about who people were, and why they became the sort of people biographies get written about. Does that make sense?" (thelastday.45)

    We think it does. Miles likes last words because they let him know in shorthand how a person lived and died—which makes his not-knowing Alaska's last words even more devastating. Miles uses the last words of people to give closure to biographies and to their lives. But with Alaska, he needs to find closure another way. (Check out his analysis in the "Characters" section for how he starts to do this.)

  • The Labyrinth

    "How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?" (128before.120)

    These are Alaska's favorite last words, and they're from one of her favorite books, The General in his Labyrinth by Gabriel García Márquez, which is a biography of Simon Bolivar. We never really know what the labyrinth is—that's one of the enduring mysteries of the novel—but Alaska thinks that it's about suffering.

    "It's not life or death, the labyrinth."

    "Um, okay. So what is it?"

    "Suffering," she said. "Doing wrong and having wrong things happen to you. That's the problem. Bolivar was talking about the pain, not about the living or dying. How do you get out of the labyrinth of suffering?" (52before.9-11)

    And in some ways, her thinking directs how the rest of the characters view the labyrinth. But for the Colonel, the labyrinth is something different. Or at least he thinks of it differently, because whereas Alaska wanted to escape the labyrinth, he chooses it.

    "After all this time, it still seems to me like straight and fast is the only way out—but I choose the labyrinth. The labyrinth blows, but I choose it." (122after.12)

    For Miles, it's not that he chooses the labyrinth, but he's found a personal way to escape it.

    He was gone, and I did not have time to tell him what I had just now realized: that I forgave him, and that she forgave us, and that we had to forgive to survive in the labyrinth. (136after.9)

    So what is the labyrinth? Life? The end of life? Suffering? We don't know, and in the end we have to define it for ourselves in the same way the characters each struggle with their own definition of the labyrinth. And just as each character's navigation of this question shows us something about their character, it just might do the same for each of us.

  • Driving

    Most of the story takes place on campus, though there are a few excursions from the Creek. And how do these excursions transpire? Some take place in Alaska's car, some in Takumi's car, some in the Colonel's car. Noticing a trend there? Yup—cars.

    Cars aren't nearly as significant as what they facilitate in this book though, which is driving. And the point of driving is what it represents: freedom and purpose. As far as freedom goes, driving is a means for Miles and his friends to escape the Creek and the watchful eye of the Eagle, it is a way to get away from rules and take control of their own experiences.

    And as for purpose, driving is done with a goal, a desired end to reach. For instance, Alaska and Miles and friends drive to McDonald's to study; and the Colonel, Alaska, and Miles drive to the Colonel's home to celebrate togetherness and Thanksgiving. Driving means going somewhere, it implies a destination.

    So when we think about Alaska's death, we have to think about how she died: in a car, driving. She was alone in the car and behind the wheel—in charge of the vehicle on every level. And while we know she was driving to her mother's grave, knowing how loaded with meaning driving is, we can't help but ask: What was she symbolically driving toward or away from?

    Another important driving moment to consider is when the Colonel and Miles drive through the scene of Alaska's death. It's only after doing so that the Colonel and Miles can resume some kind of normal life… studying for exams and trying to get their grades up. But before this return to normalcy, something pretty profound happens for these two characters:

    And POOF we are through the moment of her death. We are driving through the place that she could not drive through, passing onto asphalt she never saw, and we are not dead. (118after.17)

    Miles and the Colonel have to drive through the scene of Alaska's death to emotionally arrive on the other side of the experience. Are there other moments you can think of where driving realizes a transformation besides these?

  • Cigarettes and the Smoking Hole

    This symbol's pretty easy to pick up. The rules at the Creek state there's no smoking allowed (plus it's state law), and smoking anyway is a relatively tame and easy way for Miles and his friends to buck authority:

    The Colonel gave an obligatory laugh, then asked, "Want a smoke?" I had never smoked a cigarette, but when in Rome…

    "Is it safe here?"

    "Not really," he said, then lit a cigarette and handed it to me. (128before.90-92)

    Of course, the characters know that smoking cigarettes is self-destructive:

    [Alaska] smiled with all the delight of a kid on Christmas morning and said, "Y'all smoke to enjoy it. I smoke to die." (110before.44)

    But clearly, cigarettes are used for more than self-destruction and social acceptance in the novel. Miles and the Colonel smoke to have fun, but they—especially Miles—also smoke to cope with Alaska's death.

    The Colonel sat down next to me in religion class, sighed, and said, "You reek of smoke, Pudge." (8after.5)

    The safest place to smoke is the Smoking Hole, and slowly that place becomes a symbol for something more than just smoking and rebellion. Its nature is secretive, making it not only a safe place to smoke, but also to spend time with friends.

    Not safe? I thought. It's the safest place to smoke a cigarette in the known universe. (67before.12)

    The Smoking Hole is the place where Miles leans on Alaska after he realizes his parents are leaving for Thanksgiving. The Smoking Hole is where Alaska finds the white daisy she puts in her hair. Miles ends up thinking at the Smoking Hole after he and the Colonel have their big fight. And the last time we see the characters at the Smoking Hole, they each throw a cigarette in the water, a ritual for Alaska.

    I was not religious, but I liked rituals. I liked the idea of connecting an action with remembering. In China, the Old Man had told us, there are days reserved for grave cleaning, where you make gifts to the dead. And I imagined that Alaska would want a smoke, and so it seemed to me that the Colonel had begun an excellent ritual. (46after.23)

    So cigarettes and the Smoking Hole are more than just ways to rebel against the authority of the Eagle. They connect the characters.

  • Narrator Point of View

    First Person (Central Narrator) Miles Halter

    Green narrates from Miles "Pudge" Halter's perspective, and this is both awesome (we get to hear his thoughts on everything from girls to friends, no holds barred) and not so awesome (he's kind of a wreck after Alaska dies).

    As a newbie to the Creek, Miles views everything from the perspective of an outsider. He has to describe everything, give the backstory for everything, and navigate the social and academic ins and outs of the school. As readers, then, we're equally as awkward and new to the Creek as Miles is, and so its perfect that we get to see the place—and get comfortable in it—alongside him.

    Because of the nature of first person narration, we feel mostly on Miles's side during conversations and conflicts—when Miles gets hazed by the Weekday Warriors, we get mad; when he feels like he's made his first friends, we cheer. That's part of the nature of having a sympathetic first person narrator. We like him, and we want to see him overcome whatever it is he has to overcome. He's awkward most of the time too, which makes him easy to relate to. Add his general frankness to the mix, and Miles becomes a pretty credible narrator.

    Which is why when Miles becomes less reliable as a narrator after Alaska's death, it throws us for a loop. He's a pretty self-aware guy, it's true, but because of the powerful emotions he feels, he gets a little lost in his emotions and loses his grasp on reality. Check out what the Colonel has to say about this:

    "Do you even remember the person she actually was? Do you remember how she could be a selfish bitch? That was part of her, and you used to know it. It's like now you only care about the Alaska you made up." (13after.35)

    The Colonel calls it like he sees it here. And the thing is that we know that Miles recognizes the flaws and faults in Alaska, because he comments on them at the beginning of the novel:

    Her "sweetie" felt condescending, not romantic, like a boy enduring his first biblical rainstorm couldn't possibly understand her problems—whatever they were. It took a sincere effort not to roll my eyes at her. (84before.15)

    But after she dies, he forgets this side of her, he forgets his friends and pseudo-girlfriend Lara, he forgets everything but his staunch belief that he loved Alaska and she could have loved him. The way he misremembers Alaska is a key part of what skews his perspective.

    Because of his unreliable perspective in the second half of the book, we have to look for insight in other characters, which only occurs when Miles is talking, thinking, or acting near them. (Curse you, first person narrator.) The Colonel reproaches Miles a few times, and Takumi gives Miles a gentle nudge or two in reconciling with Lara, but it's only when Miles lets go of his desire for an Alaska who never existed and forgives both himself and his dead friend that he's able to regain his balance and reliability as a narrator.

    • Plot Analysis


      Leaving Here

      Miles Halter, an introverted nerdtastic junior in high school, goes looking for a Great Perhaps (a great, uncertain future) away from home at Culver Creek Boarding School in Alabama. That's all we really need to know before diving into the action of the story.

      Note: There are really two plots to the book with two rising actions and two climaxes. These are divided into Before and After.

      Rising Action

      Conflict Before: With a Little Help from My Friends

      Miles arrives at school and tries to learn the social order, make some good friends, and pass his difficult classes. It's not an easy situation to be in, but we root for Miles as he struggles. His acquaintances with the Colonel, Alaska, and Takumi eventually blossom into friendships, and together they make mischief (in the form of pranks and smoking cigarettes) and drink a little too much.

      Complication Before: Too Much on His Plate

      Even when he gets his bearings at the Creek, Miles has got some troubles: the classes are way harder than he's used to, he's trying to figure out how to make and keep friends, he sort of likes Lara but he really likes Alaska, he needs to learn all the unwritten rules of the social order at the Creek, and he decides to adopt the us-versus-them mentality that the Colonel and Alaska have towards the Weekday Warriors. Phew—that's a lot.

      Conflict After: Whodunnit?

      It's not really a whodunnit, it's a what did the who do (and by the who we mean Alaska, not these guys). Miles and the Colonel are consumed with Alaska's death and what happened to her—did she commit suicide or was her death an accident? It's not an easy question to answer, but Miles and the Colonel feel especially driven to find out.

      Complication After: Too Much of a Different Kind

      Alaska's not alive to tell her friends what she was thinking right before she died, so they have to figure it out on their own. Oh—and Miles and the Colonel have this tremendous grief and guilt to cope with because they think they helped her to her death. This makes their coping with her death and the continuation of life at the Creek really difficult because they ignore classes (and their grades plummet), they ignore their friends, and they fight with each other. Not an easy thing to get through.


      The First Climax: The Approaching Curve

      Alaska drives away from campus, crying and drunk. On the highway, she sees a jackknifed semi and a cop car with its lights and siren on, and she plows right into the cop car. She dies instantly. Totally unexpected, this changes everything about the story.

      The Second Climax: You Can't Always Get What You Want

      After finding out that Alaska was headed to her mother's grave from Takumi, Miles and the Colonel realize that solving the mystery of Alaska's death—whether it was an accident or suicide—won't bring her back, so they finally let her go. It sort of seems like an anticlimactic climax, but in letting Alaska go, Miles and the Colonel accept her death and the fact that life moves on. It's this sort of catharsis (personal realization) that leads to a climax that's very different from the climax of Alaska's death.

      Falling Action

      The Climaxes Converge: Back to Life, Back to Reality

      The two different climaxes—Alaska's death and Miles and the Colonel accepting her death—settle down in the same way: with Miles and the Colonel refocusing on school and trying to bring their grades up. It's not exciting stuff, but it is a way for them to enter back into the real world.


      But Miles Isn't Dead

      So what? We still get to read his last words on the matter. Miles gets a letter from Takumi that admits he too could have stopped Alaska the night of her death, but just like Miles and the Colonel, didn't. Miles finally finishes his religion final for the Old Man and forgives himself and Alaska. This forgiveness is the real moment of closure for Miles, and we breathe a collective sigh of relief for him.

    • Allusions

      Literary and Philosophical References

      Last Words

      • Francois Rabelais, "I go to seek a Great Perhaps" (136before.18, 20after.23, 118after.2, 136after.12-13)
      • Simon Bolivar "How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!" (128before.121, 2before.79, thelastday.43, 6after.21-24, 136after.9)
      • Henrik Ibsen, "On the contrary" (128before.56)
      • John F. Kennedy, "That's obvious" (128before.115)
      • Millard Fillmore, "The nourishment is palatable" (109before.23)
      • Albert Sidney Johnston, "Yes, and I fear seriously" (67before.2)
      • Robert E. Lee, "Strike the tent" (67before.2)
      • Ulysses S. Grant, "Water" (67before.3)
      • William McKinley, "We are all going" (2before.76, 79; 51after.3)
      • Che Guevara, "Shoot, coward. You are only going to kill a man" (thelastday.43)
      • Sedgwick, "They couldn't hit an elephant from this dis—" (thelastday.45)
      • Henry Ward Beacher, "Now comes the mystery" (thedayafter.44)
      • Dylan Thomas, "I've had eighteen straight whiskeys. I do believe that's a record" (thedayafter.44)
      • Eugene O'Neill, "Born in a hotel room, and… died in a hotel room" (thedayafter.44)
      • Princess Diana, "Oh God. What's happened?" (thedayafter.44)
      • James Dean, "They've got to see us" (thedayafter.44)
      • Meriwether Lewis, "I am not a coward, but I am so strong. So hard to die" (6after.8)
      • Thomas Edison, "It's very beautiful over there" (136after.18)

      Historical References

      • Emperor Augustus (76before.9)
      • Karl Marx (21after.5)
      • Mona Lisa (69after.7)

      Pop Culture References

      • Radiohead (87before.11)
      • The Flaming Lips (87before.11)
      • The Simpsons, (christmas.4)
      • Nightmare on Elm Street (2before.8)
      • The Brady Bunch (thelastday.13, 24, 33)
      • National Geographic (thedayafter.30)
      • Prince (102after.36)