"Is this why you want to leave, Miles?" Mom asked. I mulled it over for a while, careful not to look at her.
"Uh, no," I said.
"Well, why then?" she asked. This was not the first time she had posed the question. Mom was not particularly keen on letting me go to boarding school and had made no secret of it. (136before.13-15)
Not many parents would understand why Miles wants to leave home, but he has a pretty good explanation when he drags out Rabelais's quote about the Great Perhaps. He's looking for something more. And we have to ask if it's always necessary to leave home—a place of comfort and security for many people—to find it and to mature.
"But this is the seventh time I've been caught smoking. I just don't want—whatever. I don't want to upset my dad." (98before.3)
Alaska gives a little insight into her relationship with her dad (at this point, we don't know her mom died). Part of the mystery of Alaska in the first part of the novel is puzzling out why she avoids home and her dad as much as possible.
"I just don't get why she'd be so afraid of getting expelled. I'd hate to get expelled, but you have to take your lumps. I don't get it."
"Well, she obviously doesn't like home."
"True. She only goes home over Christmas and the summer, when Jake is there. But whatever. I don't like home, either." (67before.19-21)
Miles learns that Takumi also doesn't really like home either, but the way Alaska fears and avoids home almost paralyzes her. We wonder what could be so bad about home that she avoids it so much, only going when she has a boyfriend there as a buffer.
"So why don't you go home for vacations?" I asked her.
"I'm just scared of ghosts, Pudge. And home is full of them." (58before.48-49)
Giant clue about Alaska here—ghosts imply a lack of security, a lack of safety that we generally want to associate with home. What emotions, given what we know about her at this point in the book, does Alaska associate with home?
I thought of the one thing about home that I missed, my dad's study with its built-in, floor-to-ceiling shelves sagging with thick biographies, and the black leather chair that kept me just uncomfortable enough to keep from feeling sleepy as I read. It was stupid, to feel as upset as I did. I ditched them, but it felt the other way around. Still, I felt unmistakably homesick. (58before.41)
The funny thing about place is the memories and emotions that we associate with it. Miles is the one who chose to spend a traditionally home-centric holiday away from home, so why is it that he is the one who feels ditched?
How could I abandon my parents, who were nice enough to pay for my education at Culver Creek, my parents who had always loved me, just because I maybe liked some girl with a boyfriend? How could I leave them alone with a giant turkey and mounds of inedible cranberry sauce? So during third period, I called my mom at work. (58before.39)
Miles feels so guilty for so many things in this book, not the least of which is how he treats the people and the place that has been his home since he was born. So here's the struggle: does he have to pick one or the other? Florida or the Creek?
We laughed and drank our wine, and then after the meal, we each listed our gratitudes. My family always did that before the meal, and we all just rushed through it to get to the food. So the four of us sat around the table and shared our blessings. I was thankful for the fine food and the fine company, for having a home on Thanksgiving. "A trailer, at least," Dolores joked. (46before.2)
Thanksgiving with the Colonel reminds Miles of Thanksgiving with his parents. What exactly is it about the experience that makes it feel like home for Miles? (Hint: Think about rituals and traditions.)
I sat in the back of the hatchback on the drive home—and that is how I thought of it: home—and fell asleep to the highway's monotonous lullaby. (46before.7)
Miles moves from one home to another. What makes Culver Creek a home to him? What about the place, the people, the traditions, and the emotions create a sense of home to Miles?
"Maybe you just need to tell us all why you told on Marya. Were you scared of going home or something?"
She pulled away from me and gave me a Look of Doom that would have made the Eagle proud, and I felt like she hated me or hated my question or both, and then she looked away, out the window, toward the soccer field, and said, "There's no home." (44before.23-24)
Contrast Alaska's feeling of home with what Miles felt on Thanksgiving. Remember: home isn't just a place, it's a lot of other stuff too. So when Alaska says there's no home, she's not just talking about the place—she's talking about people, emotions, and traditions too. What happens to people who are homeless?
Screw this, I thought, and for the first time, I imagined just going back home, ditching the Great Perhaps for the old comforts of school friends. (13after.36)
Ultimately Miles chooses to stay at the Creek, but he thinks about the comforts of home and how they are both welcome but also limiting. So now we have to think about what home means to Miles by the end of the novel.
"So this guy," I said, standing in the doorway of the living room. "Francois Rabelais. He was this poet. And his last words were 'I go to seek a Great Perhaps.' That's why I'm going. So I don't have to wait until I die to start seeking a Great Perhaps." (136before.18)
Miles is seduced by adventure and the idea of living in the now that adventure implies. He's no longer satisfied with a comfortable life… but now he's opened himself up to the suffering that is tied to a Great Perhaps. Does he realize what he's about to do?
"I must talk, and you must listen, for we are engaged here in 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 here?" (126before.17)
The Old Man serves as a starting point for many of the musings Miles has about life and consciousness. What makes him such an important figure in Miles's exploration of life and the meaning of existence?
People, I thought, wanted security. They couldn't bear the idea of death being a big black nothing, couldn't bear the thought of their loved ones not existing, and couldn't even imagine themselves not existing. I finally decided that people believed in an afterlife because they couldn't bear not to. (4before.4)
Miles talks about "people" here, but does he include himself in this category? And does this mean he believes in the religious traditions? How does this idea about death and meaning connect to the Great Perhaps he has envisioned for himself?
"You can't just make me different and then leave," I said out loud to her. "Because I was fine before, Alaska. I was fine with just me and last words and school friends, and you can't just make me different and then die." 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)
Okay—so the adventure is worth the pain and suffering for Miles. But we have to wonder if Miles's "faith in perhaps" really dies with Alaska. We hope not and we don't think it did… How about you?
But even so, the afterlife mattered to me. Heaven and hell and reincarnation. As much as I wanted to know how Alaska had died, I wanted to know where she was now, if anywhere. I liked to imagine her looking down on us, still aware of us, but it seemed like a fantasy, and I never really felt it—just as the Colonel had said at the funeral that she wasn't there, wasn't anywhere. I couldn't honestly imagine her as anything but dead, her body rotting in Vine Station, the rest of her just a ghost alive only in our remembering. (21after6)
Miles is struggling to hold on to his belief in the afterlife. Now that he's faced with real death, he's got to reconcile what he wants to believe with what's actually running through his head, which is hard for anyone to do.
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)
Once again the Old Man helps Miles realize something about his life. The question is, will Miles and his friends continue to make rituals about Alaska to remember her, or will they accept their forgettings.
"Everything that comes together falls apart," the Old Man said. (51after.2)
There are so many ways to interpret and think about this statement—including what Miles thinks of Alaska, the relationship that he and Alaska had, life in general, and the meaning of "apart." It's all fair game, and it's all really deep stuff.
"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)
The Colonel thinks of the labyrinth differently than Miles. Instead of trying to figure out a way out of it, the Colonel chooses suffering—he thinks there's some value in suffering. Knowing what you know about the Colonel, why would he choose this way of living, and how could suffering and pain be productive?
"Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism each have founder figures—Muhammad, Jesus, and the Buddha, respectively. And in thinking about these founder figures, I believe we must finally conclude that each brought a message of radical hope. …And so that is the question I leave you with in this final: What is your cause for hope?" (122after.4)
The question the Old Man asks parallels the path Miles is taking in his grief, and this essay assignment allows Miles to recover some of that youthful optimism that he started the novel with. What are his causes for hope?
But ultimately I do not believe that she was only matter. The rest of her must be recycled, too. I believe now that we are greater than the sum of our parts…There is something else entirely. There is a part of her greater than the sum of her knowable parts. And that part has to go somewhere, because it cannot be destroyed. (136after.16)
Even though Miles states that he's not religious during the cigarette ritual, this is a pretty religious thought about life and existence. How does this belief tie to his hope about Alaska and the idea of forgiveness?
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)
The phrase "When in Rome" is the short version of When in Rome, do as the Romans do. It means that it's to a person's advantage to adopt and mimic the customs of a society, especially when the person is unaware of many customs. (Side note: think about what the dialogue reveals about both the Colonel's and Miles's concerns for the rules.)
"Anyway, when you get in trouble, just don't tell on anyone. I mean, I hate the rich snots here with a fervent passion I usually reserve for only dental work and my father. But that doesn't mean I would rat them out. Pretty much the only important thing is never never never never rat."
"Okay, I said, although I wondered: If someone punches me in the face, I'm supposed to insist that I ran into a door? It seemed a little stupid. How do you deal with bullies and assholes if you can't get them in trouble? (128before.105-106)
Miles, as a new arrival at the Creek, has to learn not just the written rules of the school but also the unwritten rules of the social order. And sometimes (actually, quite often) unwritten rules are more important than written rules. The thought Miles has here is that of an outsider; his view on rules and order change as he becomes an insider.
It was worse than the Duct Tape Incident, because I already knew that the Kevin Richmans of the world didn't like me. But my teachers had always been card-carrying members of the Miles Halter Fan Club. (110before.11)
Miles ends up kicked out of class and he hates it. He still hasn't gotten used to how the rules at the Creek function, and he's struggling to discover who he wants to reinvent himself as. To some extent he's content to reject the popular social order of students, but he doesn't want his rule-breaking behavior to alienate the teacher he most respects. It's hard to balance on this beam.
"I'll see you in Jury tomorrow at five," he announced, and then walked away. Alaska crouched down, picked up the cigarette she had thrown away, and started smoking again. The Eagle wheeled around, his sixth sense detecting Insubordination To Authority Figures. Alaska dropped the cigarette and stepped on it. The Eagle shook his head, and even though he must have been crazy mad, I swear to God he smiled.
"He loves me," Alaska told me as we walked back to the dorm circle. "He loves all y'all, too. He just loves the school more. That's the thing. He thinks busting us is good for the school and good for us. It's the eternal struggle, Pudge. The Good versus the Naughty." (99before.14-15)
Boy, is Alaska bold. Her analysis is pretty spot on though. The Eagle lives and breathes rules. Alaska thinks it's her job to break these rules, and the Eagle knows it's his job to bust the students. It's almost as if the Eagle appreciates a good rule-breaker because without the rule breakers, there would be no struggle and, arguably, no learning experiences.
I worried about it for a moment as I held the bottle by the neck, but I wanted to trust her, and so I did. I took a minor sip, and as soon as I swallowed, I felt my body rejecting the stinging syrup of it. It washed back up my esophagus, but I swallowed hard, and there, yes, I did it. I was drinking on campus. (52before.7)
Pay close attention to how Miles describes his first moment of rule-breaking by drinking on campus: he's worried, takes only a teeny sip, rejects it, and only through great effort on his part does he successfully violate the rules. We can see this instance as representative of how Miles feels about rules in general—he doesn't particularly like breaking them, but he can do it if he needs to, especially if that need involves social acceptance. Think about whether his stance changes as he progresses throughout the book.
When the firecrackers finished, I heard, "STOP OR I'LL CALL THE POLICE!" And though the voice was distant, I could feel his Look of Doom bearing down on me […]
The Colonel warned us about the police threat, told us not to worry. The Eagle didn't like to bring the police to campus. Bad publicity. (3before.61, 63)
We get a glimpse of how adults deal with the rules and order outside of campus. The Eagle preferring to police his campus without official police involvement? That sounds an awful lot like how the students police their own social realm through pranking without involving the Eagle. Even more dangerous for the Eagle is the empty threat he utters about the police—he's clearly threatened students with the police too often for them to believe his words, almost like the boy who cried wolf. Which makes us wonder how important rule enforcement really is to the Eagle.
"Front Three: The Progress Reports: We're going to hack into the faculty computer network and use their grading database to send out letters to Kevin et al.'s families saying that they are failing some of their classes."
"We are definitely going to get expelled," I said. (3before.22-23)
Miles chooses to go along with this prank, though he's worried about the consequences. Is he the voice of reason? And if he's so worried, why does he continue with the prank? What unwritten rules are influencing Miles at this point in the novel?
The nice thing about the constant threat of expulsion at Culver Creek is that it lends excitement to every moment of illicit pleasure. The bad thing, of course, is that there is always the possibility of actual expulsion. (3before.115)
And here Miles explains quite clearly why he breaks the rules: it leads him closer to his Great Perhaps. Also, it's fun. But the reward also has its risk, and the risk comes to a head when Alaska takes one risk too many.
The Eagle looked at me. He was crying, noiselessly. Tears just rolled from his eyes to his chin and then fell onto his corduroy pants. He stared at me, but it was not the Look of Doom. His eyes blinking the tears down his face, the Eagle looked, for all the world, sorry. (thedayafter.23)
We can only imagine what sort of thoughts and emotions are running through the Eagle's head as he announces Alaska's death because we're stuck with Miles as a narrator. It wouldn't be out of the question though, to think that the Eagle, much like Miles, feels responsibility for Alaska's death. If only he had been stricter, if only he had meted out more punishment, if only… To what extent is the somewhat lax enforcement of the rules at the Creek responsible for Alaska's death?
As I sat through my classes that morning, I could think of nothing else. Every junior in the school had known for two weeks, and so far not even the faintest rumor had leaked out. But the Creek was rife with gossips—particularly the Weekday Warriors, and if just one person told one friend who told one friend who told one friend who told the Eagle, everything would fall apart.
The Creek's don't-rat ethos withstood the test nicely. (102after.4-5)
This is a really good example of the strength of unwritten rules, deception, and loyalty. Even though the Eagle is the disciplinarian of the school, the pressure of the unwritten rule is stronger. It is arguably the strongest rule, written or unwritten, at the Creek.
"I know it was y'all," said the Eagle.
We look at him silently. He often bluffed. Maybe he was bluffing.
"Don't ever do anything like that again," he said. "But, Lord, 'subverting the patriarchal paradigm'—it's like she wrote the speech." He smiled and closed the door. (102after.44-46)
The Eagle's no idiot; he knows exactly how the social order at the Creek functions. He's stepped back into his role as enforcer, but he also appreciates the tribute to Alaska. Is it likely that he will crack down on students because of his belief in what rules and order provide them, or will he allow students the same freedom as before?
"But we will deal with those bastards, Pudge. I promise you. They will regret messing with one of my friends."
And if the Colonel thought that calling me his friend would make me stand by him, well, he was right. (127before.44-45)
Miles is thankful that the Colonel subscribes to the adage The enemy of my enemy is my friend. What does Miles's eagerness to have a friend tell us about his character?
I thought of Florida, of my "school friends," and realized for the first time how much I would miss the Creek if I ever had to leave it. I stared down at Takumi's twig sticking erect out of the mud and said, "I swear to God I won't rat." (67before.22)
After Miles finds out about Alaska ratting, he realizes that loyalty is one of the major components of friendship at the Creek. Think about how that loyalty is tested and whether or not it survives certain relationships.
I didn't know whether to trust Alaska, and I'd certainly had enough of her unpredictability—cold one day, sweet the next; irresistibly flirty one moment, resistibly obnoxious the next. I preferred the Colonel: At least when he was cranky, he had a reason. (58before.6)
Is Miles really friends with Alaska if he doesn't accept her as she is?
"Don't you know who you love, Pudge? You love the girl who makes you laugh and shows you porn and drinks wine with you. You don't love the crazy, sullen bitch."
And there was something to that, truth be told. (44before.28-29)
Maybe this is what the Colonel means when he tells Miles that Miles loves the image of Alaska he created, and not her whole self. Alaska realizes this about herself, which makes us wonder how much of the mysterious persona she creates is true and how much is contrived.
"Your rote memorization is, like, so impressive," I said.
"You guys are like an old married couple." Alaska smiled. "In a creepy way." (8before.10-11)
In what ways does dialogue reveal the friendship of Miles and the Colonel through the novel, even when they're taking digs at one another?
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)
Miles thinks he's found his Great Perhaps in his friends and the shared experiences that involve fireworks, mischief, and mayhem. Is he right?
Her funeral Sunday. I wondered if the Colonel would get back by then, where he was. He had to come back for the funeral, because I could not go alone, and going with anyone other than the Colonel would amount to alone. (2after.53)
Even though he would be with the entire student body at Culver Creek, Miles thinks he would be "alone." What does this say about his friendships with Takumi and Lara?
"Well, my gut wants to know," Lara said, and only then did I realize […]—I may have kissed her, but I really didn't have a monopoly on Alaska; the Colonel and I weren't the only ones who cared about her, and weren't alone in trying to figure out how she died and why. (46after.37)
It takes Miles two months to realize that Alaska had other friends who also grieve for her. What does this tell us about his friendship with Takumi and Lara?
But we knew what could be found out, and in finding it out, she had made us closer—the Colonel and Takumi and me, anyway. (118after.2)
There's something about the process of working through grief with friends that bonds them. Try to articulate how this works.
And then I screwed up and the Colonel screwed up and Takumi screwed up and she slipped through our fingers. And there's no sugarcoating it: She deserved better friends. (136after.12)
Miles is thinking about the responsibility that friends have toward one another, to care for one another despite tendencies towards self-destruction. We're left wondering if he'll remember this lesson forever or if he will forget it as he knows he will forget Alaska.
"This isn't milk. It's five parts milk and one part vodka. I call it ambrosia. Drink of the gods. You can barely smell the vodka in the milk, so the Eagle can't catch me unless he actually takes a sip. The downside is that it tastes like sour milk and rubbing alcohol." (122before.25)
The Colonel's take on alcohol has to do with celebration and breaking the rules. He, like other students, seeks new ways to subvert the rules and order at the Creek.
"I have a fake ID," she said, "but it sucks. So every time I go to the liquor store, I try to buy ten bottles of this, and some vodka for the Colonel. And so when it finally works, I'm covered for a semester. And then I give the Colonel his vodka, and he puts it wherever he puts it, and I take mine and bury it." (52before.4)
Having a fake ID implies frequent alcohol consumption. And think about why Alaska buries her alcohol—she doesn't leave it in her room, and she doesn't give it to someone for safe-keeping. What do her actions say about her ability to trust?
I wanted to like booze more than I actually did (which is more or less the precise opposite of how I felt about Alaska). But that night, the booze felt great, as the warmth of the wine in my stomach spread through my body. I didn't like feeling stupid or out of control, but I liked the way it made everything (laughing, crying, peeing in front of your friends) easier. Why did we drink? For me, it was just fun, particularly since we were risking expulsion. (3before.115)
Notice how Miles compares his feelings about Alaska and alcohol in the same sentence and reveals the lack of control he has when it comes to Alaska. He has much more control and assertiveness when it comes to alcohol and breaking the rules. Well, some of them.
"Yeah. I was a little kid. Little kids can dial 911. They do it all the time. Give me the wine," she said, deadpan and emotionless. She drank without lifting her head from the hay. (2before.72)
Upon closer look, Alaska is wrapped within her guilt and suffering, not "emotionless" as she's trying to appear and be. The wine is meant to deaden her pain. Poor Alaska.
"Two nights in a row is maybe pushing our luck," Takumi said as Alaska opened the wine.
"Luck is for suckers." She smiled and put the bottle to her lips. (2before.20-21)
Alaska is the instigator of many of the encounters with alcohol in the book. It seems like she rejects a fatalistic and optimistic view of the world that luck implies, and alcohol only serves to bring out her deep pain and pessimism about life. At other points in the novel, she reveals much more optimism… while sober.
She and the Colonel had been celebrating a lot the past couple days, and I didn't feel up to climbing Strawberry Hill, so I sat and munched on pretzels while Alaska and the Colonel drank wine from paper cups with flowers on them. (thelastday.58)
Do you think that the Colonel and Alaska are drinking for the same reasons? Does Alaska even know why she drinks? And notice that when it comes to alcohol, Miles has a bit more spine that he does about anything else ever—if he doesn't want to drink, he doesn't.
"How drunk was she?" I asked. "Like, did they test her?"
"Yeah. Her BAL was point twenty-four. That's drunk, certainly. That's a powerful drunk." (13after.20-21)
That is incredibly drunk. Alcohol impairs judgment, and Alaska feels so guilty about missing the anniversary of her mother's death, so we can't help but wonder how much of Alaska's death can be attributed to her drinking and how much can be attributed to guilt.
Alaska displayed two of those warning signs. She had lost, although not recently, her mother. And her drinking, always pretty steady, had definitely increased in the last month of her life. (14after.3)
This complicates matters a lot. Why did her drinking increase? That is, what about her life or thinking changed so that her behavior changed?
"You are a nerd, Pudge. But you're not gonna let a detail like that keep you from drinking." Actually, I hadn't drunk since that night, and didn't feel particularly inclined to ever take it up ever again. (27after.5)
Miles (Pudge) has some serious reservations about alcohol and drinking after Alaska's death, but the Colonel doesn't have the same reaction. It might behoove us to remember their backgrounds and think about the pain and suffering that each character experiences beyond Alaska's death. For Miles, quite frankly, it's not much. But for the Colonel, he's got his poverty and his dad's departure from his life, as well as his dad's drinking, to contend with.
"This is awful. This is not fun drunk."
I got up and cleared the coffee table out of the way so the Colonel could walk the length of the room without hitting any obstacles, and said, "Okay, can you stand?"
The Colonel pushed his arms into the foam of the couch and began to rise, but then fell backward onto the couch, lying on his back. "Spinning room," he observed. "Gonna puke." (27after.70-72)
The Colonel is as drunk as Alaska was the night of her death, but he reacts totally differently: he doesn't seek the inebriation, he doesn't enjoy it, and he's lost control of himself. What does this reveal about his character? About Alaska's character? How does alcohol highlight or hide certain character traits?
"How long have you been dating her?" I asked.
"Nine months. We never got along. I mean, I didn't even briefly like her…with Sara, there's never a honeymoon period. God, how could she think I was a rat? I know, I know: Why don't we break up? […] I guess I stay with her because she stays with me. And that's not an easy thing to do. I'm a bad boyfriend. She's a bad girlfriend. We deserve each other." (122before.35-36)
The Colonel on dating Sara, ladies and gents. How much of their relationship continuing happens just because they are used to each other? How does theirs differ from other relationships in the story? How much do you think the Colonel is influenced by his parents's relationship?
I opened my mouth again but this time not to speak, and she reached up and put a finger to my lips and said, "Shh. Shh. Don't ruin it." (52before.14)
Miles wants to say three little words to Alaska, but she shoves him away. "Don't ruin it." What is there to ruin? What would happen if Miles busted out the L word with her?
"All I remember is that she had a lot of sex."
"I know. She's my hero," Alaska said without a trace of irony. (49before.7-8)
The "she" here is Edna St. Vincent Millay, who did actually have a lot of sex. But she also wrote some pretty great poems and was an active feminist… sort of like Alaska. You may find it useful to read up on Millay if she's Alaska's hero.
We didn't have sex. We never got naked. I never touched her bare breast, and her hands never got lower than my hips. It didn't matter. As she slept, I whispered, "I love you, Alaska Young." (thelastday.77)
Focus on the sentence, "It didn't matter." What didn't matter? Why is the sexual experience with Lara unfulfilling but simply kissing with Alaska is beyond Miles's wildest dreams? And what's the significance of him saying the three words he couldn't say before? And the fact that he doesn't say them when she's awake?
We were kissing. Zero layers between us. Our tongues dancing back and forth in each other's mouth until there was no her mouth and my mouth but only our mouths intertwined. (thelastday.72)
Check out the language here. "Dancing" and "intertwined" are much more poetic and passionate than the language Miles uses about Lara. And the writing is much more fluid and less choppy, too. Kissing is different with Alaska than with Lara. Why?
I spent that afternoon with Lara. We were very cutesy, even though we didn't know the first thing about each other and barely talked. But we made out. She grabbed my butt at one point, and I sort of jumped. (thelastday.12)
Miles isn't very comfortable with Lara; he focuses on how they don't really talk, but she's really cute. Think back to Miles's thoughts when he and Lara made out in the barn—he thought he was the greatest kisser, but she thought he was slobbering on her nose. What does this say about people's perspectives of intimacy?
Afterward, I was embarrassed and nervous, and so, clearly, was Lara, who finally broke the silence by asking, "So, want to do some homework?" (thelastday.42)
This happens right after Miles's first sexual experience with a girl. Note the words "embarrassed" and "nervous," and also the fact that the two characters still don't know how to talk to one another. Keep this in mind when reading the next quote.
And I said, "Oh God, Alaska, I love you. I love you," and the Colonel whispered, "I'm so sorry, Pudge. I know you did," and I said, "No. Not past tense." She wasn't even a person anymore, just flesh rotting, but I loved her present tense. (6after.11)
Ah, yes—this is a good time to think about what love is to Miles. He says he loves Alaska, he pursues her throughout his time at the Creek, but the question arises: does he really love her, or does he love parts of her, or does he love an Alaska who doesn't exist?
"You don't even care about her!" he shouted. "All that matters is you and your precious fucking fantasy that you and Alaska had this goddamned secret love affair and she was going to leave Jake for you and you'd live happily ever after. But she kissed a lot of guys, Pudge. And if she were here, we both know that she would still be Jake's girlfriend and that there'd be nothing but drama between the two of you—not love, not sex, just you pining after her and her like, 'You're cute, Pudge, but I love Jake.' "(20after.15)
(Reminder: Pudge equals Miles.) These harsh truths are from the mouth of the Colonel, of course. Maybe Miles needs other people to tell him truths he could never admit to himself. And we have to say, we're inclined to trust the Colonel's analysis here… How about you?
I still did not know her as I wanted to, but I never could. She made it impossible for me. (118after.1)
Okay, now we're getting somewhere. Miles is starting to have some pretty important realizations about his relationship with Alaska, the intimacy he thought he had with her, and his acceptance of her death. As the Old Man said, 'Everything that comes together falls apart.' How does this relate to what Miles is thinking?
I would never know her well enough to know her thoughts in those last minutes, would never know if she left us on purpose. But the not-knowing would not keep me from caring, and I would always love Alaska Young, my crooked neighbor, with all my crooked heart. (136after.10)
And yet Miles finds the strength to realize that the mystery of Alaska and her death don't stop him from loving her. We have to think about how Miles's perception of love and his view of intimacy have changed throughout the novel.
The final exam: What is the most important question human beings must answer? Choose your question wisely, and then examine how Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity attempt to answer it.
"I hope that poor bastard lives the rest of the school year," the Colonel said as we jogged home through the rain, "because I'm sure starting to enjoy that class. What's your most important question?"
After thirty seconds of running, I was already winded. "What happens... to us... when we die?" (76before.11-13)
Miles is obsessed with last words of famous people, and he also is kind of obsessed with what happens after death. He answers the question by saying that people believe in an afterlife because they can't not believe in one. This gives us a hint about how Miles will cope with the responsibility of Alaska's death and the fact that she is dead.
I found myself thinking about President William McKinley, the third American president to be assassinated. He lived for several days after he was shot, and toward the end, his wife started crying and screaming, "I want to go, too! I want to go, too!" And with his last measure of strength, McKinley turned to her and spoke his last words: "We are all going." (2before.76)
Once Miles learns of the death of Alaska's mom, he ponders the inevitability of death, but he forgets that mortality comes to us all when Alaska dies. So we have a split here—Miles knows that we all die, but he has no idea what death brings in its wake to the living. Poor guy ends up finding out, though.
"The day after my mom took me to the zoo where she liked the monkeys and I liked the bears, it was a Friday. I came home from school. She gave me a hug and told me to go do my homework in my room so I could watch TV later. I went into my room, and she sat down at the kitchen table, I guess, and then she screamed, and I ran out, and she had fallen over. She was lying on the floor, holding her head and jerking. And I freaked out. I should have called 911, but I just started screaming and crying until finally she stopped jerking, and I thought she had fallen asleep and that whatever had hurt didn't hurt anymore. So I just sat there on the floor with her until my dad got home an hour later." (2before.67)
Sleep and death are often symbolically related in literature, and this novel is no exception. Alaska's first experience with death occurred when she was only eight years old, and she's been feeling the weight of guilt and her own mortality ever since. Heavy stuff, both emotionally and psychologically.
"But 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)
This is what makes the fact that Miles never knows Alaska's last words so devastating—he believes that last words offer insight into life. He wants to truly know Alaska, and arguably he never really does because of both circumstances and the fact that she doesn't allow it to happen.
The Colonel and I are walking back to our dorm room in silence. I am staring at the ground beneath me. I cannot stop thinking that she is dead, and I cannot stop thinking that she cannot possibly be dead. People do not just die. (thedayafter.42)
But they do, and Miles knows they do. What Miles is experiencing here is what many people who have loved ones die experience: a sense of disbelief that death could touch his life. And Miles realizes this later on—he acknowledges that he and other teenagers are indestructible in his final essay for the Old Man because their spirits live on. So then we have to wonder whether the statement "people do not just die" is true because we question what death really is and means.
I couldn't believe what I had done to him, his eyes glittering green like Alaska's but sunk deep into dark sockets, like a green-eyed, still-breathing ghost, and don't no don't don't die, Alaska. Don't die. (6after.11)
The death Miles is referring to here is physical, yes, but also relates much more to the living than to Alaska. The guilt Miles feels regarding his role in her death would dissipate if only Alaska were alive, and here we see death tied to the suffering of the living.
"I was just thinking—Why do you run head-on into a cop car with its lights on? and then I thought, Well, she hated authority figures."
The Colonel laughed. "Hey, look at that. Pudge made a funny!" (14after.15-16)
One way people cope with death is to approach it with humor because it decreases the power and the pain that death—and suffering—can bring. What about Miles's personality, though, makes the joke he makes a little surprising?
In the beginning, she had haunted me, haunted my dreams, but even now, just weeks later, she was slipping away, falling apart in my memory and everyone else's, dying again. (51after.4)
There's a great deal of truth in Miles's thoughts here. Alaska already physically died, so what exactly is dying now? Will she, or anyone, ever truly die?
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. We are not dead! (118after.17)
Miles and the Colonel drive through the scene of Alaska's death and experience the joy and elation of living. It's hard to think that they might experience this contrast, especially thinking about the emotions Alaska might have felt as she died. How does joy relate to mortality?
I was left to ask, Did I help you toward a fate you didn't want, Alaska, or did I just assist in your willful self-destruction? Because they are different crimes, and I didn't know whether to feel angry at her for making me part of her suicide or just to feel angry at myself for letting her go. (118after.1)
Emotions surrounding death and our mortality are complicated, to say the least. Miles wants to clarify his emotions, but they're inherently tied to the responsibility he feels about Alaska's death. The whole thing is an unholy mess… just like it usually is.
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.18)
Miles, like he said in his first essay for the Old Man, believes that a piece of Alaska continues to live on because he can't bear for it not to. What does he mean by he hopes it's beautiful where she is? How does this relate to mortality and suffering, both his and hers?
"I'm fine, Mom. I think—if it's okay with you, I think I might stay here for Thanksgiving. A lot of my friends are staying"—lie—"and I have a lot of work to do"—double lie. "I had no idea how hard the classes would be, Mom"—truth. (58before. 24)
Before he left for his Great Perhaps Miles never really lied to his parents, but now he's mixing lies and truth. What has made this okay for him? How does he justify deception in his mind?
"The Colonel and I will work that out. No need to get you into trouble—yet."
"Oh. Okay. Um, I'm gonna go for a cigarette, then."
I left. It wasn't the first time Alaska had left me out of the loop, certainly, but after we'd been together so much over Thanksgiving, it seemed ridiculous to plan the prank with the Colonel but without me. (8before.25-27)
Miles is learning that lying and deception carry a lot of emotional weight, but he also knows that Alaska likes to portray herself as mysterious and unknowable. With her behavior, can he ever really know who Alaska is?
As we walked toward the gym parking lot, the Colonel said, "I called her yesterday and asked her to cover for me, and she didn't even ask why. She just said, 'I sure trust you, son,' and hot damn she does." (3before.9)
The Colonel's mom (knowingly? unknowingly?) aides in the fake progress reports scheme. Miles's parents generally trust him. Are the parents in the novel naïve, or do they know that their kids are up to mischief? And if they know their kids are up to mischief, why do they permit it? That is, what role does lying play in developing trust among characters in the novel?
"Why didn't you ever tell me?" the Colonel asked, his voice soft.
"It never came up." And then we stopped asking questions. (2before.74-75)
And here it is, Alaska's huge deception: for years she's kept her mother's death from her friends. The question is, what does it say about her ability to trust and her relationships with her friends?
"She got drunk," I told her. "The Colonel and I went to sleep, and I guess she drove off campus." And that became the standard lie. (2after.42)
People lie for different reasons, and Miles and the Colonel lie to others about their role in Alaska's death. So we wonder if they also lie to themselves about the extent to which they were involved in her death.
And I almost said, She buried it in the woods out by the soccer field, but I realized that the Colonel didn't know, that she never took him to the edge of the woods and told him to dig for buried treasure, that she and I had shared that alone, and I kept it for myself like a keepsake, as if sharing the memory might lead to its dissipation. (7after.20)
Miles decides to keep a secret about Alaska. More than the memory, why might he want to share something with Alaska that no one else had? What does this reveal about the extent to which Miles has accepted the lies and deceit that are sometimes part and parcel of friendship?
"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 never minces words. He makes Miles (and us as readers) question whether or not Miles has been lying about who Alaska really is to himself and to readers. And we have to think about why Miles only remembers the good stuff about Alaska after her death and forgets her unpredictability and impulsiveness.
He was quiet for a long time, and I looked down at Alaska's last daisy and waited for him to ask what the prank was, and I would have told him, but I just heard him breathe slowly into the phone, and then he said, "I won't even ask. Hmm." He sighed. "Swear to God you'll never tell your mother." (84after.13)
Deception isn't just confined to students at Culver Creek, and Miles asks his dad to play a pretty deceptive role in the Alaska Young Memorial Prank. How do lying and deception differ between the students at the Creek and the adults who lie in the novel? Why do both groups deceive others?
The hardest part about pranking, Alaska told me once, is not being able to confess. But I could confess on her behalf now. And as I slowly made my way out of the gym, I told anyone who would listen, "No. It wasn't us. It was Alaska." (102after.40)
Even when Miles is deceiving others about the memorial prank, in some ways he's telling the truth. The question though, is if other people will believe him or want to believe the deception he and his friends create. How do he and other characters come to terms with deception toward the end of the novel?
For a long time, I was mad at you. The way you cut me out of everything hurt me, and so I kept what I knew to myself. But then even after I wasn't mad anymore, I still didn't say anything, and I don't even really know why. Pudge had that kiss, I guess. And I had this secret. (136after.4)
Like many characters in the novel, Takumi kept a secret from everyone, but he confesses to Miles (Pudge) at the end of the novel. In fact, Miles also confesses several secrets at the end of the novel as well. We have to wonder how much hurt was caused by secrets and deception and whether that pain could have been changed by the truth.
"What am I going to do?"
"You'll spend Thanksgiving with me, silly. Here." (58before.46-47)
Miles doesn't usually have to make his own choices—usually he's just a follower. And the way he makes and doesn't make choices plays a big part in what happens to Alaska and how he deals with it.
"We have to slow down or I'll puke," I remarked after we finished the first bottle.
"I'm sorry, Pudge. I wasn't aware that someone was holding open your throat and pouring wine down it," the Colonel responded. (2before.22-23)
Good thing the Colonel is there to keep him honest. Think about who Miles wants to give responsibility for his choices to and who ends up taking it in the end…
I wanted so badly to lie down next to her on the couch, to wrap my arms around her and sleep… But I lacked the courage and she had a boyfriend and I was gawky and she was gorgeous and I was hopelessly boring and she was endlessly fascinating. So I walked back to my room and collapsed on the bottom bunk, thinking that if people were rain, I was drizzle and she was a hurricane. (49before.32)
Miles clearly wants to mean more than he does to Alaska, and that is probably beyond his control. But he could make a bunch of different choices here, not just the two he mentions, and he chooses to leave. What's that say about him as a character?
I raised my arm as she collapsed into my skinny chest and cried. I felt bad for her, but she'd done it to herself. She didn't have to rat. (44before.22)
Miles is pretty aware of personal responsibility when it comes to other people—like Alaska—and pretty unaware of how he makes his own choices. Maybe this is because of his passive personality. How are passivity and choice related in Miles's character?
So she became impulsive, scared by her inaction into perpetual action. When the Eagle confronted her with expulsion, maybe she blurted out Marya's name because it was the first that came to mind, because in that moment she didn't want to get expelled and couldn't think past that moment. She was scared, sure. But more importantly, maybe she'd been scared of being paralyzed by fear again. (2before.78)
It's hard to think about what causes us to choose what we choose, and usually the situation is super complicated and messy. In his explanation of what he thinks makes Alaska tick, Miles considers her choices of action and inaction and what they mean. Yet he remains blind to his own reasons for choosing action and inaction.
We did not say: Don't drive. You're drunk.
We did not say: We aren't letting you in that car when you are upset.
We did not say: We insist on going with you.
We did not say: This can wait until tomorrow. Anything—everything—can wait. (thelastday.93-96)
Everything that Miles has chosen—or not chosen because of his passivity—leads up to this moment. He could have been much more active in preventing Alaska from going, and the Colonel—arguably—should have been more assertive about Alaska's choices based on past interactions with her. But they both chose passive acceptance of her decision. Why?
I pulled away again. "What about Lara? Jake?" Again, she sshed me. "Less tongue, more lips," she said, and I tried my best. (thelastday.73)
Oh Miles—he tries to grow a backbone about making the right choice, but he still lets Alaska choose for him. Granted, he doesn't try very hard to stop kissing her.
"If she loved you so much, why did she leave you that night? And if you loved her so much, why'd you help her go? I was drunk. What's your excuse?" (20after.15)
The Colonel calls Miles out on his passivity. Why didn't he assert himself like he did when he was making out with her earlier? How do Miles's emotions get entangled in the choices he makes? Think about his nature and Alaska's nature.
So we gave up. I'd finally had enough of chasing after a ghost who did not want to be discovered. We'd failed, maybe, but some mysteries aren't meant to be solved. (118after.1)
Miles and the Colonel find out as much as they can, but then they quit because they "failed." This doesn't sound like a choice at first, but it is a choice they make. Consider why they choose to leave Alaska's mystery unsolved.
I thought: Straight and fast. Maybe she just decided at the last second. (118after.16)
Think about how Alaska makes choices throughout the book. Was it suicide or an accident? Does it even matter how she chose if the end result is the same?
She said, "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?"
"What's wrong?" I asked. And I felt the absence of her hand on me.
"Nothing's wrong. But there's always suffering, Pudge…Suffering is universal. It's the one thing Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims are all worried about." (52before.9-13)
Even though suffering is universal, it's still pretty painful and terrifying—and the ways in which the characters respond to their pain and suffering are uniquely individual. How does Alaska respond to her suffering, and why might she respond in this way?
No one talked for a minute, and then Takumi asked, "Your dad blamed you?"
"Well, not after that first moment. But yeah. How could he not?" (2before.69-70)
It's not Alaska's mother's death that causes her suffering, but more the guilt and anguish she feels as a result of her role in her mother's death. It's important to note that Alaska's the one saying that her dad blames her, and that she is notoriously unreliable as a personality—which leaves us questioning how much of her suffering is self-inflicted.
The Colonel was screaming. He would inhale, and then scream. Inhale. Scream. Inhale. Scream.
I thought, at first, that it was only yelling. But after a few breaths, I noticed a rhythm. And after a few more, I realized that the Colonel was saying words. He was screaming, "I'm so sorry."
When the news of Alaska's death is announced to the school, both Miles and the Colonel try to expel suffering in different ways. Neither helps. And who, or what, is the Colonel apologizing to or for? There are a ton of interpretations to explore here.
Hank hugged me and said, "At least it was instant. At least there wasn't any pain."
I knew he was only trying to help, but he didn't get it. There was pain. A dull endless pain in my gut that wouldn't go away even when I knelt on the stingingly frozen tile of the bathroom, dry-heaving. (2after.35-36)
Miles continues to try to rid himself of the pain, but he can't. We have to wonder what exactly is causing the pain: the death of Alaska, the sorrow of her death, the responsibility Miles feels about her death, or some strange combination of all three and more?
"Forty-two," he corrected me. "Well. Forty-two there. Forty-two back. Eighty-two miles. No. Eighty-four. Yes. Eighty-four miles in forty-five hours." (4after.11)
Miles suffers alone and with his thoughts; the Colonel decides to walk for hours. How does each way of responding to suffering align with their personalities?
"This was Alaska's question."
With a sigh, he grabbed hold of his chair and lifted himself out of it, then wrote on the blackboard: How will we ever get out of this labyrinth of suffering? (8after.8-9)
Alaska's pain and suffering throughout the novel is clear, and to exit her pain she writes in a book margin that she will get out "Straight & fast." What might she have written in her paper for the Old Man about pain and suffering, in a different context and for a different audience?
I lay on my back with my knees hanging over the precipice and screamed. I screamed because the Colonel was a self-satisfied, condescending bastard, and I screamed because he was right, for I did want to believe that I'd had a secret love affair with Alaska. Did she love me? Would she have left Jake for me? Or was it just another impulsive Alaska moment? (20after.17)
The death of a loved one often leaves us with unanswered questions, and part of the suffering that comes with death is the fact that these questions will never be answered. What realizations does Miles have about his suffering at this moment in the novel? Miles suffers because of these uncertainties in addition to his guilt… and he suffers because Alaska wasn't who he wanted her to be.
The Buddha said that suffering was caused by desire, we'd learned, and that the cessation of desire meant the cessation of suffering. When you stopped wishing things wouldn't fall apart, you'd stop suffering when they did. (51after.3)
Yet again the Old Man's class and lectures provide Miles a way to think about healing from Alaska's death and the guilt he feels about it. Miles starts to think about his desire—for Alaska, for himself—and the idea that everything changes. The question is whether Miles will be able to accept the falling-apart-ness of the world enough to heal.
"I am interested in how you are able to fit the uncontestable fact of suffering into your understanding of the world, and how you hope to navigate through life in spite of it." (122after.3)
The Old Man is pretty smart, and this is a good essay for students to write as they struggle to come to terms with their classmate's death and their own suffering. It forces students to consider the idea (introduced by Alaska) that suffering is universal and inescapable, and focuses them on the challenge of how to live or move beyond it.
That which came together will fall apart imperceptibly slowly, and I will forget, but she will forgive my forgetting, just as I forgive her for forgetting me and the Colonel and everyone but herself and her mom in those last moments she spent as a person. (136after.14)
Miles realizes that forgiveness is his way out of the labyrinth of suffering, and he mourns his realization that Alaska was never able to forgive herself for her role in her mother's death. This is not the same view as the Colonel's take on suffering. Think about how the ways to deal with suffering are presented in the book and which are most in line with your own beliefs.