Looking for Alaska

Looking for Alaska

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How to Live and Die Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
How to Live and Die Theme Icon
Mystery and the Unknown Theme Icon
Loyalty and Forgiveness Theme Icon
Memory and Memorial Theme Icon
Identity Theme Icon
Mischief Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Looking for Alaska, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
How to Live and Die Theme Icon

While life and death are certainly important topics in Looking for Alaska, how to live and die are much bigger themes. Indeed, the novel is not titled Alaska, but rather Looking for Alaska—it’s the search that matters. Miles and Alaska are both naturally inclined toward looking for meaning. Miles memorizes last words because they help him understand how people lived, and Alaska reads and memorizes poetry from her Life’s Library, which helps her find words for what she is feeling. The Old Man’s World Religions class then furthers Miles’ understanding of how to live and die. The class exposes him to how a variety of cultures and religions have answered life’s biggest questions. Alaska’s answer to her search is “straight & fast”—she wants to escape from her “labyrinth of suffering” as quickly and easily as possible.

Once Alaska dies, Miles’ interest in how to live and die is intensified because it now has a practical application. But when Alaska escapes from her own labyrinth, she creates a new labyrinth for Miles. He gets lost in a pattern of grief in which he simultaneously wants to find answers and avoids looking for them. Despite his love for Alaska, Miles ultimately realizes that she gave up, whether or not she committed suicide. Overcome by guilt, she decided that her life had to be a sad one. When Miles chooses forgiveness—for himself, and for Alaska—he chooses to keep going forward and seek his “Great Perhaps.” He learns from Alaska’s mistakes that it is the uncertainty of life that makes it worth living.

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How to Live and Die ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of How to Live and Die appears in each chapter of Looking for Alaska. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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How to Live and Die Quotes in Looking for Alaska

Below you will find the important quotes in Looking for Alaska related to the theme of How to Live and Die.
1. One Hundred Thirty-Six Days Before Quotes

“François 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.”

Related Characters: Miles Halter (speaker)
Related Symbols: Last Words
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

At the beginning of the novel, Miles explains to his parents why he wants to leave Florida and attend Culver Creek. In Florida, Miles' life is entirely predictable, and he is drawn to the idea of going somewhere where anything could happen. Miles loves learning other people's last words and often uses them as guidance for how to live his own life. Here, Miles' takes Rabelais' last words, which refer to the mystery of death, and reinterprets them as inspiration for his life. He doesn't want death to be his "Great Perhaps"; instead, he wants to start seeking adventure now, in life.

Much of Looking for Alaska is about Miles' struggle to make sense of the mysteries of life and death, and this quote helps set up that struggle. While Miles is clearly drawn to these mysteries at the beginning of the book, when his life actually becomes mysterious he has trouble accepting the unknown. This statement also demonstrates how invincible Miles feels early on in the novel. At this point, death is something to "wait" for that will happen far into the future--not something that might happen at any moment. 


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2. One Hundred Twenty-Eight Days Before Quotes

“That’s the mystery, isn’t it? Is the labyrinth living or dying? Which is he trying to escape—the world or the end of it?”

Related Characters: Alaska Young (speaker), Miles Halter
Related Symbols: Last Words, The Labyrinth
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:

When Alaska and Miles meet and she learns of his love of last words, she tells him about the supposed last words of Simón Bolívar: "How will I ever get out of this labyrinth." Miles is unsure what to make of Bolívar's words, but for Alaska the lack of clarity in Bolívar's quote is what makes it exciting and interesting: is Bolívar describing a desire to escape death, or a desire to escape life?

This interaction makes immediately clear how different Alaska's perspective on life is from Miles's. To Miles, life is a "Great Perhaps" and is full of opportunities that must be seized. He is generally optimistic about the future and very much intends to make the most of his life. Alaska, on the other hand, entertains the possibility that life might be something that needs to be escaped rather than enjoyed. Unlike Miles, who thinks of eventual death as a reason to make the most of your life while you have it, Alaska sees death as a potential way out of all of the suffering in the world. And although Alaska often works hard at making herself seem mysterious to others, the "Great Perhaps" of life, which is so attractive to Miles, is not necessarily attractive to Alaska.

At this point in the novel, Alaska still isn't clear on what she believes, and Bolívar's words themselves are still a "mystery" to her. Later in the novel however, Miles thinks back to this moment when he is trying to figure out how to understand the role Alaska played in her own death. 

4. One Hundred Twenty-Six Days Before Quotes

“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? In short: What are the rules of this game, and how might we best play it?”

Related Characters: Dr. Hyde (The Old Man) (speaker)
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis:

During Miles's first day of class at Culver Creek, the Old Man – Dr. Hyde – explains that the topic of his World Religions class will be "the search for meaning." Miles is excited to think about this topic in the context of school because he imagines that he will be told how to solve life's problems. Although Miles claims to be attracted to the "Great Perhaps" and the mystery of what could happen in his life, he actually seems more interested in finding an objectively correct answer for how to best live his life. 

What Miles doesn't know at this point in the novel is that the questions Dr. Hyde poses here are questions that Miles will end up struggling with more outside of the classroom than in it. When Alaska dies, Miles is forced to confront the choices Alaska made about how to live and grapple with his beliefs about what happens after death. His struggle with these questions ultimately teaches him that in order to live well, he must learn to accept and embrace – rather than try to solve – mystery and the unknown. 

6. One Hundred Ten Days Before Quotes

“Y’all smoke to enjoy it. I smoke to die.”

Related Characters: Alaska Young (speaker)
Related Symbols: Smoking
Page Number: 44
Explanation and Analysis:

Early in the novel, Miles, Takumi, the Colonel, and Alaska go down to the Smoking Hole to talk. Miles asks Alaska why she is smoking so quickly, and she says that she is smoking to slowly kill herself. The chapter ends with Alaska's comment, but presumably everyone who hears it takes it as a dark joke. No one takes the comment entirely seriously because Alaska is constantly setting herself apart from the rest of the group, and always trying to be mysterious and morbid. Even when Alaska is doing the same thing as everyone else, she thinks of her motivations as different. Further, the fact that she jokes about smoking to die shows how flippant her attitude toward death can sometimes be. 

Alaska's comment gains significance when the group learns about Alaska's mother's death. Alaska's mom smoked, and Alaska ties herself to her mother by carrying on this tradition. It would obviously be difficult for Alaska to fully enjoy smoking if every cigarette reminded her of her mother. Alaska feels an immense amount of guilt over her mom's death, and her smoking habit could be seen as a way of punishing herself. After Alaska's death, Miles thinks about this comment and wonders if he should have suspected that Alaska might commit suicide. 

10. One Hundred Days Before Quotes

“Well, later, I found out what it means. 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, like I wanted to be. And it was damn far away from Vine Station, Alabama, just like I wanted to be.”

Related Characters: Alaska Young (speaker)
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Miles gets to know Alaska Young better. Alaska is the most complicated character in the novel, and in this passage, we get a sense for her inner complexities. Alaska projects an image of calmness and self-control, but we get the sense that it's just an image: deep down, she's more frightened and lonely than she'd like to be. Alaska explains that she first liked the name "Alaska" because it represented something and far away. One could say that Alaska likes the idea of being far away because she's so mysterious and confident in herself--but it's probably more accurate that she wants to be far away from everyone because she's a lonely, depressed young woman.

The idea that the word Alaska also means "that which the sea breaks against" captures the ambiguity of Alaska's character. Any object that can endure the beating of the waves must be pretty strong--but perhaps the waves will break it down in the end (foreshadowing Alaska's emotional breakdown).

“Jesus, I’m not going to be one of those people who sits around talking about what they’re gonna do. I’m just going to do it. Imagining the future is a kind of nostalgia…You spend your whole life stuck in the labyrinth, thinking about how you’ll escape it one day, and how awesome it will be, and imagining that future keeps you going, but you never do it. You just use the future to escape the past.”

Related Characters: Alaska Young (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Labyrinth
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Alaska tells Miles about her plans to teach disabled children one day, but then stops herself halfway through an explanation: she insists that she doesn't want to become one of those people who talks about the future constantly. In Alaska's view, talking about the future is a kind of cop-out: a way of avoiding the present. Alaska also thinks talking about the future is useless, since one's dreams never come true. This is a cynical (and often incorrect) view, of course, but it fits in with Alaska's persona of pessimism and dark humor.

In short, the passage shows us some of Alaska's limitations and weaknesses. She believes that "people" never achieve their dreams, but that's only because she's sure she'll never achieve her dreams. The irony is that in turning away from the future so willingly, Alaska doesn't embrace the present at all; she just "doubles down" on her past. As we'll see more and more clearly, Alaska is haunted by her life before coming to prep school: she's afraid of the future because she's haunted by her own memories.

11. Ninety-Nine Days Before Quotes

“Sometimes you lose a battle. But mischief always wins the war.”

Related Characters: Alaska Young (speaker)
Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Eagle catches Alaska and her friends smoking, and tells them that they'll be brought in for questioning (and probable punishment) soon. Miles is worried about being punished, but Alaska insists that there's no point in being worried: in the grand scheme of things, she and her friends will always win out in the end, with their mischievous pranks--the Eagle and his discipline are useless.

Alaska's speech suggests that she's carefree and eager to have fun, even if doing so involves breaking the rules. And yet her pronouncement seems a little too aphoristic, a little too glib. As we'll come to see very clearly, Alaska isn't truly carefree or adventurous: beneath her "manic pixie dream girl" facade she's fragile and frightened of her own past. Mischief isn't a way for her to "win the war"; it's a way for her to distract herself from her deep inner sadness.

31. The Last Day Quotes

“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.”

Related Characters: Miles Halter (speaker)
Related Symbols: Last Words
Page Number: 128
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Lara asks Miles (with whom she's having a strange sexual relationship) why he's so interested in famous people's last words. Here, Miles gives a reason: he thinks that it's possible to learn something deeply important about a famous person (and about life itself) by studying the last thing they say, or are rumored to have said. Famous last words, in a sense, are never random: they're always deeply revealing of the way a person lived.

It's characteristic, too, that Miles is interested in famous last words because he wants to know how to become famous and memorable  himself (i.e., how to get a biography written about oneself). Miles is a young, ambitious, but inexperienced person: he's willing to take any bits of information that he thinks could help him on the way to greatness. Furthermore, we've already seen that Miles is fascinated by the concept of using a "key" to understand a person's entire life. Just as Miles believes that the "key" to understanding Alaska's existence is her mother's death, he believes that the key to understanding a great man's life to learn what he said just before he dies. In Miles's world, nothing is random: everything has an explanation.

32. The Day After Quotes

“I could hear the Colonel screaming, and I could feel hands on my back as I hunched forward, but I could only see her lying naked on a metal table, a small trickle of blood falling out of her half-teardrop nose, her green eyes open, staring off into the distance, her mouth turned up just enough to suggest the idea of a smile, and she had felt so warm against me, her mouth so soft and warm on mine.”

Related Characters: Miles Halter (speaker), Chip Martin (The Colonel), Alaska Young
Page Number: 141
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Miles has learned of Alaska's death. At first, he can't believe that someone who he knew and loved--someone with whom he exchanged a kiss only the night before--could suddenly be dead. And yet eventually, the thought of Alaska's corpse becomes inescapable: he pictures her body in the morgue, the contrast between her warmth and beauty while alive and her appearance in death perfectly clear.

Previously, Miles has suggested that people can't bear to think about their loved ones as mere bodies--a body must have a soul, too. And yet here, in his moment of panic, Miles can only think of Alaska's dead body. The passage conveys a sense of Miles's trauma and guilt: just as Alaska was singularly fixated on her mother's untimely death, Miles is now totally fixated on Alaska's dead body. He blames himself for her death, and so he can't stop thinking about her.

“I know so many last words. But I will never know hers.”

Related Characters: Miles Halter (speaker), Alaska Young
Related Symbols: Last Words
Page Number: 142
Explanation and Analysis:

Miles, we've known for some time now, is obsessed with people's last words. As an immature young man, Miles enjoyed the concept of dying words because it suggested a "fast ticket" to fame: he thought that by studying people's last words, he could know something about what made them so great--what the secret of being remembered was. Now that Miles has experienced the death of a loved one, he's not so glib about the concept of death or dying words. Alaska is dead, and he's no longer thinking about himself at all: he's fixated on her memory.

The passage also reinforces the idea that it's impossible to know people completely. Previously, Miles thought that he had Alaska "figured out." Miles's error is clear, symbolized by the fact that he'll never know Alaska's last words (and, by extension, he'll never know if she killed herself or just had an accident, what she was thinking of just before she died, what kind of person she really was on the inside, etc.). There's a limit to how much we can know about one another, especially when we make an effort to surround ourselves in mystery (as Alaska did).

33. Two Days After Quotes

“And now she was colder by the hour, more dead with every breath I took. I thought: That is the fear: I have lost something important, and I cannot find it, and I need it. It is fear like if someone lost his glasses and went to the glasses store and they told him that the world had run out of glasses and he would just have to do without.”

Related Characters: Miles Halter (speaker), Alaska Young
Page Number: 144
Explanation and Analysis:

After Alaska is killed in a car accident, Miles doesn't know what to do: he feels as if he'l be unable to go on living without his beloved friend. Miles chooses an interesting metaphor; living without Alaska is like needing glasses and not having them--and not having any way to ever get them again. The metaphor is instructive, because it suggests that Alaska helped Miles see and understand the world more clearly. In reality, as we've seen, Alaska created smoke and mirrors around herself, disguising her real thoughts and feelings. And yet she also helped Miles come to terms with his own feelings about himself and other people. The passage sets the tone for the second half of the novel: Miles will have to struggle with his own guilt and trauma in order to gain a semblance of control over the way he feels.

56. One Hundred Eighteen Days After Quotes

“And POOF we are driving 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! We are breathing and we are crying and now slowing down and moving back into the right lane.”

Related Characters: Miles Halter (speaker), Chip Martin (The Colonel), Alaska Young
Page Number: 213
Explanation and Analysis:

In this climactic scene, Miles and the Colonel finally get over Alaska's death, at least a little, when they decide to drive over the place where Alaska died. As they drive they begin to cry and get emotional, for the simple reason that they're alive and Alaska is dead--they've passed through the place where she could not.

While they are overcome with grief at Alaska's death, Miles and the Colonel also seem to achieve a sudden clarity regarding the fact that they are alive. This is part of the tragedy of Alaska's death--that she too was once as alive and breathing as they are now--but it's also a way for Miles to move on. By acknowledging his own life he can better seize the present and live fully, without being so weighed down by memory and guilt.

59. One Hundred Thirty-Six Days After Quotes

“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.”

Related Characters: Miles Halter (speaker), Alaska Young, Takumi Hikohito
Related Symbols: The Labyrinth
Page Number: 218
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Miles realizes that he's ready to forgive his old friend Takumi. Takumi has been angry with Miles ever since Alaska's death: he blames Miles for Alaska's death (partly as a way of distracting himself from his own role in Alaska's death). Miles realizes that there's no point in blaming other people: the only way out of the cycle of self-hatred that arises after a loved one's death is to accept blame, forgive other people, and slowly move on. And yet Miles's forgiveness is incomplete: he never gets to forgive Takumi face-to-face.

Perhaps the scene is supposed to symbolize the flawed nature of life: people can't always be honest with one another and open up about their feelings, even if they want to show love for each other. There are always layers dividing people, whether layers of distance, miscommunication, or any other number of things. But even if Miles can't forgive Takumi in person, he can love and forgive himself.

“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.”

Related Characters: Miles Halter (speaker), Alaska Young
Page Number: 218
Explanation and Analysis:

Miles has learned to embrace uncertainty: a Zen-like way of looking at life that parallels some of his earlier observations about the nature of religion. As a younger man, Miles believed that it was possible to "decode" human beings: hence his fondness for famous last words. Now, however, Miles seems to accept that people can't be decoded: Alaska, for all her beauty and fascination, is just too complicated and elusive to ever be properly understood.

The paradox of Miles's epiphany is that it's possible to love someone without understanding them completely. Instead of loving Alaska's "soul," Miles loves Alaska as he knew her; the image of herself that she presented to him. By accepting the limits of his knowledge of Alaska, Miles seems to accept the limits of his knowledge of Alaska's death: he'll never know if her death was accident or suicide. By the same token, Miles seems to escape his own sense of guilt.

“Forgetting her mother, failing her mother and her friends and herself—those are awful things, but she did not need to fold into herself and self-destruct. Those awful things are survivable, because we are as indestructible as we believe ourselves to be. When adults say, “Teenagers think they are invincible” with that sly, stupid smile on their faces, they don’t know how right they are. We need never be hopeless, because we can never be irreparably broken.”

Related Characters: Miles Halter (speaker), Alaska Young, Mrs. Young
Page Number: 220
Explanation and Analysis:

In the end, the novel is a kind of cautionary tale, but also a tale of redemption. We all have to deal with pain and grief, but we don't all deal with it in a healthy way. Some, like Alaska, will collapse under the pressure: Alaska hates herself because she believes that she's to blame for her mother's tragic death. As a result of her guilt, Alaska has spent most of her life hiding from other people and dissembling her true feelings.

Miles, on the other hand, is a symbol of how it's possible to escape grief and love oneself. Miles knows that he's responsible for Alaska's death in some capacity, but he finds the courage to forgive himself. In a way, Green steers the novel toward an optimistic, youthful conclusion: teenagers really are invincible--with their hope and drive, they can find the courage to escape from depression, especially if they have the love and support of their friends.

“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.”

Related Characters: Miles Halter (speaker), Alaska Young
Related Symbols: Last Words
Page Number: 221
Explanation and Analysis:

The novel has dealt with religious themes, but in the final lines of the novel, Green brings religion to the center of the stage. Miles is trying to come to terms with his own feelings of grief regarding the death of his friend Alaska. He's come to accept that while he played a role in Alaska's death, he forgives himself, and knows that Alaska forgives him, too. Furthermore, Miles here seems to allude to the concept of a Heaven. As with earthly matters, though, Miles doesn't profess to know what happens to human beings after they die. Nevertheless, he continues to hope that somewhere in another life, Alaska is happy and content.

In short, the novel ends on a note of blind, beautiful hope. Miles is still a young man, but he's learned how to take care of himself and show his love for other people. Thus, he hopes that Alaska finds happiness somewhere, even after her death.