Looking for Alaska

Looking for Alaska

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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.
Identity Theme Icon

Coming-of-age stories, known as bildungsroman, often begin with a young person looking for the answers to life’s questions, as Miles does in Looking for Alaska. In a traditional bildungsroman, loss or grief would motivate the main character to depart from home and go on a quest for knowledge, while in Looking for Alaska, a death interrupts the search on which Miles has already embarked. Like Looking for Alaska, however, a bildungsroman ends with its main character having gained maturity and self-knowledge. The character who “comes of age” (Miles) who has a less naïve and more realistic approach to life as a result of his experiences.

While all coming-of-age novels are invested in identity, Looking for Alaska is particularly concerned with it. When Miles first arrives at Culver Creek, he thinks that he knows himself. He is well liked by teachers, doesn’t care for sports, and is perfectly happy being alone. His quest, at that moment, is for adventure rather than self-awareness. Once Alaska dies, Miles turns his attention to trying to figure out who she really was. While she was alive, Miles could identify Alaska as beautiful and mysterious and smart, but she was also mean and selfish and irrational, and he struggles to come to terms with the many facets of her personality. Ultimately, Miles realizes that while the process of “looking for Alaska” never brought him any real answers about Alaska, it did help him grow closer to his friends and learn more about himself. Miles matures into someone who knows the value of friendship and forgiveness, and it is only once he realizes that he cares about these things that he truly knows himself.

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Identity ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Looking for Alaska related to the theme of Identity.
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. 


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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.

29. Two Days Before Quotes

“Best day of my life was January 9, 1997. I was eight years old, and my mom and I went to the zoo on a class trip. I liked the bears. She liked the monkeys. Best day ever. End of story.”

Related Characters: Alaska Young (speaker), Mrs. Young
Page Number: 115
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Alaska and her friends play a game in which they describe the best day they've ever had, followed by the worst day they've ever had. Alaska explains that the best day of her life involved going to the zoo with her mother. Her story is brief--comically brief, really.

At this point in the book, it's hard to know how to interpret this passage. The brevity of Alaska's story, especially when compared with the unhappy story she's about to tell, suggests that tragedy is more memorable and complex than happiness (as Leo Tolstoy said, happy families are all alike--each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.) But Alaska is also probably withholding the truth about her life; surely there must be more to her happiness. Alaska has been through a lot of tragedy, but here it seems that she's again performing for her friends, trying to provoke their sympathy and confusion whenever she can.

“It was the central moment of Alaska’s life. When she cried and told me that she fucked everything up, I knew what she meant now. And when she said she failed everyone, I know whom she meant. It was the everything and the everyone of her life.”

Related Characters: Miles Halter (speaker), Alaska Young, Mrs. Young
Page Number: 120
Explanation and Analysis:

Alaska has just told Miles and her other friends that the worst day of her life was the day her mother died right in front of her and Alaska failed to call 911. Miles comes to realize that Alaska's mother's death is the "key" to understanding Alaska. Alaska has always hated herself for being so passive during her mother's death: if she had just called 911, she feels, she could have saved her mother's life. Now, Miles realizes, Alaska makes a point of acting impulsively and never hesitating, lest she hurt someone else.

Alaska feels like a failure for "allowing" her mother to die (she was a young girl when the accident happened, but she continues to blame herself, anyway). Since then, she always blames herself when something goes wrong, even if that "something" is completely out of her hands. Miles thinks that he's cracked the code with Alaska: he finally understands why she behaves the way she does.

30. One Day Before Quotes

“Pudge, what you must understand about me is that I am a deeply unhappy person.”

Related Characters: Alaska Young (speaker), Miles Halter
Page Number: 124
Explanation and Analysis:

Alaska and her friends (including Miles) wake up the day after a night of heavy drinking: needless to say, they're all very hungover. Alaska and Miles talk about themselves, and eventually Alaska comes to tell Miles that she's a "deeply unhappy person."

The passage is a great example of the fine line between genuine depression and performative sadness: that which is affected or exaggerated for the purpose of confounding other people. Alaska has dealt with some genuinely tragic events, especially the death of her mother. And yet there's always a sense that she tries to be as mysterious and elusive as possible in order to draw the interest of other people. Here, however, she makes a point of saying that she's "deeply unhappy" to Miles: an oddly matter-of-fact way of talking about her feelings, and a departure from her usual cryptic statements.

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 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

“Goddamn it! God, how did this happen? How could she be so stupid! She just never thought anything through. So goddamned impulsive. Christ. It is not okay. I can’t believe she was so stupid!”

Related Characters: Chip Martin (The Colonel) (speaker), Alaska Young
Page Number: 145
Explanation and Analysis:

In times of crisis, everybody has different ways of coping. Miles chooses to blame himself almost immediately, while the Colonel chooses to throw all the blame back on Alaska herself: he claims that she was stupid and foolish, and that she caused her own death (claims that seem harsh, but are also partly true).

The Colonel copes with death by ignoring his own sense of guilt. Deep down, as we'll see soon, the Colonel knows that he's partly responsible for Alaska's tragic death: if he had just stopped her from getting in the car, she would still be alive. Instead of facing his feelings, the Colonel tries to bury them away with rage and frustration. Although he's usually a fairly calm person, the Colonel's emotions are clear in this passage: he has a lot of emotion to bury.

56. One Hundred Eighteen Days After Quotes

“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. I still did not know her as I wanted to, but I never could. She made it impossible for me.”

Related Characters: Miles Halter (speaker), Alaska Young
Page Number: 212
Explanation and Analysis:

For much of the second half of the novel, Miles and his friends try to answer the question of why Alaska drove off in the car the night that she died. Eventually, they think they've come to a "solution": Alaska had forgotten the anniversary of her mother's death, and was driving off to put flowers on her mother's gravestone. Although Miles gets some satisfaction from this information (since it partly explains what happened that night), he also realizes that some mysteries aren't meant to be solved.

As a less mature young man, Miles had believed that he could understand what makes people tick by focusing on a single moment from their lives, or a single quote. After Alaska's death, Miles comes to realize the opposite: there's no "key" to understanding people's complexity: certain mysteries are impossible to solve. Miles could never truly understand what happened to Alaska the night she died: she'll always be a great mystery to him.

“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. And that was it. She didn’t leave me enough to discover her, but she left me enough to rediscover the Great Perhaps.”

Related Characters: Miles Halter (speaker), Chip Martin (The Colonel), Alaska Young
Page Number: 212
Explanation and Analysis:

Miles learns a lot after Alaska's death, and in a way, Alaska's death brings him closer to his friends, especially the Colonel and Takumi. Although Miles and his friends are trying to answer the question of why Alaska drove off into the night, they come to realize that the question is irrelevant and ultimately impossible to answer thoroughly. As in so many books about mysteries and quests, the journey (Miles bonding with his friends) is more important than the destination (solving the mystery of why Alaska died).

Miles has always had a theory of the "Great Perhaps"--the sense of wonder and unknowability that dominates a young person's life. And yet Miles has changed his theory slightly: previously, he thought that the purpose of the Great Perhaps was to solve mysteries and answer questions about the world. Now, he's come to realize that there are certain mysteries that can't, and shouldn't be, solved: "Perhaps" is better than certainty.

59. One Hundred Thirty-Six Days After Quotes

“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.