Looking for Alaska

Looking for Alaska

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Memory and Memorial 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.
Memory and Memorial Theme Icon

In Looking for Alaska, characters are defined and even introduced to others by their ability to memorize things. The Colonel memorizes countries, Miles memorizes last words, and Alaska memorizes poetry. Despite the fact that these characters find solace in the words and numbers they memorize, they still struggle with their memories of other people and themselves. Indeed, while Alaska may be outwardly defined by her ability to quote poems about sadness and femininity, she defines herself by the memory of her mother’s death. She is tormented by the fact that she was present for the death and yet did nothing to stop it. The memory of this inaction drives Alaska to be a reckless person, which in turn propels her toward her own death.

While Alaska defines herself by a single memory, Miles is able to look at himself more holistically. His memory of wearing peed-on gym clothes is just as important to who he is as his memory of playing a prank with his new friends at Culver Creek. Miles does, however, struggle to remember Alaska correctly. He is so blinded by his love for her and his hope for what could have been that he forgets that she was frequently, as Alaska describes herself, a “sullen bitch.” Miles spends a great deal of time after Alaska’s death trying to learn everything about her, to make his mental picture of her more complete. Doing this starts driving him crazy, and he finally accepts that he will inevitably forget Alaska, just like Alaska forgot her mother’s death. But while Miles may not be able to remember Alaska perfectly, letting go of the need to remember her exactly lets him memorialize her as she truly was through actions of his own. In addition to the Alaska Young Memorial Prank, Miles, The Colonel, Takumi, and Lara each throw a cigarette into the Smoking Hole in Alaska’s honor. Like a cigarette, Alaska brought others great pleasure, but also a lot of pain. While the memory of some of that pleasure and some of that pain lives on, Alaska will eventually fade away like a cigarette’s smoke and dying embers. As much as Miles likes to fix life into place by encapsulating it with last words, he must come to terms with the fact that everything in life can and will fade away.

Memory and Memorial ThemeTracker

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

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


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“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.

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.

“This is so fun…but I’m so sleepy. To be continued?”

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

in this rather climactic scene, Alaska "dares" Miles to kiss her, knowing full-well that Miles is in love with her. Alaska kisses Miles, and even lectures him on how to kiss better. Miles is in a quasi-relationship with Lara at the moment, but he's so much more in love with Alaska that kissing her is practically the defining event of his life so far.

Green conveys the "asymmetry" of Alaska and Miles's relationship. Miles is deeply attracted to Alaska, and while Alaska knows this full-well, she seems not to feel quite the same level of attraction for Miles. Abruptly, she tells Miles that she's feeling tired, and needs to go to bed. The matter-of-fact way she opts out of the make-out session is, as always with Alaska, intended to be both disarming and confusing: she's always cultivating an aura of mystery and unpredictability. The passage is also a good example of tragic foreshadowing: Alaska is going to die soon, and so Miles and Alaska's relationship will never actually "continue"--thus this otherwise normal moment of teen drama takes on tragic proportions, and Alaska's ambiguous words become her last words to Miles.

“We left.
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.

Related Characters: Miles Halter (speaker), Chip Martin (The Colonel), Alaska Young
Page Number: 132
Explanation and Analysis:

In one of the central scenes in the novel, Miles and his friend the Colonel watch passively as Alaska, drunk and sad, gets off the phone, crying loudly, and rushes toward her car. Although it's pretty obvious that Alaska is in no condition to drive, Miles and the Colonel allow her to leave. Alaska will eventually die in a car crash (perhaps accidentally, perhaps on purpose), leaving Miles to blame himself for her death. in this passage, Miles lists all the things he did wrong that night: he could have stopped Alaska and prevented her from getting behind the wheel of a car, but instead he just left her alone.

Why does Miles leave Alaska alone? To begin with, he's intimidated by her. Alaska has cultivated an aura of mystery and impregnability: nobody is brave enough to tell her the truth because she's always acting spontaneous. Thus, it's possible for Miles to construe Alaska's behavior that night as "Alaska being Alaska." Moreover, Miles seems to allow Alaska to go off alone because he's just had an odd romantic encounter with her: he feels so overwhelmed and confused (and he's drunk as well) that he doesn't know what he'd say to her, and is almost afraid to confront her and make her angry with him. It's important to notice the major turning point in the novel: the first half of the book is dominated by Alaska's guilt for allowing her mother to die, while the second half of the book is dominated by Miles's guilt at having played a role in Alaska's death.

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).

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.

“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

“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.