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.
Mystery and the Unknown Theme Icon

Mystery is at the heart of this novel—so much so that it is embedded in the structure of the book. Rather than separating the novel into chapters, Green sections his book into days, each of which is titled with a number of days and the word “before” or “after.” For example, the first section of the book is called “one-hundred thirty-six days before.” Before what, however, is not made clear to the reader until two-thirds of the way through the book.

Just as the mysterious structure of Looking for Alaska makes the novel intriguing, mystery is an intriguing part of Miles’ life as well. At the book’s beginning, Miles decides to move to Alabama to seek his “Great Perhaps.” He is excited about the mysteries that await him, and he immediately becomes obsessed with understanding Alaska, who is a mystery herself. But while Alaska’s active cultivation of a mysterious air does make her interesting to others, she suffers because of it. She is not willing to let others in, and is afraid for others to see the horrible person that she thinks herself to be. As a result, Alaska prevents her friends from getting to know her as well as they want to. Indeed, Miles and the Colonel let her drive away on the night of her death because they do not realize how upset she is, or that it is the anniversary of her mother’s death.

Only once Miles gives up trying to figure out Alaska and her death can he finally see Alaska for what she really is: a mystery that is not meant to be answered. Further, when he stops chasing after Alaska, he is once again able to pursue his own Great Perhaps. Ultimately, Miles is okay with not knowing exactly what happened to Alaska because it doesn’t matter what happened. The solutions to mysteries aren’t always important. Miles realizes that whether or not she killed herself, he still loves her and cares about her and believes that her spirit lives on. For him, that is enough.

Mystery and the Unknown ThemeTracker

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

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

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.

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

“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.

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

“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

“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.

“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.