The book begins with Miles discussing the going away party his mother throws for him the week before he leaves for boarding school in Alabama. His mother thinks that lots of people will come, but Miles knows that he has few friends, and only two people show up. His parents expect Miles to be upset by this, but Miles isn’t, as he never expected more people to come.
Green begins the novel by establishing the fact that Miles’ identity does not depend on having a lot of friends. He knows who he is, and, unlike his mother, he does not interpret the fact that few people care to say goodbye as significant or upsetting.
Miles’ mother asks him if he wants to leave Florida because he doesn’t have any friends. His father suggests that Miles wants to go to Culver Creek because he himself is an alumnus of the school. Miles explains to them that he is in fact going “to seek a Great Perhaps.” Miles loves reading biographies and learning people’s last words, and this phrase comes from the last words of François Rabelais, a French poet.
When Rabelais sought a “Great Perhaps,” he was referring to the mystery of what might await him after death. Miles reinterprets this quote to be about living rather than dying. In this single phrase, life and death are intertwined, and this union sets up a major theme of the novel: how to live and die.