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.
How to Live and Die ThemeTracker
How to Live and Die Quotes in Looking for Alaska
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”