Here is an analysis of John Green’s novel Looking for Alaska, which won the Printz award for excellence in young adult literature.
John Green’s novel Looking for Alaska tells the story of Miles Halter, a shy teenager who transfers to Culver Creek Boarding School for his junior year of high school, in search of the “Great Perhaps” (2007, 5). His roommate, Chip “the Colonel” Martin, takes Miles under his wing, nicknames him Pudge, and introduces him to smoking, drinking, pranks, and Alaska Young. Alaska is beautiful, witty, moody, and self-destructive, and Pudge is fascinated with her. When some of the weekday warriors drag Pudge out of his bed, mummify him in duct tape and throw him in the lake (25), the Colonel vows to have revenge (29). The weekday warriors dunked Pudge and peed in the Colonel’s shoes (29) because they believe that the Colonel ratted out Paul and Marya (37), two students who were expelled the previous year for drinking, smoking pot and having sex (23). Alaska later admits to telling on Paul and Marya to avoid being expelled for sneaking off campus in the middle of the night and being in possession of alcohol (73). Alaska, Pudge and the Colonel exact their revenge on the weekday warriors by putting blue hair dye in the weekday warriors’ shampoo and hair gel bottles and sending out fake progress reports to the weekday warriors’ parents, indicating that they were failing (109). One night, after getting drunk with the Colonel and briefly making out with Pudge, Alaska breaks down crying (129-132), drives off campus and dies in a car wreck (139). Alaska’s friends are riddled with guilt and grief and obsessed with finding out where she was driving with white flowers in her car in the middle of the night (163). At last, they determine that Alaska was crying because she had forgotten the anniversary of her mother’s death, and Alaska was driving to put flowers on her mother’s grave (211). Alaska’s friends must come to terms with their guilt and grief and accept that they will never know if the wreck was an accident or suicide.
There are several themes in the novel Looking for Alaska. One theme is that there is more to life and more to any person than can be experienced or known. Pudge reads biographies and memorizes people’s last words to try to understand what kind of people they were. He looks for meaning in the facts and the words that are recorded after a person dies. Alaska fascinates Pudge because he does not “get” her, he cannot figure her out, but Alaska says, “‘You never get me. That’s the whole point’” (54). Alaska knows that people are complex beyond anyone’s ability to understand. Pudge is devastated that he will never know Alaska’s last words (142), and that he would never know Alaska as he wanted to (212). He feels like someone who has lost his glasses and is told that there are no more glasses in the world, and he will “just have to do without” (144). Seeing represents knowing, and Pudge will never know the world through the filter of Alaska ever again. Ultimately, Pudge realizes that “we are greater than the sum of our parts,” and because energy can never be created nor destroyed, “that part of us greater than the sum of our parts cannot begin and cannot end, and so it cannot fail” (220-221). Another theme is that the labyrinth of suffering need not imprison us forever. Alaska is incapacitated by her human failures and collapses “into the enigma of herself” (219). But Pudge recognizes that “she did not need to fold into herself and self-destruct” (220). Alaska never forgives herself for her mother’s death, and her guilt holds her captive. By forgiving himself for his part in Alaska’s death, Pudge finds hope, which lifts him out of the labyrinth of guilt and grief, so that he can catch a distant glimpse of the Great Perhaps.
The first person narration, authentic teen language and countdown to the climactic event of Alaska’s death lend compelling realism and suspense to the novel’s narrative style. The story is told through first-person narration from Pudge’s perspective. Readers are drawn in by Pudge’s introspective, often humorous outlook and the intensity of his feelings. The language laced with expletives used by Alaska and the Colonel provides authenticity to the impression of teen life. The literary and historical references challenge readers, and the unfamiliarity of these references give readers the sense of not understanding everything, just as Pudge does not understand everything about Culver Creek and Alaska. The countdown to Alaska’s death provides suspense and provokes curiosity, as the reader wonders where the story is heading. Green notes that people view the most important moment in their lives as a “dividing line between what we were and what we are now” (238). Alaska’s death serves as a dividing line in the lives of Pudge and his friends, marking a moment in which their lives were irrevocably changed. Green’s style gives immediacy and gravity to the story.
The Culver Creek Boarding School in Alabama offers a setting removed from the influences of parents, where Pudge and his friends can be responsible for their own choices and actions. The woods, the smoke hole and the barn offer hideouts from Mr. Starnes where the friends can smoke, drink and plan pranks (101-103). The freedom and lack of supervision that Pudge and his friends enjoy seems at times unrealistic. It seems unlikely that underage boys and girls would be allowed to spend so much time together alone and unsupervised (126, 128, 131). The trailer park (91) where the Colonel grew up helps to explain his hatred of the weekday warriors (13), the rich, spoiled students who attend Culver Creek. The setting of the Deep South does not seem particularly critical to the story. The story could have been set almost anywhere in rural America where lakes and woods can be found.
The mode of Looking for Alaska includes elements of comedy, romance and tragedy, but the story cannot be completely encapsulated by any one of these terms. The powerful realism and poignancy of the novel stems from its mingling of comedy, irony, romance and tragedy, just as these elements are found in real life. More than anything, Green’s novel is a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story. Alaska is unable to leave the tragedy of her mother’s death behind her, and so she is unable to come of age and move on with her life. Instead she smokes, drinks, and drives too fast until she self-destructs. The paper Pudge writes at the novel’s end (219-221) indicates that Pudge is able to come to terms with Alaska’s death. His ability to rise above the tragedy and find hope demonstrates his coming-of-age.
The novel’s plot, theme, style, setting and mode work together to formulate a powerful piece of literature. Readers are drawn in by Pudge’s emotions and reflections. The way information is withheld, such as the nature of the Barn Night prank (99), entices the reader to keep turning the pages. The countdown to the unknown, critical event of Alaska’s death builds suspense, and the literary references of the labyrinth (19) and Frost’s poem (10) foreshadow Pudge and the Colonel’s subsequent struggle to rise above the tragedy. The setting provides the removal from parental influence, so that Alaska, Pudge and the Colonel are responsible for their own struggles, failures and achievements. These literary elements combine to create a coming-of-age story that will appeal to anyone who has ever struggled to escape a labyrinth, whether that labyrinth is grief, guilt, adolescence or high school. This ability to appeal to such a wide audience justifies the novel’s placement on the Printz Award list.
Green, John. 2007. Looking for Alaska. New York: Speak.