Looking For Alaska: Discussion Questions
I just finished reading a book that my girlfriend (we’ve actually been dating for exactly a year, so yay!) loaned me - Looking For Alaska by John Green. A fantastic read, it is about a junior in high school named Miles Halter, who’s obsession with famous last words has led him on a search for “The Great Perhaps”, a changing, defining moment in his life. In hopes of finding this, he attends a boarding school in Alabama, where he makes his first friends and becomes completely enraptured in a girl named Alaska Young.
The novel has been compared many, many times to The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, although that will not be a gauge of whether or not you will like this (I hated Catcher, yet love Alaska).
I took the liberty of answering the 15 discussion questions at the back of the book, so if you have read the novel, please, let’s discuss! If you have not read the book, I advise you to avoid reading the remainder of this post, it contains heavy spoilers. And honestly, this book is so good, I would feel awful if I ruined it for you. I ruined Fight Club for someone once, I still carry that shame with me.
Please, click Read More and discuss!
- Discuss the book’s unusual structure. Why do you suppose Green chose this strategy for telling his story? How else might he have structured the same material?
John Green has stated that he was struggling with the story amidst 9/11, and at that time, many Americans mentioned that the tragedy was a “turning point” for America. I believe he was inspired by that. I can’t really supply any other fitting options as far as structure goes for the same material, the chosen method was just what was needed.
- Miles tells the story from his own first-person voice. How might the book differ if it had been told in Alaska’s voice or the Colonel’s? Or in the voice of an omniscient narrator?
If the book were told in Alaska’s voice, it would have been a completely different story; it would have ended halfway through, or had some strange, post-death commentary that would completely undermine the character development during the second half of the story. Were it the Colonel’s commentary, I don’t feel as though it would mean as much. He was very well just as attached to Alaska as Miles was, but not in the same ways, not in the ways that spur this type of story along. And as far as an omniscient narrator, well then all meaning and possibility of character/reader identification would have been lost.
- The Colonel says, “everybody’s got a talent.” Do you?
At first I felt too conceited answering this question, as if you were asking for a list of my talents, as if this were some sort of Myspace survey from 2005. But then I remember my faith. I believe that God gives everyone the tools to be exactly where they need to be. I know that He has given me talents in certain aspects of my life, in order to move ahead and be where I need to be. So, in summary, yes.
- Miles’ teacher Dr. Hyde tells him to “be present.” What does this mean?
In context, Hyde is telling Miles to “be present” in class; focused, at attention, no longer distracted with the outdoors, or matters that do not pertain to the subject of the lesson.
- John Green worked for a time as a chaplain in a children’s hospital. How do you think that influenced the writing of Looking For Alaska?
Green states in the Q&A section at the back of the book that every story that he has written since his time at the hospital has been influenced by the experience, and he views it as a before/after moment in his own life.
- What do you think “The Great Perhaps” means?
The great “what if” moment that is so prevalent in many fiction and historical accounts - the exciting ones, at any rate. It is extremely easy for a boy such as Miles to live a life with no friends or real defining moments of excitement and suddenly become aware in his junior year of high school that he longs for something great. The Great Perhaps is the great adventure. The great possibility.
- And how about Bolivar’s labyrinth?
From the way it was portrayed in the book, I feel as though Bolivar’s labyrinth is a metaphor for human suffering. The human struggle to combat the things that cause us to be depressed and scared and hurt, to escape the maze and be free, to enjoy life once more, or to just lose ourselves in our own maze of pain. To trap ourselves in the deepest corners of our broken hearts to die alone in misery.
- In the “Some Last Words on Last Words” section at the end of the book, Green writes, “I was born into Bolivar’s labyrinth, and so I must believe in the hope of Rabelais’ ‘Great Perhaps.’” What do you think he means by this?
It is in human nature to feel trapped among despair, and it is in human nature to want what one does not have. Feeling naturally alone in a maze of your own pain and cling on to the hope of a great adventure to lead you out is not an unlikely thing for Green to have been referring to.
- Has the novel changed the way you regard human suffering? And death?
I can honestly say that the novel has not changed the way I regard either of these subjects, if anything it has reinforced my opinions.
- One of the characters, Dr. Hyde, says “Everything that comes together falls apart.” Do you think the author agrees? How does he deal with this Zen belief in his novel?
Whether John Green personally agrees, it is a prevailing ideal in the latter half of the book which the main character embraces, so I am inclined to believe that Green himself believes it to be so. Miles compares it to science, wherein everything is made of energy that can not be created or destroyed, and he believes the same of people, relationships, and ideas; and he makes a convincing enough argument for it, as well. Not even in a bitter sense. Just in a matter-of-fact manner, everything dies at some point.
- Alaska loved these two lines from the poet W.C. Auden: “You shall love your crooked neighbor / With your crooked heart.” What do these lines mean to you and why do you think Alaska likes them so much?
I again line it up with my own beliefs. Mankind is sinful by nature, the possessors of the crooked heart. Whether our neighbor is a genuinely nice person or a petty crook, if they are crooked, we are crooked, and we are called to love. We always have been, and always will be.
- Miles writes, “Teenagers think they are invincible.” Do you agree? Why or why not?
Invincibility is the most powerful ideal in teenage society. Not just the physical immunity to, well, everything, but to believe that nothing will emotionally or mentally or spiritually harm you. However, like Miles says at the end, we are invincible, in a way. We never, ever lose hope, because we are such an early stage in our lives, we want to cling to the idea that things will get better for as long as we can.
- Was it necessary for Alaska to die?
As a plot device, absolutely. It brought Miles, Takumi, Lara, and the Colonel closer, in their efforts to discover what happened to Alaska, in their tribute to her memory, in their growth as teens. Miles realized that he never truly knew Alaska, he knew that he was in love with her. He did not know her, really.
- This novel is filled with wonderful characters. Who is your favorite? Why? Do you know any people like these characters?
Alaska is my favorite. Just something about her, (or the way Miles describes her) was enthralling. Her death came as a complete shock to me, and I found myself nearly as brokenhearted as Miles himself. I know different qualities of different people that sort of Frankenstein their way into creating these characters, but I do not know anyone quite that similar to them.
- Can you imagine Miles and the Colonel as adults? What might they be like? What professions do you suppose they might choose?
I think that the Colonel will have someday gotten his mother that house he so desperately dreamed of. I do not foresee him ever growing out of drinking ambrosia. I think he may somehow become an engineer, or something in the mathematics field. Miles, I can see him becoming a biographer, or a writer of some sort. I like to think of him as a book writer, writing stories of a girl named Alaska, keeping her memory alive for as long as he can until he is finally ready to part with her.