“The Great Perhaps, or ”Existentialism, in ‘Looking for Alaska’ by John Green
**This article contains spoilers from the book ‘Looking for Alaska’ by John Green. You have been warned.**
The movement began in the 1940s and 1950s, heralded by Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Heidegger, and Friedrich Nietzsche, primarily in France. It emerged as a reaction to the perceived cultural and intellectual sterility of the time and was heavily influenced by the socio-political upheaval caused by World War II. Existentialism is a philosophical movement that emphasizes individual freedom and choice as well as the inherent meaninglessness of life. It posits that individuals must create their own meaning and purpose in life, as there is no fundamental meaning or purpose in the world.
In literature, it is often associated with the works of writers such as Samuel Beckett, Albert Camus, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, who explored themes of individual freedom, choice, and responsibility in their writing. These themes are central to existentialism, which emphasizes the individual’s experience of existence and the choices they make in life. For example, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot examines the human condition and the search for meaning in life, and Albert Camus’s The Stranger explores the human condition through the lens of absurdity and the humane search for understanding and meaning in a meaningless world. These writers and their works have been influential in shaping existentialism as a literary movement and continue to be widely studied and admired.
In John Green’s acclaimed novel, Looking for Alaska, the characters are all searching for meaning and purpose in their lives. The story follows the protagonist, Miles “Pudge” Halter, as he attends a boarding school in Alabama and becomes friends with a group of students, including the mysterious and charismatic Alaska Young. The novel explores the themes of love, loss, and self-discovery as Pudge navigates his relationships and “comes of age” with his peers while sharing a commonly experienced trauma. It was published in 2005 and has won several awards, including the Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature.
EXISTENTIALISM IN LOOKING FOR ALASKA
In John Green’s “Looking for Alaska,” the main character, Miles “Pudge” Halter, is deeply influenced by the philosophy of existentialism.
In the story, Miles is searching for a “Great Perhaps,” a sense of purpose and meaning in his life. He has a knack for remembering famous people’s last words and is stuck in an endless loop of looking for the next one. Alaska is also searching for meaning and understanding, but her search leads to some extreme and questionable decisions. She is quick to quip and quick to react. In the book, she readily takes up the singular blame when their group gets caught playing pranks but ends up contemplating why she is built that way.
The novel also deals with the theme of freedom, a central aspect of existentialism. The characters are all struggling to break free from societal expectations and forge their own paths in life, a theme that rings true for both existentialism and adolescence. As teenagers from non-affluent backgrounds opposed to many of their peers, who enjoy the pleasures of reading, they somehow happen to cross paths with each other. Together, they end up questioning the school authority in various instances, like when Alaska questions one of their teachers, who rebukes Miles for losing track of the class for a few minutes. They also have to deal with the consequences of their choices because Alaska ends up getting punished for her rebuttal, another key aspect of existentialism.
EXISTENTIALIST THEMES EXPLORED
“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.” – Miles “Pudge” Halter.
One of the primary existential themes in the novel is the search for identity. Feeling unfulfilled and unsatisfied with his life, Miles leaves Florida to attend Culver Creek Preparatory School in Alabama in search of a new identity. He believes that by discovering the “last words” of famous people, he will find his own purpose in life. At school, he is drawn to Alaska Young, a charismatic and mysterious girl who represents everything he wants to be.
Miles begins to discover his true self and the person he wants to become through his relationship with Alaska. He learns to be more confident and assertive and starts challenging the authority of the boarding school’s administration. However, when Alaska dies, Miles is forced to confront his own mortality and the fleeting nature of life. He starts realizing that the search for identity is an ongoing process and that one’s identity constantly evolves.
Alaska is another character who is searching for her identity. When discussing Simon Bolivar’s last words [“Damn it. . . How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?”] with Miles, she makes it a point to try to relate what the ‘labyrinth’ might mean as if tied to her own sense of self. She is complex, mysterious, and rebellious, preoccupied with her own mortality, and often acts impulsively, leading to her tragic death. Through her death, Miles and his friends are to confront the idea that life is ultimately meaningless and that they must create their own purpose and meaning.
“The only way out of the labyrinth of suffering is to forgive.” – Alaska Young.
Freedom is another major existential theme in the novel. Miles and his friends at Culver Creek rebel against the strict rules and regulations of the boarding school, seeking to break free from the constraints of their environment and assert their own independence. The novel focuses on the theme of freedom in relation to the characters’ struggles with conformity, societal expectations and the search for their own identities.
Further, Miles is initially constrained by his own insecurities and lack of self-awareness. He struggles with fitting in and finding his place in the world. However, as he gets to know Alaska, he is inspired by her free spirit and refusal to conform to societal expectations. She encourages him to think for himself and to question authority. Through her influence, Miles begins to break free from his own limitations and discover a sense of freedom.
For example, Alaska motivates Miles to read the books he truly wants to read and not just the ones assigned in school syllabi. She encourages him to question the authority of their religious studies teacher and his own beliefs.
Through Alaska’s journey, the novel suggests that true freedom is about finding one’s own path and living an authentic life. She is not afraid to take risks and is always seeking new experiences. However, this freedom also leads her to make some dangerous and destructive choices. The desire for freedom is exemplified by Alaska’s own rebellion, which ultimately leads to her untimely death. Through her death, Green illustrates the harsh reality that true freedom often comes at a high price.
Additionally, other characters in the novel also illustrate this theme. The Colonel, Miles’ roommate, is a prime example of someone trying to break free from societal expectations and live life on his own terms. He is also a representation of the price of freedom, as his rebellion leads him to constantly live in fear of being expelled while simultaneously wishing to wreak havoc in the form of ‘pranks’.
John Green uses the characters in Looking for Alaska to explore the different aspects of freedom, from the thrill of breaking free from constraints to the consequences of making choices. The novel suggests that true freedom is about being true to yourself, even if it means going against societal expectations, but it also shows that freedom can have a price, that it’s important to take responsibility for your actions.
SEARCH FOR MEANING
“I’d rather wonder than get the answers I couldn’t live with.” – Miles.
The ultimate existential theme in Looking for Alaska is the search for meaning in a meaningless world. Miles and his friends are forced to confront the idea that life is ultimately fatuous and that they must create their own purpose and meaning. This is exemplified by the “Great Perhaps” that Alaska speaks of, representing the idea that life is always moving forward, that we must constantly search for something more.
Here, the characters are all searching for meaning in their own unique ways. For example:
- Miles, the protagonist, is searching for meaning through his relationships with others. He is always looking for a sense of belonging and connection with others, especially with Alaska, with whom he develops a particularly personal friendship. He also searches for meaning in the books he reads and the lessons he learns from them. When trying to explain to his parents why he wants to move away from home and into a boarding school, he quotes Francois Rabelais’ last words –
“Francois 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.”
- Alaska, on the other hand, is searching for meaning through her quest for knowledge and understanding. She is constantly reading and asking questions, seeking to understand the world around her.
- The Colonel is searching for meaning through his rebellion against societal expectations. He rejects the status quo and seeks to forge his own path in life. However, his rebellious streak forces him to confront the true cost of his choices (eventually). At the end of the book, the guilt of having let Alaska drive inebriated in the dark while being under the influence himself leads to him questioning his own role in her eventual death that night. While Miles and he spends the rest of the novel trying to understand whether they played any part in the tragic event, they eventually settle on the knowledge that sometimes it is okay not to know what exactly happened, but it is not okay to use the search as an excuse to be unaccepting of reality.
Overall, Looking for Alaska by John Green is a novel that explores the existential themes of identity, freedom, and the search for meaning. Through the journey of Miles and his friends, Green illustrates how individuals must take responsibility for their own lives and create their own purpose in an often meaningless world. The novel serves as a powerful reminder that life is a journey and the search for meaning is a constant. It’s a reminder about everything in life being transient in nature, ever-evolving and a quest to keep holding on and going on.
In keeping with Miles’ obsession with last words, he finally comes to peace with Alaska’s death by quoting Thomas Edison:
“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.”
A fitting end to the quest – acceptance over the investigation. Peace over constant, nagging what-ifs. Taking life as it comes, regardless of its meaninglessness.