Looking for Alaska
Comparison of John Knowles’ Book, A Separate Peace, and John Green’s, Looking for Alaska
Comparing A Separate Peace and Looking for Alaska
A Separate Peace is set in a Vermont boarding school during the 1940s, and Looking for Alaska is set in an Alabama boarding school during the early twenty-first century, but despite the differences in setting these books can be compared through the similar purposes of their characters. In A Separate Peace there is Finny and in Looking for Alaska there is Alaska, these characters serve a similar purpose in their respective stories. The purpose of Finny and Alaska is to introduce a remarkable, interesting, and unique character, to provide a connection to the main character, and to demonstrate that everyone can suffer from internal collapse.
The first important purpose of Finny and Alaska is to demonstrate a unique personality fundamental to the connections between Finny, Alaska, and Gene and Miles. In A Separate Peace, Finny is shown to be an incredible athlete who is seemingly perfect. This statement is exemplified Gene’s description of Finny playing blitzball; “he created reverses and deceptions and acts of sheer mass hypnotism which were so extraordinary that they surprised even him.” (Knowles 31) Additionally, Finny is shown to be of honorable character as is illustrated by his set of rules, as Gene described,
“’Never say you are five feet nine when you are five feet eight and a half’ was the first one I encountered. Another was, “Always say some prayers at night because it might turn out that there is a God.”
But the one that had the most urgent influence in his life was, “You always win at sports.” (Knowles 26)
The irony is that he does not follow the school’s rules, but that does not necessitate a dishonorable character. In Looking for Alaska, Alaska is portrayed as a unique and interesting character, and she shares some similarities to Finny. The most prominent similarity is her desire to break the school’s rules. Though Finny and Alaska are somewhat similar, there are major differences between them. First of all, Alaska is not considered unique for being athletic or incredibly good at sports. Instead, Alaska is introduced as a physically attractive, interesting, and at times unstable character. Secondly, Alaska is shown to have self-destructive behavior and be very impulsive, and this is demonstrated through her excessive smoking and drinking habits. “She smiled with all the delight of a kid on Christmas morning and said, ‘Y’all smoke to enjoy it. I smoke to die.’” (Green 44) Although this is intended in a somewhat joking manner, this quote still exemplifies her self-destructive behavior because of her intensive smoking. While Finny appears to be somewhat impulsive, he does not share Alaska’s self-destructive behavior. Though they do have similarities, their differences indicate a slightly different purpose. Alaska is shown to be more flawed than Finny who is shown to be, in a sense, perfect. Finny’s major flaw is not being able to accept that everything is not perfect, as is shown by his failure to accept the truth. Finny’s misconstrued version of reality eventually leads to his death because of his failure to realize that Gene began to distrust him. Similarly, Alaska’s impulsiveness also ultimately causes her death because of her irresponsible driving.
The second primary purpose of Finny and Alaska is to provide a connection to Gene and Miles, respectively. Gene and Miles represent the voice in each book, but they are not necessarily the most important characters. In A Separate Peace, the story is told from the point of view of Gene, and yet almost the entirety of it concerns Finny and he is as important as Gene, if not more so. Looking for Alaska is told through Miles, but like a Separate Peace, most of the story concerns Alaska and she is at least as important as Miles. Finny is presented as Gene’s best friend and during their summer at Devon, and he encourages Gene to break the rules of the school. However, their friendship is not perfect, and Gene becomes paranoid that Finny is trying to constrain his studies by wasting his time. This is indicative of a highly competitive atmosphere at Devon. This ubiquitous attitude results in Gene causing Finny’s accident and, ultimately, his death. After Finny’s accident, however, it becomes clear that Gene regrets causing it and he is aware that his previous assumptions were wrong. Gene is filled with regret and anger at himself, “I hit him hard across the face. I didn’t know why for an instant; it was as though I were maimed. Then the realization that there was someone who was flashed over me.” (Knowles 71). This example makes it clear that Gene is, at the very least, angry with himself for causing Finny’s accident because he hit Quackenbush after being called maimed. In Looking for Alaska, Alaska not only a friend, but a love interest for Miles. The connection between Miles and Alaska is further complicated because of the addition of the Colonel and, to a lesser extent, Takumi; they also become friends with Miles and therefore are entangled in the story. Similarly to Finny, Alaska encouraged Miles to break the rules of the school and participate in the pranks on the weekday warriors. After Alaska’s death, Miles spent a large portion of his time grieving and attempting to decipher her death with the Colonel. From this it is clear that he not only cared about Alaska, but he wanted to find out more about her and the interesting circumstances of her death. Miles was partially responsible for Alaska’s death, as he and the Colonel allowed Alaska to drive while intoxicated. Therefore, he was not only filled with grief because of Alaska’s death, but also with regret because of his irresponsibility. From these connections it can be determined that an interesting, unique character must also have a strong connection with the primary character.
The third important purpose of Finny and Alaska is to demonstrate that anyone can suffer from internal collapse. Throughout a Separate Peace, Finny refuses to accept that everything is not perfect. He refuses to believe that there are losers in sports, even though there clearly are. He refuses to believe that Gene is the cause of his accident, “’I deliberately jounced the limb so you would fall off.’ He looked older than I had ever seen him. ‘Of course you didn’t’” (Knowles 62). He continues this attitude even though it becomes abundantly clear that Gene did indeed cause his accident. This ultimately leads to his internal collapse. Finny becomes increasingly upset, “’You get all your facts!’ I had never seen Finny crying, ‘You collect every f—ing fact there is in the world!’ He plunged out the doors” (Knowles 169). This quote demonstrates that Finny did not want the facts of his accident to be revealed, most likely because he eventually found out that Gene was the cause of it. Finny then fell down the stairs and was injured again, this time he was killed from his own bone marrow. Finny’s death is symbolic because it illustrates his internal collapse, via a death with a proximate internal cause. In Looking for Alaska, Alaska’s death was caused almost exclusively be her own behavior, as her death was caused by driving while drunk. Her internal collapse was ultimately the result of her mother’s death and her idleness when it happened. Because of this, she is very impulsive and shows little regard for her own life. Miles and the Colonel discovered the connection to her mother when contemplating the circumstances of her death, “She’s drunk and pissed off and she’s in a hurry, so she thinks she can squeeze past the cop car, and she’s not even thinking straight, but she has to get to her mom, and she thinks she can get past it somehow” (Green 211). This quote explains the significance between Alaska’s death and her mother’s death, for Alaska still felt regretful and angry at herself because of her inaction during her mother’s death. From these two examples, it can be concluded that although Finny and Alaska were unique and amazing in their own right that would not save them from themselves.
In summation, the books a Separate Peace by John Knowles and Looking for Alaska by John Green demonstrate the importance of a unique and interesting character and the significance of that character’s ultimate failure. The purpose of the character’s connection to the narrator can also be explored and it can be concluded that this connection is necessary, for if it were not neither Finny nor Alaska would be significant. It can also be concluded that an important character’s internal collapse can be important to a story, whether by the fault of another or not. All of these factors illustrate the advantages for high quality characters in books.
Looking for Alaska and the Concept of Reliability and Ethos
Credibility & Ethos Appeals
As aforementioned, On the Banning is split into two sections with respect to tone and method of addressing audience. In the first twenty seconds of his vlog, Green establishes his credibility in a humorous way: “it turns out the most challenged book of 2015 was Looking for Alaska, which was written by me” (0:12). The comedic inflection in the last two words—which can only properly be conveyed in the video itself—makes his audience laugh and creates a light-hearted tone while simultaneously introducing his credibility. After all, who better to talk about the novel in question than the author himself? At 24 seconds, he continues this interesting comedic take on credibility by saying “I suppose this is a kind of honor. I mean, Looking for Alaska contained the very same offensive language and sexually explicit descriptions ten years ago but was much less likely to be banned because, you know, not very many people had read it.” Again, he uses amusing inflection in the end of his sentence which indicates how much of a commercial failure the book was initially. By doing so, however, he heavily implies that the novel has made a major comeback in 2015—a humble and subtle way to hint at the novel’s and author’s success without flat-out saying it.
The moment this tone switches to become more thoughtful is another way Green appeals to ethos. “Anyway,” he says at 0:46, “I’m often asked to respond to the banning of Looking for Alaska from schools and libraries, so, okay. Here is my response.” The inflection in this sentence is once again used to divert the viewer’s attention away from mere vanity; by putting the stress at the “okay. Here is my response” part of the statement, he makes the viewer pay less attention to the fact that he is “often asked to respond” to the situation, but it still registers in the audience’s mind as an effective appeal to ethos. Then later, he furthers his unique method of forming his ethos appeals into mere implications by flat-out stating that his own opinions don’t matter in the long-run:
So, yeah, I don’t think Looking for Alaska is pornographic, and I don’t think its readers find it titillating. But, that noted, I don’t think it should be up to me whether Looking for Alaska (or actually any book) is in a school or a library because I am not a teacher or a librarian—the highly trained, criminally underpaid professionals we employ to make those decisions (2:04). . . . I think teachers and librarians know more about teaching and librarianship than I do. And I believe they must be allowed to do their jobs serving the whole public (2:50).
Here, he ironically claims that his own opinions don’t ultimately matter. Authors can make video responses to the banning of their books until the end of time, but until the professionals who Green believes are the proper people to decide these things are allowed to decide them, it is all for nothing—which may explain his initial hesitance to discuss the topic at all.
A Look at the Success of the “On the Banning Of Looking For Alaska” Video Uploaded On YouTube
The Rhetorical Effectiveness of a YouTube Video
On April 12th, 2016, young adult novelist John Green uploaded a YouTube video titled On the Banning of Looking for Alaska, in which he discussed the circumstances surrounding his first novel being named the number-one most challenged book in the United States in 2015 (American Library Association). The video was posted to the Vlogbrothers channel—a decade-long video blog collaboration with his younger brother Hank who, together with John, are the leaders of an internet community known as Nerdfighters—a group of self-proclaimed “nerds” formed around the brothers’ videos who share similar interests and goals, such as making the world a better place through charity organizations like Project for Awesome and sharing enjoyable experiences such as the annual VidCon.
The duo regularly uploads videos twice a week that range in content from comedic to serious material and even educational information. To exemplify such a range, one of their videos is titled Understanding Trump’s Executive Order on Immigration and goes into depth explaining the President’s controversial immigration act through John’s best unbiased, educational manner of speaking; another is titled 54 JOKES! In Four Minutes! in which Hank rapidly recites an absurd number of puns in a limited amount of time. In an effort to be brief and concise in their videos, the Green brothers have a self-implemented four-minute rule—which states that their videos must be no longer than four minutes or else they must suffer a punishment chosen by the other brother and often the community as a whole (this explains Hank’s challenge to list as many jokes as possible within that time frame). Because of this rule, their vlogs are kept brief and the brothers usually cannot say the entirety of what they’d like on the subject at hand. Therefore, what usually results is a four-minute video in which each brother speaks very rapidly in order to get his point across in four minutes—which explains why John in his Looking for Alaska vlog utters 700 words in 3 minutes, 18 seconds. Due to this rule, the brothers are forced to only include the most important points and, therefore, achieve an effective sense of exigence and urgency in their discussions.
In this particular video, John begins by assuming a comedic persona to introduce his topic, making some light jokes at his own expense and using humor to ease into the serious subject. This is likely done to maintain his audience and avoid turning them off by being serious right away. At about the fifty-second mark, however, he relinquishes his blithe tone in exchange for a more serious and thoughtful one. It is in this tone that he defends the merit of his novel’s content and criticizes the motivations of the many schools and libraries who chose to challenge or ban it in 2015. His argument is rife with effective rhetoric, including mostly logic-based lines of reasoning.
Looking for Alaska: Self-Destructive Behavior
Self-destructive behavior runs rampant in this book written by John Green. According to psychologists, self-destructive behavior is used as a coping mechanism when one is overwhelmed. In this novel, this type of response is seen mostly in Miles and Alaska. They both have different reasons for this behavior, as well as vastly different outlets for it.
Miles Halter is the protagonist. He is described as a mostly passive participant in the novel. He is not particularly handsome, or interesting, but lets himself be swept up into exciting situations by his new friends. Alaska, to Miles, is a dream. She is passionate, elusive and unpredictable. Alaska is, to him, an unreachable animal that refuses to be caged. His admiration for her is mostly one-dimensional. He likes the attributes of her that she herself puts out there, although her personality type seems neither natural nor sustainable.
Miles seems to be the perfect person to tell the story, as the perfect onlooker. His self-destructive behavior comes, one the one hand, from the fact that he eventually falls in love with someone as broken as Alaska. He seems to be blinded by this novel personality. On the other hand, another source of self-destruction stems from not having been very popular in his last school (his going-away party in which only two people show up). Suddenly he is part of something, and he‘s not willing to let this opportunity pass him by. His passiveness is also transferred for his love of biographies, probably the only kind of book in which a person can‘t see themselves a part of.
Alaska Young has a deep sense of guilt for her mother‘s death, which she blames herself for, as she was too young to call the police. This is the root of her personality and the reason why she acts the way she does. She‘s not unstable, but she is reckless, like somebody who knows they‘re living on borrowed time.
“Alaska finished her cigarette and flicked it into the river. ‘Why do you smoke so damn fast?’ I asked. She looked at me and smiled widely, and such a wide smile on her narrow face might have looked goofy were it not for the unimpeachably elegant green in her eyes. She smiled with all the delight of a kid on Christmas morning and said, ‘Y’all smoke to enjoy it. I smoke to die.” (Chapter Nine).
Smoking is one of many ways in which Alaska is able to vent her guilt by punishing herself. This type of behavior is more pronounced in her personality because she fully realizes what she is doing to herself. This type of act is not unlike someone with an eating disorder. She starves herself of positive things in her life, like a future. Alaska is special in the sense that she remains aloof and cool in a way not many people can. People eventually lose their aloofness sometime. Alaska’s unravelling just seems to be part of that enigmatic personality. In fact, everything she does seems to be part of that image. For example, having an older boyfriend who is obviously into her, yet flirting with Miles.
Self-destructive behavior is seen in today’s youth time and time again. The most difficult thing is recognizing it. For Alaska, the core reason of her self-destructive behavior was known to her, but some of us may not realize why we act the way we act. Some just want to feel alive, while others, like Alaska, want to punish themselves. Aside from the most prevalent self-destructive behavior: suicide, self-harm, eating disorders and substance abuse, there are more subtle behaviors. Smoking, risky sexual behavior, drinking, drugs, procrastination and getting into trouble are quite common in teens.
In this novel, this type of behavior gets Miles a broken heart. He falls for a girl who doesn‘t love herself enough to make good choices. A normal teenager would usually do something stupid among friends, and by themselves, once in a while. The first is to fit in, for attention or to seem cool. The latter is for some wild desire all humans have to experience excitement. Miles becomes cool by proxy, but he doesn’t have the innate devil-may-care attitude his peers have. To him, Alaska is like no one he has ever met, and he can‘t help falling in love with her, even though any chance of a good relationship is at best an unreal hope. It feels like he knows he has to take this opportunity to take in all of Alaska, like a weak plant latching on to a strong tree.
Alaska‘s result is far more pronounced. Although the author is purposefully vague about the cause of the accident, the text suggests suicide. Her behavior is unsustainable. She seems to be competing against herself, whilst putting her friends through the same trials, in a never ending cycle that only gets riskier. Although she is romanticized by the protagonist, she‘s seen like that as well by young readers. They like that she’s interesting, somehow untouchable. The only way to keep that image untainted was either to have her kicked off, run away, or killed. Her death makes her so much more memorable. She dies in her peak, untamed and so alive even after her death.
Looking for Alaska clearly shows an array of behaviors, most of which are harmful. For Miles, being so passive is a destructive behavior that shows that he has very little self-confidence, but he also shows another type of reasoning, which is the following of destructive people. On the other end of the spectrum is a girl who has no consideration for her well-being. She wants to die, she wants the reckoning. The novel is a piece of John Green’s vision, but real life doesn‘t work that way. Unsustainable behaviors will end, one way or another.
The Worst Day: Putting Alaska’s Life in Perspective
“After. Nothing is ever the same” (Green 12). After the worst day of Alaska Young’s life, her whole world is turned upside down and rearranged. John Green’s novel, Looking for Alaska, demonstrates the power and importance that death, suffering, and unhappiness have in life. Following the traumatic death of her mother, Alaska struggles to let go of the guilt and sadness associated with this one day of her life. These emotions are transformed into habits that continue to define who she is. Alaska’s excessive activeness, risky behaviors, obsession with suffering, and familial relationships are a direct effect of the worst day of her life.
At Culver Creek, Alaska is always the first to have an idea, the first to lead a prank, the first to do something new. She is constantly leading the way and making decisions for herself and those around her. One of her friends, Miles, cannot help but decide, “That if people were rain, (he) was drizzle and she was a hurricane” (88). This hurricane that Alaska has become envelops her friends in a way that her passivity could not envelop her mother when she was dying. When Alaska’s mother began to die, Alaska only screamed and cried while her mother held her head and jerked around on the floor. After her mother had stopped moving and was dead, Alaska simply sat on the floor with her. She did not call anyone for help, not her father or the police (119). Although she probably could not have saved her mother, Alaska sees this moment of complete passivity as one of her weaknesses. This brief moment in time leads Alaska to be excessively active in the years to come. Heavy smoking, drinking, and other risky behaviors are just another part of Alaska’s daily life. She is the person that Miles and the Colonel go to for “hook-ups”: cigarettes and alcohol. Whenever possible, Alaska tries to keep several bottles of Strawberry Hill wine buried in the forest. Aware of the health risks that smoking and drinking impose, Alaska partakes in substance abuse unabashedly. She goes so far as to say that, “Y’all smoke to enjoy it, I smoke to die” (44). However, substance abuse is not the only risk that Alaska takes in life. Rules are meant to be constantly broken, both at school and in the rest of life. And although Alaska and the Colonel plan out their pranks with every minuscule detail accounted for, Alaska still manages to risk everything when she sends out twenty extra progress reports (109). This constant rule breaking, trouble making, and risk taking are direct effects of Alaska’s worst day. Her mother died of an aneurysm, which is unexpected and shows no symptoms.
There is no way that Alaska or her father could have seen her mother’s death coming. This sort of death is particularly hard to comprehend, as it is so unexpected and there isn’t a situational factor to blame. On this day, Alaska learns that death and life are fickle things. Alaska doesn’t participate in reckless behaviors because she does not value her life, but rather because she understands that people die every day for no good reason. During her junior year and throughout the rest of her life, Alaska develops an obsession with human suffering. Fifty-two days before, Alaska tells Miles, “There’s always suffering … homework or malaria or having a boyfriend who lives far away … suffering is universal” (82). Alaska also uses the topic of human suffering to write her final paper in religions class. To Alaska, the most important question that human beings must answer is, “How will we ever get out of this labyrinth of suffering?” (158). Finally, Alaska writes in the margins of her book that the only way out of the labyrinth of suffering is “straight & fast” (155). It is clear that Alaska’s every day was consumed with the thought of suffering, both her own and that of those surrounding her. Yet, this obsession with suffering must have originated somewhere. Like most of Alaska’s habits, this one also stems from her worst day. While her mother is lying on the floor, holding her head and jerking, Alaska screams and cries. It is not until her mother finally dies that Alaska settles down. When she tells the story, she says that, “I thought [my mom] had fallen asleep and that whatever had hurt didn’t hurt anymore” (119). This idea that her mother had stopped suffering when she died is something that Alaska struggles with the rest of her life.
Is suffering only defeated in death? Does to live mean to suffer? After her worst day, her mother is not suffering at all, but Alaska is suffering a great deal. On that fateful day, Alaska loses more than just her mother; she loses her father, as well. Although her father is technically still alive and around, their relationship can never be the same. Her father only blames Alaska briefly for her mother’s death, but this short blame will add to the constant guilt she carries around. From that moment on, it will be hard for Alaska to spend time at home, where her mother’s absence is the felt the strongest. When it comes time for Thanksgiving break, Alaska elects to stay at Culver Creek and convinces Miles to stay with her. Miles asks her why she won’t go home, and Alaska answers, “I’m just scared of ghosts, Pudge. And home is full of them” (80). Whether accidentally or on purpose, Alaska distances herself from her father, as well, when she distances herself from the ghosts. Everything about Alaska is the way it is because of her worst day. Her habits, thoughts, and familial relationships have been largely impacted.
Alaska made the mistake of letting a single day rearrange her past and her future. It would be easy to say that her mistake was in not forgiving herself and holding on. But, what if the true mistake was actually in differentiating between a best and a worst? A notable Buddhist koan attempts to show us, “That there is no best and no worst, that those judgements have no real meaning because there is only what is” (195). Maybe if Alaska had accepted her mother’s death as just another day, it would not have had to color her entire world. Maybe without the labels we give to days and hours they wouldn’t be so significant.