The novel opens at the end of summer with Miles Halter preparing for his going away party. While Miles understands his current social status and is not surprised when only two acquaintances attend, his parents begin to wonder if his lack of friends is the reason Miles wants to move from his public school in Florida to his future private school in Alabama. Miles explains his decision to transfer to his father’s prestigious alma mater, Culver Creek Preparatory School with a quote from François Rabelais’s last words, “I go to seek a Great Perhaps.”
Move in day at Culver Creek in Birmingham is extremely hot. Miles’s parents briefly move him in before Miles is left to decorate the room on his own. He imagines a conversation with his roommate where he finds Miles hilarious, but in reality Miles meets his new roommate half-naked after taking a shower. Chip Martin, Miles’s new roommate, introduces himself, describing his separated parents, his status as a scholarship student, and demonstrating his talent for memorization by rattling off a list of the world’s countries in alphabetical order. Miles shares his fascination with memorizing the last words of famous people. As they share more about themselves and continue to decorate the room, Chip tells Miles his nickname, the Colonel, and ironically begins calling slender Miles Pudge.
Soon after, the Colonel introduces Pudge to Alaska, their neighbor and the Colonel’s friend. Pudge is immediately taken with the beautiful blond with stacks of books in her room. Swept up in his new friends, Pudge buys cigarette for the Colonel from Alaska and they walk to the lake on campus. While sitting by the lake, Pudge smokes his first cigarette and is introduced to the menacing swan that stalks the school property on behalf of Mr. Starnes AKA the Eagle, the dean of students. Miles is left to himself smoking until Alaska joins him again. Knowing his love of famous last words, Alaska quotes Simón Bolívar’s supposed last words “Damn it. How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!” (p.54.) When they talk about Alaska’s current boyfriend and Pudge’s lack of a girlfriend, Alaska promises to find a girl for Pudge.
The following morning Pudge is properly introduced to the Eagle and his Look of Doom before meeting the Colonel’s friend, Takumi, at lunch. Over bufriedos (fried burritos) they all discuss the expulsion of Alaska’s former roommate and her Weekday Warrior boyfriend the year before. Pudge decides to get a good night’s sleep before the first day of school but he is awoken in the middle of the night, taped like a mummy, and thrown into the lake by unknown assailants. Barely escaping his watery death, Pudge returns to his room. The Colonel impresses upon him the importance of not ratting out other students and suggests focusing on getting even.
The actual first day of class is not as problematic. Miles struggles with French and meets Dr. Hyde, his difficult World Religions teacher. Afterschool Pudge is introduced to the Colonel’s on-again off-again girlfriend Sara as well as the Colonel’s technique for drinking in the dormitory without being caught; adding milk to vodka.
In the opening of the Looking for Alaska, author John Green gives the reader insight into the mindset of the protagonist Miles Halter. Moving away from his parents and old school life, we learn that Miles is primarily concerned with revamping his social status at his new school. A bit of a loner and social outcast at his former school, Pudge looks to the Colonel for guidance and easily falls in with the Colonel’s social group.
As early as Pudge’s going away party, Green introduces the reader a major theme throughout the novel – expectations versus reality. In a rare instance, Pudge’s expectations match his reality when only two people attend his party. Perhaps driven by the low attendance at the party, Pudge is determined to make new friends at his new school. He imagines scenarios in which he makes friend easily with his humor, a trait that Pudge never develops. In his expectations for making new friends, Pudge gives himself quite a bit of agency or ability, but in reality he makes friends by being in the right place at the right time.
In contrast to Pudge’s timid and passive behavior, the Colonel serves as a foil with his boisterous and presumptuous mannerisms. He makes friends for Pudge by including him and actively pursues the friendship by giving Pudge his nickname. Initially the power differential in their friendship is uneven; the Colonel – fitting for his nickname – truly is a leader and Pudge is just along for the ride.
The swan is first introduced in the opening chapters and is a reoccurring character later in the book. The swan is a symbol for Alaska. As a creature that is often romanticized for its beautiful form and passivity, the swan of Culver Creek is described as a menacing creature that should be avoided. In the same way that swans are glamorized by their physical appearance, Pudge admires Alaska’s beauty when they spend time together but is confused when she does not offer to help him after he is thrown in the lake by the Weekday Warriors. The Colonel describes Alaska as “moody” in the same way that the swan should be avoided. Pudge’s expectations for his friendship with Alaska do not reflect the reality of the situation, but he continues to fantasize about the mysterious girl that does not allow him to get too close.
The warning to avoid the swan serves to foreshadow future events with Alaska. In the back of his mind, Pudge is wary of the swan in the same way that he does not fully trust Alaska’s unpredictable behavior. Trust is an important theme that Green also addresses in the first chapters. The Colonel explains that Pudge cannot go to the administration after he is nearly drowned by the Weekday Warriors because there is an implied code of trust amongst students to never rat each other out. Instead, the Colonel puts his faith in Pudge when he allows him to join in on their pranks to get revenge on the Weekday Warriors.