Summary: 136 days before

Miles Halter, a high school student, plans to attend a boarding school, Culver Creek, for his junior year, and his parents throw him a going away party before he leaves. Although his parents insist that Miles invite all his “school friends,” only two acquaintances show up for the party. After the “friends” leave, Miles’s mother expresses concern that he wants to go to boarding school because he has no friends. Miles’s father asks Miles if he wants to go to Culver Creek just because that is where he himself went. Miles retrieves a biography of François Rabelais and quotes the poet to explain to his parents that his desire to go away for school is about “seeking the Great Perhaps.”

Summary: 128 days before

Miles’s parents drop Miles off at his dorm at Culver Creek. After he says goodbye, he begins to unpack. His roommate, Chip Martin, arrives and they unpack together. Chip, having learned the names of the countries around the world over the summer, begins listing off the countries on the map Miles hung on the wall. Miles tells Chip that, similar to how Chip learns geography, he memorizes people’s final words. Chip has some things stored at the school since he attended last year, so Miles goes with him to retrieve them. Chip instructs Miles to call him “The Colonel” and he gives Miles the nickname “Pudge.”

Chip describes two distinct groups within the social structure of Culver Creek to Miles: regular boarders such as himself, and those he calls “Weekday Warriors” because they are rich kids that go home to their parents’ mansions every weekend. Chip invites Miles to come with him to his friend Alaska’s dorm to buy cigarettes from her. Miles is instantly smitten with Alaska, who he thinks is beautiful. After buying the cigarettes, Miles and Chip go out to the lake to smoke and Miles smokes for the first time. After Chip leaves to catch up with his girlfriend Sara, Alaska arrives. She asks Miles about his hobby of remembering people’s last words and tells him that the last words of Simón Bolívar were about escaping a labyrinth. Miles and Alaska question what that means. They joke around and Alaska tells Miles she is going to find him a girlfriend.

Summary: 127 days before

When Miles asks Chip about Alaska the next day, Chip tells him that he does not know much about her home life and that Miles should not be so nosy. But he does tell Miles that Alaska has a boyfriend attending Vanderbilt University and that she is from a small town in Alabama called Vine Station. The Dean of Students (called “the Eagle” by some) stops by to welcome Miles and warn him to behave. At lunch, Chip introduces Miles to his friend Takumi and others. They talk about two people who were expelled the previous year—Marya and Paul—because someone ratted on them. As Miles learns, tattling on other students is considered unacceptable behavior at Culver Creek and those who do so are universally despised by the student body. 

Later that night, as Miles sleeps, several boys come into his room and shake him awake. Chip tells Miles to go with them since Chip assumes they are throwing him into the lake as part of a traditional hazing for new students. However, when the boys get Miles to the lake, they tape his arms and legs together, tell him to not be friends with Chip, and throw him into the lake. Miles manages get out of the lake without drowning. He goes to Alaska’s dorm hoping she can explain what just happened, but she is indifferent. Livid, Miles goes back to his room. When Chip asks why he is so mad about a regular hazing, Miles explains that he was bound with tape and told not to be friends with Chip. Miles announces that he will tell the Eagle about it tomorrow, but Chip discourages him from doing so because that is not how students resolve grievances at Culver Creek. But Chip does promise Miles to get revenge for the actions of the other boys. 

Summary: 126 days before

Miles wakes up on his first day of classes to find Chip declaring war against whoever threw Miles in the lake, especially since Chip discovered they had also peed in his shoes. He urges Miles to point out anyone who was involved. Overwhelmed with his new classes, Miles is relieved to have religion class after lunch—because he expects it to be easy and because Alaska, Chip, and Takumi are in it as well. The teacher is Dr. Hyde, who the students call “the Old Man.” After Hyde enters the room, Miles finds out it will not be an easy class after all, but he is intrigued because he wonders if this class will help answer Alaska’s question about the nature of the labyrinth and the way out of it. Later that day, Alaska apologizes to Miles for not taking him seriously the night before because she didn’t realize that the pranksters had bound him before throwing him in the lake.

Summary: 122 days before

After the last class of his first week at Culver Creek, Miles finds Chip in their room getting ready for a date with Sara, his girlfriend. Miles and Chip smoke in the steamy bathroom in the hopes that the steam will get the wrinkles out of Chip’s shirt as well as cover up the smoke from their cigarettes. Sara arrives at their dorm and argues with Chip, leading him to decide to not go out with her. Chip drinks vodka mixed with milk until he gets a call from Sara, who yells at him and says that the Weekday Warriors are angry because they believe that it was he who ratted out Paul and Marya, getting them expelled. 

Analysis: 136 days before–122 days before

Miles’s narration in the first chapter sets the stage for a story in the coming-of-age genre and introduces one of the central themes in the novel: the quest for a full and meaningful life. Miles’s way with words and intellectual curiosity are evident in his narration, which is in stark contrast to the “vastly, deeply uninteresting” friends that come to his going away party. It is thus no wonder that Miles seeks more interesting and meaningful relationships and experiences. When Miles cites the last words of the French poet François Rabelais (“I go to seek a Great Perhaps”) he hints that the transition he is about to embark upon is a kind of death. Miles wants to let his old life die and to remake a new life in a way that is more satisfying. Rabelais’ “Great Perhaps” also indicates that Miles may have vague expectations of a more interesting experience, but that he does not really know what to expect. This approach is consistent with other novels in the coming-of-age genre, in which a young protagonist experiences growth and maturation, but through a trying process he or she could not have predicted.

Miles’s first few hours at Culver Creek expose an inner conflict between doing what is right and doing whatever it takes to fit in, a dynamic that will continue throughout the novel. Miles’s choice to smoke a cigarette by the lake with Chip is the first of many decisions Miles will make to fit in with his new friends. He knows his parents would not approve and that he could get in serious trouble on his first day at school, but he does not hesitate to smoke, showing that Miles values belonging to the group more than anything else. This value in Miles is reinforced by Chip’s explicit instructions that the worst thing a person can do at Culver Creek is to rat out friends. Chip also identifies the people Miles should consider his enemies, like the Weekday Warriors and the Eagle, creating an “us-versus-them” social dynamic. This dynamic combined with Chip’s emphasis on loyalty strengthens the growing bond between Miles and his new friends. It also increases the potential for conflict, both externally between Miles and his group’s enemies, as well as internally for Miles between doing what’s right and being loyal.

Miles’s introduction to Alaska, whose paradoxical personality represents life at its most exciting and bewildering, is an important part of the novel’s rising action. Alaska is both beautiful and smart; a “cool” nerd who loves to read. She is unexpectedly intimate one moment, like when she grabs Miles’s hand in the dark and runs home with him, and cold another, as when she mocks Miles after he is thrown in the lake. Miles is deeply attracted to Alaska, but also confused by her. She makes him feel exhilarated, but also sometimes hurts him and makes him feel ridiculous. These confusing feelings are teaching Miles a lesson that he did not account for: his search for a meaningful life can be thrilling, but also disorienting. In Alaska, Miles may have found everything he is looking for, but more than he had bargained for. Miles’s overall experience thus far at Culver Creek reinforces this idea, punctuated by the Weekday Warriors’ prank of duct taping Miles and throwing him in the lake. Yes, Culver Creek has opened the doors of excitement and possibility for Miles, but Alaska and the lake incident show that with excitement comes the possibility of physical and emotional danger.