Like many other readers, I’m a huge fan of John Green’s work—especially Looking for Alaska, which was awarded the Michael L. Printz Award in 2006. Looking for Alaska is funny, sad, and powerful, and most importantly, it makes you think long after you’ve put the novel down. But as much as I enjoy the book from a reader’s perspective, I actually enjoy it more from a writer’s perspective.
For this post, I’d like to talk about two of the more famous scenes from the novel—the oral sex scene and Pudge and Alaska’s make-out scene. The first scene involves the main character, Pudge, receiving oral sex from his new Romanian girlfriend, Lara.
And then she wrapped her hand around it and put it into her mouth.
We were both very still. She did not move a muscle in her body, and I did not move a muscle in mine. I knew that at this point something else was supposed to happen, but I wasn’t quite sure what.
She stayed still. I could feel her nervous breath. For minutes…she lay there, stock-still with my penis in her mouth, and I sat there, waiting.
And then she took it out of her mouth and looked up at me quizzically.
“Should I do something? … Should I, like, bite it?”
“Don’t bite! I mean, I don’t think. I think—I mean, that felt good. That was nice. I don’t know if there’s something else.”
“I mean, but you deedn’t—”
“Um. Maybe we should ask Alaska.” (Green 127)
Pudge and Lara ask Alaska, their sexually advanced friend—and the girl that Pudge secretly loves—for advice. After laughing at them, Alaska shows them exactly how it is supposed to happen with a tube of toothpaste. Afterward, Pudge and Lara return to Lara’s room, to try again.
Lara and I went back to her room, where she did exactly what Alaska told her to do, and I did exactly what Alaska said I would do, which was to die a hundred little ecstatic deaths, my fists clenched, my body shaking. It was my first orgasm with a girl, and afterward, I was embarrassed and nervous, and so, clearly, was Lara, who finally broke the silence by asking, “So, want to do some homework?” (Green 128)
The passage is beautifully written and painfully funny, but at first glance, the passage seems to serve no real purpose in the novel. It’s plausible that by having Pudge and Lara ask Alaska for advice, Green is establishing the close-knit friendship of the main characters; yet one could argue that this is already depicted in the prank scene from earlier in the novel. Also, this scene does not need to reinforce that Pudge is a novice at relationships, as the reader sees this in tamer scenes involving Pudge’s first date and first make-out session with Lara.
While it appears that the oral sex scene may be unnecessary, the next sexual scene is a needed—if not pivotal—part of the novel. Not twenty-four hours after his first oral sex experience, Pudge and Alaska make out. Pudge has pined after Alaska for months, and on a whim, he is able to have her, if only for a few moments.
I laughed, looked nervous, and she leaned in and tilted her head to the side, and we were kissing. Zero layers between us. Our tongues danced back and forth in each other’s mouth until there was no her mouth and my mouth but only our mouths intertwined. She tasted like cigarettes and Mountain Dew and wine and Chap Stick. Her hand came to my face and I felt her soft fingers tracing the line of my jaw. We lay down as we kissed, she on top of me, and I began to move beneath her. … A hand grabbed one of mine and she placed it on her stomach. I moved slowly on top of her and felt her arching her back fluidly beneath me.
… She moved my hand from her waist to her breast, and I felt cautiously, my fingers moving slowly under her shirt but over her bra, tracing the outline of her breasts and then cupping one in my hand, squeezing softly. “You’re good at that,” she whispered. Her lips never left mine as she spoke. We moved together, my body between her legs.
“This is so fun,” she whispered, “but I’m so sleepy. To be continued?” She kissed me for another moment, my mouth straining to stay near hers, and then she moved from beneath me, placed her head on my chest, and fell asleep instantly.
We didn’t have sex. We never got naked. I never touched her bare breast, and her hands never got lower than my hips. It didn’t matter. As she slept, I whispered, “I love you, Alaska Young.” (Green 130-131)
Like the oral sex scene with Pudge and Lara, this passage is also beautifully written. Green’s language pulls the reader into the scene, and while the scene is not explicit, the reader experiences all of the wants and yearnings of the main character. This scene firmly establishes Pudge’s desire for Alaska, with his mouth “straining to stay near hers” as she pulls away. This act also haunts Pudge throughout the rest of the novel, as Alaska dies the next day, leaving her promise of “to be continued” unfulfilled.
It isn’t until comparing both scenes that the main purpose of the oral sex passage is revealed. Pudge has a girlfriend—a girlfriend willing to have sex with him—but what he wants is a relationship with Alaska—the beautiful, mysterious girl that floats just outside of reach. This is further established later in the novel, as Pudge is unable to continue his relationship with Lara after Alaska’s death.
Although Pudge orgasms in the scene with Lara, Green does not use romantic and lush words when describing the act. Instead of fully fleshing out the scene, Green summarizes the act for the reader, opting not to have the reader experience Pudge’s physical reaction. The scene creates a distance between the reader and Pudge, similar to the physical and emotional distance between Pudge and Lara.
However, in the make-out scene with Alaska, Green’s words paint a much more romantic picture. Pudge focuses of the fluidity of her body, the way her hands feel against his face, the way his hands feel against her body. Pudge is active in the scene; his desire for Alaska paramount. As Pudge relives the scene after Alaska falls asleep, he is content with not taking any of her clothes off; he is content with just kissing and touching. Pudge likes Lara, but he loves Alaska.
When comparing both scenes, it is clear that the oral sex scene serves a greater purpose than just providing humor or “shock value.” By including the scene, Green provides an interesting dynamic between what Pudge has with Lara, and what Pudge wants with Alaska. The scene successfully serves its main purpose—to support and reinforce character development.
(Works Cited: Green John. Looking for Alaska. New York: Dutton. 2005)
FYI: Most of this post came from an essay I wrote in the Fall of 2007 during my first semester at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. I was pleasantly surprised to hear the author discussing this same topic a few months later. In a blog posted on January 30, 2008, Green talks about why he crafted the scenes as such, stating, “I wanted to draw a contrast between that scene (the oral sex scene) when there’s a lot of physical intimacy but it’s untimely very emotionally empty and the scene that immediately follows it, when there’s not a serious physical interaction but there’s this intense emotional connection.” Green goes on to say that he’s trying to show that, “…physical intimacy can never stand in for emotional closeness, and that when teenagers attempt to conflate these ideas it inevitably fails.”
Of course, Green doesn’t tell us this in the novel; rather he gets this point across with the juxtaposition of the two “sex” scenes (in other words: Show, Don’t Tell). This not only allows the author to get his point across in a non-didactic manner, but it also allows the reader to be an active participant in the process, which is what I think all literary author’s should strive for.