John Knowles wrote in various prose forms, including the novel and short story, but A Separate Peace was his most celebrated work. Knowles based the novel on his experiences at his own preparatory school, Phillips Exeter Academy, a place Knowles loved for its natural beauty and atmosphere. Rich in detail, the book presents readers with many complex themes, including individuality, denial, memory, and youth.
Knowles’s work stresses the concept of individuality and, inherently, resisting conformity. Finny epitomizes individuality; his confidence and his choices often cause discomfort in others. Finny wears a pink shirt to dinner, uses the school tie as a belt, and shares his feelings openly about emotional subjects such as his friendship with Gene. These actions place him apart from his classmates, who wear their uniforms properly and do not reveal their vulnerabilities. Finny’s sincerity also emphasizes his individuality: While most of his classmates act and speak as expected—properly and with regard to the addressed person’s class and station—Finny speaks simply and honestly. He speaks freely even to members of the school’s administration. While these adults seem taken aback, they never rebuke Finny for his behavior since his comments are sincere, confident, and always well intended.
Another topic central to A Separate Peace is denial. Finny’s claim that there is no war functions as the most obvious example of denial in the novel. Since he cannot play an active role in the war because of his injury, he flatly and fervently argues the war is nothing more than a ploy concocted by fat, old, wealthy men. Knowles also poignantly explores the nuances of denial in the characters of Gene and Finny after the latter’s fall from the tree. Gene is afraid to confront himself about why the limb shook, and Finny refuses to believe Gene’s revelation that he jounced the limb on purpose. The two stay friends as long as the issue remains overlooked.
Gene and Finny’s denial over the accident leads to significant pain, and the nature of Gene’s actions must eventually be confronted. After Finny’s leg breaks for the second time, he and Gene face reality together. Finny’s resolve finally fades, and he confronts Gene, unleashing all the worries and concerns that have plagued him since his accident. Relieved that Finny acknowledges what Gene has always felt (that he shook the limb on purpose), the young men finally come to peace with themselves and one another. Because denial has been replaced by acknowledgment of the truth, Gene feels peace even after losing his best friend.
Since the novel is framed as a flashback to years past, another theme central to the novel is remembrance. The adult Gene seems unafraid of reliving the past in his memory since the truth of what transpired was uncovered years ago. Readers may doubt the objectivity of Gene’s memories since he plays a central role in the story he narrates. By encapsulating the novel in memory, Knowles forces readers to question whether events transpired as Gene describes. Gene’s sense of peace at the close of the book, coupled with his critical and reflective exploration of his younger self, tends to indicate that Gene’s rendering of events is accurate. As a novel that encourages readers to value honesty and reality, several of the work’s central themes would be discredited if Gene’s version of events were unfaithful.
Knowles suggests that one’s setting has incredible power to evoke memories. The novel opens with Gene describing, in detail, Devon’s grounds. Including such details helps contextualize the story for readers, and Knowles expertly provides graphic descriptions of both natural objects (such as trees and rivers) and artificial structures (such as buildings on the Devon campus). These elements function as a framework for Gene to remember and, in many respects, relive the past.
The subject of youth is also fundamental to the novel. The story focuses on a group of young men who at first, in their junior year, seem protected from the war. Gene recalls that even some of the school staff made special allowances for the young men. During the summer of 1942, Gene and his friends came to represent pure freedom. They were carefree, and the older men (all too knowledgeable about the straining effects of war) admired these students’ situation: Gene, Finny, Brinker, and the others were all young men on the brink of going off to war but still inhabited a pocket of time in which they could live joyfully. Gene and his friends were bursting with potential, the potential to live gloriously or to die sorrowfully. Some would live sadly, like Leper, whose mind broke under the pressure of war; some would die tragically, like Finny, without even setting foot on a battlefield. A Separate Peace reminds readers that, even though one matures, youth is still accessible through memory. Likewise, revisiting one’s youth may create a sense of peace, a peace that is possible only with reflection.
This book opens with Gene Forrester’s return to Devon school after World War II to revisit the place where he believes he fought his war. He remembers his last year at Devon, when he became friends with his roommate, Finny.
While Gene is thoughtful and unsure of himself, Finny is filled with confidence. This confidence is based on a physical prowess which makes him the best athlete in the school. While Gene is capable of earning the top grades in his class, Finny is the undisputed class leader. Finny’s constant invention of pranks and games and his insistence on fun and good fellowship remind the boys, who have many kinds of trouble on their minds, that the joy of living should be valued above all things.
Gene comes to feel that there is a secret rivalry between him and Finny, he even suspects that Finny’s midnight larks are part of a plot to prevent him from getting the best grades. When he realizes that he is mistaken and that he has projected his own insecurity onto Finny, he is unable to accept this fact. Suddenly presented with a chance to hurt Finny, he causes an “accident” which results in a crippling compound fracture for Finney.
Most of the novel deals with Gene’s attempts to come to terms with his act. Finny does not suspect Gene, so Gene must deal with himself in moral isolation. Though Gene tries to confess, Finny will not listen to him. Only when their classmates hold a mock trial, do Finny and Gene face what Gene has done. Perhaps as a result of the trial, Finny rebreaks his leg and dies in the resulting operation. Before the operation, in a secret visit to Finny’s hospital room, Gene learns how much he has hurt Finny and how truly innocent Finny has always been.
Though often discussed as a novel for young people, A SEPARATE PEACE is rich enough to interest adult readers. Gene’s discovery that the real enemy is not across the ocean but in his own soul is convincing and moving.
Bell, Hallman B. A Separate Peace. Boston: Twayne, 1990. A collection of critical essays that give an excellent overall view of Knowles’s novel. Includes a useful bibliography.
Flum, Hanoch, and Harriet Porton. “Relational Processes and Identity Formation in Adolescence: The Example of A Separate Peace.” Genetic, Social, and General Monographs 121 (November, 1995): 369-390. The authors view the process of identity formation through the lens of the story of an adolescent boy’s experiences during World War II at a boarding school in New Hampshire. Using the events of the book as examples of the necessary connections that are essential to the process of development, the authors explore male adolescent growth.