A Separate Peace

Introduction to A Separate Peace

A novel of teenagers, A Separate Peace has been written by John Knowles. The novel appeared first time in 1959 out of the short story of the author titled “Phineas.” The story emerged three years back in the magazine, Cosmopolitan. When Knowles sensed the popularity of the story, hie decided to transform it into a novel. The novel not only popularized the name of John Knowles but also fetched him more work and money. The story shows the teenagers coming to age after taking part in WWII and showing patriotism, moral sense, and loss of their innocent childhood.

Summary of A Separate Peace

The story of the novel starts with Gene Forrester, a teenager, returning to his school after 14 years when he leaves it after his graduation. In his school, Devon, Gene feels nostalgic about the marble stairs and the big tree on the bank of the river of the same name. After visiting both of these places, he recalls his student days at Devon and becomes nostalgic about the weather of the 1940s when he was just 16 living there with his roommates, specifically, Finn when WWII suddenly ushered an era of enthusiasm for the boys to enlist in the army and fight for the nation.

The story takes a plunge into the past of both the boys when they were chums despite having contradictory personas. As an introvert and rational, Gene goes opposite to Finny’s extrovert and carefree life. He also recalls their society when Finny used to jump into that the river Devon. Although their friendship continues, they also become rivals to each other during those days, specifically at the juncture when Gene excels in studies, while Phineas tries to outdo him in athletics if not in studies. In fact, Gene is somewhat jealous of Finny. It ends when both jumped into the Devon river, fracturing Finny’s leg after he slips when plunging into the river. Unfortunately, it crippleds Finny’s ability to take part in athletics, marring his dreams of excellence in sports.

Instead of becoming happy, Gene rather becomes sorrowful over this disability of his friend and sheds off his jealousy immediately. After this, he tries his best to reconcile with the fact about his responsibility in his disability. The guilty conscience shakes him to the core. He even goes too far and admits to his friend his role in making him slip from the branch to cause his fall. Although Phineas, a good-natured friend, does not believe, yet he feels hurt at this mischievous act of his friend.

Meanwhile, the WWII starts, making the boys get enlisted in the army. A student, Brinker Hadley, calls all the students to join the armed forces for the country at which his friend, Leper Lepellier, joins the paratrooper, an act that traumatizes his personality. His other classmates, too, join different branches of the armed forces. During this time, Brinker accuses Gene of shaking the branch, causing the deliberate fall of his friend Finny, making him feel ashamed at his act. Finny, after knowing his willful involvement in making him disabled, leaves them but falls down on the stairs. He again fractures the same leg. In severe trauma, he avoids the apology sought by Gene. But later, he accepts it after both conclude that the accident is impulsive and not a deliberate one. Both the friends wait for better days when Finny informs Gene that he is undergoing surgery the next day. However, to his dismay, his friend does not see the light of the day and succumbs to the surgery.

Meanwhile, both, Brinker and Gene, graduate and join the army in different branches. Brinker goes to the Coast Guard, while Gene joins the Navy. However, what Gene sees is that people often criticize each other for their fears. He sees that Finny was a different sort of person, a truly honest fellow, who knew how to fight with himself. He then starts meditating upon the enemy, war, and peace, watching himself in the Navy.

Major Characters of A Separate Peace

  1. Interdependence: The friendship of Gene and Finny is based on interdependence. Despite having contradictory personality types of both teenagers, they depend on each other in various ways. Gene’s envy turns into jealousy and resentment, leading to cause the downfall of Finny when plunging into the Devon river, the favorite sport of both friends that not only tests their friendship but also their interdependence. On the other hand, Finny does not believe that his friend’s envy could turn into jealousy and that he could turn against him, going so low despite having academic excellence. In the case of both of them, this interdependence continues until Finny dies and Gene feels that he is going to the graveyard instead of Finny when his funeral rites end.
  2. Rivalry: The novel shows the theme of rivalry on two levels; the first one is between both friends, Finny and Gene, while the second is between nations whose hint appears in the shape of the recruitment fever among the schoolboys. Finny is rival to Gene in athletics, while Gene excels in academic studies. Both of them are rivals of each other in different fields. Yet, when they are about to graduate, they come to know that they are to join the forces to rival some nation as WWII is just around the horizon.
  3. Identity: A Separate Peace shows the theme of identity through the long process that Gene and Finny go through to recognize their own identities and come to terms with themselves. This attempt comprises their definition of their identities concerning their environment. Gene comes to the point that he is to succeed academically, the reason for his excellent record. However, as far as Finny is concerned, he comes to the point that he can excel only in sports or athletics and not in studies. It comes to the fore when Finny dies, and Gene comes to the point of having complicated issues about his identity, for his environment shows him the absence of his friend’s existence.
  4. Coming of Age: The novel, A Separate Peace, shows the coming of the age of two teenagers; Gene and Finny. Both friends are rivals to each other since their childhood days and continue until they graduate from school and are about to join the army. However, at this age, they come to know that they have been rivals to each other. That is why Finny does not believe that Gene could go so low as to cause his downfall from the tree, crippling him for good. Yet, it seems true as is clear from the admission of Brinker later. The final arrival of Gene to Devon is a reminder of his being nostalgic after he has matured and thought long and hard about war and peace.
  5. Optimism: The novel demonstrates the theme of optimism through Phineas or Finny who sees athletics as the only way to succeed in the world after achieving excellence in it. His belief in the sports and their goodness never shakes even though different persons approach him to disclose his friend’s shameful act of making him slip down. Yet he stays optimistic and never loses heart, thinking that they, along with his friend Gene, will take part in the Olympics and that they would not become the fodder of WWII. Even in the end his motto, “you always win” resounds when Finny dies.
  6. Friendship: The novel shows the theme of friendship through the friendship of Gene, Finny, and their common friends such as Leper and Brinker. They stay friends until WWII breaks out, while the friendship of Finny and Gene seems unbreakable. It is because despite having sensed the mischievous act of his friend making him slip from the branch of the tree when jumping into the river for fun, Finny never accepts this hard truth. It, however, later puts him to shame. This is merely the push of his friendship that does not let him believe in such acts.
  7. Memories: The novel shows the thematic strand of memories through the reversion of Gene to his school days, his visit to the marbled stairs, and the Devon river. The flashbacks appear on his mind’s screen and make him nostalgic about Finny, his act of making him slip down from the tree branch, and Brinker’s admission of his mistake.
  8. Reality: The novel shows the bitter real world through the friendship of Gene and Finny, for when both are about to launch their career, Gene tries to create obstacles in his friend’s ways and succeeds, though, Finny never believes him to be so.
  9. Rebellion: The novel shows the thematic strand of rebellion through Finny who is opposite to his friend, Gene, a law-abiding friend. However, the same rebellion costs him dearly when his rule-abiding friend causes his downfall.
  10. Denial: The theme of denial is significant in the novel in that it appears when Finny does not trust anybody talking about his friend’s betrayal, or about his role in his downfall.

Major Themes in A Separate Peace

  1. Gene Forrester: Gene, a teenager, is not only the protagonist of the novel but also the narrator of the story. His flashbacks present the entire picture of his childhood. His unreliability could be gauged from his return after he reaches thirty and goes to have a look at the two significant places in the Devon school to reflect upon his life in school with his friend, Phineas or Finny. He has passed most of his time in his love and hate relationships with Finny. Despite having jealously between them, both cannot live without each other. However, at one point, Gene causes him to slip from the tree and fall into the Devon river, fracturing his leg. After this, he fails to participate in sports. However, it transpires later that Gene has done it on purpose after much confusion about his admission and Finny’s denial of his involvement that Brinker proves later.
  2. Finny: Contrary to Gene, Finny is not only an extrovert but also a confident fellow. He has the ability to excel in athletics, if not in studies, and invites envy of Gene which later transforms into jealousy. His spontaneity lies in his self-confidence in jumping into the Devon river to show his fearlessness to other boys. Even Gene considers him a model who has the ability to resolve any dilemma, a rare feat of a boy at that time. His enjoyment and thrill lie in his achievements rather than in the sense of defeating his competitors. Yet, this trust in his friends leads him to fracture his leg over which he feels ashamed of later when Brinker discloses the reality of the accident. His faith in everything having a good spirit costs him dearly in the shape of that accident.
  3. Leper Lepplier: Leper is the third significant character of the novel who is with the duo until he joins the armed forces. He is the one who rallies the boys to join get recruited in the army. A young boy from Vermont, he is a true nature lover, very calm and resilient who loves skiing and outdoor sports. However, despite his enthusiasm, he is one of their classmates who does not pay attention to unpopularity, though, later he desires to stay close to Gene. By the end of the novel, traumatized Leper breaks down due to the pressure of staying in the battle zone.
  4. Brinker Hadley: A foil of Finny, Brinker is an orthodox fellow, who has the courage of his conviction to implement his ideas. However, his excellence lies in total adherence to the rules and laws and getting justice based on the system instead of engaging in innocent childish behavior. In a sense, it is his positivity that leads him to feel a responsibility toward adulthood. He resents war despite joining it, seeing injustice and madness involved in it.
  5. Cliff Quackenbush: The character of Cliff is significant in the novel in that he becomes powerful than Gene when he is the manager and Gene his assistant. However, despite his managerial role, he never becomes popular among the boys, which is the result of his frustrating behavior with them.
  6. Chet Douglass: The character of Chet is significant in that actually he rivals Gene in winning class valediction position. Himself a sportsman, Chet is a good student and sincere fellow.
  7. Mr. Ludsbury: As the administrator of the dormitory of Gene, he proves a disciplinarian stricter than other students thought of him. His main obsession in the school is to smoothen the issues and remove anarchy.
  8. Dr. Stanpole: The significance of Dr. Stanpole lies in his being the resident doctor of the school. He also takes care of the students in every way, sensing difficulties they may face in their lives.
  9. Mr. Patch-Withers: He replaces the headmaster during the summer season and treats the students leniently.

Writing Style of A Separate Peace

The writing style of A Separate Peace is somewhat lyrically descriptive when Knowles touches the characters but narrative when he describes the incidents. Whereas sentence length is concerned, John Knowles has paid special attention to it, writing not very long and not very short sentences with simple and direct diction. In terms of literary devices, he turns to personifications, alliterations as well as metaphors.

Analysis of the Literary Devices in A Separate Peace

  1. Action: The main action of the novel comprises some years of the life of Gene and his friend Finny during school and after their graduation. The rising action occurs when Finny slips from the tree and falls down in the Devon river, while the falling action occurs when Brinker convinces Finny that Gene has caused his downfall.
  2. Alliteration: A Separate Peace shows the use of alliteration at several places such as,
    i. I felt fear’s echo, and along with that I felt the unhinged, uncontrollable joy
    which had been its accompaniment and opposite face. (Chapter-1)
    ii. There were a couple of places now which I wanted to see. Both were fearful
    sites, and that was why I wanted to see them. (Chapter-I)
    iii. We left the party, both of us feeling fine. (Chapter-2)
    iv. I turned to say something else, some stalling remark, something to delay even a few seconds more. (Chapter-2)
    v. The Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session was a success from the
    start. (Chapter-3)
    These examples from the novel show the use of consonant sounds such as the sound of /f/, /w/, /f/, and again /s/ occurring one after the other, making the prose melodious and rhythmic.
  3. Allusion: The novel shows examples of allusions such as,
    i. Finny and I went to our room. Under the yellow study lights we read our
    Hardy assignments; I was halfway through Tess of the D’Urbervilles, he carried
    on his baffled struggle with Far from the Madding Crowd, amused that there
    should be people named Gabriel Oak and Bathsheba Everdene. (Chapter-1)
    ii. “How do you expect our boys to be as precise as that thousands of feet up with
    bombs weighing tons! Look at what the Germans did to Amsterdam! Look at
    what they did to Coventry!” “The Germans aren’t the Central Europeans, dear,” his wife said very gently. (Chapter-2)
    iii. Was that it! My eyes snapped from the textbook toward him. Did he notice
    this sudden glance shot across the pool of light? He didn’t seem to; he went on
    writing down his strange curlicue notes about Thomas Hardy in Phineas
    Shorthand. (Chapter-4)
    These examples allude to the novels and characters of Thomas Hardy, different cities and countries, and then again to books and authors.
  4. Anaphora: The novel shows examples of anaphora such as,
    i. I found it. I found a single sustaining thought. The thought was, You and
    Phineas are even already. You are even in enmity. You are both coldly driving
    ahead for yourselves alone. (Chapter-4)
    ii. I would have to back out of it, I would have to disown it. (Chapter-5)
    iii. Could it be that he might even be right? Had I really and definitely and knowingly done it to him after all? I couldn’t remember, I couldn’t think. However it was, it was worse for him to know it. I had to take it back. (Chapter-5)
    iv. He wouldn’t have mentioned it except that after what he had said he had to say something very personal, something deeply held. (Chapter-6)
    These examples show the repetitious use of “I found”, “you are”, “I would”, “I couldn’t” and “something.”
  5. Conflict: The novel shows both external and internal conflicts. The external conflict is going on between Gene and Finny as well as Gene and Chet, while the internal conflict is the mental conflict going on in the mind of Gene about the moral position of his action of making his friend, Finny, slip from the branch of the tree.
  6. Characters: The novel, A Separate Peace, shows both static as well as dynamic characters. The young man, Gene, is a dynamic character as he shows a considerable transformation in his behavior and conduct by the end of the novel after he feels regret over the mischievous act of making Finny fall down. However, all other characters are static as they do not show or witness any transformation such as Chet, Finny, Cliff, Brinker, and Leper.
  7. Climax: The climax in the novel occurs when Gene makes his friend fall down from the bough of the tree when jumping into the Devon river.
  8. Flashback: The novel shows the use of flashbacks such as,
    i. Looking back now across fifteen years, I could see with great clarity the
    fear I had lived in, which must mean that in the interval I had succeeded in a
    very important undertaking: I must have made my escape from it. (Chapter-1)
    ii. I said nothing, my mind exploring the new dimensions of isolation around me. Any fear I had ever had of the tree was nothing beside this. It wasn’t my neck, but my understanding which was menaced. He had never been jealous of me for a second. Now I knew that there never was and never could have been any rivalry between us. I was not of the same quality as he. (Chapter-4)
    Both these examples show the use of the flashback technique the writer has resorted to in the novel through the recollections of his school days.
  9. Foreshadowing: The novel shows many instances of foreshadows such as,
    i. I went back to the Devon School not long ago, and found it looking oddly
    newer than when I was a student there fifteen years before. It seemed more
    sedate than I remembered it, more perpendicular and strait-laced, with narrower
    windows and shinier woodwork, as though a coat of varnish had been put over
    everything for better preservation. (Chapter-1)
    ii. We had been swimming in the river, Finny explained; then there had been a
    wrestling match, then there was that sunset that anybody would want to watch,
    then there’d been several friends we had to see on business. (Chapter-2)
    The mention of the school and river shows that the narrator is going to recall his past.
  10. Imagery: A Separate Peace shows the use of imagery such as,
    i. Phineas had soaked and brushed his hair for the occasion. This gave his head a sleek look, which was contradicted by the surprised, honest expression which he wore on his face. His ears, I had never noticed before, were fairly small and set close to his head, and combined with his plastered hair they now gave his bold nose and cheekbones the sharp look of a prow. (Chapter-2)
    ii. We went outside into the cordial afternoon sunshine. The playing fields were optimistically green and empty before us. The tennis courts were full. The softball diamond was busy. A pattern of badminton nets swayed sensually in the breeze. Finny eyed them with quiet astonishment. Far down the fields toward the river there was a wooden tower about ten feet high where the instructor had stood to direct the senior calisthenics. It was empty now. (Chapter-3)
    iii. We found it fairly easily, on a street with a nave of ancient elms branching over it. The house itself was high, white, and oddly proper to be the home of Phineas. It presented a face of definite elegance to the street, although behind that wings and ells dwindled quickly in formality until the house ended in a big plain barn. (Chapter-6)
    These examples show images of feelings, sight, movement, and feelings.
  11. Metaphor: A Separate Peace shows good use of various metaphors such as,
    i. Phineas, still asleep on his dune, made me think of Lazarus, brought back to life by the touch of God. (Chapter-4)
    ii. The study lamp cast a round yellow pool between us. (Part-2, Chapter-4)
    iii. I scanned the page; I was having trouble breathing, as though the oxygen were leaving the room. Amid its devastation my mind flashed from thought to thought, despairingly in search of something left which it could rely on. (Chapter-4)
    iv. I was Phineas, Phineas to the life. I even had his
    humorous expression in my face, his sharp, optimistic awareness. (Chapter-5)
    These examples show that several things have been compared directly in the novel such as the first one shows Finny compared to a miracle, the second shows the lamp compared to a source of water, the third shows the oxygen compared to a living thing, while he compares himself to Finny.
  12. Mood: The novel, A Separate Peace, shows a very innocent mood in the beginning but turns out depressing, sorrowful, tragic, and gleeful at some places.
  13. Motif: Most important motifs of the novel, A Separate Peace, are change, vision, memory, and athletics.
  14. Narrator: The novel, A Separate Peace, has been narrated by the first person who is Gene, the main narrator of the novel.
  15. Parallelism: The novel shows the use of parallelism such as,
    i. When you played a game you won, in the same way as when you sat down to a meal you ate it. (Chapter-3
    I turned over and tried to sleep again but couldn’t, and so lay on my back looking at this gray burlap sky. (Chapter-4)
    If you’re really good at something, I mean if there’s nobody, or hardly anybody, who’s as good as you are, then you’ve got to be serious about that. (Chapter-4)
    None of us was allowed near the infirmary during the next days, but I heard all the rumors that came out of it. (Chapter-5)
    The sooner he does the better off he’ll be. (Chapter-5)
    These three examples show the use of parallel structure in the sentences.
  16. Paradox: The novel shows examples of paradox such as,
    i. The Devon faculty had never before experienced a student who combined a calm ignorance of the rules with a winning urge to be good, who seemed to love the school truly and deeply. (Chapter-2)
    ii. Yes, he had practically saved my life. He had also practically lost it for me. (Chapter-2)
    iii. Nothing could be more regular than that. To meet once a week seemed to him much less regular, entirely too haphazard, bordering on carelessness. (Chapter-3)
    iv. His head started to come up, and mine snapped down. (Chapter-4)
    These examples show that the writer has put paradoxical ideas or things together such as the first one shows calm ignorance and winning urge, saving life and losing something, regular and haphazard and coming up and snapping down of their heads.
  17. Personification: The novel shows examples of personifications such as,
    i. Devon was both scholarly and very athletic, so the playing fields were vast and, except at such a time of year, constantly in use. Now they reached soggily and emptily away from me, forlorn tennis courts on the left, enormous football and soccer and lacrosse fields in the center. (Chapter-1)
    ii. It presented a face of definite elegance to the street, although behind that wings and ells dwindled quickly in formality until the house ended in a big plain barn. (Chapter-5)
    These examples show as if the tennis court and the school have life and emotions of their own.
  18. Protagonist: Gene is the protagonist of the novel. The novel starts with his entry into the story, his conduct in the school, his graduation, recruitment in the army, his backward journey to school and recollections.
  19. Rhetorical Questions: The novel shows several examples of rhetorical questions such as,
    i. Was he trying to impress me or something? Not tell anybody? When he had
    broken a school record without a day of practice? (Chapter-3)
    ii. “But he must be able to,” I burst out, “if his leg’s still there, if you aren’t going to amputate it—you aren’t, are you?—then if it isn’t amputated and the bones are still there, then it must come back the way it was, why wouldn’t it? Of course it will.” (Chapter-5)
    iii. Could it be that he might even be right? Had I really and definitely and knowingly done it to him after all? I couldn’t remember, I couldn’t think. However it was, it was worse for him to know it. I had to take it back. (Chapter-5)
    These examples show the use of rhetorical questions posed by different characters of narrators not for answers but to stress upon the underlying ideas.
  20. Repetition: The novel shows the examples of repetition such as,
    i. He was still asleep, although in this drained light he looked more dead than asleep. The ocean looked dead too, dead gray waves hissing mordantly along the beach, which was gray and dead-looking itself. (Chapter-4)
    ii. “At the twelfth I discovered that he had been counting to himself because he began to count aloud in a noncommittal, halfheard voice. (Chapter-6)
    iii. He wouldn’t have mentioned it except that after what he had said he had to say something very personal, something deeply held. (Chapter-6)
    These examples show the use of repetitions such as “dead”, “count” and “something.”
  21. Simile: The novel shows a good use of various similes such as,
    i. It seemed more sedate than I remembered it, more perpendicular and strait-laced, with narrower windows and shinier woodwork, as though a coat of varnish had been put over
    everything for better preservation. (Chapter-1)
    ii. I didn’t entirely like this glossy new surface, because it made the school look like a museum, and that’s exactly what it was to me. (Chapter-1)
    iii. With nothing to block it the wind flung wet gusts at me; at any other time I would have felt like a fool slogging through mud and rain, only to look at a tree. (Chapter-2)
    iv. But his mind always recorded what was said and played it back to him when there was time, so as he was buttoning the high collar in front of the mirror he said mildly, “I wonder what would happen if I looked like a fairy to everyone.” (Chapter-2)
    v. Then a second realization broke as clearly and bleakly as dawn at the beach. (Chapter-4)
    vi. It was there that I had done it, but it was here that I would have to tell it I felt like a wild man who had stumbled in from the jungle to tear the place apart. (Chapter-5)
    The use of words “like” and “as” show the comparison between the painting and coat of varnish, the school and the museum, Gene and a fool, Gene and a fairy, realization and the dawn, and Gene and the wild man.