It is important to confront reality, no matter how harsh it is. People will always face difficult situations, but avoiding them is often more dangerous than the situation itself. In his novel, A Separate Peace, Knowles explores what can happen when a person or even an institution tries to avoid painful circumstances. In the story, Gene, the protagonist, and his friends are students at the Devon boarding school; and the troubling issues they face are wars, the external, World War II, and the intimate conflicts that often arise between close friends.
Knowles uses the motif of the transformation of Devon, Finny, and Gene to show the importance of confronting head-on the wars within and around them. Devon boarding school shields Gene and his classmates from the hardships of World War II. Gene’s class, the “Upper Middlers,” are too young for the draft. This causes the teachers at Devon to see them as the last evidence of “the life the war was being fought to preserve” (29). The teachers are afraid to expose the boys to the terror of war and so they hide it from them.
While throughout the country, others participate in the war effort, Gene and his classmates remain apart and spend their time “calmly reading Virgil” (24). Because of this separation, the war becomes “completely unreal” (24) to the Upper Middlers. The entire world appears to be churning in the upheaval of the war, but Devon tries to remain the same, shielding the boys from its hardships. Unfortunately, when the effects of the war inevitably come to Devon, its attempts at avoidance result in a negative transformation with bitter and unintended consequences.
In its efforts to deny the war’s existence, Devon changes from idyllic and relaxed in the Summer Session to rigid and uncompromising in the Winter Session. In the summer at Devon, the boys play games on the “healthy green turf brushed with dew” to the calming sounds of “cricket noises and the bird cries of dusk” (24). Such imagery makes Devon seem like a peaceful oasis for the Upper Middlers. However, this relaxed atmosphere of the Summer Session ends with Finny’s fall from the tree at Devon River.
Jumping from the tree was an activity originally designed to prepare soldiers for war and Finny’s injury from it represents the boys’ first experience with the pain that war brings. To Devon, Finny’s fall proves that the relaxed atmosphere of the Summer Session could not protect the boys from the reality of war. As a result, Devon rejects the carefree environment of the Summer Session and changes into a strict school where “continuity is stressed” (73) in the Winter Session. This transformation proves negative as evidenced by Knowles stark change in his description of the Winter Session.
For example, while in the Summer Session the boys freely roamed the “healthy green turf” of Devon’s fields, they crowd into the dark “Butt Room” a smoking room that Gene compares to a “dirty dungeon… in the bowels of the dormitory” (88). Where once the boys played in beautiful fields, they are now confined in close, dark rooms. Gene further classifies the transformation as negative by immediately remarking that “peace [has] deserted Devon” (72) when he returns for the Winter Session. In attempting to avoid the effects of the war, Devon sacrifices its status as a haven for the boys.
When the reality that the world is at war inevitably strikes Devon, its transformation makes it less able to deal with the effects of the war. Gene compares the inexorable arrival of the war to the snow that blankets the school grounds. He calls the snowflakes “invaders” that cover the “carefully pruned shrubbery bordering the crosswalks” and likens them to the “invasion of the war on the school” (93). In making this comparison, Gene seems to show that just as Devon’s “carefully pruned shrubbery” cannot escape the snowfall, its structured atmosphere cannot escape the war.
In fact, it is that structured atmosphere that makes the war seem all the more attractive to the very boys Devon tried so desperately to protect. Representing this is the Upper Middlers’ decision to clear snow from train tracks designed to transport troops. This is their first serious contribution to the war effort and requires that they travel away from Devon, symbolizing their desire to leave their school and participate in the war effort. As they work, the boys see a train car of soldiers whom they view as “elite” in comparison to their “drab ranks” (101).
Directly after seeing the troops, all they boys can discuss is the “futility of Devon and how [they] would never have war stories to tell [their] grandchildren” (102). The boys see Devon’s strict unchanging atmosphere as inadequate amidst the upheaval of the war. As a result, the Upper Middlers slowly reject Devon, resigning from clubs, leaving the school to enlist in the war, and losing their academic vigor. They resent Devon for keeping them from the war and remain forever distant from it. Gene exhibits this distance when he describes Devon after graduating.
Gene calls Devon a “hard and shiny” (11) museum; he feels no connection to it. He finally concludes that “The more things stay the same, the more they change after all” (14). In trying to remain untouched by the war, Devon changed to a school that pushed its students to the very war it tried to avoid. Like Devon, Finny does not accept the hardships or existence of war in his life. Throughout the story, Finny embraces the glorified aspects of war, but refuses to accept its atrocities. For example, Finny wears his pink shirt to celebrate the Americans bombing of Central Europe.
However, when he realizes that the bombing killed women and children, he tells Gene that he doesn’t think the bombing took place. He does not want to believe that innocent people are often casualties of war. Eventually, Finny decides that the war cannot exist because it causes too much suffering. Similarly, Finny calls Gene his “best pal” (48) and openly displays his affection for him. However, when Gene confesses to deliberately jouncing him from the limb out of jealousy, Finny refuses to listen. He cannot accept that a friend could become an enemy. Eventually, Finny’s denial of the conflicts in his life lead to a negative transformation.
In trying to retain his rejection of the war, Finny changes from a confident, athletic leader into an embittered invalid. In the summer, Finny excels, becoming a natural leader of the boys and easily winning over teachers. Finny is also physically impressive as evidenced by Gene’s description of him playing in the Devon River. Gene says that Finny is in “exaltation,” with glowing skin and muscles “aligned in perfection” (34). In this description, Finny seems like an ideal, almost God like figure, completely in control and confident. Finny’s injury at the end of Summer Session, however, signals a dark transformation.
Gene shakes the limb Finny is standing on while about to jump off the tree at Devon River and Finny falls and breaks his leg. Because Gene deliberately jounced Finny out of a tree used to prepare the seniors for war, Finny’s fall and subsequent injury symbolizes a forced confrontation with the potential pain of World War II and the war between Gene and himself. Rather than working through the hardship and pain, Finny rejects his former status as an athlete and leader and lets his injury define him as an isolated invalid. Instead of using his athletic abilities to overcome his injury, Finny seems to remain permanently maimed.
Although his leg heals and his cast becomes so small that an “ordinary person could have managed it with hardly a limp noticeable” (157), Finny’s gait is permanantely changed. His inability to heal completely from his injury symbolizes his inability to confront and move on from the conflicts that caused it. Similarly, Finny loses his place as a leader among the Upper Middlers. When Finny returns to Devon for the Winter Session, he finds that the war dominates the Upper Middlers’ conversations. Finny does not believe the war exists and so he isolates himself and stops spending as much time with his peers.
Where once he was a natural leader, he becomes an outcast to preserve his disbelief in the war. Finny’s negative transformation makes him more vulnerable to the wars in his life. At the end of the Winter Session, Brinker conducts a mock trial and convicts Gene of his role in Finny’s injury. Finny is again forced to face the reality of Gene’s jealousy. Furthermore, during the trial, Finny speaks to Leper for the first time after his return from the army. Leper’s insanity, induced by the war, forces Finny to confront its painful implications. Because of Finny’s transformation, he is even more susceptible to these implications.
Symbolizing this are the events following the mock trial. After Brinker convicts Gene, Finny falls while trying to run away. He re-breaks his leg, reopening the wound of the summer and revisiting the pain of the wars in his life. Where before the injury only crippled Finny, this time, Finny eventually dies from it. Just as his invalid state made him more vulnerable to re-injuring his leg, Finny’s transformation in response to the war made him more vulnerable to it. Unlike Devon and Finny, Gene faces the reality of the war around him and his inner struggle with Finny.
While Gene enjoys the peaceful atmosphere of Devon in the Summer Session, he recognizes its inadequacies. Gene explains, “Perhaps I alone knew… Devon had slipped through their [the professors’] fingers during the warm over looked months” (73). Gene realizes that the Summer Session, and the realities it avoided, would be the undoing of Devon. Furthermore, while the other Upper Middlers deny the existence of the war, Gene understands it at a deep level. Gene explicitly says, “The war was and is reality for me” (32). He embraces the war instead of masking it. Similarly, Gene recognizes the inner war with Finny.
Gene knows that he deliberately jounced the limb of the tree so that Finny would fall. He repeatedly tries to confess this to Finny, openly and inwardly confronting his jealousy. Finally, when Leper goes to war and is discharged for mental instability, Gene is the only student who visits him in his home and sees him in his worst state. Gene is able to witness the shock and horror of the war. Because of his ability to face the wars around and within him, Gene undergoes a positive transformation. Gene confronts the conflicts in his life and uses them to mature from a fearful, insecure boy to a balanced and strong man.
Initially, Gene identifies the presence of fear in his life. As an adult reflecting on his childhood, Gene can see “with great clarity the fear [he] had lived in” (10). Gene is also initially in-athletic. While Finny garners many athletic awards, Gene does not often participate in sports and focuses on his studies. This makes Gene feel inferior to Finny and so he often succumbs to Finny’s desires, often at the expense of his own academic success. Gene feels inadequate and insecure in the Summer Session, but the Winter Session signals a change within him.
Before returning to Devon for the Winter Session, Gene visits Finny and confesses his guilt. After confronting his jealousy and confessing to Finny, Gene returns to Devon and becomes increasingly independent and secure. Symbolizing this is Gene’s experience in the Naguamsett River. On his first day back to Devon, Gene falls into the “ugly, saline,” (79) waters of the Nagaumasett. Incidentally, Gene calls this encounter with the filthy waters a “baptism.. on the first day of this winter session” (79). This use of the word baptism, a term associated with initiation or rebirth, seems to convey that Gene is beginning a new life.
Just as he emerges renewed from the gritty disgusting waters of the Nagaumasett, he emerges renewed from his painful, uncomfortable confrontation of his inner war with Finny. Directly following Gene’s “baptism,” Finny returns to Devon as an invalid and he and Gene’s roles reverse. Now, It is Finny who needs Gene, both physically and emotionally, to help him deal with his injury and his functioning at Devon. Gene’s sudden athletic prowess represents this role reversal. Since Finny cannot participate in sports, he trains Gene. As he excels in his training, Gene notices that Finny seems “older…. nd smaller too” (121).
He then realizes that he is actually bigger and Finny is only smaller by comparison. Gene has used the conflict in his life to leave behind his insecurities and become a strong, independent man. Gene’s transformation proves positive as it enables him to grow from the conflicts in his life. The results of the mock trial do no break Gene like the do Finny. He has already confronted his jealousy and guilt, and is secure enough to withstand the pain. Likewise, when Gene finally graduates from Devon and enlists in the army, he endures the war without losing his sanity like Leper.
Gene is able to do this because he “already fought [his] war” (204) at Devon. He learned to confront harsh realities, and therefore can overcome them. As an adult, Gene is able to return to Devon content and secure, having made his “escape from” (10) the fear that plagued his childhood. His ability to confront his wars enable him to mature through them. Devon, Finny, and Gene all transform throughout the story. However, Devon and Finny changed to avoid the war, but Gene changed to grow from it. These transformations and stark difference in their outcomes powerfully convey the importance of unflinchingly confronting wars without and within.