In “A Separate Peace” by John Knowles, it is evident that Finny and Leper undergo the most traumatic experiences from the Class of 1943. Through these experiences, both characters lose much of their innocence and naivety. Finny, upon learning of the existence of the war and Gene’s moment of hatred, learns to accept realities and perceive the world as it is, not as the perfect childlike image he wants it to be. However, when Leper enlists in the army, he quickly begins to have hallucinations because the reality is too much for him to handle. Nevertheless, he eventually overcomes his insanity and seems to be fairly mentally stable by the end of the novel. Although Finny and Leper’s traumas are the source of a major loss of purity and childhood, they are also the cause of post-tramautic growth and a necessary increase in maturity.
Finny goes through several perception-changing events during the course of the novel, but the event that cements his departure from childhood is the acceptance that Gene deliberately shook Finny off the tree. This shock was caused by his own inability to accept the truth in the first place. Despite the ease of denying unwanted information and living in a dream world, it is mentally unhealthy for Finny because of the shock caused upon finally believing the truth. Immediately after Gene’s confession of jouncing the limb, Gene remarks that Finny looked “older than I had ever seen him” (62). Finny, however, does not yet comprehend feelings of jealousy and betrayal, as he has hardly had any himself and finds it difficult to think of another’s point of view; the information registers on his face, but before he has time to process it and mature he rejects the idea entirely. Gene states “it occurred to me that this could be an even deeper injury than what I had done before” (62).
The reality of adult themes such as jealousy, betrayal, and hate is what hurts Finny most, not the crippling injury itself. Another reality that takes away from Finny’s nescience is the war (when he finally believes in its existence). The most dramatic and stunning war in recent history, World War II had a huge impact on millions of lives worldwide. Yet Phineas refused to believe in the war, and instead created a fantasy in which he was the one of the only people who knew that it was all a hoax. When Gene, in disbelief from Finny’s opinion, questions Finny on why he is the only person who is aware of the “stuffed shirts'” (107) plot to suppress happiness, Finny emotionally bursts out it is because he has “suffered” (108).
Apparently, Finny has visualized this hoax to shield himself from the disadvantages of his disability, such as enlisting. Nevertheless, Finny quickly accepts the truth of the war after seeing Leper in a mentally disturbed state of mind. The image of what the war did to someone who used to be close to him shook him out of his dream world and spurred his emotional growth. When Finny, at the end of the novel, learned to accept the realities and avoid using denial to cope with shock, he lost the last of his childhood innocence.
Leper is easily one of the most naive and innocent characters during the Summer Session. His good-naturedness and passive fascination with nature is such an ideal image of innocence that it seems almost depressing to see him in the traumatized state of mind after enlisting. Even while everyone is volunteering to shovel snow to aid the war effort and discussing their plans for which division to enlist in, Leper is only concerned with the beauty of nature and skis to a beaver dam to watch the beavers develop and build their dam. He is moved to join the army not for vain images of glory and glamor like the other students, but rather for the beauty of skiing down a mountain. Obviously, he soon finds that the army is too much for him, and while absent from the ongoings at Devon he loses every shred of innocence and guilelessness that previously surrounded his character. When Gene meets him, his psyche is obviously changed to such a point that he has hallucinations and other symptoms of schizophrenia, caused by his rapid ascension into adult matters.
He does not accept reality nearly as well as Finny does because his character was far more innocuous at the start of the novel. So many of his images of the world are shattered that it can be seen that he feels like he has little familiarity to hold onto. He grasps to every gleam of regularity and unchangeable function, which explains his preference for spending time in the dining room of his house simply because he knows that three daily meals will be served there on a consistent basis. However, his time at home seems to have given him time to cope with the images of adulthood. Upon his return to Devon, he seems mentally well and a much more decisive authority than ever before. He accurately and forcefully convicts Gene of jouncing the limb in “his new, confident… voice” (166). Gene describes Leper during the trial as “all energy” (165). Evidently, Leper has dealt with the loss of innocence caused by his abrupt initiation into adulthood and has become a more confident, self-assured person in spite of it.
Knowles makes it apparent throughout A Separate Peace that while the loss of innocence may often seem to be a sad or tragic event, it is necessary to pave the way for maturation and a transition into adulthood. Had Finny never accepted the truth of the tragedy that occurred to him, he would have never matured beyond his carefree summer days. And had Leper kept living in his own world of vivid imaginations, he would have never developed into the sanguine individual he becomes at the end of the novel. While the loss of innocence is partly a lugubrious experience, John Knowles portrays it as a necessity – a part of maturation and growth that leads to adulthood and self-fulfillment.