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A Separate Peace-John Knowles Essay

The novel A Separate Peace is a story about two best friends, Gene and Phineas (Finny), who both attend the Devon school in New Hampshire in 1942. Gene Forrester is an intellectual, confined, straight-laced seventeen year old, while Finny is an athletic free-spirit who isn’t afraid to say what he thinks and is admired by everyone. The story is a flashback in which Gene recalls his fears and insecurities during the midst of the Second World War at the Devon school.

Out of jealousy and the fear that Finny is trying to sabotage his studies, Gene shakes a tree branch that they were both standing on, and Finny falls out of the tree and shatters his leg. It is at that point where their relationship changes into more of a codependency which leads to them developing their own individual identities by living within their own illusion that World War II is a mere conspiracy. Finny dies suddenly during the operation on his broken leg , but Gene doesn’t cry. He deals with the tragic news with a sort of tranquility because he believes that he is a part of Finny.

Gene reflects on the constant enmity which takes over the present youth, and he believes only Finny was immune to this plague. A Separate Peace is a novel that criticizes society, based on a romantic point of view of human nature. Firstly, Gene’s aggressive nature is being nurtured by societies preoccupation with competition, inner-enemies, and power. Contrasting to Gene, Finny has a natural goodness about him that has not been corrupted by society. Lastly, the Devon school is a symbol of rivalry and competitiveness of the world, which has produced a devastating war on a much larger scale.

Gene Forrester is the narrator of the novel, telling the story as a flashback on his youthful days at Devon. He is the source of all the reader’s information, but is somewhat an unreliable source, regarding his insights into his actions and motivations. We see that he has an aggressive nature about him which has been nurtured by societies preoccupation with competition, inner-enemies, and power. We first meet him as an adult, therefore we immediately assume a sort of maturity and wisdom about him and his memories at Devon. The adult Gene is, in reality, still the same as the adolescent Gene in terms of fears and security.

He sees the Devon buildings as “defensive” then “exhausted”(3) which is a representation of himself as an adult. We see that nothing has changed over the years, not the school, and most importantly, not himself. After the accident, him and Finny lived in codependency. Finny lived through Gene. As the reader, we see that by Gene’s actions by equalizing them and becoming at the same level may have been deliberate, even though it seemed like an accident to everyone else. The fact that Gene shook the tree had stemmed from a deep personal desire to lose his identity, and himself in another.

This is represented when he puts on Finny’s clothes and sees that he looks just like him. He feels strangely peaceful. This symbolizes Gene’s own desire to leave himself and become Finny, for he is his own “war” yet also his love. The accident causes his feeling of resentment and fear to be overcome by devotion to Finny. We see this inner-war develop as he continuously tries to make peace and apologize to Finny, an only then can he forgive himself. The shaking of the tree stirred up an unconscious impulse that sets the chain of events leading to Finny’s death, making Gene the killer and destroyer of the one thing he loved.

He is his own enemy, and the destroyer of himself, because he felt that he and Finny were the same person. That is why he didn’t cry at the funeral, because “[he] could not escape a feeling that it was [his] own funeral, and you do not cry in that case”(186). We see here that he has a tendency to mix love and hate, which is practiced as a habit by society. His action in the tree is also an instinct, which is based on a primitive aggression, defensiveness and rivalry which is the side of human nature that is being nurtured by society. Gene symbolizes the narrow, confined, sort of paranoid world that surrounds humanity.

He always leans towards the rules that are set. When Finny wants to go to the beach, Gene creates a scenario in his head that Finny is trying to sabotage his studies, and from there, descends into darkness. This fear of his is, in actuality, a defensive anxiety which finds a potential threat in everyone. This is shown when he says “I was used to finding something deadly in things… and if it wasn’t there then I put it there myself. “(92) He us unable to let up his defenses because he sees the enemy everywhere, but the enemy is himself.

Society teaches the boys to develop a particular frame of mind that creates an enemy wherever they see a potential threat. This defense mechanism only creates inner-enemies, and it is what corrupts the youth. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Finny has a natural goodness about him that has not been corrupted by society. Finny’s character is seen through the eyes of Gene, therefore his perception of Finny is significant. He is able to talk his way out of any situation which, according to Gene, is rare among humans. He has a “calm ignorance of the rules with a winning urge to be good”(16).

His hypnotic charisma shows just how different he is from the other characters by his element of goodness and innocence. He is so different because he operates outside the world of rules and authority, which he considers to be “a necessary evil”(11), which in terms means that the rules are made to be broken. He is the essence of careless peace in humanity which is so rare. Yet, while he constantly tests the limits of authority, he neither seeks to be victorious, nor be defeated. This is represented in the game of Blitzball, where everyone furiously competes but no one wins, and this perfectly demonstrates Finny’s attitude towards life.

Another example of this is when he broke the swimming record. He simply wanted to “see if [he] could do it”(35), and Gene calls him “too good to be true”(36), which shows how Gene and the other boys may view innocence and freedom. They are uncomfortable with people showing sincere emotions(40), and they see the enemy everywhere. Finny has “a simple unregulated friendliness”(15) which has to do with a more profound wisdom and goodness regarding other human beings. Just like he doesn’t see life as winners and losers, he also thinks the best of people, and no one is an enemy in his eyes.

His assumptions that the world is friendly make him unique. For example, Gene believes that society creates enemies where they do not exist, but Finny’s inability to see others as evil or hostile is his strength and weakness. His blindness of Gene’s dark motives create dangerous situations in their codependent relationship, and he never imagines that Gene’s feelings for him are not as true as his feelings for Gene. He inspires Gene in loyalty but also jealousy by his charismatic personality. He assumes that everyone thinks like he does, therefore he acts with himself and Gene in mind, doing whatever he pleases.

His care-free attitude is what triggers Gene’s resentment and Finny, aware of only himself, never picks up on Gene’s darkness. He “was the essence of this careless peace”(16), being the one who facilitates most of the boy’s fun throughout the school year. While they are all caught up with the war and striving for themselves to one-up each other, Finny creates a protective bubble around them to shield them from growing up. His tendency to have fun and be care-free is an indication that there is a streak of decency in human nature, but this basic innocence also makes him vulnerable to those unlike himself.

The Devon school is a symbol of rivalry and competitiveness of the real world, which has produced a devastating war. In the beginning of the novel when Gene is an adult, he revisits the school. He sees the “contentious harmony”(4) of the buildings, which is an oxymoron because it reflects the idea of rivalry. It tells us that the school buildings are “perpendicular” and “straight-laced”, and represent the world of order and rules. This harmony of the buildings is a trick of architecture. In reality, Devon represents a world of rivalry, competition and one-upmanship practiced by the students as a habit.

The school is simply a symbol of the world on a much larger scale, where competition has produced a war. Seeing others as enemies is common in both the school and society. Everyone but Finny is “pitted violently against something in the world around them”(196). This something around them is Devon, being their main influence to see everyone as a potential threat. The Devon school is a “jungle” of a boys’ school(45), where hostility and aggression on a smaller scale lead to war on a much larger scale. Their practiced rivalry is mentioned when Gene states that “there were few relationships among [them] at Devon not based on rivalry”(37).

The seasons at the school also represent a change and transformation in the boys. The summer session at Devon is a time of freedom, where the teachers allow Finny’s hypnotic personality to get away with whatever he pleases. The session symbolizes youth and innocence, which in turn comes to an end when Finny falls from the tree. This event marks the beginning of the winter session, where the atmosphere is sombre and dark, filled with discipline and work. It represents adulthood and war approaching them, and becomes a more predominant feature throughout the course of the novel.

The transition from the summer to the winter session embodies societies shift from a care-free nature, to a darker, more mature one. We don’t see Finny transition because he is unable to face adulthood and dies, thus never entering into the school’s new mode of existence. As he reflects on his time at Devon, Gene explains that he “was on active duty all [the] time at school; [he] killed [his] enemy there”(196). This suggests that everyone is battling an ongoing war with themselves, seeking an enemy fight. The school is merely a battleground on a smaller scale, but still has the same effect.

Finny’s innocence caused him to oversee these notions of war and enmity, which lead to his death. In the other case, Gene had an ongoing war with himself, and/or Finny. In either case, it demonstrates Finny’s inability to cope with betrayal. He is the lone character in the novel that doesn’t undergo the school’s strong influence on the boys, that prepare them for the war they have to fight after graduation. The role society plays on the school and the boys is their main influence for their actions. The novel criticizes society based on a romantic view of human nature, and this nature has been explored in many ways.

Gene’s inner savage and aggressiveness had been nurtured by societies preoccupation with competition, territory and power. Finny’s natural goodness has not been corrupted by society, but his innocence caused him to blur admiration with jealousy lead to his death. Finally, the Devon school is the main symbol or rivalry in the novel, which represents the war on a much smaller scale than the war in reality. The natural paranoia of the human race leads one to seek an enemy wherever they may see a potential threat, and this leads to destruction and inner-enemies in the end.


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