In A Separate Peace, John Knowles enlightens readers on human existence by displaying how denial allows a person to stray from reality. Numerous cases of denial overwhelm and test characters’ assurances of their own presence. Characters such as Gene Forrester and Phineas (Finny) fail to acknowledge denial, so that their naiveté prohibits them from identifying the truth. Eventually, fate causes each to face his own guilt, embarrassment, and disbelief.
As the novel progresses Gene Forrester, the main character, continuously rejects the idea of being a “savage underneath”. Gene has a somewhat dark streak in his nature, which triggers him to lash out at innocent people. He intentionally jounces the limb of a tree while Finny, his “best” friend, is standing at the edge; causing Finny to plummet and break his leg. This vicious act permanently damages Finny, yet Gene refuses the contemplation of being malicious.
You always were a savage underneath. I always knew that only I never admitted it. But in the last few weeks…I admitted a hell of a lot to myself…
It’s you we happen to be talking about now. Like a savage underneath… like that time you knocked Finny out of the tree…Like that time you crippled him for life. pg. 137
Elwin “Leper” Lepellier, another main character, attempts to inform Gene of his inner malevolence, however, he never is able to come to terms with this, not even fifteen years later.
A controversy between mind and compassion prevents Gene from confessing his hatred, guilt, and envy towards Phineas. His mind could not comprehend how his heart could ruin such an important, yet remarkable companionship.
It wasn’t my neck, but my understanding which was menaced. [Finny] 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. pg. 51
Gene considers that he is “not of the same quality as he [Finny]’. He feels he cannot live up to the supremeness of Phineas. Finny never attempts to hurt Gene; instead bears in mind how to assist Gene. He somewhat regrets his previous actions, causing him to begin denying such wickedness. Gene finally comes to terms with his resentment at the trial. He confesses to Finny that his prior negations where false. Although not completely, Gene Forrester at last concedes his denial and works attentively to discover and repair his unwanted characteristic.
The benevolent Phineas experiences a great deal of denial as the novel proceeds. He refuses to believe two facts: Gene, his “best” friend, causing his accident and the presence of the war. Finny is a loyal, trustworthy, caring companion and considers to be the same; he feels all people are innately good. He cannot believe that Gene caused him to fall from the tree. All the events surrounding his accident lead Finny into denial. He does not want to perceive this issue as being true so he ignores it until Brinker’s Trial prohibits him to deny the matter any longer. Once Brinker begins to question Finny about that day of his accident, he scuttles from the room instead of acknowledging the truth.
The other manifestation of denial of reality is Finny’s inability to admit that the war exists. Finny infers a fabrication of fat old men that keeps young people from enjoying themselves. This assertion provides a convenient excuse since he is incapable to participate in the controversy of the world. Phineas, unfortunately, could not face the truth after being in denial for so long, he dies attempting to run away from the truth. Phineas, reluctantly confronts his own denial. Incapable to withstand such trauma, he flees only to undertake his catastrophic demise.
After avoiding such principles as denial, Gene and Phineas endure a rude awakening to life transitions. These demonstrations of denial prove how both exploit denial to construct their own fantasy-world, which prevents each from notifying the truth.