“A Separate Peace” by John Knowles Essay
“A Separate Peace” by John Knowles
One of the major themes in A Separate Peace is the coming of age. The theme of maturity can be viewed as a growing realization of the war in the school (in which the students realize that they have to enlist into the war “as men”), or the private and interior crisis one goes through (such as Gene discovering his identity as the novel progresses). The training and the sudden labors that the Devon students engage in attempt to prepare the boys for their future at the war; this can be seen as the external view of maturity in the novel, whereas the “internal” view of maturity can be seen in Gene’s thoughts as he searches for his personal identity. Throughout the novel, both Gene and Finny experience important yet damaging issues in their life where they realize the need to face the reality of it or become lost forever. As Gene discovers in the end, true identity can only be reached through maturity.
Gene and the students of Devon experience a sense of maturity through the sudden change in their once peaceful and war-shunning environment of the summer. In the beginning of the novel, we can see that Devon is like a “Garden of Eden”; it resembles a paradise in the center of all the wars and deaths that are happening outside Devon’s barriers. Devon is seen as a milieu within a larger milieu (the rest of America at war). It seems that the students have lived their summer in a peaceful bubble of “Eden” in contrast with the background of World War II in the rest of the world. The summer of 1942 at Devon can be symbolized as the time of freedom and the exposure of youth; this is a moment in the novel where the students can get away with breaking rules and skipping classes. Therefore, the carefree summer of 1942 represents a time of paradise, where everyone is at peace and simply enjoying life at its fullest.
However, Finny’s symbolic “fall” seems to have brought an end to this delight at Devon and brings in the winter session, where there is labour, orders, discipline, darkness, and despair. This is the moment when the teachers of Devon realize that the students are just on their way of serving the army. The students begin to participate in drills and trips to the railroad and orchard to help out in every way they can. In contrast to the summer of Devon, the winter represents the burdens of maturity and adulthood, and a time where preparation of the war replaces the joyful atmosphere that was present in the summer. The boys of Devon suddenly feel that they must be responsible and “established” in order to face whatever their future brings them in the war. They all realize that they must smarten up and become men, because it is time to face the reality of what is going on behind Devon’s peaceful barriers.
The phrase “Innocence must be killed to give birth to experience” says a lot about this time in the novel. Though the teachers had given the students more freedom during the summer and allowed several rule-breakings to take place, they understand that in order for the students to be ready and prepared for the coming conflicts in the army they must stop acting like children and sacrifice their state of immaturity to gain knowledge as adults. They understand that children cannot survive in wars, but men can.
Later, the students realize that they must enlist themselves to serve for the army within a short period of time. Most of them become excited about becoming a solider for army, but then the novel takes an ironic twist with the students’ beliefs of the war because they do not yet know the real dangers and certainties of the outside of the barriers of Devon (regarding the world war). An example of such “blind thinking” was Leper becoming the first to join the war, thinking that he will gain more time in the forest afterwards, but returns devastated and emotionally shattered. His confrontation with Gene proves that there is a war out there and it is horrible as well.
Gene, after realizing that he may also suffer from the same mental state as Leper if he enlisted, runs away screaming, “Shut up; it has nothing to do with me so shut up!”. Here we can see that Gene realizes some truth about the war, and no matter how much he tries to deny the horrible details and evidences that Leper brings back from the outside of Devon he gains new insight and wisdom. It is in this sense as well that Gene matures through the pressures of the war in the background, and that he cannot run from it because it is reality and he has to face it when it is his turn to enlist.
The presence of the war, in a sense, also serves as a background for the emotional development of the students at Devon; the world war actually triggers the buried emotions of the boys. Gene, Finny, and Brinker (for example) become competitive in their own ways; Gene compares his academic standards with Finny’s natural talents for sports, Finny shows a “win-win” competitive nature towards Gene in the games that they have played together (though he is out of the “war” mentally)), and Brinker feels insecure about his popularity due to Finny. Each character feels unconfident and is therefore “at war” with himself. In this novel, the ability to fix these inner conflicts seems to sadly result in either death (like Finny), or insanity (like Leper). For Finny, since he is unable to face certain feelings, he ends up becoming upset at the mock trial and dies in the second accident. Leper, on the other hand, believed that by enlisting first would bring him out from his loneliness, yet returns from the war in a far worse shape. Gene, however, goes through a more painful process by remaining in Devon to fight for salvation within himself.
Because the view of maturity in an emotional development is mostly seen in Gene (as narrator, we could see his thought-process as the novel progresses), I will use his private conflicts as an example to further support my thesis.
In the beginning of the book, Gene develops a close relationship with Finny, his roommate. However, Gene begins to feel a bit envious of Finny, and sees his way of thinking as the truth. This then lead to an inner conflict in Gene, in which he begins to compare himself with Finny in a “Win-Lose” way of thinking. As his thinking of “competition” continues, Gene begins to see certain “flaws” within himself that leads to his insecurity, though these “missing traits” are not really flaws. He does tend to “hold himself back” several times by repeatedly telling himself how lucky he is to have Finny as a best friend, but this excuse soon shatters because he remains selfish. This selfishness of him reveals itself in chapter three, where Finny practically saves Gene from falling, but Gene tries to protect his beliefs of “Finny being the enemy” by telling himself that it was Finny’s fault for getting him into the mess in the first place.
At the same time, Gene’s admiration for Finny’s personality prevents him from refusing to go out with Finny; it is in this state that Gene is actually a confused young man, who does not know the true value of friendship, and cannot correct the jealousy that he feels for Finny. The jealousy continues to grow, and soon enough Gene jounces the limb in chapter five, resulting in Finny’s fall. As I have said before, Gene is then forced to review what he has done to Finny and take a good look at himself; his mind, feeling extremely guilty for his actions, pressures him so much about the accident that he is forced to grow up. We see the final stage of maturity in Gene when he realizes near the end of the novel that he needs to become a grown-up and confront his personal war face-to-face once and for all; he confesses to Finny about his part in the accident, and finally gains Finny’s forgiveness and a sense of salvation. It was in this confession that Gene is forced to see his stupidity and selfishness behind some of his actions. His act of courage to go to Finny and confess is evidence that he has finally grown.
The conflict that he feels inside (regarding his relationship with Finny) becomes the source of his final emotional development; because of the “accident” the he had committed against Finny’s fall, Gene is forced to examine his own feelings over and over again throughout the novel. This repeated painful examination of his feelings and guilt results in growth; by really looking in himself, Gene realizes that he has to be responsible for his actions. It is when Gene finally reaches his peak of maturity that he begins to see his true identity in the end of the novel.
Gene has emerged from a sort of shyness into a more confident attitude; he was influenced by Finny to learn about people, events, and life in a way that he had never before. In short, Gene needed Finny in order to realize himself. And sadly, Finny’s death leads to the eulogy that Gene makes in the last chapter, where he remembers the lessons that he was taught during his personal war at Devon.
The theme of maturity in A Separate Peace can be reflected from the pressures that Gene (and the others students) endures during the drills, labors, and strict rules at Devon; this can be categorized as the “external” features of the theme, as well as the background of the novel. However, the theme of
coming to age can also be seen in Gene’s heart, as he participates in an emotional struggle within himself prior to Finny’s character. We can see that Gene becomes jealous and envious of Finny, but then there seems to be a development in his character as he slowly begins to realize the truth. In a sense, Gene reaches maturity and becomes an adult after Finny dies, as he realizes that his own enemy was not Finny but his ignorant heart.
Both the external and internal features of maturity in this novel gives meaning to the phrase, “Innocence must be killed to give birth to experience”; the students had to leave their peaceful state in the summer of 1942 and began to get used to the rigors of war and labor to fully understand the realities of war; at the same time, if Finny had not suffered and eventually died in the end, Gene would not have reflected on himself and grow from his experiences in the past. As Gene discovered in the end, true identity can only be reached through a state of maturity.