In John Knowles’ novel A Separate Peace, it begins with the protagonist, Gene Forrester coming back to his alma mater the Devon School in New Hampshire. Wandering through the campus, Gene makes his way to a tall tree by the river; the reason for his return. From here he takes the reader back to the year 1942 during World War II when he was in high school. During the summer session of 1942, he becomes close friends with his daredevil roommate Finny. Finny is able to convince Gene into making a dangerous jump out of a tree into a river, and the two start a secret society based on this ritual.
Gene slowly begins to envy Finny’s athletic capabilities and his innocence, and thinks that Finny envies him in return. Gene finally realizes that there was never any rivalry between them when, one day, Finny expresses a genuine desire to see Gene succeed.
While still in shock, he goes with Finny to the tree for their jumping ritual.
When Finny reaches the edge of the branch, Gene’s knees bend, shaking the branch and causing Finny to fall to the bank and shatter his leg. He goes to see Finny and begins to admit what happened, but the doctor interrupts him, and Finny is sent home before Gene gets another chance to confess. On his way back to school from vacation, he stops by Finny’s house and tries to tell him the truth about what happened. Finny refuses to listen to him, and Gene rescinds his confession and continues on to school. World War II is in full swing and the boys at Devon are all eager to enlist in the military. Brinker Hadley, a prominent class politician, tells Gene that they enlist together, and Gene agrees. But later that night, he finds Finny has returned to school. Both Gene and Brinker decide not to enlist. Brinker organizes a meeting with their classmates and has Gene and Finny come without notice.
The boys question the two about the fall. Finny does not say much because he cannot remember clearly, and Gene claims that he doesn’t remember the details of it. The boys now bring in Leper, who was sighted earlier in the day skulking about the bushes, and Leper begins to implicate Gene. Finny declares that he does not care about the facts and rushes out of the room. Hurrying on the stairs, he falls and breaks his leg again. Gene sneaks over to the school’s infirmary that night to see Finny, who angrily sends him away. The next morning, he goes to see Finny again, takes full blame for the tragedy and apologizes. Finny accepts these statements and the two are reconciled. Later, during an operation on Finny’s leg, something goes wrong, killing him.
Gene receives the news with relative calmness; he feels that he has become a part of Finny and will always be with him. At the end of the novel Gene reflects on the constant enmity that plagues the human heart—a curse from which he believes that only Finny was immune. I believe that John Knowles titled his novel A Separate Peace because Gene gains a separate peace with himself. Even though he hurt Finny and had lots of conflict with him and troubling finding himself, at the end he is able to feel at peace. It was a different peace than he was expecting. The novel focused on the inner wars we wage with ourselves. Even in the midst of a world war, Gene battles his inner demons and defeats his worst enemy inside himself and thus creates a different, a separate peace for himself. The four main characters in A Separate Peace are the protagonist, Gene Forrester, the antagonist, Brinker Hadley, and two of their classmates Finny and Elwin “Leper” Lepellier. If I were to describe Gene in five words, I would say that he is insecure, envious, loyal, competitive, and honest. I would describe Brinker as authoritative, demanding, intelligent, responsible, and mature.
Finny is outgoing, free-spirited, mischievous, vulnerable, and charismatic. And Leper is gentle, contemplative, quiet, bright, and bold. My first impression of the protagonist, Gene was that he very much a follower and not a leader. Right from the start he “let Finny talk [him] into stupid things” (17) and felt that “he was getting some kind of hold over [him]” (17). But he still jumped from the tree anyway. Another time I was able to see this was when Finny suggested that they go to the beach and Gene had thought of all the risks such as “expulsion, destroyed . . . studying [he] was going to do for an important test the next morning, blasted the reasonable amount of order [he] wanted to maintain in [his] life, and . . . the kind of long, labored bicycle ride [he] hated” (46). But his response was still “’ [a]all right’” (46). These actions of continuing to follow what others do, specifically Phineas is on Phineas’ first day back after his fall. Finny tells Gene for the first time that he was working towards the 1944 Olympics, but with his broken leg, he can no longer achieve that goal, which gives him the idea to train Gene for them instead. “And not believing him, not forgetting that troops were being shuttled toward battlefields all over the world, [he] went along, as [he] always did” (117).
Gene does not only show this willingness to go along with just Finny, but Brinker as well. My first impression of the antagonist, Brinker Hadley was that he is very authoritative and that he is definitely a leader. The first time I was able to see this was after their long day of service to the war effort when a group of boys including Brinker and Gene were in the butt room, and Brinker had told everyone that “[he was] giving it up” (100) and that he would enlist the next day. I saw it as him taking advantage of his leadership position among the boys and to lead the way into serving in the war. A more obvious way of seeing his leadership is the way that he is described as “the hub of the class” (87). Hub is a synonym for the center of something, or the heart and core. If someone is described as the hub of the class, then it means that they are the person that keeps the class together. The final way I was able to see Brinker’s leadership was towards the end of the book. Even though he had transformed to a more rebellious way, there was still a sign of his authority when he had arranged the trial in the Assembly Hall. His wanting to know the truth that was hidden from him drove him to hold the meeting in order to find it. Gene is definitely a dynamic and round character unlike Brinker who is a static and flat character. Gene changes very significantly in the story.
He struggled a lot with finding himself and his identity, so much that he believes that he is a part of Phineas. Oddly enough, this sort of makes sense. One way to think about it is the guilt – Gene was so disgusted with himself for having caused Finny’s accident that he can’t bear to be himself, so he becomes someone else: Phineas. Another explanation is that because the struggle to define him is so difficult, he’s simply borrowed someone else’s identity instead of creating one for himself. But once Finny is gone, Gene has to rely on himself to make decisions and make up his own rules. At the end of the novel as Gene is reflecting fifteen years later, he says that “[his war ended before [he] ever put on a uniform . . . [because he] killed [his] enemy there” (204). I believe that the enemy he defeated was the part of Phineas that was in him, and by doing that he was able to gain peace. Brinker really does not transform much throughout the story. His main change is when he steps down from his position in the Golden Fleece Debating Society and his behavior at the winter festival, but his strong and authoritative personality remains.
“It wasn’t the cider which made me surpass myself, it was this liberation we had torn from the gray encroachments of 1943, the escape we had concocted, this afternoon of momentary, illusory, special and separate peace.” (136,137) This passage stood out to me because in the midst of a raging war, these schoolboys were able to find their own peace with each other by having fun and seeing that the little things in life like a winter carnival could create such an escape for them. It was their idea of freedom that gave them such peace within themselves, and it was as if the war was not even going on. There were many themes in this novel, but the one that stood out the most to me was the difference between creating your own identity and dependence on someone else to “borrow” theirs. When Phineas told Gene that he would be participating in sports in his place, Gene had a realization that what he had been longing for was to be a part of Finny.
This is very different than the end of the novel where Gene is looking back to that time and realizing that the part of Phineas that was in him had died when Phineas died. And because of that death, he had to rely on himself in order to craft his own identity and to finally gain peace. I think that one of the biggest decisions Gene had to make was to tell Finny the truth on his way back to school after the summer session. Even though Finny did not listen to him, the courage that it took Gene to do that was immense. I think that it was wise because it showed that he cared enough about Finny to tell him the truth. I also think that it helped him get rid of some of the guilt by just having Finny know what actually happened, whether he believed it or not. If I were in Gene’s position I probably would do the same thing just because I know from previous experience that if you lie, it can really hurt you in the end, and it is a pain to have it harboring over you all the time. I’ve learned two life lessons from this novel. One is to enjoy life, and not be so worried about what is going to happen next. I should not be completely apathetic to the future, but to live to the fullest and have fun. Another more serious lesson is the importance of forgiveness and love.
If someone has wronged me, I should not keep a grudge against them or make them feel terrible about it, but instead I should do what Christ calls us to do which is to love one another as yourself, and to forgive. A Separate Peace has really reminded me how important these lessons, especially the latter are as I continue to mature. There really was not anything that I disliked about this book except for one quote. Gene is telling the reader one of Finny’s most important rules, and one of them was “[a]lways say your prayers at night because it might turn out that there is a God” (35). I did not like this quote just because of what I believe in and what I know as truth. I believe that there is a God and that I should always pray no matter what. But other than this one quote, there was nothing I really disliked about it.