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Like many teenagers, Gene Forrester and his friends struggle in finding their true passions and identity throughout their high school lives. Word War II hinders their teenage lives and forces them to define themselves in relation to the war. The boys in the Devon School deal with the chaos different ways; for example, one of the boys, Leper, decided to enlist into the war, even though the military contradicts his morals, and Finny kept on denying that the war even existed.
In both cases, the boys try to define themselves against something in order to be men. Gene also goes through a difficult time when trying to identify himself, but his crisis doesn’t revolve around the war, it revolves around his roommate, Finny. Gene’s appreciation and resentment of his friend are so great that he literally loses himself in Finny. Gene’s personal identity is so revolved around Finny that in order to become independent, he has to destroy his roommate.
The novel A Separate Peace by John Knowles is told from the point of view of the main character, Gene Forrester, as he reminisces back to his days in The Devon Boarding School in New England. After Gene’s roommate, Finny, shatters his leg due to an accident, Gene learns to accept himself as a separate person and he slowly becomes responsible for his own actions and decisions; at first, Gene was envious of his athletic and charming roommate, but after the tree accident, Gene started coming out of Finny’s shadow and became more confident and independent, and by the end of the story he became a very wise and understanding adult.
Prior to Finny’s leg injury, Gene always followed his roommate around and lived in his successful shadow; Gene looked up to Finny and thought of him as a super-human. Gene believed that everything that Phineas did was perfect, even an action as simple as walking seemed so perfect; as Gene followed Finny, he noticed how he “walked on serenely, or rather flowed on, rolling forward… with such unthinking unity of movement that “walk” didn’t describe it” (Knowles 18). Throughout the novel, Gene’s main desire was to be more like Finny. Gene’s jealousy of Finny corrupted their friendship and later on lead Gene into pushing Finny out of a tree. Some of Gene’s jealousy towards Finny, such as his desire for Finny’s carefree charm, are casual; while other envious feelings were more deeply rooted. The deep-seated sense of envy and rivalry that is seen in Gene prevents him from reciprocating Finny’s pure feelings of friendship. Although Gene is fascinated by everything that Finny does, his feelings soon manifest into jealousy and Finny becomes more of a rival than a friend. Gene drastically misinterprets Finny’s motivations and feelings towards him by thinking, “I found a single sustaining thought. The thought was, You and Phineas are even already. You are in enmity. You are both coldly driving ahead for yourselves alone. You did hate him for breaking that school swimming record, but so what? He hated you for getting an A in every course but one last term. You would have had an A in that one except for him. Except for him” (53). Before Finny’s accident, he nonchalantly trusts Gene and has no hateful feelings towards him. However, Gene deeply resented Finny for his natural charisma and effortless ability to succeed; Gene’s insecurities and jealousy got the best of him when he decided to purposely make Finny fall from a tree, which completely changed Gene forever.
After Finny’s accident, Gene was left all alone and he had to adapt to a life without his rival, Finny. Months go by and winter begins at Devon school without Finny, but Gene and the other boys keep moving forward in their lives and they each focus on school and the war. Finny’s absence allowed Gene to find his true identity, and he even started thinking about enlisting to the war after his friend, Leper stated that “to enlist. To slam the door impulsively on the past, to shed everything down to my last bit of clothing, to break the pattern of my life…The war would be deadly all right. But I was used to finding something deadly in things that attracted me” (101). As Gene matures he starts to develop his own identity, and he reveals his attraction to deadly things. At first, when Gene agreed to join the war with Leper, Gene was serious, but when Finny came back to Devon and mocked his roommate, Gene went back to his old habits and decided to follow Finny’s lead by believing that the war wasn’t real. After Finny became crippled from his injury, Gene’s sense of guilt and remorse was evident. When Finny came back to Devon, as a way of gaining forgiveness from himself, Gene did everything that Finny wanted to do: when Finny announced to Gene that he was going to get trained to go to the Olympics, Gene was reluctant at first. But Finny’s charm and charisma, once again, got the best of Gene. Soon Gene was running every morning and it “felt magnificent. It was as though [his] body until that instant had simply been lazy… an accession of strength came flooding through [him]… [he] lost [himself]… all entanglements were shed, [he] broke into the clear” (120). The moment Gene felt the rush of adrenaline while he was running made him aware that he was finally equal to Finny; however, by making Finny his “equal,” Gene finally started to try to befriend and get closer to Finny. At this point of the novel, Gene finally realizes that his envious nature towards Finny won’t get him anywhere and that learning to be independent and moving forward will not only make him better than Finny, but it will also make him feel good about himself.
After Gene returns to Devon School and reminisces back to his time as a student in the school, he comes to a realization that he wasted his teenage years being jealous of someone who could’ve been his best friend. After Finny’s second accident, Gene apologized to Finny multiple times, and only then did he begin to accept the responsibility of his acts. Gene gathers his thoughts later and states that “wars were not made by generations and their special stupidities, but that wars were made instead by something ignorant in the heart” (195). This quote points out to the readers that Finny was the only character in the novel who wasn’t ignorant and that he has never hated or hurt anyone; this conveys another reason of why Gene was always envious of Finny’s nobility. Gene only recognized Finny’s integrity and generosity after his death, when it was too late. By the end of the novel, Gene realized that Finny was the only person he knew who was never influenced by pettiness or inhibition, he realizes that “all of them, all except Phineas, constructed at infinite cost to themselves these Maginot Lines against this enemy they thought they saw across the frontier, this enemy who never attacked that way—if he ever attacked at all; if he was indeed the enemy” (204). When Gene finally acknowledges that he killed his “enemy,” he becomes aware that his only enemy was always been inside of him. This realization is what gives Gene Forrester “a separate peace:” a peace apart from the regret of having lost a true friend because of his envy and ignorance.
Throughout A Separate Peace, John Knowles makes the case that in order to define themselves, people create false enemies out of true friends. When Gene revisits Devon, he discovers that the school is still the same. So while the world was changing, the school remained the same. Unlike the school, Gene continued to grow, and so the very fact that the school remained unchanged made it seem to him like it was different. Gene finds comfort in the fact that he is now a grown up and that he has moved on. Knowles also addresses that accepting ourselves and moving on with our lives will always lead to freedom and forgiveness.
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