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Power in A Separate Peace

Categories: A Separate PeacePower

A discussion of how power is depicted in John Knowles’ “A Separate Peace”.

John Knowles’ A Separate Peace depicts many examples of how power is used. In A Separate Peace, two opposing characters struggle for their own separate might. Gene Forrester, the reserved narrator, is weakened by his struggle for power. While, Phineas was inspired by his own power within. The novel conveys how peace can weaken or inspire during a mental war. Phineas, a natural rebel, is known as the best athlete in school.

For example, he and three others come to look at a tree, which is considered among the Upper Middler students at Devon an impossibility. Phineas demonstrates his supreme power by stating that the tree is, indeed, a “cinch” (p. 6). No Upper Middler had dared to do the unthinkable, vaulting off a tree to land in a shallow river. Phineas is the first to do this. This single statement tells us much about him. He doesn’t mind taking risks, enjoys intimidating others, and over exaggerates.

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It tells that he is very strong and powerful to be able to do what others can not do. The denotation of power is “the capability of achieving something.” Not only is Phineas achieving something from jumping off this tree, he is achieving power by gaining the respect of fellow classmates. Phineas’ spontaneity inspires many others to be like himself and jump off the tree. Another example of Phineas’ power is his character establishing scene of disrespect to the school by wearing his pink shirt and the Devon School tie as his belt.

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We here, again, see him as the spontaneous individual who “can get away with anything” (p.18). Phineas’ nature inspired Mr. Patch-Withers, a teacher at Devon. Phineas has an eloquence about himself, allowing him to get by with so much. Phineas “might have rather enjoyed the punishment if it was done in some kind of novel and known way” (p.20). Even with negative actions, Phineas can enjoy a situation if it presents something new and different. It is this spontaneous and contradictory nature which Gene cannot understand (1) and which ultimately contributes to his attempting to destroy Phineas. Gene Forrester, after being gone for fifteen years, returns to the Devon School to recollect his past memories of the summer session when he was sixteen years old. As stated before, Phineas was considered the best athlete in school, but Gene tried to compensate by being the best student in school. Gene’s continuous competition with Phineas weakened his personality, hence causing Gene’s rebellion on Phineas. Gene begins to think that his purpose is “to become part of Phineas” (p.77). Phineas states that Gene has to play sports now for him. Then, Gene realizes that this must have been his purpose in pushing Phineas off the limb. He is to become part of him. Consequently, in wounding Phineas, Gene has brought Phineas down to his level or below it, so that Phineas will be partly dependant upon Gene and, in this way, Gene can become a part of Phineas’ life. Nevertheless, in the beginning of the book, Gene describes the overwhelming feeling of jumping off the tree. It seemed as if he “was throwing [his] life away” (p.9). It’s ironic that Gene would say this because it symbolizes his life after Phineas’ accident. The accident destroyed Phineas’ life and it took a part of Gene’s life, too. His life totally and drastically is changed because Phineas is all he has. Without Phineas, he has no life nor personality. He and Phineas are one. His life is formless and void. Gene developed a hatred for Phineas because of this reason. Gene feels that Phineas personally tries to take over and control him. Gene created a war between himself and Finny that never existed. Gene concludes that he “killed [his] enemy there,” meaning that he killed both Finny and also what was, at the same time, foreign and inadmissable to his way of life (p.196). Gene believes that he is weak. Subconsciencely, he is powerful. If he is not, he could never had the mental strength of pushing (2) Phineas out of the tree. This helpless nudge soon became a random act of violence that ended in death. Did Phineas purposelessly tried to take over Gene’s life to weaken him and make himself more powerful? Most likely, not. Phineas is the perfectly natural and spontaneous person who is not capable of doing something mean or ugly. He responds to life with natural emotions and all things, except studying, come easily to him. He is not capable of such emotions as jealousy or envy. He lives in a world of happiness and joy and he communicates these qualities to the people whom he meets. Phineas was powerful in many ways: his strength, his spontaneity, and, most of all, his love. (3) I. Nature in Poetry A. Time Period – 20th Century B. Poet’s writing techniques in the twentieth century 1. Love a. Nature b. Peace c. Beauty 2. Ridicule of Authority 3. Satire C. Poets of the same century can have multiple views, many differing. D.H. Lawrence loved and was in touch with nature, while Karl Shapiro cared more of war and satires of government. D. Even though both poets share and differ in views, both are twentieth century poets. II. The Twentieth Century A. 1900-1939 1. Began with the dawn of the new century and in England, the death a Queen Victoria. 2. Leading poets were D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Joseph Conrad, Dylan Thomas, and H.G. Wells. B. Views 1. Science Fiction 2. Obsessed with future 3. Language change 4. Anti-war protagonists 5. Ridicule of authority III. D.H. Lawrence A. Views of Nature 1. Loved inner self (Magill, 1686) 2. He was known to fill the heart with peace (Magill 1686). 3. Viewed nature as humanistic. 4. His writings were pure because of his puritan adolescent environment (Becker, 5). 5. He was thought to be homosexual (Becker, 5). B. Examples 1. “You are celebrate and single…” a. human imagery b. passion 2. “Sea, only you are free, sophisticated.” a. human imagery b. passion c. love and thoughtfulness of nature C. Lawrence was in the twentieth century, but wrote as if he was in the Romantic era. He has the passion and love that most do not. iV. Karl Shapiro A. Views of Nature 1. He was in WW2 and, much like Hemingway, wrote of war. 2. He wrote numerous satires. 3. His war poems “disclose the ugliness of wartime world that has replaced the merely tawdry of prewar America.” (Magill, 1680) 4. More interested in social meaning rather than nature. (Stepanche, 485) 5. His motto is “everything we are taught is false.” (Spears, 487) B. Example 1. “Saturated with the obscurity of night.” a. passion b. wonder and mystery of nature 2. “You could see the sun, and irritated rim.” a. melancholy b. oddness of nature C. Karl Shapiro was, indeed, a twentieth century poet. He was not into the beauty of nature as what the Romantics were. He cared more for social issues. V. Conclusion A. In conclusion, even though two poets are in the same era, they do not have the same views. B. They may differ in views of nature. C. Many poets were way ahead or behind their time. Lawrence was behind his time.

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Power in A Separate Peace. (2021, Jul 02). Retrieved from

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