This book opens with Gene Forrester’s return to Devon school after World War II to revisit the place where he believes he fought his war. He remembers his last year at Devon, when he became friends with his roommate, Finny.
While Gene is thoughtful and unsure of himself, Finny is filled with confidence. This confidence is based on a physical prowess which makes him the best athlete in the school. While Gene is capable of earning the top grades in his class, Finny is the undisputed class leader. Finny’s constant invention of pranks and games and his insistence on fun and good fellowship remind the boys, who have many kinds of trouble on their minds, that the joy of living should be valued above all things.
Gene comes to feel that there is a secret rivalry between him and Finny, he even suspects that Finny’s midnight larks are part of a plot to prevent him from getting the best grades. When he realizes that he is mistaken and that he has projected his own insecurity onto Finny, he is unable to accept this fact. Suddenly presented with a chance to hurt Finny, he causes an “accident” which results in a crippling compound fracture for Finney.
Most of the novel deals with Gene’s attempts to come to terms with his act. Finny does not suspect Gene, so Gene must deal with himself in moral isolation. Though Gene tries to confess, Finny will not listen to him. Only when their classmates hold a mock trial, do Finny and Gene face what Gene has done. Perhaps as a result of the trial, Finny rebreaks his leg and dies in the resulting operation. Before the operation, in a secret visit to Finny’s hospital room, Gene learns how much he has hurt Finny and how truly innocent Finny has always been.
Though often discussed as a novel for young people, A SEPARATE PEACE is rich enough to interest adult readers. Gene’s discovery that the real enemy is not across the ocean but in his own soul is convincing and moving.
Bell, Hallman B. A Separate Peace. Boston: Twayne, 1990. A collection of critical essays that give an excellent overall view of Knowles’s novel. Includes a useful bibliography.
Flum, Hanoch, and Harriet Porton. “Relational Processes and Identity Formation in Adolescence: The Example of A Separate Peace.” Genetic, Social, and General Monographs 121 (November, 1995): 369-390. The authors view the process of identity formation through the lens of the story of an adolescent boy’s experiences during World War II at a boarding school in New Hampshire. Using the events of the book as examples of the necessary connections that are essential to the process of development, the authors explore male adolescent growth.
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A Separate Peace: Contrasting Gene and Phineas and the Struggle for Power
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. 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. 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 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 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.
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