RE: the use of narration in "A Separate Peace": Use three quotes explaining how this adds to our understanding of the novel, theme and characters"A Separate Peace" by John Knowles

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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It is, indeed, interesting that John Knowles's "A Separate Peace" is told by a first-person narrator who does not have the usual intimacy with the action of the story.  Because the narrative is told by an older, more mature Gene Forrester, who is now removed from the action, there is, as critic Ronald Weber writes,

A highly calculated effect,....It indicates a sharply different thematic intention, and one that is rooted in a skillful alteration of the conventional method of first-person telling.

In the beginning of the novel, for instance, Gene indicates his older, more objective perspective as he looks around the campus of the Devon school. He reflects,

Everything at Devon slowly changed and slowly harmonized with what had gone before.  So it was logical to hope that since the buildings and the Deans and the curriculum could achieve this, I could achieve, perhaps unknowingly already had achieved, the growth and harmony myself.

Gene returns to understand what had really gone on in his heart during his time at Devon and to find the resolution of his inner conflicts, as well.  His descriptions of Devon are different in hindsight that they would be if he were the present-tense first person narrator.  For example, upon identifying the tree that caused his rival's demise, Gene notes that "it seemed weary with age."  And, he makes an existential observation, "So the more things remain the same, the more they change after...Nothing endures, not a tree, not love, not even a death by violence.  Another one is "It was only long after that [a remark Gene makes after being with Finny at Mr Patch-Withers's home]  I recognized sarcasm as the protest of people who are weak."

Certainly, his assessment of of his relationship with Phineas is much more objective after fifteen years:

We struggled in some equality for a while...

I think we remainded them [the instructors] of what peace was like, boys of sixteen.

We spent that summer in complete selfishness.

The narrative of "A Separate Peace" is replete with these observations of Gene the adult who only can assess the relationships clearly and objectively as an adult who has returned to the life-changing moments. In Chapter 3 after Phineas creates the game of blitzball, he comments,

Everyone has a moment in history which belongs particularly to him.  It is the moment when his emotions achieve their most powerful sway over him, and afterward when you say to this person "the worldtoday" or "life" or "reality" he will assume that you mean this moment, even if it is fifty years past.  The world, through his unleashed emotions, imprinted itself upon him [Phineas], and he carries the stamp of that passing moment forever.

Cerainly, the most profound evaluation made by Gene could not have been made by an adolescent narrator.  Because he has returned to Devon both physically and spiritually, Gene realizes in the final paragraphs that

my war ended before I ever put on a uniform; I was on active duty all my time at school; I killed my enemy there.

But, Gene also realizes that Finny was not the enemy--"if indeed he was the enemy"--and has previously asserted this idea a few paragraphs prior to the above passage.  He states, seemed clear that wars were mot made by generations and their special stupidities, but...were made instead by something ignorant in the human heart.

Thomas Wolfe wrote that "You can't go home again"; one cannot return to a state once held before in one's life, back to the youth that one once was.  True, but Gene's return to Devon and "renarration," as it were, is what propels him to the moral truth of his life.

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