What is the significance of the war in the book, A Separate Peace?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In John Knowles's A Separate Peace, the World War II setting parallels the personal and figurative war of Gene Forester.  For, as Gene concludes at the end of the novel,

...it seemed clear that wars were not made by generations and their special stupidities, but that wars were made instead by something ignorant in the human heart.

Throughout the narrative, Knowles employs metaphors for this war of the soul as, for instance, Gene perceives the winter as "an old, corrupt, tired conqueror" and the instructor Mr. Ludsbury views athletic games as aimed "of course at the approaching Waterloo." Further, this overriding concept of life as a battlefield is underscored with what Gene calls "the influence of 1942." Thus, the personal conflicts which Gene has within himself and with Finny and others are but reflections of the conflicts that man engages in when he wages war with other men.  While there may be cease-fires such as the Winter Carnival in which Gene feels "a separate peace," there is yet that "Maginot Line" that he has drawn between himself and Finny. 

In the final chapter, Gene realizes that his war is, indeed, the essential war as recognizes that he has built his own "Maginot Line" of obsessive defense against the unpretentious and innocent Phineas. For, it is within him that he has created a "menace...facing [him] by developing a particular frame of mind."



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