With its publication in the United States in 1960 (it was first published in England), John Knowles’s short novel A Separate Peace became an instant success with young readers. Within that year, the book was granted three awards: the first William Faulkner Foundation Award, the Rosenthal Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and the National Association of Independent Schools Award.
The novel has a simple story line presented initially in the first-person voice, but it quickly modifies to a dual view of events as experienced in a flashback view of incidents that occurred fifteen years before the opening scene, coupled with a mature assessment of those incidents. This combination of narrative voices gives the tale the immediacy of an eyewitness account while providing the author wide-ranging possibilities for omniscient commentary on the larger meaning of events.
The main setting of the novel is the Devon School in the hills of New Hampshire during the summer session of 1942 and the academic year that follows. The action focuses on a small group of boys completing their junior year by taking accelerated summer courses to allow them the extra time they will need as seniors to participate in training activities readying them to join the armed forces at war in Europe and Asia. The war and their proximity to participation in it are sustained factors in the minds of the boys, though they feign a youthful indifference to its threat. Fear is their constant unacknowledged companion, fear of the unknown horrors that lie ahead and fear of their inability to conduct themselves well in battle.
Though they would not likely consider it as such, these boys are already engaged in a battle in the quiet halls of Devon. This is their battle with some of the many fears that teenagers must face while growing to maturity: fear of not belonging or being displaced in the affections of one’s friends; the proud fear of loss of status, of not performing up to others’ expectations; even fear of surrendering to irrational hatreds caused by jealousy and to the latent violence that each boy senses within himself and others. Knowles leads the reader through skirmishes of this battle by detailing the experiences of two boys in this group, Gene Forrester and Phineas.
Gene is an intelligent, cautious boy raised by a supportive southern family. He has enjoyed three academically successful years at Devon and is respected by his professors and classmates as a scholar and athlete. In contrast to Gene’s moderation in all things, Phineas, his Bostonian roommate, known to all as Finny, is possessed of a uniquely free spirit. Finny, who lives always for the exhilaration of the moment, is a peerless athlete of perfect physical coordination. He views life as a great playing field on which all are engaged in a romping game of friendly competition and everyone is a winner. With these two characters, Knowles presents the dichotomous aspects of the mythic American male—half conservative intellectual, half noble savage. A major premise of this novel is the necessity for the reconciliation of these two aspects as one.
Finny’s charming manner and facile tongue make it possible for him to escape with ease the usual disciplinary consequences of every wild scheme his unfettered imagination can propose. One such scheme is the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session. Members of this elite club are initiated by a single perilous jump from the limb of a great tree into the Devon River, which runs through the school grounds. Gene and Finny, however, as the club’s only charter members, must make the leap every night.
As the summer moves toward its close, Gene becomes concerned about his grades and begins to resent Finny’s continual demands on his time through this and other impromptu interruptions of his study hours. He begins at first to feel that Finny is deliberately trying to make him fail in his bid for top student of the class, while Finny himself will continue to be lauded as the best athlete. Gene lacks self-awareness of the growing anger he feels toward his roommate and of his jealousy of Finny’s ability to get by with outrageous behavior. At first he is able to cloak these feelings with the self-lie that Finny is also envious of him. When he at last realizes that this is not so, he sees himself as inferior to Finny even in this, and his anger cannot be contained. At a nightly meeting of the suicide club, in an unreasoned, unplanned act that Gene later blames on “some ignorance inside me, some crazy thing . . . something blind,” he bounces the limb, causing Finny to fall awkwardly onto the bank below, splintering the bones of one leg so severely that the doctor predicts he will never play sports again.
At the opening of the fall term, Gene visits Finny at his home in Boston, where he is still recuperating, and there makes an awkward attempt to confess his guilt for the supposed accident. Finny brusquely refuses to accept Gene’s admission; he is unable, in his total truthfulness, to believe that his closest friend could betray him. As the term goes forward, Gene sets himself to atone for his action against Finny by staying out of sports. He occasionally even wears some of Finny’s clothes in a vain attempt to put on the mind and spirit of the friend he has maimed through unreasoned jealousy. It is a period of moral agony and doubt for Gene as he feels the war within his heart increase in intensity parallel to that of the war raging across the world outside the haven of the Devon school.
Gene’s confession, blurted out clumsily in Finny’s home, is not enough to cleanse his guilt and fear. Reconciliation is vital for both boys; neither can escape the necessity of forgiving and being forgiven. Though they are able to avoid the pain of that action for several months after Finny returns to Devon, in the final week of their last term, the moment of reconciliation comes. A mock investigation is proposed as a jest by a few boys, purporting to uncover the facts of Finny’s accident. The truth of Gene’s action is finally forced upon Finny, and in dashing from the scene in angry confusion, Finny falls once again, injuring himself fatally. In their few moments together on the morning before his death, Gene and Finny at last find peace: Gene in the humbling self-acceptance of the potential for savagery within everyone, and Finny in an understanding and acceptance of such human frailty possible even within a closest friend.
Much allegorical and symbolic material is woven throughout this short novel, which opens it to multiple interpretations of its rich layers of meaning. It can be viewed, for example, as a tale of Original Sin, with the Devon School as an Eden enclosing the great Tree of Knowledge through which humankind falls from innocence but is redeemed by the suffering of a totally innocent one. It may also be approached as a reworking of the classic tale of the need to accept the potential evil within everyone and thus make peace with one’s true self.