American Feelings about War
Although first published in 1959 in England, A Separate Peace is about an earlier period, specifically the early 1940s when United States had declared its involvement in World War II. It must be remembered that World War II brought out enormous patriotism in most Americans, whether they were actually working in war-related jobs, engaged in combat, or neither. While intelligent adolescents such as Gene Forrester and Hadley Brinker in A Separate Peace might have mixed feelings about being drafted or enlisting in the war, shirking responsibility (in other words, draft dodging) was virtually unthinkable. Elwin "Leper" Lepelher, a major character in Knowles's novel, enlists in the war and does go AWOL (absent without leave). However, although he is often a sincere, sympathetic character, he does not ultimately emerge a hero.
It is also worth remembering that when A Separate Peace was first published in the United States in 1960, the Korean War had been over for about seven years, and American involvement in the War in Vietnam had not yet escalated to horrific proportions. There was little protest over compulsory enrollment in the military—the draft—or the U.S.'s role in Vietnam in the early 1960s. As U.S. involvement and troop movement escalated after 1965, however, public support for the war diminished and many young antiwar protesters responded by burning their draft notices. Thus, while...
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The values that John Knowles emphasizes in A Separate Peace reveal his belief that an appreciation of nature's wonders is fundamental to a life of moral integrity and spiritual satisfaction. Consequently, the novel is set in the beautiful countryside of New England, not far from the Atlantic coastline at a New Hampshire prep school called Devon. The year is 1942, and the United States is increasing its involvement in World War II. The early reverses the Allies suffer seem to imperil the very values of Western civilization. The war is presented first as a distant source of uneasiness, but its presence gradually grows into an emblem of the encroachment of the adult world's most mundane elements onto an unspoiled realm of youth and beauty.
That realm lies within the protected sanctuary of the school, a place of privilege run by quasi-British masters who espouse "continuity" but have ceased to provide the inspirational energy that keeps tradition vital. Although Knowles admires the school's overall aims and holds it in higher esteem than he does most other institutions in American life, he also recognizes its tendencies to mold and limit its students, draining them of the creativity and spontaneity that make life so vivid for his exceptional, artistic, and slightly eccentric characters. Still, in the "gypsy summer" that produces the book's freest and happiest moments, it is the school grounds, glowing like a marvelous garden of Eden, that provide the...
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Point of View
Told in first-person ("I") by Gene Forrester, a man in his thirties recalling his adolescence, A Separate Peace begins with Gene's visit to the Devon School. The first pages of the novel mainly describe the physical landscape of the institution; the rest tells Gene's story, a tale in which he serves as both an observer and a participant at the center of the action. As Ronald Weber notes, "Generally, first-person narration gives the reader a heightened sense of immediacy, a sense of close involvement with the life of the novel ... With Knowles' s novel, however, this is not the case ... throughout it he remains somewhat outside the action and detached from the narrator, observing the life of the novel rather than submerged in it." This is not intended as a criticism, however. As Weber explains, Knowles's choice of narration is "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."
It is important to remember that Gene, through the distance of time—specifically fifteen years—has arrived at a level of self-knowledge that few teenagers could achieve. Had Knowles limited the perspective to the highly introspective, but still adolescent Gene, A Separate Peace would have been told in a very different tone. As Ronald Weber writes, "Gene's voice ... is dispassionate, reflective, and...
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None of the books John Knowles has written since A Separate Peace has achieved nearly the critical or popular success of his first novel. The reason is not that Knowles has exhausted his knowledge of the world but that A Separate Peace has a rare unity of subject and style. Knowles is a graceful and lucid writer, but his ability to use language most effectively seems to require a specific focus to prevent style from becoming merely decorative, an end in itself. His task in A Separate Peace, to establish the authenticity of Gene's sensibility—that is, his heightened sensitivity to the beauty of the natural world and his capacity for intense feeling about human nature—required the creation of a lyric voice to register the range of emotional response with poetic precision. Knowles's vivid descriptions of the countryside through four seasons enable him to echo the psychic landscape of his narrator in powerful imagery, and the clarity of his descriptions of certain key locations—a marble staircase, the testing tree, the pure river—offers an anchor and a context for the novel's most important events. Because Gene's voice throughout the narrative is generally sober and reflective, when Knowles shifts into a different rhythm the effect is often striking by contrast.
Knowles also knows the atmosphere of the school very well, and his unobtrusive presentation of details gradually gives the reader a full sense of the school's grounds. The other boys in...
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It is a testament to Knowles's ability that a story about relatively privileged young men in the 1940s, written from the perspective of the quiet, almost humdrum days of the Eisenhower era, has not become dated at all. Knowles has written what appears to be a real "classic" of youthful ardor that so perfectly captures the poignance of a young man's feeling that it will continue to transcend its temporal and social bounds. The book's portraits of youthful aspirations, fears, frustrations, and revelations remain apt decades after Knowles painted them. Gene's progress from the protected environment of a friendly, unified school setting to his first encounters with the demands of an indifferent or hostile world has the resonance of an archetype of human behavior.
Yet, there is one aspect of the relationship between Gene and Phineas that looks a bit different now than it did thirty years ago. In the 1940s, it would be very unusual for boys of this background to discuss sex at all, and the absence of women from their thoughts is a function of the cultural reservations more than anything else, a fact still essentially operative in 1960 as well. Also, the virtual elimination of any interest in women might be regarded as Knowles's choice to remove a factor that would not particularly contribute to the themes he is considering. Still, the absence of any sexual curiosity tends to be rather conspicuous in the 1980s, in which sexual awakening is almost a requisite...
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Compare and Contrast
1940s: In the middle of World War II, the United States had compulsory draft registration for young men, most of whom expected to eventually enlist in the military.
Early 1960s: While the United States still had compulsory draft registration for young men, only a few were being called up for military duty in Vietnam.
Today: Reinstated in the early 1980s after a brief dismissal in the 1970s, draft registration is still required for young men in America, although there is little chance of being called up into a military that is currently all-volunteer.
1940s: America declared its involvement in World War II, and had troops in Europe and the Pacific.
Early 1960s: Although America had sent some troops to Vietnam, their commitment to the war effort was insignificant at the time compared to the escalation after 1965.
Today: The United States of America relies on all-volunteer armed forces.
1940s: The path to success for young men from upper-class white families often led from the best prep school to an Ivy League university.
Early 1960s: University enrollment soared as the baby boom generation reached college age. Many government programs existed to help more young people from middle-class and impoverished backgrounds attain a college education.
Today: College graduates still have higher average salaries than people...
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Topics for Discussion
1. How do the boys at Devon feel about the adults they know?
2. Why and how is the school and its setting important for Gene and the other boys at Devon?
3. What is the meaning of war for Gene and his friends? How does their attitude change? Does it affect all of the boys the same way?
4. How does the concept of friendship control and influence the lives of the boys at Devon?
5. Why does Gene fear the tree that Finny wants him to climb? How does his behavior in the tree reflect this fear?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. What is the "separate peace" that Gene feels he has achieved? How has it affected the rest of his life?
2. Find several examples of the way in which Knowles uses the natural world (e.g., the tree, the rivers) to introduce and express the novel's important themes. Do you think these images work well as symbolism? Why?
3. What is the place of sports in the life of the boys at Devon? How does Knowles use sports to help portray his characters?
4. What kind of picture of American society does Knowles develop in his portrait of the United States in the early days of World War II? How might his writing the book in the 1950s affect his description of the 1940s?
5. Gene is described with considerable psychological insight, but Phineas is presented primarily from Gene's perspective. How does Phineas see himself? How might Phineas's self-image differ from Gene's image of him?
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Topics for Further Study
Explore the reasons for the American involvement in World War II. Compare the American degree of popular support to that of such other wars as World War I, the Vietnam War, and the Korean War.
Compare and contrast three significant fictional works about World War II. Some possibilities include James Jones's novel From Here to Eternity, Norman Mailer's novel The Naked and the Dead, and Arthur Miller's play All My Sons.
Discuss the economic impact of World War II on the United States and on Europe.
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In 1972 A Separate Peace was filmed by Paramount. The studio was unable to find a writer or director with the requisite cinematic genius to find images to correspond to the moods of Knowles's writing. Aside from the title and some scenes taken directly from the book, the film bears little resemblance to the novel and has been deservedly forgotten.
Knowles based A Separate Peace on a short story entitled "Phineas" that he had written about ten years earlier. The short story ends at the point where Gene goes to confess to Finny that he is responsible for Finny's fall from the tree. Knowles published "Phineas" in 1968 as part of the short story collection Phineas: Six Stories. The follow-up novel to A Separate Peace, Peace Breaks Out, serves as an interesting commentary on the post-World War II era.
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A Separate Peace was adapted as a film directed by Larry Peerce, starring John Heyl and Parker Stevenson, Paramount Pictures, 1972, available from Paramount Home Video, Home Vision Cinema. Although generally faithful to the novel, the film of the same name received mostly poor reviews. Typical was movie critic Leonard Maltin's opinion that the "story is morbid, acting incredibly amateurish, and direction has no feeling at all for the period."
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What Do I Read Next?
Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger's famous novel about Holden Caulfield's troubled adolescence and the phoniness he detects in adults, is in many ways as relevant today as when it was published in 1953.
F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1920 novel This Side of Paradise is the story of how wealthy, young Amory Blaine struggles for self-knowledge in his provincial world.
John Knowles's novel Peace Breaks Out is the sequel to A Separate Peace. Published in 1981, Peace Breaks Out features the same setting as A Separate Peace but includes a different cast of characters.
Mary Gordon's 1991 collection Good Boys and Dead Girls contains twenty-eight of her essays on such writers as Virginia Woolf, Mary Mc-Carthy, David Plante, and Edith Wharton.
The Portable Malcolm Cowley, edited by Don-ald W. Faulkner. Published in 1990, the volume contains many of Malcolm Cowley's perceptive reflections on American writers and writing.
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For Further Reference
Ellis, James. "A Separate Peace: The Fall from Innocence." English Journal 53 (May 1964): 313-318. A good character study of the protagonist and his relationship with his best friend.
Halio, Jay. "John Knowles's Short Novels." Studies in Short Fiction 1 (Winter 1964): 107-112. Explores the relationship of A Separate Peace to Knowles's other works, with commentary on similarities in theme, style, and approach.
Knowles, John. "Musings on a Chameleon." Esquire (April 1988): 174-183. An interesting and revealing account of the author's friendship with Truman Capote, providing some previously unknown information about Knowles's career and writing.
MacDonald, James. "The Novels of John Knowles." Arizona Quarterly 23 (Winter 1967): 335-342. An intelligent overview of Knowles's work.
Mengeling, Marvin. "A Separate Peace." English Journal 58 (December 1969): 1322-1329. A good general discussion with particular emphasis on the mythic aspects of the character of Phineas.
Morgan, Neal. Wilson Library Bulletin 39 (December 1964): 343-344. A brief but informative sketch of the author's early life and career.
Raven, Simon. "Review." Spectator 202 (May 1, 1959): 630. An appreciative review of A Separate Peace by an English critic.
Theroux, Paul. "Review." New York Times Book Review (July 14, 1974): 4-5. An essay on Knowles,...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Douglas Alley, "Teaching Emerson Through A Separate Peace," in English Journal, January, 1981, pp. 19-23
Hallman Bell Bryant, "A Separate Peace": The War Within, Twayne, 1990.
John K. Crabbe, "On the Playing Fields of Devon," in English Journal, Vol. 58, 1969, pp. 519-20
Anne Duchene, in a review of A Separate Peace in Manchester Guardian, May 1, 1959.
James Ellis, "A Separate Peace: A Fall From Innocence," in English Journal, May, 1964, pp 313-18.
Edmund Fuller, "Shadow of Mars," in New York Times Book Review, February 7, 1960.
Linda Heinz, "A Separate Peace: Filming the War Within," in Literature Film Quarterly, No. 3, 1975, p. 168.
John Knowles, "The Young Writer's Real Friends," The Writer, Vol. 75, July, 1962, pp. 12-14.
John Knowles, "My Separate Peace," in Esquire, March, 1985, pp. 106-09.
James M. Mellard, "Counterpoint and 'Double Vision' in A Separate Peace," in Studies in Short Fiction, No. 4, 1966, pp. 127-35.
J. Noffsinger, A. M. Rice, et al. "Still Good Reading: Adolescent Novels Written Before 1967," English Journal, April, 1992, p. 7.
A review of A Separate Peace, in Commonweal, December 9, 1960.
A review of A Separate Peace, in Times Literary Supplement, May 1,...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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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