Like the classic architecture of the Devon School, the setting of A Separate Peace, this narrative is timeless, at once completely of its moment and still resonant with young readers today. First published in England in 1959 and in the United States a year later, A Separate Peace went on to win the Rosenthal Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, as well as the William Faulkner Foundation Award. Like J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace continues to captivate new generations. Through exquisite language, it captures and chronicles the fear, confusion, isolation, and loneliness of growing up in a hostile world. Set against the backdrop of World War II, a time when America was bound up by duty and sacrifice, A Separate Peace tells the story of two friends—Gene, the insecure intellectual, and Phineas (Finny), Devon’s magnetic star; a single moment in the summer of 1942 and its emotional aftermath drive the narrative. More broadly, A Separate Peace speaks eloquently to the universal themes of guilt, fear, and the loss of innocence.
Author John Knowles wrote from his own experience in penning A Separate Peace, which first appeared in short-story form as “Phineas.” As a boy, Knowles attended the prestigious Exeter Academy (now Phillips Exeter) during the time period of the story. The rarified prep school environs of Exeter, Knowles’ friends and classmates, and some of the author’s specific school experiences are reflected in the novel, contributing to its verisimilitude. Knowles’ detailed images of Devon, flanked by “those most Republican, bankerish of trees, New England elms,” often mirror the buildings and grounds of the Exeter campus he knew.
While Knowles’s personal history undoubtedly gave him a wellspring of events, details, and characters from which to draw, it is the complexity and the artistry of the novel that have made it an enduring classic in modern American literature. The language soars, at once dramatic and evocative, and the plot is developed in elegant increments as the gathering forces of world war rush toward the boys of Devon. Fear and dread permeate the novel, but Knowles allows his characters, and his readers, to experience brief and beautiful moments of separate peace as Gene and Finny struggle to maintain their individual illusions in the face of cruel, relentless reality. They fail. A Separate Peace most essentially is a story of innocence lost.
These boys, their unique characters developed by Knowles with depth and insight, linger with the reader. As the novel’s first-person narrator, Gene Forrester takes a retrospective view, remembering the events at Devon fifteen years earlier that nearly destroyed him but led to a profound understanding of himself and the human heart. Gene’s suffering is memorable, as is Finny’s. A gifted, graceful athlete with an impish personality and an exuberant spirit, Phineas remains an unforgettable literary portrait of joyful irresponsibility, of freedom only enjoyed by the young. When Finny’s spirit, like his body, is shattered, the novel becomes a tragedy. Brinker Hadley, a puffed-up school politician who parrots his father’s words, and Leper Lepellier, a sensitive social misfit at home only in the natural world, leave lasting impressions, as well, as their individual stories are woven deftly into the narrative. Like the ocean wave observed during Gene and Finny’s forbidden trip to the beach, a wave that “hesitated, balanced there, and then hissed back toward the deep water,” readers of A Separate Peace are momentarily suspended in time and then pulled into the deep where the complexities of the human condition await.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Explain the fundamental tension between Phineas and Gene and the events that affect their friendship.
2. Describe the backdrop and the atmosphere of WWII that permeate the novel.
3. Describe Gene’s narrative style and the novel’s imagery; discuss how each helps set the tone.
4. Compare and contrast what Phineas and Gene each represent.
5. Compare World War II with Gene’s personal war.
6. Discuss how A Separate Peace develops as a coming-of-age novel.
7. Identify symbols present throughout the novel, and explain the significance of each.