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.
This eNotes lesson plan for A Separate Peace is designed so that it may be used in numerous ways to accommodate all students in your classroom.
Student Study Guide
• The Study Guide is organized for a chapter-by-chapter study of the novel. Study Guide pages may be assigned individually and completed at a student’s own pace.
• Study Guide pages may be used as pre-reading activities to preview for students the vocabulary words they will encounter in reading each chapter and to acquaint them generally with the chapter’s content.
• Before chapter Study Guide pages are assigned, questions may be selected from them to use as short quizzes to assess reading comprehension.
• Study Guide vocabulary lists include words from the novel that vary in difficulty.
1. The vocabulary lists for each chapter are sufficiently comprehensive so that shorter lists of vocabulary words can be constructed from them.
2. Working from the lesson plan’s chapter vocabulary lists, the teacher also may construct vocabulary studies for individual students, choosing specific words from each chapter that are most appropriate for them.
The discussion questions vary in degree of difficulty.
1. Some questions require higher levels of critical thinking; others engage students with less challenging inquiry.
2. Individual discussion questions may be assigned to students working in pairs or in small study groups; their contributions may then be added to a whole-class discussion.
Test questions also vary in degree of difficulty.
1. Some multiple-choice questions address the factual content of the novel; others require students to employ critical thinking skills, such as analyzing; comparing and contrasting; and drawing inferences.
2. The teacher may select specific multiple-choice questions and one or more essay questions to assess an individual student’s understanding of the novel.
3. The essay portion of the test appears on a separate page so that it may be omitted altogether in testing.
Teaching the Literary Elements
Before students read through the book, explain that themes are universal ideas developed in literature. Point out that these themes will be developed in the novel; discuss these themes with students as they read and/or after they finish reading:
- Coming of age
- Battle (internal conflict/struggle; rivalry/competition; war)
- Guilt vs. innocence; experience vs. innocence
Talk with your students about how a motif is a recurring pattern or a repeated action, element, or idea in a book. As they read, have them look for the following motifs:
- The natural world
- World War II
- Juxtaposition (summer vs. winter, innocence vs. experience)
A symbol is a concrete object or place that has significance in a literary work because it communicates an idea. Have students discuss how the author develops the following symbols and what ideas the symbols could suggest. Have them look for other symbols on their own:
- Pink shirt
- Devon School tie
- The tree
- Devon School
- The Devon School woods
1. The mood of A Separate Peace is largely defined by the looming war—the scarcity of luxuries and pleasure, omnipresent fear, and the draft. How does your situation as a student in modern America compare to the situation Phineas, Gene, and their friends find themselves in? How does the threat or existence of war affect your daily life?
2. Do your feelings toward Phineas and Gene shift as the novel unfolds? Why or why not? Do you identify more closely with Phineas, the roguish rule-breaker, or with Gene, the more introverted intellectual? Explain your choice.
3. Interpret this passage from the novel’s conclusion: “I did not cry even when I stood watching [Finny] being lowered into his family’s straight-laced burial ground outside of Boston. I could not escape a feeling that this was my own funeral, and you do not cry in that case.” Why would Gene feel that Finny’s funeral was his own?
4. What is the “separate peace” referenced in the book’s title? In how many different ways does it relate to the characters and the events in the story?
5. The boys who attend Devon come from white, upper-class families and lead economically privileged lives. What role does class play in the novel? How do you think the story might be different if the characters were poor or went to public school?
6. Why do you think Knowles has Gene tell the story from the viewpoint of an adult, fifteen years after the events that make up much of the story? How would the novel differ if the first-person retrospective point of view were not employed?
7. A Separate Peace is told in first person, from the viewpoint of Gene Forrester. What is gained by Gene’s acting as the narrator? How would the story differ if it were told from Phineas’s point of view? Brinker’s? Leper’s?
8. Is Gene a reliable narrator as a young man? Cite examples from the...
(The entire section is 769 words.)
artillery: weapons, arms
consternation: worry, dismay
contentious: argumentative, belligerent
cupola: a dome-shaped roof or a dome-shaped structure on a roof featuring glass
deigning: condescending to do something
demotion: a reduction in rank or standing
dispute: disagreement, argument
draft-bait: slang those nearing eighteen years of age, the age they become eligible to be drafted into military service
droll: dryly funny or witty
ell: a wing of a building that extends at a right angle to the main structure
extrasensory: beyond ordinary perception
forbidding: dangerously powerful, ominous
formidable: tough, daunting, difficult to overcome
grandeur: splendor, magnificence
groveling: sniveling, begging
irate: furious, angry
loafing: lazing about, dallying
matriarchal: characteristic of a system in which women are in charge; motherly
perpendicular: at right angles to another line or plane
prodigious: exceptional, extraordinary
reverberant: having a far-reaching or long-lasting quality
seigneurs: feudal lords or powerful landowners of good standing
tacit: implicitly understood
unhinged: coming apart
1. To what does the narrator compare the Devon School? What is meant by the comparison?
The narrator says the school was a museum to him, what he “did not want it to be.” He wanted to believe that the school existed only while he was there and “then blinked out like a candle” the day he left. The narrator does not want whatever happened there preserved.
2. What are the two “fearful sites” the narrator wants to visit upon his return to school? How does he feel when he sees them again?
He wants to look at a flight of white marble stairs in the First Academy Building and a tree by the Devon River. Each, in his memory, was forbidding and terrifying. Revisiting them, he discovers their power...
(The entire section is 911 words.)
clamoring: insisting, calling out for
commendable: admirable, worthy of praise
conniver: a swindler, a liar
eloquence: articulate expression
fantastic: beyond belief, imaginary
gassy: slang verbose, overly talkatative
guillotine: a mechanical device used to decapitate people
indulgent: permissive, generous
infer: to conclude, to deduce
modifying: adapting, changing, shifting
plastered: coated, covered
plunging: sinking quickly, dropping fast
resonant: resounding, reverberating
(The entire section is 1153 words.)
abide: to follow; to tolerate
abstractedly: in a loose or undefined way
agitated: upset, angry, stirred up
anarchy: lawlessness, chaos
anguish: great pain, sorrow
blitzkrieg: German literally “lightning war”; a bombardment, especially the systematic application of armed force to overwhelm the enemy
calisthenics: exercises, aerobic training
catacombed: marked by underground tunnels
cordial: friendly, pleasant
dazed: confused, stricken
despairing: miserable, hopeless
dictates: commands, orders
encroaching: intruding, invading
entrenched: dug in, unchangeable
(The entire section is 918 words.)
burlap: a rough, loosely woven fabric
effulgence: a radiance, a brilliance
enmity: hostility, hatred
exuberantly: with enthusiasm, vigorously
fanfare: an elaborate celebration; a flourish
gaunt: extremely thin
intoxicant: something that causes inebriation or a feeling of inebriation or giddiness
jounced: bounced, jostled
loitering: lingering without purpose
lurking: lying in wait, waiting in secrecy
obliterated: completely destroyed
paganism: the polytheistic religious practices of early cultures, sometimes associated with hedonism or the rejection of all religion
undulation: a wavelike movement or...
(The entire section is 1011 words.)
decalogue: a set of binding, authoritative rules
delirious: hallucinating, confused
detonate: to set off, to explode
erratic: unpredictable, irregular
grandee: a highly influential person or person of standing
invalid: a chronically ill and housebound person
irresolutely: hesitantly, uncertainly
ludicrous: absurd, ridiculous
nave: the main body of a church
reverie: a daydream, a trance
1. Does anyone talk to Gene about his role in Finny’s accident?
No. People talk to Gene about Finny, but “no one suspected” his role. Also, Gene says that...
(The entire section is 504 words.)
apse: a semicircular projection from the back of a church which usually contains the altar
automaton: a robot; a human who behaves like a machine
bantam: a small person
catapulted: launched, hurled
dispensations: special allowances or privileges
goaded: persuaded through force
idiosyncratic: eccentric, peculiar
infinitesimal: miniscule, microscopic
maimed: disfigured, injured badly
pre-empted: prevented; replaced with something of greater priority
sinecure: a paid position that requires little or no effort or work
(The entire section is 690 words.)
arsenic: a deadly poison
commandeered: taken by force
contretemps: French an unfortunate or inopportune occurrence
derision: disrespect, mockery
dexterity: a deftness, a nimbleness
dispiritedly: morosely, without enthusiasm
fratricide: the act of killing one’s brother
funereal: funeral-like, related to a funeral; somber
half-cocked: wild, angry
implausibility: the state of being unbelievable
puttee: a strip of cloth or a piece of leather wound around or worn on the lower leg
rankest: worst, most extreme
(The entire section is 756 words.)
bric-à-brac: a collection of small, ornamental objects
buoyed: raised, floated
clapboard: long, thin boards laid in overlapping horizontal rows to cover buildings
discernible: perceptible, noticeable
dispelled: proved false
exhorted: urged, prodded
gaits: patterns of movement
gangling: lanky, gawky
gibe: a taunt
gullible: easily tricked or swindled
insinuations: subtle hints or suggestions
liniment: an ointment, a salve
opulent: luxurious, lavish
poignance: a deep, piercing emotion tinged with sadness or pain
(The entire section is 612 words.)
brooding: sulking angrily, fixating negatively
cacophony: a dissonance
choreography: an arrangement of steps or moves
conceding: surrendering, giving up
dowager: a rich older woman, a wealthy widow
garrison: a fort, a stronghold
invulnerability: an immunity, an impenetrable strength
lisping: speaking imperfectly with a speech impediment
manipulated: controlled, directed
multifariously: in the manner of having varied parts
scurvy: a disease caused by a deficiency of vitamin C
surmised: inferred, guessed
(The entire section is 371 words.)
austerity: severity; sterness or coldness in manner
frigid: extremely cold
furlough: a (military) leave
imperceptibly: in a manner in which perception is difficult or subtle
monotonous: boring, dull
rejoinder: a retort, a response
ricochet: to bounce off a surface, to rebound
1. What are Gene’s chief war memories? Why?
Visits to unknown American locations are Gene’s “war” memories, such as going to Vermont to see Leper at his “Christmas location.” Gene says it had been assumed most of...
(The entire section is 452 words.)
absolute: unwavering, final
balustrade: a railing, a banister
bane: a nuisance, an annoyance
deluded: tricked, misled
engulfed: surrounded, taken over
ensuing: resulting, consequent
eunuch: a castrated man
guileful: crafty, cunning
incarnate: in the flesh, embodied
inveigled: enticed, convinced
latent: dormant, buried
truce: a mutual agreement to cease fighting
tumult: an uproar, a commotion...
(The entire section is 590 words.)
amiss: wrong, out of place
bleak: without hope
formulate: to invent or make up
innately: inherently, instinctively
irreconcilably: in a manner without solution or compromise
languid: relaxed, lazy
pontiff: a bishop; a high priest
pungent: strong, powerful
rites: formal ceremonies, such as funeral services
1. Why does Gene allow others to help Phineas after his fall instead of doing it himself?
He is worried Finny would begin to curse him, that he “might lose his head completely,” and...
(The entire section is 636 words.)
assimilate: to absorb
bellicose-looking: hostile in appearance
benefactress: a woman who supports someone financially
exertion: an effort
forlornly: sadly, morosely
gyration-prone: moveable, changeable
Maginot Lines: defenses against invasions that cannot be crossed; historically, the Maginot Line
refers to a fortified defensive barrier meant to protect France from Germany
morale: confidence, spirits
musterings: screenings for the military
Pullman car: a sleeping car on a train
quadrangle: a four-sided courtyard surrounded by buildings
qualms: reservations, worries
(The entire section is 912 words.)
1. Which literary device is employed when Knowles describes the tree as “weary from age, enfeebled, dry”?
2. Which of these represents innocence?
B. Devon River
D. the marble stairs
E. the Assembly Hall
3. Which of these does Phineas NOT do?
A. He mocks the Devon School tie.
B. He wears an American flag.
C. He misses dinner....
(The entire section is 832 words.)
1. Explain, citing examples from the novel, the following quote that describes Gene’s participation in World War II. In particular, identify what the narrator means by “his war.” What “enemy” has he killed, and how?
I never killed anybody and I never developed an intense level of hatred for the enemy. Because 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.
As the narrator of the novel, Gene Forrester explains that he has compartmentalized his time at Devon School and that those years were traumatic for him. He returns to his school as an adult and finds it “like a museum,” in which...
(The entire section is 3238 words.)