Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
At its most meaningful level, A Separate Peace presents a thoughtfully executed psychological study of its main character, Gene Forrester. Forrester’s sense of himself is an extremely dark and critical one, provoking feelings of insecurity particularly when he is in the company of Finny. Knowles explores the dual directions these feelings take: On one level, Forrester desires to get even (to outperform) Finny, he therefore resents Finny’s superior athletic skills. On another level, Forrester also wishes to be like Finny, to share his carefree, selfless attitudes and actions. In fact, Forrester clearly is most happy when he is at peace with Finny. At the end, however, Forrester’s dark side wins this psychological conflict; the final “peace” that is established between the two occurs after Forrester causes Finny’s fall, from which Finny never recovers. This action, in a psychological sense, eliminates Finny as Forrester’s rival and allows Forrester to feel less anxious about himself.
Yet less anxious does not mean good. At the conclusion of A Separate Peace— when Finny finally asks Forrester why he caused the fall—Forrester replies that he did not do it out of any personal hatred of Finny. Instead, Forrester is fighting himself—out of blindness and ignorance, as he himself admits—and Finny ultimately understands, before he dies, how he has been victimized by Forrester’s own psychological conflict. Essentially, then,...
(The entire section is 591 words.)
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Guilt and Innocence
In John Knowles's novel that chronicles the coming-of-age of two prep-school friends, one character—Finny—loses much of his trustfulness and innocence, while the other—Gene—progresses toward self-knowledge and maturity. That A Separate Peace takes place in the first half of the 1940s explains so many references to war. In this novel, however, the real struggle is fought in the hearts of the characters, not on the battlefield.
After Gene causes Finny's crippling fall, everything that follows, as Knowles has written, is "one long abject confession, a mea culpa, a tale of crime—if a crime has been committed—and of no punishment. It is a story of growth through tragedy." While Gene does eventually reconcile to his transgression against Finny, the process takes many years. Gene obtains some peace of mind through his final encounter with Finny, in which he shows both humility and understanding of Finny's pacifist nature. But it is only as a thirty-something adult revisiting his former school that Gene has accumulated the wisdom and maturity to fully understand the significance of what happened in his adolescence. In reconciling with his guilty conscience, Gene does more than understand the dark side of human nature. He also absorbs the best of Finny's code of behavior, "a way of sizing up the world with erratic and entirely personal reservations." While Gene will never again possess the innocence he recalls...
(The entire section is 796 words.)