How does the narrative voice of A Separate Peace influence the reader's perception of the work as a whole?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The narrative of A Separate Peace is one of retrospect, and, as such, proves an analysis as well as a recounting of events. Thus, the narrator, Gene Forrester, in returning to the sites of his youth, evaluates his motives and desires, as well as the motives of others in order to arrive at a separate peace with his inner conflicts about his past. 

With this more objective first person narrator, the reader is less inclined to be as sympathetic with Gene than if he were recounting events and feelings as they occur. Also, the reader is less immersed in the narrative. Critic Ronald Weber observes,

With Knowles' s novel... throughout it he [the reader] remains somewhat outside the action and detached from the narrator, observing the life of the novel rather than submerged in it."

For one thing, Gene's hindsight interprets things which have already happened. For example, he narrates in Chapter 1:

There were a couple of places now which I wanted to see. Both were fearful sites, and that was why I wanted to see them.

In another episode, Knowles has his narrator often make observations such as those of Chapter 2:

It was only long after that I recognized sarcasm as the protest of people who are weak. 

It is because the narrator himself is detached from his narrative that the reader remains outside, as Weber observes. He views his younger self as through a microscope:

He [Phineas] had never been jealous of me for a second.  Now I knew that there never was and never could have been any rivalry between us. I was not of the same quality as he. (Ch. 4)

Gene is unforgiving in his self-analysis. For instance, he calls himself "the least trustworthy person" Finny has ever met, although Finny trusts Gene with his life. In the end, however, Finny admits to himself that Gene has betrayed him from the beginning with the jouncing of the tree's limb, and Gene admits to "some crazy thing inside me, something blind...." Later, he analyzes his actions as the same "something ignorant in the human heart" that generates war:

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.

Genes's return to Devon School provides him an insight into life, an insight which the reader views from the outside. This perspective that permits more objectivity, tells, therefore, a greater truth.

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A Separate Peace

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