In A Separate Peace, what are the main themes? Please explain and give details.

The main themes in A Separate Peace include dealing with guilt, war, jealousy, and the search for identity.

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A main theme of the novel is Gene's struggle to come to grips with having wronged a dear friend in a terrible way in a moment of impulse. The novel asks: how does one deal with the guilt of having done a wrong that can't be remedied?

The trouble begins...

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A main theme of the novel is Gene's struggle to come to grips with having wronged a dear friend in a terrible way in a moment of impulse. The novel asks: how does one deal with the guilt of having done a wrong that can't be remedied?

The trouble begins when Gene builds a false narrative in his mind, based on projecting his own competitive nature onto Phineas. He believes that Finny is trying to divert him from his studies so that he will do poorly in school. As Gene is the top scholar, and Finny is the top athlete, Gene believes Finny is doing this to "win" a competition between them. Gene comes to think the friendship is a pretense and that Finny is manipulating him.

As a result, in a moment of anger and hate, Gene bounces the tree limb Finny is about to jump from into the water, so that Finny falls and is badly injured with a broken leg. Afterwards, Gene realizes that not only has he done a terrible thing, Finny, in fact, wasn't really competing with him at all. Later, due to a second fall after Brinker's mock trial, Finny dies, and Gene spends the next fifteen years coming to grips with the guilt—guilt compounded from the fact that Finny never blames him for what happened. It is only after he returns to Devon all these years later that he is finally able to make peace with these fateful events.

In another theme, Gene connects the hate that motivated him to hurt Finny with the hate that started World War II, a war raging the entire time the boys are at Devon. He says that he believes wars are not so much political as, just as in his own case:

made instead by something ignorant in the human heart

He links the boys in the school seeing enemies in their schoolmates to the defensive systems nations build against each other:

All of them, all except Phineas, constructed at infinite cost to themselves these Maginot Lines against this enemy they thought they saw across the frontier, this enemy who never attacked that way—if he ever attacked at all; if he was indeed the enemy.

Gene maintains that he comes to a "separate peace," a peace in his own internal war as opposed to the peace after World War II, but he has to perform many mental gymnastics to do so. These include a high degree of self justification and the transforming of Finny into a saintly figure who accepted death with equanimity and forgiveness, leaving one wondering if Gene truly ever has come to grips with the evil that led him to hurt his friend.

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War: The novel is set during 1942 through 1943, which is when America was fighting in WWII. The boys attending Devon prepare themselves to enlist in the Armed Forces the following year and engage in the civilian war effort by volunteering for various jobs, like harvesting apples and shoveling snow. Certain students look forward to fighting in the war, and some even enlist as soon as they turn eighteen, like Leper Lepellier. At the same time as the outside war is being fought against the Axis powers, Gene is fighting a personal war with himself, which concerns his jealousy and envy towards his best friend. At the end of the novel, Gene remarks on the nature of war by saying,

"Because it seemed clear that wars were not made by generations and their special stupidities, but that wars were made instead by something ignorant in the human heart." (Knowles, 109)

Envy, Jealousy, Rivalry: Throughout the novel, Gene and Finny are close friends, who play sports, skip class, and go on fun adventures together. However, Finny is more naturally talented than Gene, and Gene begins to resent his best friend. Gene's inferiority complex is the catalyst for his jealousy towards Finny, and he begins to view Finny as his rival. In chapter 4, Gene expresses his misplaced feelings of envy, jealousy, and rivalry by misinterpreting Finny's true character. Gene says,

"I found a single sustaining thought. The thought was, You and Phineas are even already. You are even in enmity. You are both coldly driving ahead for yourselves alone." (24)

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John Knowles explores many themes in his novel, A Separate Peace; three of the most predominant themes throughout the novel are warfare, identity, and jealousy. 

  • Search for Identity-- Gene struggles to define himself outside of Finny in A Separate Peace.  He wants to establish his own identity, but his close rivalry and friendship with Finny makes Gene feel conflicted as to who he really is.  Gene often thinks of himself in terms of what he can do and how he can excel--if he could be the top student, if he could be the best athlete--by the end of the novel, Gene comes to realize that his own identity is linked much more closely to the kind of man he wishes he could be.
  • Warfare-- Set during World War II, battles, war, and enlisting figure heavily in many of the boys' minds at school, but Knowles also brings in an element of personal warfare amongst the boys: for example, Gene's private war with Finny, who is largely unaware of the conflict. 

Everyone has a moment in history which belongs particularly to him. It is the moment when his emotions achieve their most powerful sway over him, and afterward when you say to this person "the world today" or "life" or "reality" he will assume that you mean this moment, even if it is fifty years past. The world, through his unleashed emotions, imprinted itself upon him, and he carries the stamp of that passing moment forever" (Ch. 3).

  • Gene's "moment" in the quote above concerns Finny, whom Gene begins to see as an enemy who threatens to overshadow his success at school.  
  • Jealousy-- Jealousy figures largely in Gene's actions and thoughts.  He is extremely jealous of Finny's general likeability, talent for benign rule-breaking, and athletic ability.

 

"I was beginning to see that Phineas could get away with anything. I couldn't help envying him that a little, which was perfectly normal. There was no harm in envying even your best friend a little" (Chapter 2).
  • Ultimately, Gene's jealousy deepens into a hatred for his once good friend, poisoning the way Gene sees and interacts with Finny.  The destructive quality of Gene's jealousy leads him to make choices that have far-reaching negative consequences.
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