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A Separate Peace

by John Knowles

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What are some specific allusions in A Separate Peace?

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An allusion is a literary device that makes a brief and generally indirect reference to a person, place, or significant historical event. An allusion shouldn't describe its reference in detail because it assumes that a reader has enough knowledge to identify the reference and understand its importance.

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A Separate Peacecontains multiple allusions throughout the text. Already in chapter one, Knowles is dropping allusions in front of readers. Gene is telling his readers about the summer session differences between the juniors and seniors. The seniors are being prepped for the draft and the war, while Gene and his friends are being subjected to reading Virgil. The final paragraph of this same chapter references Thomas Hardy and tells readers that Finny is amused by the names of specific characters.

. . . amused that there should be people named Gabriel Oak and Bathsheba Everdene.

Chapter 9 has an allusion to one of the various assassination attempts against Hitler. While readers can't possibly know which exact attempt this would refer to, Knowles is assuming that this information shouldn't come as a shock to readers.

One day in the Butt Room he read aloud a rumor in a newspaper about an attempt on Hitler’s life.

Chapter 4, paragraph 2 has a biblical reference to Lazarus after Gene watched Finny sleeping for a moment.

Phineas, still asleep on his dune, made me think of Lazarus, broughtback to life by the touch of God.

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Knowles uses literary and Christian allusions (references) in A Separate Peace, showing that the students at the exclusive Devon school are steeped in Western culture.

Gene, for example, alludes to singing "A Mighty Fortress is our Home," a hymn by Martin Luther, and also mentions the German composer Beethoven, noting that Finny loved all kinds of music, from hymns to Beethoven. These allusions also suggest that though the US was at war with Germany, it was not traditional German culture the students felt they fought against, but the Nazis.

Finny asks Gene to read him some of the translating he is doing of Julius Caesar's work. Finny reads his translation of a part of Caesar's campaign against Gaul, summarizing it by saying "“He won it, if you really think there was a Gallic War . . . ” Although the text does not specify, Gene is probably reading Caesar's Commentarii de Bello Gallico. As Gene mentions, Finny does not "believe" in Caesar or his wars—or in World War II.

As for further Christian allusions, Gene likens Finny to Lazarus, brought back to life by God's touch, and, in the same passage, likens the beach to paradise: "white and stainless, as pure as the shores of Eden."

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Because the novel is set during World War II and is intrinsically connected to the war, historical allusions play a major role in the book.

Historical allusions: In Chapter 2, Finny discusses the bombing of Central Europe with the professors and their wives (26). Similarly, when Finny creates his own game in the same chapter, he decides to name it "blitzball" (37) in connection with the Blitzkrieg (Germany's lightning-fast invasion of Poland). Later in Chapter 7, Brinker teases Quackenbush about "Mussolini's" army, being a "kraut" (German), and Pearl Harbor (all references to America's WWII enemies or attacks--98). In Chapter 8, as Finny rants about the stupidity of enlisting (because he can no longer enlist), he mentions Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the Yellow Peril (references to China and the leaders of what would eventually be Taiwan--109).  In a similar discussion about the war, Finny tells Gene that the "fat old men" are just making up the war to keep the younger generation from taking their jobs.  He is referencing stock market gurus and other wealthy tycoons who made money from WWII industry (115).

Knowles includes other historical allusions and literary ones (when he discusses the classes/subjects that the boys study).

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What is an allusion in the book A Separate Peace?  

Allusions are cultural or historical references specific to the time period in which the book is set. For example, if you were writing a story set during the present time, you might reference President Obama or Peyton Manning. Any specific pop culture reference or reference to a specific historical or political event, or even the names of books, movies, songs, etc. can be used as allusions. Allusions help works of fiction, especially, seem more realistic, and they give readers a sense of the time period without the author having to explicitly state the year.

A Separate Peace contains many allusions. Since the novel is mostly set during the early 1940s, right in the middle of World War II, there are many allusions to the war. For example, in Chapter 3, the boys invent a game called "blitzball" which they name after a "blitzkrieg," the name given to German firebombing during WWII.

In the same chapter, Gene mentions in his narrations:

"The war was and is reality for me, I still instinctively live and think in its atmosphere. These are some of its characteristics: Franklin Delano Roosevelt is the President of the United States, and he always has been. The other two eternal world leaders are Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin" (Knowles 17).

FDR, Churchill, and Stalin are all examples of allusions that Knowles includes to set the time period of his book and make it seem more realistic. Even though A Separate Peace is a work of fiction, each of these historical figures was real.

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What is the most important allusion in A Separate Peace?

An allusion is a literary device used to make a connection between the story or characters to someone or something else known by the reader. Characters can also be aware of the allusion, as is the narrator, Gene Forrester. The most important allusion in A Separate Peace is the one associated with World War II; that is to say, the war is referenced continually throughout the story, so it is the allusion.

The senior class of 1942 at Devon all face being drafted into the war after graduation. The characters know it; they discuss it; and they think about it all through the story. Readers would also know about the history of World War II, and, judging from the story's time period, they would be able to connect with the characters through their own knowledge of the war. This connection helps readers to feel empathy for the boys as they progress towards graduation.

The next part of the allusion is in the title itself--A Separate Peace. The boys are separated from the war and seem to experience a peace separate from world events. The setting outside is peaceful, the school runs on a schedule, and all the boys really need to worry about is school work and graduating.

Ironically, however, there is a war waging inside each of them. Leper must fight the inner conflict with himself, which is the fact that he seems not to fit in anywhere. Phineas fights a physical and mental war after he breaks his leg. For example, Finny must struggle to find his place in life and the war without the strong, invincible body that he was used to. And Gene, the protagonist, fights a war within himself over feelings of jealousy and anger towards his best friend, Gene, and Gene must win his personal battles before he can move on after graduation as well. Hence, the allusion applies to World War II, but also, through the related discussion of peace, connects the characters with the war inside themselves.

Gene eventually remarks about the connection between World War II and the war within himself by the end of the book by saying the following:

"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" (204).

Again, Gene is alluding to World War II by making a war reference to his own experiences. And as mentioned above, all of the boys seem to wage an inner war within themselves throughout the novel; so, the on-going reference to World War II is the most important allusion in A Separate Peace.

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