In A Separate Peace, by John Knowles, how does the progression of the three featured seasons develop both the action and character throughout the book?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The progression of the seasons helps to enhance the overall mood and thematic symbolism of Knowles's work.  I think that the summer represents a type of Edenic setting at the school.  The feeling of the summer is one of bliss and a type of innocence.  The war is far off and while it is present, the life of the school in summer is shown to be one of inclusion and a sense of unbridled optimism: "We had been idiosyncratic, leaderless band in the summer, undirected except by the eccentric notions of Phineas." The description of "clear June days" reflects a moral position of lucidity as well as expansion of hope and optimism in the lengthened days.  There is a sense of hope in both Finny and Gene and within their relationship in the summer months is a belief that all is well and all will be well. Finny's injury coincides with the end of summer: "Still it had come to an end, in the last long rays of daylight at the tree, when Phineas fell."  As a result, a sense of creeping reality settles in, and the feeling which emerges is that there can be no return to the life once known and experienced.

The passage of time into fall is a type of descent from the idyllic condition of "gypsy summer."  The hierarchical structure returns, and with it the stifling conformity of the school:  "But all had been caught up, like the first fallen leaves, by a new and energetic wind.... this was [Devon's] one hundred and sixty-third Winter Session, and the forces reassembled for it scattered the easygoing summer spirit like so many fallen leaves."  This helps to convey the loss of innocence and sadness that is the result of time passing.  As a result, the action and characterization become darker, reflecting of smaller days and longer nights.  The "new and energetic wind" becomes a colder one, as bonds are frozen and the unified warmth of summer becomes part of the past. Emotional bonds between characters, once warm and accepting, turn frigid, accusatory, and isolating. This expands into winter, where change is seen as a force of life, and where death is part of a larger condition of being:

The tree was not only stripped by the cold season, it seemed weary from age, enfeebled, dry. I was thankful, very thankful that I had seen it. So the more things remain the same, the more they change after all—plus c'est la même chose, plus ça change. Nothing endures, not a tree, not love, not even a death by violence. 

The winter brings with it a chilling realization that "nothing endures."  Such a frame of reference helps to accentuate the characterizations that emerges in the text through seasonal passage.

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A Separate Peace

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