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In John Knowles 1959 novel A Separate Peace, the upper-class world of Devon, an elite prep school modeled on Philips Exeter Academy, which Knowles attended in his youth, represents an isolated world of privilege insulated from the horrors that raged beyond its gates, namely, the Second World War. While the war was a world away, however, Devon also represented an enclave distinct from the less-privileged communities across the river, specifically, across the Naguamsett River. In addition to the school’s isolation, however, Knowles title suggests the innocent and privileged world of youth yet to encounter the responsibilities of adulthood. While Devon, and the river of that name, represent all that is ‘right and proper’ about the more refined classes, however, the Naguamsett represents the less sightly and infinitely less refined world of the bourgeois and the peasantry. In Chapter Six, Knowles’s narrator, Gene, describes the distinctions between the two rivers as follows:
“We had never used this lower river, the Naguamsett, during the summer. It was ugly, saline, fringed with marsh, mud and seaweed. A few miles away it was joined to the ocean, so that its movements were governed by unimaginable factors like the Gulf Stream the Polar Ice Cap, and the moon. It was nothing like the fresh-water Devon above the dam where we’d had so much fun, all the summer. The Devon’s course was determined by some familiar hills a little inland; it rose among highland farms and forests which we knew, passed at the end of its course through the school grounds, and then threw itself with little spectacle over a small waterfall beside the diving dam, and into the turbid Naguamsett.
“The Devon School was astride these two rivers.”
If Devon is clean and proper, Naguamsett is its antithesis; it represents the filth and inferiority of those destined to live outside this prep school’s borders. In the following chapter, Gene again references the destitution and social inferiority represented by the Naguamsett River:
“Brinker Hadley came across to see me late that afternoon. I had taken a shower to wash off the sticky salt of the Naguamsett River—going into the Devon was like taking a refreshing shower itself, you never had to clean up after it, but the Naguamsett was something else entirely. I had never been in it before; it seemed appropriate that my baptism there had taken place on the first day of this winter session, and that I had been thrown into it, in the middle of a fight. I washed the traces off me . . .”
The Naguamsett River infects those who enter it with the disease of social and moral depravity. Only by bathing in the crystalline waters of the Devon can one cleanse oneself of its slime. By emphasizing the distinctions between these two rivers, and by placing the school between them, Knowles suggests that the lines between the two worlds can be thin, and that acceptance of the customs and traditions of Devon School is the only protection from the lower echelons of society. He also suggests that, morally, the lines between rich and poor are even more tenuous.
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