Illustration of two pairs of legs standing on the branch of a large tree

A Separate Peace

by John Knowles

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What are some similes and metaphors in A Separate Peace?

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I like the symbolismof the two rivers that run through Devon's campus.  One, the Devon River, is a body of fresh water; it symbolizes the youthful innocence of the boys on campus as they gather for school in those days before they have to become part of a world war.  The other, the Naguamsett River, is more like a salt-water swamp.  This water has been muddied and is murky and undrinkable.  Symbolically, this is the picture of the ugliness of experience and death and war and the other realities of life the boys at Devon School have to face.  Both rivers are part of the Devon experience in A Separate Peace.

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How about these examples from Chapter 3 and Chapter 4 when Finny and Gene go to the beach:

"The ocean.... was winter cold."

"[Dawn] began not as the gorgeous fanfare over the ocean I had expected, but as a strange gray thing, like sunshine seen through burlap."

"Very gradually, like one instrument after another being tentatively rehearsed, beacons of colour began to pierce the sky."

There are plenty of others, but make sure you not only notice these comparisons but also comment on what they achieve and how they are used by the author.

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Similes and Metaphors in "A Separate Peace"?

What are some similes and metaphors in A Separate Peace?

The figurative language in the novel is rich. The similes and metaphors start on page 1 and don't stop coming. Here are a few that appear within the first 6 pages:

the "glossy new surface [of Devon] . . . made the school look like a museum"

Gene though Devon "blinked out like a candle" when he left

Gene said that preserved along with the school "like stale air in an unopened room" was the fear he had lived in at school

Gene described fear as an echo he felt

Sometimes at school, joy broke out "like Northern Lights across black sky"

Gene says the tree "loomed in my memory as a hughe lone spike . . . forbidding as an artillery piece, high as the beanstalk."

When the novel's flashback begins, Knowles writes, "The tree was tremendous, an irate, steely black steeple beside the river."

It is hard to find a page in the book that doesn't contain vivid similes and metaphors.


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The dominant symbol in A Separate Peace is the tree limb from which Phineas fell. At the "trial" it is compared to a piston, with the first part triggering the movement of the second. Of course this was Gene, who in "the blind impulse" of a split second shook the limb and made Finny fall. This represents the delicate balance of their friendship upset by Gene's sense of rivalry; it also shows in a very vivid way Gene's betrayal of Finny's trust when he makes him fall.

Other symbols are subtle but important to the themes of the story: the swimming race which Finny "won" without needing any recognition demonstrates his absence of need to perform; the day the two boys spend at the beach reveals their true complicity - it is a sanctuary of sorts from the need for "rules" or competition; Finny's getting away with using the school tie for a belt demonstrates his disarming nature even before authority; the games he invents show his comradeship and need of escape from the reality of war; Leper's mental fragility and eventual breakdown reveal the vulnerability of all the boys.

Another vital symbol as important as the tree itself is the long flight of marble steps leading to the building where the boys hold trial for Finny. This represents justice, which in its aim to make things "fair" often destroys the victim instead of the culprit. This happens when Finny falls for the second time and later dies from his injury.

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Where are examples of figurative language in "A Separate Peace"?

Every version of the book will have different page numbers, so if I give you one it most likely will not be accurate.  However, I can tell you as close as I can where the passages are.

For great examples of figurative language, look to Leper's description of the events at the tree.  Leper is brought from his house to be on Brinker's "court" that he assembles, to figure out what happened at the tree.  These descriptions come in at the very end of chapter eleven.  Leper describes the scene at the tree using several figurative language techniques.  One is a simile; he says that the sun looked "like golden machine-gun fire" as it shone past Finny and Gene on the branch, and that their profiles were "as black as death".  A simile is using like or as to compare two things, and this description helps you to see the dark profiles with the bright sunbeams striking out around their bodies.

Then, he describes Gene's motion that knocks Finny out of the tree with another simile, saying that they "moved like an engine."  He clarifies that it is two-part engine, a piston moving.  With this, it is easy for use to visualize Gene bending his knees down, and the resulting wave that knocks Finny off. Using similes to describe what happened on the tree gives it a poetic edge that helps the reader to visualize in their mind the entire scene, as seen through Leper's eyes.  So, there is one part in the book that uses figurative language, specifically similes.

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