In A Separate Peace by John Knowles, what does Gene mean when he says "this wasn't going to be such a bad war"? Why does he want to believe this?

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In chapter ten of A Separate Peace by John Knowles, Gene is going to visit his former classmate Elwin "Leper" Lepellier at Leper's home after receiving a note that Leper has gone AWOL (absent without leave) from the Army.

The threat of war has been hovering over the boys at the Devon School like a shadow, and it is only a matter of time, the boys assume, before they will be called upon to fight. The war has shaped not only their school and their lives, but it has also impacted their thinking. 

One of the conflicts in this novel is Finny's insistence, before his fall, that there really is no war; after his injury, things change a bit for Finny. Gene, on the other hand, has never believed in anything other than the existence of the war and his own inevitable call to serve. When one of the boys' classmates, Elwin "Leper" Lepellier, enlists in the Army, all of the boys joke around about the daring feats which they half-imagine Leper is doing. Despite that, Gene has been more realistic about the war than Finny.

Now, though, as he goes to visit Leper, Gene begins to thinks that Leper's leaving the war is somehow a good thing. He naively assumes that Leper is free because he did his duty by escaping from spies, as that is the only explanation that seems to fit the facts he knows.

I seized this conclusion and didn’t try to go beyond it. I suppose all our Butt Room stories about him intriguing around the world had made me half-ready to half-believe something like this. I felt a measureless relief when it occurred to me. There was some color, some hope, some life in this war after all. The first friend of mine who ever went into it tangled almost immediately with spies. I began to hope that after all this wasn’t going to be such a bad war.

Gene wants to believe that the war is not a dangerous place, that his worst fears are not true and, if he does end up being part of the war, it will not be as bad as he thinks. It is a normal and justifiable kind of wishful thinking, but that is all it is. 

Of course, Gene says this before he sees Leper again. Once he does, everything changes. The realities of the war sink in, and he again understands what he always knew--war is a formidable foe. 

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