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A Separate Peace

by John Knowles

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In A Separate Peace, to what extent is Gene indeed "Phineas-filled," possessed of simplicity, harmony, and unity of character?

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One of the novel's complexities is its shifting point of view. Sometimes we are listening to Gene the seventeen-year-old Devon student; sometimes we hear the narrative and interpretation of events from Gene as the thirty-two-year-old who returns to Devon. The novel's flashback structure suggests that Gene's personal growth and insight did not end when he left school; for whatever reason, he was still dealing with the events that had occurred at Devon and felt compelled to return to the campus one dreary winter afternoon.

By the time Gene left school, he had changed a great deal. He notes the most significant change in himself in the novel's ending:

. . . I could feel now the gathering, glowing sense of sureness in the face of [military regimentation]. I was ready for the war, now that I no longer had any hatred to contribute to it. My fury was gone, I felt it gone, dried up at the source, withered and lifeless. Phineas had absorbed it and taken it with him, and I was rid of it forever.

When Gene leaves Devon to go to World War II, he does so feeling "Phineas-filled." He believes that he has adopted Finny's way of dealing with reality:

. . . Phineas created an atmosphere in which I continued now to live, a way of sizing up the world with erratic and entirely personal reservations, letting its rocklike facts sift through and be accepted only a little at a time, only as much as he could assimilate without a sense of chaos and loss.

Gene may have achieved some simplicity and harmony in himself by the time he left school, but apparently his character was not entirely unified until he returns to face the past. In doing so, he found that he had escaped from the fear within which he had lived all his days at Devon. He feels "changed" as he stands before the tree, suggesting that his journey toward psychological wholeness has been completed.

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