A Separate Peace by John Knowles

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What is the significance of the wave of imagery Gene uses when he describes the war in A Separate Peace? With what note of foreshadowing does the wave passage end?

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Lucienne Quitzon eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The passage you're referring to reads as follows:

So the war swept over like a wave at the seashore, gathering power and size as it bore on us, overwhelming in its rush, seemingly inescapable, and then at the last moment eluded by a word from Phineas; I had simply ducked, that was all, and the wave’s concentrated power had hurtled harmlessly overhead, no doubt throwing others roughly up on the beach, but leaving me peaceably treading water as before. I did not stop to think that one wave is inevitably followed by another even larger and more powerful, when the tide is coming in.

At this point in the novel, Gene has resolved to enlist, thinking:

Why go through the motions of getting an education and watch the war slowly chip away at the one thing I had loved here, the peace, the measureless, careless peace of the Devon summer?

However, just as Gene has vowed this to himself, Finny returns to Devon, and he appears so stricken at the thought of Gene's enlisting that Gene quickly abandons the idea. We see this action mirrored in the wave metaphor when "a word from Phineas" causes Gene to "simply duck."

I think you could consider this passage in many ways, two of which I'll offer here. First, I think it's notable that Phineas alone seems to have the power to subdue the force of the ocean because he is such a force himself. Throughout the novel, his charisma, magnetism, and inherent goodness are emphasized; Gene—and seemingly everyone else at Devon—worships him. That in this passage Phineas has the literal power to make the wave of the war "harmless" speaks to the sway he has over Gene. No mere mortal, Finny protects Gene from the "concentrated power" of the wave.

Second, the passage references others who are roughly thrown up on the shore; to continue the metaphor, we see that these are men who have enlisted and have had their lives changed forever—and perhaps their lives even ended—by their service. Gene, however, is still "peaceably treading water," untouched by the atrocities and violence of the war impacting the rest of the world. Thus, we could read this passage as a moment of preserved innocence. Gene came very close to becoming like those "others," yet he is still "peaceable like before," his childishness protected.

The foreshadowing occurs in the last sentence of the passage when Gene reflects that "one wave is inevitably followed by another even larger and more powerful, when the tide is coming in." Though Finny has protected Gene from this wave, part of Gene still knows that the war will inevitably touch him, and when it does, it will be "even larger and more powerful" than it currently is. In the moment, he is so glad to turn his enlistment into a joke, bantering with Finny and making fun of Brinker. Yet Gene knows that this moment will return, and he will not be able to fight off the wave again.

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