What is the significance of the closing scene in A Separate Peace by John Knowles?

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Knowles closes the novel with Gene graduating from Devon and heading out to join the Air Force, serene in the knowledge that his "war" with the deceased Finny is now behind him. Contemplating the past, Gene ruminates that

I was ready for the war, now that I no longer had...

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Knowles closes the novel with Gene graduating from Devon and heading out to join the Air Force, serene in the knowledge that his "war" with the deceased Finny is now behind him. Contemplating the past, Gene ruminates that

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.

Gene spends the last paragraphs of the novel eulogizing Phineas for his wholeness and his lack of hatred toward anyone else. Unlike almost everyone else in the world—including, of course, Gene—Phineas didn't put up defenses or walls against other people. He was openly himself, and open to all others. As Gene states of Finny, in words that seem to echo the cadence of Nick Carraway's admiring words about Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby,

He possessed an extra vigor, a heightened confidence in himself, a serene capacity for affection which saved him. Nothing as he was growing up at home, nothing at Devon, nothing even about the war had broken his harmonious and natural unity.

Gene realizes, as his explains in the novel's closing, that in exhausting his anger at Phineas and making peace with him—a peace separate from the war raging during the course of the novel—he has made his peace with world. He no longer hates an enemy and is therefore able to go through life with equanimity. Through Phineas, he has learned to question his own competitive attitude toward other people and to find his center.

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A Separate Peace is a novel told in flashback as Gene revisits the Devon School in New Hampshire. It was at this school and during this time in his life that Gene underwent the rite of passage that made him the man he has become, fifteen years later.

In the closing scene of the novel, in chapter 13, Gene is getting ready to go to fight in the war. He understands that the literal war that he will be fighting is easier to deal with than the war which he fought at Devon against his best friend, Phineas (Finny). Gene's sense of rivalry against Finny had been his war. He acknowledges, "my war ended before I ever put on a uniform; I was on active duty all my time at school; I killed my enemy there" (chapter 13). He further contemplates the complex relationships that evolve as people erect "Maginot Lines," defenses and fortifications, against their perceived enemies. Gene further realizes that the real enemy is simply a product of one's fears. Gene reaches self-awareness by the end of the novel, in this closing scene—that is, he understands his own character, with all its flaws, and he acknowledges and accepts Finny's virtues.

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As Gene leaves the gym and walks across the fields for one last time as a new graduate of Devon School, the school is already being taken over by the military, the immediate future that is waiting for Gene. He hears the drill instructor barking out orders for the men doing exercises and then setting the pace as the soldiers marched to wherever they were going next. Without being aware of it, Gene responds to the orders - "my feet of course could not help but begin to fall involuntarily into step with that coarse, compelling voice."

However, the prospect of entering the military, the possibility of becoming involved in the fighting, the potential danger of being shot or killed no longer frightened Gene. He "was ready for the war, now that I no longer had any hatred to contribute to it."

Gene had done his fighting while he was at Devon. Struggling with the fear and competition and intimidation and jealousy and all the other emotions that had assaulted Gene during his time at Devon had been his war. Now, filled with the tranquility he had learned from Finny, Gene had come to understand that the greatest war of all is the war one fights within oneself. Gene had gone through that battle already and had come out on the other side, having achieved for himself "a separate peace."

 

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