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A Separate Peace

by John Knowles

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What is the significance of the title A Separate Peace by John Knowles?

The title has two major meanings. First, it is a reference to the peace that Gene and the boys have at Devon. They are able to get away from the outside world and where they live while they are at school. Second, it also refers to Gene's memory of his friend Finny's accident; as with this "separate peace," he was not physically present for Finny's death because he was not there when it happened.

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A "separate peace" has roots in actual military and political actions of different countries. It is a bit of a convoluted arrangement between the different countries, so I will try to give it a simple explanation. Country "A" and "B" are allies; however, country "A" decides that it is going to go to war with country "C." Country "B" should support its allies, but country "B" does not want to go to war. They do not want to be dragged into the conflict, so country "B" decides that they will make a peace agreement with country "C." "B" is obtaining a "separate peace" outside of the conflict that exists between "A" and "C." A historical example of this occurred in 1917, when Russia signed a peace agreement with Germany rather than continuing its commitment to the Triple Entente.

The phrase "separate peace" appears in chapter nine.

It wasn't the cider which made me surpass myself, it was this liberation we had torn from the gray encroachments of 1943, the escape we had concocted, this afternoon of momentary, illusory, special and separate peace.

Gene's usage of the phrase does not exactly mimic the military usage of the phrase, but it is similar. Gene and the boys at Devon exist in a metaphorical bubble that allows them to stay separated from the World War that is tearing the world apart. They know that the war is going on, but the boys have not had to see or a be a part of the devastation that is going on. Because Devon keeps them separated from the war and the outside politics, they have a peaceful existence at Devon.

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The title A Separate Peace is taken from Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms:

I was glad to be alone. I had the paper ... about the war. I was going to forget the war. I had made a separate peace. (Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms)

Knowles' title has many symbolic inferences. The most important perhaps is signified by Gene's narratorial comment as he reflects back on that time when he and the other boys were sixteen and away at school alone together.

I think we reminded [the elderly substitute teachers] of what peace was like, we boys of sixteen. We registered with no draft board, we had taken no physical examinations. We were carefree and wild, ... a sign of the life the war was being fought to preserve.

This remark both signifies and foreshadows that personal peace parallels war's peace but, unlike war's peace, which is collective, personal peace is separate; it's private; it is exclusively one's own. Some ways a separate peace was achieved in the characters lives related to youth; to guilt; to the war; to life and death; to growing up; and to peace of mind.

  • Peace is achieved between Finny and Gene after Finny's hospitalization.
  • Gene attains peace form guilt.
  • Finny attains peace when he accepts his physical disability caused by the accident that prevents him from enlisting.
  • Finny attains peace...

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  • when he accepts Gene's part in his accident as an inner impulse, not an inner intent based on a secret hatred: "It was just some kind of blind impulse you had ... it wasn't some kind of hate you've felt all along."
  • Finny and Gene attain peace between themselves.
  • Finny attains ultimate peace when he dies, with his heart at peace with Gene.
  • Gene attains peace within himself as he comes of age and enlists.
  • Personal peace attained contrasts with the peace from war only hoped for though not yet not realized.
  • Gene finds peace of mind.
  • The boys attain peace from the fear that gripped them being alone together in the face of life and war away at school.

Only Phineas never was afraid, only Phineas never hated anyone. Other people experienced this fearful shock somewhere, this sighting of the enemy, and so began an obsessive labor of defense,...

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The title of the John Knowles novel A Separate Peace is significant because that is what both major characters--Gene and Finny--need to achieve. Both have separate talents. Finny has is athletically talented, and Gene is academically talented. Yet despite their "friendship", Gene is threatened by Finny's abilities. After Finny's accident, the characters become codependent. Gene begins to pursue athletics because Finny can't, and Finny trains Gene in order to live vicariously through Gene's involvement in sports. Consequently, their characters do not develop a separate sense of identity.

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There are a couple of ways in which the title of the novel is significant.  One has to do with World War II and one has to do with Gene's relationship to Finny.

The book is, of course, set during World War II.  However, the war that is raging out in the world hardly seems to have an impact at the Devon School.  So that is one sense of the title -- the school is separate from the world that is at war.

At the beginning of the novel, Finny has made up a peaceful world of his own and he invites his friend Gene to come inhabit it with him.  At this point, Gene can only find peace through his relationship with Finny.  By the end of the book, however, he has sort of found himself (through dealing with the effects of hurting Finny) and has figured out how live with himself.  So now he is separate from Finny and is at peace.

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Thoughtfully explain the title of the novel (A Separate Peace)

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Thoughtfully explain the title of the novel (A Separate Peace)

In Chapter 10 of A Separate Peace by John Knowles, Leper describes to Gene his negative experiences in the army.  He tells Gene that he may be "psycho" because "they turned everything inside out."  As he continues, Gene selfishly shouts for him to stop talking because he does not care:

"This has nothing to do with me!  Nothing at all!  I don't care!"

And, Gene runs from Leper, whose name symbolically reinforces Gene's desire to run.  But, Leper's description of what has transpired with him causes fear and disturbance in Gene because, as he has remarked in Chapter 9, he has created a peace within himself that finds no reflection with the world confusion, just as Finny, who dismisses the World War as a "conspiracy" creates a winter carnival as a "liberation...torn from the gray encroachments of 1943." The winter carnival, Gene narrates, is Finny's "choreography of peace."

However, as the war progresses and Gene nears graduation, he realizes that he can no longer take refuge in what Gene terms "a scornful superiority" such as he exhibits to Leper, for "it is based on nothing."  His "momentary, illusory, special and separate peace" that the winter carnival has provided is destroyed by the savage nature of man, the "something ignorant in the human heart" that has both driven him to jounce the limb on which Finny stands and that drives men to create wars.  In truth, there is no separate peace.

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