What is the symbolic meaning of the architecture of the Devon school in A Separate Peace?
Describing his return to Devon School, Gene Forester mentions that the school looks like a museum because it appears to have been covered with varnish in order to preserve it. Yet, like other such schools, Gene observes, it "emerged naturally from the town which had produced it"; and, the homes in this town are of Colonial, Victorian and Greek Revival architecture. The First Academic Building is Georgian as are others. This architecture style is imitative of buildings constructed during the reign of King George V of England.
In Chapter 8, Gene describes how the school has been rebuilt in a "peculiar style of Puritan grandeur" as if the dramatic splendor of the Versailles with its Baroque design "had been modified for the needs of a Sunday school":
This opulent sobriety betrayed the divided nature of the school....From the outside the buildings were reticent, severe straight lines of red brick or white clapboard with...shutters, and a few unassuming white cupolas... on the roofs...like Pilgrim bonnets.
But once you passed through the Colonial doorways...you entered an extravaganza of Pompadour splendor. Pink marble walls and white marble floors were enclosed by arched and vaulted ceilings; an assembly room had been done in ...High Italian Renaissance; another was illuminated by chandeliers...there was a wall of fragile French windows overlooking an Italian garden of marble bric-a-brac; the library was Provencal on first floor, rococo on the second. And, everywhere, except in the dormitories, the floor and stairs were of smooth, slick marble, more treacherous even the the icy walks.
Ironically, with the facade of order and discipline--"the Puritan grandeur"--Devon School is an "extravaganza" of complexity. The Baroque designs of Madame Pompadour during the reign of Louis XV of France involves the artistic repetitions and circling design of patterns as well as the sudden, unfinished breaking of others. Likewise, High Italian Renaissance, a period of exceptional artistic production such as that of Michelangelo and Raphael, suggests high emotion and decorative references to classical art. Finally, with the floors all of marble, there is the overt replication of Greek and Roman classical design.
Symbolically, then, the architecture of Devon School is representative of all of life. While there is the facade of order and discipline and purity on the exterior that belies the complexity of life, the interior illustrates that life is replete with uncivilized desires that conflict with elevated and sophisticated thought which often find themselves entangled in a rococo of emotions, some of which are unfinished. Underlying all of these conditions are the hard marble floors of essential man, the classical man of dangerous enmity and desires.
Indeed, Phineas, whose name is suggestive of Phineus, a king and seer of Greek mythology, and Gene, whose full name is Eugene, also a Greek nomenclature meaning "well-born," find themselves in a microcosm of the real world where they deal with the serious issues of rivalry, friendship, leadership, and discipline. This is why the invoking of French adage, Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose [The more things change, the more they remain the same] is appropriate, although Gene reverses this proverb. Moreover, this is also why Gene states at the end of his narrative that his war ended before [he] ever put on a uniform: "I was on active duty all my time at school: I killed my enemy there."