In John Knowles novel A Separate Peace, why does the author tell the story as a flashback from Gene's point of view?

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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John Knowles wrote his 1959 classic of literature, A Separate Peace, from Gene’s perspective simply because that was the style of storytelling he selected, and because it enabled the author to convey Gene’s thoughts in a more personal style. The story is told in “flash-back” style, so that Gene can reflect on a formative period in his life. Additionally, the story could not be told from Phineas’ perspective because the latter dies near the end of the story. Employing a fictitious narrator is a common device among writers of fiction, including stories loosely based upon the author’s own experiences. Knowles attended Phillips Exeter Academy, which provided the inspiration for A Separate Peace’s Devon academy. Central to the theme of the story is the notion of the book’s “protagonist” revisiting his old school after the passage of 15 years, the occasion for reflections upon his time there and his relationship with Phineas, the popular, gifted athlete who seemingly got away with everything. As Gene reflects upon his return to Devon, and the complicated friendship with Phineas, he ponders that “looking back now across fifteen years I could see with great clarity the fear I had lived in, which must mean that in the interval I had succeeded in a very important undertaking: I must have made my escape from it.” The title, "A Separate Peace," has multiple connotations. Devon represented a self-contained world outside of which were dangers unimagined, including war, and the uncertainty of the future. It also conveys the sense of internal justifications Gene employs to accept his responsibility for the death of his best friend: “So the more things remained the same, the more they changed after all. Nothing endures. Not love, not a tree, not even a death by violence.” In writing his novel, which was adapted from an earlier short story, Knowles uses the narrative technique of fictional first-person contemplation as a way of drawing his own invisible borders between “fact” and “fiction.” Whether Knowles knew a “Phineas” during his time at Phillips Exeter, and whether he fantasized about facilitating the demise of that “friend,” we will presumably never know. We do not know whether A Separate Peace is semi-autobiographical, or simply drew inspiration from Knowles’ youth. But the use of first-person narration certainly provides some intriguing possibilities.

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