A Separate Peace by John Knowles

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What happens in A Separate Peace?

Gene and Finny are students at the Devon School, a New England prep school for boys. In the summer of 1942, a group of boys form the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session under Finny's leadership. Together, the boys play daring, life-threatening games.

  • Gene, a conservative intellectual, befriends Finny, a free-spirited adventurer. One of their favorite activities is diving off a high tree limb into the Devon River.

  • Gene becomes anxious that Finny is taking time away from his studies. Gene believes that Finny is trying to take Gene's academic success away from him, while continuing to be lauded as the most athletic in the class. One evening, as Finny is about to jump from the tree limb, Gene bounces the branch and causes Finny to fall onto the bank, breaking his leg. Finny assumes this is an accident.

  • The other boys at the school conduct a mock investigation of Finny’s fall. At first, Finny refuses to accept that Gene made him fall, but as the facts are forced upon him, he leaves in confusion, falls and re-breaks his leg. In the surgery to reset his leg, he suffers a fatal complication. 

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

With its publication in the United States in 1960 (it was first published in England), John Knowles’s short novel A Separate Peace became an instant success with young readers. Within that year, the book was granted three awards: the first William Faulkner Foundation Award, the Rosenthal Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and the National Association of Independent Schools Award.

The novel has a simple story line presented initially in the first-person voice, but it quickly modifies to a dual view of events as experienced in a flashback view of incidents that occurred fifteen years before the opening scene, coupled with a mature assessment of those incidents. This combination of narrative voices gives the tale the immediacy of an eyewitness account while providing the author wide-ranging possibilities for omniscient commentary on the larger meaning of events.

The main setting of the novel is the Devon School in the hills of New Hampshire during the summer session of 1942 and the academic year that follows. The action focuses on a small group of boys completing their junior year by taking accelerated summer courses to allow them the extra time they will need as seniors to participate in training activities readying them to join the armed forces at war in Europe and Asia. The war and their proximity to participation in it are sustained factors in the minds of the boys, though they feign a youthful indifference to its threat. Fear is their constant unacknowledged companion, fear of the unknown horrors that lie ahead and fear of their inability to conduct themselves well in battle.

Though they would not likely consider it as such, these boys are already engaged in a battle in the quiet halls of Devon. This is their battle with some of the many fears that teenagers must face while growing to maturity: fear of not belonging or being displaced in the affections of one’s friends; the proud fear of loss of status, of not performing up to others’ expectations; even fear of surrendering to irrational hatreds caused by jealousy and to the latent violence that each boy senses within himself and others. Knowles leads the reader through skirmishes of this battle by detailing the experiences of two boys in this group, Gene Forrester and Phineas.

Gene is an intelligent, cautious boy raised by a supportive southern family. He has enjoyed three academically successful years at Devon and is respected by his professors and classmates as a scholar and athlete. In contrast to Gene’s moderation in all things, Phineas, his Bostonian roommate, known to all as Finny, is possessed of a uniquely free spirit. Finny, who lives always for the exhilaration of the moment, is a peerless athlete of perfect physical coordination. He views life as a great playing field on which all are engaged in a romping game of friendly...

(The entire section is 1,210 words.)