A Separate Piece: An overview
Anne Hiebert Alton
Alton is a member of an honorary research association at the University of Sydney, Australia. In the following essay, she places A Separate Peace within three distinct literary traditions and examines the novel's strengths and weaknesses.
John Knowles based his first novel, A Separate Peace (1959), on two short stories, entitled "Phineas" and "A Turn in the Sun." An immediate success, it won the William Faulkner Foundation Award, the Rosenthal Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and an award from the Independent School Education Board. Adapted into both a stage play and a film, the novel has been praised for its "clear craftsmanship and careful handling of form" by Jay Halio in Studies in Short Fiction. It has also been hailed for its exceptional power and distinction. In addition to exploring the pathos of a complicated friendship, the novel provides insights into the human psyche and the heart of man.
A Separate Peace emulates three major literary traditions. First, it focuses on the fall of man, something central in such works as the Bible's Book of Genesis, Paradise Lost, and Lord of the Flies. The novel can be read as Gene's movement from innocence to experience, as he progresses from his ignorance of humanity's tendency towards thoughtless yet harmful actions to recognizing his own potential for such acts. More significantly, the novel chronicles Phineas' progression from his initial belief in the world's benevolence and in his own integrity—defined by a rigid set of rules such as winning at sports, never lying about one's height, saying prayers just in case God exists, and never blaming a friend without cause—to his final realization of Gene's role in the accident.
Second, the novel is a bildungsroman, a German term meaning "novel of formation." This tradition includes such literary masterpieces as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, David Copperfield, and Little Women. The bildungsroman focuses on the development of the protagonist's mind and character from childhood to adulthood, charting the crises which lead to maturation and recognition of one's identity and place in the world. A Separate Peace follows Gene Forrester's progress through the formative years of his adolescence, and specifically his relationship with Phineas. Gene—short for Eugene—is Greek for "well-born." While Gene is from a Southern family affluent enough to send him to prep school, his identity isn't as secure as his name suggests: before the accident, he implies the posters on his wall of a large Southern estate represent his home. Initially Gene emulates Phineas: he joins him in climbing the tree and jumping into the river, being late for dinner, and taking a forbidden trip to the beach. Later, he wants to become Phineas, as when he tries on his clothes and feels confident "that I would never stumble through the confusions of my own character again." Phineas, too, feels their connection: after the accident, he informs Gene that he must become an athlete in Finny's stead. Later, Gene realizes that his "aid alone had never seemed to him in the category of help .... Phineas had thought of me as an extension of himself." However, as Gene matures he starts to develop his own identity. He recognizes his attraction to deadly things and, more significantly, he writes a narrative about his relationship with Phineas revealing the flaws in his own character which led to Phineas's death.
Third, A Separate Peace is a boys' school story, a tradition which includes such books as Tom Brown's Schooldays, Stalky and Co., Goodbye Mr. Chips, and even Dead Poets Society. It is set in what John Rowe Townsend in Written for Children refers to as the "hothouse environment" of boarding school, a self-contained world with an aura of privilege based on class and money. Typically, such a school is a place for education and growth. Here it also represents the last place of freedom and safety for the boys, guarding their last days of childhood and standing as...
(The entire section is 7,294 words.)