Illustration of two pairs of legs standing on the branch of a large tree

A Separate Peace

by John Knowles

Start Free Trial

Historical Context

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

American Feelings about War Although first published in 1959 in England, A Separate Peace is about an earlier period, specifically the early 1940s when United States had declared its involvement in World War II. It must be remembered that World War II brought out enormous patriotism in most Americans, whether they were actually working in war-related jobs, engaged in combat, or neither. While intelligent adolescents such as Gene Forrester and Hadley Brinker in A Separate Peace might have mixed feelings about being drafted or enlisting in the war, shirking responsibility (in other words, draft dodging) was virtually unthinkable. Elwin "Leper" Lepelher, a major character in Knowles's novel, enlists in the war and does go AWOL (absent without leave). However, although he is often a sincere, sympathetic character, he does not ultimately emerge a hero.

It is also worth remembering that when A Separate Peace was first published in the United States in 1960, the Korean War had been over for about seven years, and American involvement in the War in Vietnam had not yet escalated to horrific proportions. There was little protest over compulsory enrollment in the military—the draft—or the U.S.'s role in Vietnam in the early 1960s. As U.S. involvement and troop movement escalated after 1965, however, public support for the war diminished and many young antiwar protesters responded by burning their draft notices. Thus, while numerous critics submitted scholarly articles on Knowles's novel throughout the 1960s, by the end of the decade, the book was being considered in light of the devastation that the Vietnam War had wrought.

Interestingly, left-wing and conservative critics praised A Separate Peace in different ways. The former found its antiwar sentiments appropriate and timely, particularly in light of what they perceived as the threat of atomic warfare. Yet right-wing reviewers also liked the book, often commending its treatment of original sin and redemption.

Education and Adolescence in the 1960s Many of the young people of the 1960s grew up in a different atmosphere from the youth of today. After the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, education was beginning to be emphasized as important not only to individual success but to the success of the nation. Not only were new teaching methods and standards being put into place, but the federal government began taking a greater role in funding and setting policy for education. College enrollment soared, as young people saw higher education as providing a chance to get ahead in life. Nevertheless, there were many problems with the educational system. Segregation persisted in many areas and opportunities were limited for women.

The all-white, male prep school of A Separate Peace was still thriving in 1960. It was seen as a student's best chance to get into the best private universities, so pressure to succeed could be great.

The culture of the young also came of age in the 1960s. When the first American edition of the novel appeared in 1960, the United States had its youngest elected president, John F. Kennedy, who at the age of forty-three had defeated Vice President Richard M. Nixon by a margin of only 113,000 votes out of more than 69 million cast. The children of the "Baby Boom"—the large population surge that began after World War II—were adolescents. As the decade progressed and the Baby Boomers reached college, they became an increasingly vocal part of American politics and culture. Brought up in prosperity and peace, these children questioned the morality and authority of their parents' generation and pursued individual fulfillment. Their search for meaning and identity is reflected in Gene's narrative of his own...

(This entire section contains 601 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

adolescent years.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The values that John Knowles emphasizes in A Separate Peace reveal his belief that an appreciation of nature's wonders is fundamental to a life of moral integrity and spiritual satisfaction. Consequently, the novel is set in the beautiful countryside of New England, not far from the Atlantic coastline at a New Hampshire prep school called Devon. The year is 1942, and the United States is increasing its involvement in World War II. The early reverses the Allies suffer seem to imperil the very values of Western civilization. The war is presented first as a distant source of uneasiness, but its presence gradually grows into an emblem of the encroachment of the adult world's most mundane elements onto an unspoiled realm of youth and beauty.

That realm lies within the protected sanctuary of the school, a place of privilege run by quasi-British masters who espouse "continuity" but have ceased to provide the inspirational energy that keeps tradition vital. Although Knowles admires the school's overall aims and holds it in higher esteem than he does most other institutions in American life, he also recognizes its tendencies to mold and limit its students, draining them of the creativity and spontaneity that make life so vivid for his exceptional, artistic, and slightly eccentric characters. Still, in the "gypsy summer" that produces the book's freest and happiest moments, it is the school grounds, glowing like a marvelous garden of Eden, that provide the setting for the idyll that precedes the "fall" into the "real" world. Knowles sees this moment in history, this place in the country, as the last vestige of a vanishing era, and the school's location on the banks of two rivers—the clean, pure Devon and the "turbid, saline Nagaumsett"—illustrates its pivotal place at a turning point in time.

Literary Style

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Point of View Told in first-person ("I") by Gene Forrester, a man in his thirties recalling his adolescence, A Separate Peace begins with Gene's visit to the Devon School. The first pages of the novel mainly describe the physical landscape of the institution; the rest tells Gene's story, a tale in which he serves as both an observer and a participant at the center of the action. As Ronald Weber notes, "Generally, first-person narration gives the reader a heightened sense of immediacy, a sense of close involvement with the life of the novel ... With Knowles' s novel, however, this is not the case ... throughout it he remains somewhat outside the action and detached from the narrator, observing the life of the novel rather than submerged in it." This is not intended as a criticism, however. As Weber explains, Knowles's choice of narration is "a highly-calculated effect ... It indicates a sharply different thematic intention, and one that is rooted in a skillful alteration of the conventional method of first-person telling."

It is important to remember that Gene, through the distance of time—specifically fifteen years—has arrived at a level of self-knowledge that few teenagers could achieve. Had Knowles limited the perspective to the highly introspective, but still adolescent Gene, A Separate Peace would have been told in a very different tone. As Ronald Weber writes, "Gene's voice ... is dispassionate, reflective, and controlled; it is, in his own words, a voice from which fury is gone, dried up at its source long before the telling begins."

Setting Most of the action of the novel is confined to the Devon School, the prep school based on Phillips Exeter. An exception is found in Chapter 10, in which Gene visits his friend Leper in his family's Vermont home. When Gene revisits the Devon School, he is particularly interested in confronting two fearful places on campus. The first is the First Academy Building, a Georgian-style red-brick structure, in which a group of Devon students brought Gene to accuse him of causing the accident that crippled Finny's life. On the stairs of the First Academy Building, another misfortune occurred which ultimately ended Finny's life. The second place of significance is the tree from which Gene and Finny leaped in their "Super Suicide Society" escapades. While the adult Gene recalls the tree as an enormous, forbidding structure, when he actually rediscovers it, the tree appears much smaller and similar to all the other trees in the vicinity.

In terms of time, A Separate Peace skips back and forth between the early 1940s and the late 1950s. Again, this time difference creates a retrospective which allows the narrator, Gene, to relate the events with more depth and analysis.

SymbolismA Separate Peace is a book full of symbolism. One pair of symbols can be found in two rivers that flow through the school: the Devon and the Naguamsett. Gene remembers the freshwater Devon River fondly, for this was the body of water that he and Finny had leaped into many times from the tree. Ironically, after Finny's accident, Gene does not remember the Devon River with fear or disgust; the river to him symbolizes the carefree summer days, a peaceful time. On the other hand, the Naguamsett River ("governed by imaginable factors like the Gulf Stream, the Polar Ice Cap, and the moon") is an ugly, marshy, saline river into which Gene falls after a fight with quarrelsome Cliff Quackenbush. If the Devon River represents serenity, Gene associates the Naguamsett with war and winter.

Another obvious pair of symbols is in the contrast between the war being fought abroad and the relative tranquility of the Devon School, particularly in its summer session. To Gene "the war was and is reality," yet by completing his final year at the Devon School he is literally avoiding military service. Still, he and his classmates realize it is only a matter of time before they enlist or are drafted. So, if the war represents a harsh reality that school-boys like Gene must eventually confront, then Gene and Finny's "gypsy" summer spent at the Devon School denotes illusion. In the only summer session in the school's long history, the students defy many rules, still maintain the faculty's goodwill, create new games such as "Blitzball," and begin unheard-of clubs such as the "Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session." The summer is a period of escape for Devon School's students. As Gene observes, "Bombs in Central Europe were completely unreal to us here, not because we couldn't imagine it ... but because our place here was too fair for us to accept something like that." Still, Gene realizes that the "gypsy" summer spirit will not last indefinitely; "official class leaders and politicians" will replace the "idiosyncratic, leaderless band" of the summer. To recapture the care-free summer spirit. Gene and Finny have a "Winter Carnival" in which "there was going to be no government," and "on this day even the school-boy egotism of Devon was conjured away."

Epiphany An epiphany is a sudden flash of perception into the nature of a thing or event. In his most provocative insight into human nature, Gene realizes toward the conclusion of A Separate Peace "that wars were not made by generations and their special stupidities, but that wars were made instead by something ignorant in the human heart." As James Ellis writes, "Gene has discovered that his private evil, which caused him to hurt Phineas, is the same evil—only magnified—that results in war."

Literary Qualities

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

None of the books John Knowles has written since A Separate Peace has achieved nearly the critical or popular success of his first novel. The reason is not that Knowles has exhausted his knowledge of the world but that A Separate Peace has a rare unity of subject and style. Knowles is a graceful and lucid writer, but his ability to use language most effectively seems to require a specific focus to prevent style from becoming merely decorative, an end in itself. His task in A Separate Peace, to establish the authenticity of Gene's sensibility—that is, his heightened sensitivity to the beauty of the natural world and his capacity for intense feeling about human nature—required the creation of a lyric voice to register the range of emotional response with poetic precision. Knowles's vivid descriptions of the countryside through four seasons enable him to echo the psychic landscape of his narrator in powerful imagery, and the clarity of his descriptions of certain key locations—a marble staircase, the testing tree, the pure river—offers an anchor and a context for the novel's most important events. Because Gene's voice throughout the narrative is generally sober and reflective, when Knowles shifts into a different rhythm the effect is often striking by contrast.

Knowles also knows the atmosphere of the school very well, and his unobtrusive presentation of details gradually gives the reader a full sense of the school's grounds. The other boys in Finny's "circle" are not presented with much depth, but they are drawn from familiar types, and Knowles has invested each one with enough personality to make him distinct. Knowles masterfully recreates the conversation of young men in groups, complete with all of the self-conscious, artificial linguistic apparatus. His ear for the telling phrase or the right slang gives his depiction of life in the dorms a convincing authenticity. As Gene grows throughout the year, the other boys are also affected by the changing times; but their transformations are mostly background for Gene's development. Still, the sense that they have grown, too, reinforces Gene's progress.

The first-person narrative draws the reader very close to Gene, an identification crucial to a full involvement in his quest. Knowles's skillful alternation between action and reflection, confrontation and relaxation, and seasons of ease and seasons of stress, prevents Gene's story from becoming routine or too predictable. Against these changes of pace, Gene's engaging desire to learn everything he can about all he encounters drives the narrative forward. Because Gene is such an open vessel, each setback has serious consequences, but because he has an essentially positive outlook, he can rebound quickly. The structure of the book follows this pattern of crisis and resolution until its conclusion, at which point it has been established that Gene will eventually become the man who can tell the story.

Social Sensitivity

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

It is a testament to Knowles's ability that a story about relatively privileged young men in the 1940s, written from the perspective of the quiet, almost humdrum days of the Eisenhower era, has not become dated at all. Knowles has written what appears to be a real "classic" of youthful ardor that so perfectly captures the poignance of a young man's feeling that it will continue to transcend its temporal and social bounds. The book's portraits of youthful aspirations, fears, frustrations, and revelations remain apt decades after Knowles painted them. Gene's progress from the protected environment of a friendly, unified school setting to his first encounters with the demands of an indifferent or hostile world has the resonance of an archetype of human behavior.

Yet, there is one aspect of the relationship between Gene and Phineas that looks a bit different now than it did thirty years ago. In the 1940s, it would be very unusual for boys of this background to discuss sex at all, and the absence of women from their thoughts is a function of the cultural reservations more than anything else, a fact still essentially operative in 1960 as well. Also, the virtual elimination of any interest in women might be regarded as Knowles's choice to remove a factor that would not particularly contribute to the themes he is considering. Still, the absence of any sexual curiosity tends to be rather conspicuous in the 1980s, in which sexual awakening is almost a requisite theme in many young adult stories. In addition, the almost total exclusion of any women from the narrative (besides a comment on "Hazel Brewster the professional town belle"), combined with several derogatory references to unattractive women, skews the male focus a bit further. An obligatory pinup of Betty Grable appears, but it does not elicit much interest compared to the boys' passionate responses to so many other things.

Compare and Contrast

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

1940s: In the middle of World War II, the United States had compulsory draft registration for young men, most of whom expected to eventually enlist in the military.

Early 1960s: While the United States still had compulsory draft registration for young men, only a few were being called up for military duty in Vietnam.

Today: Reinstated in the early 1980s after a brief dismissal in the 1970s, draft registration is still required for young men in America, although there is little chance of being called up into a military that is currently all-volunteer.

1940s: America declared its involvement in World War II, and had troops in Europe and the Pacific.

Early 1960s: Although America had sent some troops to Vietnam, their commitment to the war effort was insignificant at the time compared to the escalation after 1965.

Today: The United States of America relies on all-volunteer armed forces.

1940s: The path to success for young men from upper-class white families often led from the best prep school to an Ivy League university.

Early 1960s: University enrollment soared as the baby boom generation reached college age. Many government programs existed to help more young people from middle-class and impoverished backgrounds attain a college education.

Today: College graduates still have higher average salaries than people with less education With government financing for higher education on the decline, universities find themselves competing for the enrollment dollars of a decreasing college-age population.

Media Adaptations

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

A Separate Peace was adapted as a film directed by Larry Peerce, starring John Heyl and Parker Stevenson, Paramount Pictures, 1972, available from Paramount Home Video, Home Vision Cinema. Although generally faithful to the novel, the film of the same name received mostly poor reviews. Typical was movie critic Leonard Maltin's opinion that the "story is morbid, acting incredibly amateurish, and direction has no feeling at all for the period."

For Further Reference

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Ellis, James. "A Separate Peace: The Fall from Innocence." English Journal 53 (May 1964): 313-318. A good character study of the protagonist and his relationship with his best friend.

Halio, Jay. "John Knowles's Short Novels." Studies in Short Fiction 1 (Winter 1964): 107-112. Explores the relationship of A Separate Peace to Knowles's other works, with commentary on similarities in theme, style, and approach.

Knowles, John. "Musings on a Chameleon." Esquire (April 1988): 174-183. An interesting and revealing account of the author's friendship with Truman Capote, providing some previously unknown information about Knowles's career and writing.

MacDonald, James. "The Novels of John Knowles." Arizona Quarterly 23 (Winter 1967): 335-342. An intelligent overview of Knowles's work.

Mengeling, Marvin. "A Separate Peace." English Journal 58 (December 1969): 1322-1329. A good general discussion with particular emphasis on the mythic aspects of the character of Phineas.

Morgan, Neal. Wilson Library Bulletin 39 (December 1964): 343-344. A brief but informative sketch of the author's early life and career.

Raven, Simon. "Review." Spectator 202 (May 1, 1959): 630. An appreciative review of A Separate Peace by an English critic.

Theroux, Paul. "Review." New York Times Book Review (July 14, 1974): 4-5. An essay on Knowles, concentrating on Spreading Fires but reflecting on his earlier work as well.

Witherington, Paul. "A Separate Peace: A Study in Structural Ambiguity." English Journal 54 (December 1965): 795-800. An examination of meaning and structure in the novel.

Wolfe, Peter. "The Impact of Knowles's A Separate Peace." Ohio Review 36 (March 1970): 89-98. Comments on the social and artistic impact of the novel.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Bell, Hallman B. A Separate Peace. Boston: Twayne, 1990. A collection of critical essays that give an excellent overall view of Knowles’s novel. Includes a useful bibliography.

Flum, Hanoch, and Harriet Porton. “Relational Processes and Identity Formation in Adolescence: The Example of A Separate Peace.” Genetic, Social, and General Monographs 121 (November, 1995): 369-390. The authors view the process of identity formation through the lens of the story of an adolescent boy’s experiences during World War II at a boarding school in New Hampshire. Using the events of the book as examples of the necessary connections that are essential to the process of development, the authors explore male adolescent growth.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Douglas Alley, "Teaching Emerson Through A Separate Peace," in English Journal, January, 1981, pp. 19-23

Hallman Bell Bryant, "A Separate Peace": The War Within, Twayne, 1990.

John K. Crabbe, "On the Playing Fields of Devon," in English Journal, Vol. 58, 1969, pp. 519-20

Anne Duchene, in a review of A Separate Peace in Manchester Guardian, May 1, 1959.

James Ellis, "A Separate Peace: A Fall From Innocence," in English Journal, May, 1964, pp 313-18.

Edmund Fuller, "Shadow of Mars," in New York Times Book Review, February 7, 1960.

Linda Heinz, "A Separate Peace: Filming the War Within," in Literature Film Quarterly, No. 3, 1975, p. 168.

John Knowles, "The Young Writer's Real Friends," The Writer, Vol. 75, July, 1962, pp. 12-14.

John Knowles, "My Separate Peace," in Esquire, March, 1985, pp. 106-09.

James M. Mellard, "Counterpoint and 'Double Vision' in A Separate Peace," in Studies in Short Fiction, No. 4, 1966, pp. 127-35.

J. Noffsinger, A. M. Rice, et al. "Still Good Reading: Adolescent Novels Written Before 1967," English Journal, April, 1992, p. 7.

A review of A Separate Peace, in Commonweal, December 9, 1960.

A review of A Separate Peace, in Times Literary Supplement, May 1, 1959.

Ronald Weber, "Narrative Method in A Separate Peace," in Studies in Short Fiction 3, 1965, pp. 63-72.

For Further Study:

Hallman Bell Bryant, "Symbolic Names in Knowles's A Separate Peace," in Names, Vol. 34, No. 1, March, 1986, pp. 83-8. An analysis of some of the character's names in the novel.

Concise Dictionary of Literary Biography: Broadening Views, 1968-1988, Gale, 1989, pp. 120-35. Biographical information on John Knowles and his work. Includes revised typescript from one of Knowles's works.

Jay L. Hallo, "John Knowles's Short Novels," Studies in Short Fiction Vol. I, Winter, 1964, pp. 107-09. A survey of several of Knowles's shorter novels.

Granville Hicks, "The Good Have a Quiet Heroism," in Saturday Review, March 5, 1960, p. 15. Early review which praises A Separate Peace, and analyzes Finny's character, concluding he is not really a hero.

Isabel Quigly, The Heirs of Tom Brown: The English School Story, Oxford University Press, 1984. This book-length study looks at the genre of the "school story" and is useful in an analysis of Knowles's novel as it fits into this genre

Michael-George Sarotte, Like a Brother, Like a Lover, Doubleday, 1978. In this book-length study of male homosexuality in literature, Sarotte argues that Gene's suppressed homoerotic emotions for Finny are integral to his character.




Critical Essays