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A Separate Peace

by John Knowles

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How does John Knowles use setting for foreshadowing in A Separate Peace?

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A Separate Peace is written during the course of one year, beginning with the summer session at a boys prep school. However, the book is also written from Gene's 30-year-old perspective as he revisits the school. The opening scene has the adult version of Gene walking around the school during a dark and stormy day. The setting's weather is generally associated with the mood and tone of the story; which in this case can also be determined as a foreshadowing of the sad events that are revealed to the reader later. The first few chapters are set during the summertime when the boys are having fun outside in the warmth. Phineas and Gene even go to the beach and sleep there one night. Yet, as chapter 6 starts, summer begins to take its last bow and the Fall moves in and Knowles suggests,

"the Summer Session was over. It had been the school's first, but it was its one hundred and sixty-third Winter Session, and the forces reassembled for it scattered the easygoing summer spirit like so many fallen leaves" (72).

Other references to the weather are made throughout the novel and with each one, a new drama unfolds in the story. This is how Knowles uses setting to foreshadow future events. Finally, Phineas dies in the Winter, a season which almost always represents death; so again, the season is a mood-setter and used to foreshadow a dramatic end.

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How does the writer use his setting to help the reader anticipate events that happen in A Separate Peace?

One way to interpret how the setting anticipates events in the story is to start with the title. The "peace" could mean the peace/truce that Gene tries to reconcile with Phineas (and the other boys to a lesser extent) after pushing him out of the tree. The tree has symbolic value (purposeful or not on the author's part). Gene commits his sin by pushing Phineas out of the tree: leading to a "fall." This is symbolic of humanity's fall in the Garden of Eden by eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge. Phineas lives in an ideal, sometimes imaginary world. Gene, however is concerned with the war and how he must perform at his studies en route to becoming a man. Gene is very wrapped up with this learning progression; this is akin to Adam and Eve desiring knowledge, to know what it will be like to sin against God and eat the fruit. Gene's sin seems more malicious or thoughtless than Adam's and Eve's curiosity, but the symbol of the tree indicates, at least in hindsight, a place/setting wherein something significant does occur. (Continuing with this analogy, Phineas wanted to stay in the peaceful world of childhood; the peaceful world of the garden before the fall.) 

Another way to think about setting also concerns the title. While the boys are fully aware of growing up and aware that they might go off to war, for the time being they are in the sanctity of the school. It is a place "separate" from the war and from the world of adults and adult concerns. It is therefore a peaceful place. Gene recognizes that school is a temporary setting and that the world of adulthood and the horrors of war awaits him afterward. Phineas, on the other hand, is not concerned with the war, nor with growing up. In his idealism, he remains innocent and naive. It is therefore all the more tragic that after his injury, he can no longer thrive in that peaceful setting that is the school. However morbid it might sound, Phineas dying young is perhaps fitting or a mixed blessing because he would have trouble fitting in the adult world. That is just one interpretation. It could very well be that Phineas would thrive in the adult world because of his honesty and willingness to live playfully: kind of like a Forest Gump type of character. 

The main setting is, of course, the school. It is "separated" from the adult world and the war. It is, relative to those worlds, peaceful. As the boys grow older, they move from that separate, peaceful world into the more troubled world of adulthood and of course the war. Therefore, their progression is inherently tied to a linear change from innocence to experience and/or from peace to conflict. 

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