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A Separate Peace

by John Knowles

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Student Question

In "A Separate Peace," what does Finny's burning of the Iliad at the carnival symbolize?

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In Chapter 9 of "A Separate Peace, there may be several symbolic meanings attached to the burning of the copy of the Iliad in order to begin the games of "The Devon Winter Carnival."  Being set in the time of World War II, Gene, the narrator, remarks that Phineas

drew me increasingly away from the Butt Room crowd, away from Brinker and Chet and all other friends, into a world inhabited by just himself and me, where there was no war at all.

So on Carnival day, "this day of high illegal competitiveness," Phineas pulls Gene away from reality, its wars, and rules.  Thus, the burning of the Iliad symbolizes Phineas's desire to diminish the importance of war to Gene.

Another meaning of the Iliad's burning may be that this classic Greek novel, reflective of both the people who instituted the Olympic games and the chronicling of the Trojan War, is destroyed to symbolize the boys' rebellion against the War.

Finally, Phineas may wish to symbolize his liberation from the setting of his life.  The book's burning and the winter carnival symbolize escape from reality:

his own inner joy at life for a moment a it should be, as it was meant to be in his nature.  Phineas recaptured that magic gift for existing primarily in space, ....It was his wildes demonstration of himself, of himself in the kind of worl he loved; it was his choreography of peace.

Gene, too says that he feels exhilirated, with "a separate peace":

It wasn't the cider which made me surpass myself, it was this libertion we had torn from the gray encroachments of 1943, the escape we had concocted, this afternoon of mementary, illusory, special and separate peace.

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In "A Separate Peace", what does it symbolize when Finny opens the carnival by burning a copy of "The Iliad"?

First, the reader should understand that Finny dearly loves attention, so when he snatches up the copy of The Iliad to light it on fire, the reader can view the moment as being emblematic of all of Finny's escapades in which his purpose is to be fun, but also to be recognized.

The Iliad also makes a symbolic connection with its Greek historical background; this text is all about the glories and deprivations of war.  When Finny claims that the boys cannot start the Carnival without a "sacred fire from Olympus," he chooses The Iliad from among the prizes to be the 'sacrificial lamb' that gets torched.  Finny's selection is meaningful though; by burning The Iliad, an epic war story, he also effectively protests the current war (World War II) that so many of the other boys long to join.

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