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A Separate Peace

by John Knowles

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In A Separate Peace, how do five weather conditions create a mood?

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Mood is the tone of a passage. The way writers manipulate words and descriptions can create a mood. In A Separate Peace, Knowles uses his chosen diction to manipulate the weather descriptions he includes in his story. This creates a conflicted, uncertain mood in the reader that mirrors Gene's own internal conflict.

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Mood references the feelings, the emotions, that a text evokes in readers. We use adjectives such as cheerful, chaotic, and pessimistic to describe the feel of the passage. Weather often affects not only the characters' but also the readers' emotions. Weather can impact the mood of a story.

In A Separate Peace, Knowles incorporates weather descriptions into his plot from the first few pages. In chapter one, the weather is rainy, foggy, and windy. This creates a chaotic, uncertain mood. For example, Knowles writes:

There were several trees bleakly reaching into the fog (ch. 1).

This fog impairs Gene's vision. Just like the fog blocks Gene's sight, it reminds readers that they don't know what is going to happen next. Yet, the cold and damp weather leaves us suspecting that whatever is coming may not be very cheerful.

Later, in chapter 7, snow falls.

. . . snow came. It came theatrically, late one afternoon; I looked up from my desk and saw that suddenly there were big flakes twirling down into the quadrangle, settling on the carefully pruned shrubbery bordering the crosswalks . . .

At first, this description seems light and playful. Words such as "twirling" and "pruned shrubbery" craft a peaceful and orderly mood.

But Knowles immediately adds description that collides with this peacefulness:

They gathered there thicker by the minute, like noiseless invaders conquering because they took possession so gently. I watched them whirl past my window (ch. 7).

Diction choices such as "noiseless invaders" and "took possession" crush the peace and leave readers confused about how they should feel. The following line lightens the mood, once more:

. . . don't take this seriously, the playful way they fell seemed to imply, this little show, this harmless trick (ch. 7).

This back and forth between descriptions of peace and war ultimately create a conflicted, uncertain mood in the reader. This is very similar to the internal conflict that Gene faces throughout the story.

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In A Separate Peace, John Knowles uses a significant number of weather references to help set the mood.

Some examples include:

Chapter 1:  When Gene returns to Devon the weather is dark and bleak.

"It was such a gray and misty day that I could not see the other side of the river, where there was a small stadium."

"With nothing to block it the wind flung wet gusts at me; at any other time I would have felt like a fool slogging through mud and rain, only to look at a tree.  A little fog hung over the river so that as I neared it I felt myself becoming isolated...The wind was blowing more steadily here, and I was beginning to feel cold."

Chapter 3:  On a beautiful day, Gene and Finny go to the beach in the late afternoon.

"This kind of sunshine and ocean, with the accumulating roar of he surf and the salty, adventurous, flirting wind from the sea, always intoxicated Phineas."

Chapter 4:  Right before the disagreement between Gene and Finny about studying for the French exam and ultimately, Finny's fall from the tree, the mood is one of renewal, as described by the return of spring.

"August arrived with a deepening of all the summertime splendors of New Hampshire.  Early in the month we had two days of light, steady rain which aroused a final fullness everywhere."

"There was a latent freshness in the air, as though spring were returning in the middle of summer."

Chapter 6:  This introduces the Winter Session at Devon.

"Fall had barely touched the full splendor of the trees, and during the height of the day the sun briefly regained its summertime power.  In the air there was only an edge of coolness to imply the coming winter."

Chapter 7:  This is the snowfall that has the Devon students shoveling the railroads and Leper "touring" in the snow.

"The following weekend, however, it snowed again, then two days later much harder, and by the end of that week the ground had been clamped under snow for the winter."

Whether it is freezing weather or afternoon sunshine, John Knowles effectively uses various weather descriptors to help the reader understand the ever-changing mood of A Separate Peace.

 

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What are some examples of Knowles's use of weather conditions in A Separate Peace to create a mood or atmosphere?

Weather used to reflect mood or emotion in a work of literature is called the pathetic fallacy. A fallacy is an example of false logic, so the term encompasses the idea that there is no logical connection between an emotion like sadness, and, say, rainy weather; but writers nevertheless love to use this fallacy because it makes intuitive, if not rational, sense.

Knowles uses the pathetic fallacy in the novel's opening when he writes:

—the icy clamp of winter, or the radiant New Hampshire summers, were more characteristic of it—but this day it blew wet, moody gusts all around me.

The wet, "moody" gusts Gene experiences are an outward manifestation of his mixed feelings and emotional turbulence as he returns to Devon after fifteen years. Moody gusts can be visualized as gray and misty, and Gene is about to descend into the misty realms of memory. (Mist often is associated with moving back in time in films.)

But weather can also act a symbol. Snow, for example, becomes, among things, a symbol of the "noiseless invader conquering" the illusory peace of Devon. Two examples of this are, first, Leper being lured into the disastrous decision of enlisting in the army because of the lure of films that convince him he can be part of a ski patrol, gliding through snowy landscapes in the midst of World War II. This turns out to be an illusion. Second, a snowball battle, seemingly innocent and childlike fun (and in which Leper is evoked) is a last moment of illusion in the novel as well as the harbinger of the mock "trial" that immediately follows.

Overall, Knowles uses weather to create an idyllic mood around Devon, as if it is protected from war and conflict, and at the same time shows this mood is illusory.

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What are some examples of Knowles's use of weather conditions in A Separate Peace to create a mood or atmosphere?

The novel begins with Gene's return to Devon after fifteen years. Knowles' description of the weather that day creates a somber tone and emphasizes Gene's emotional state. The day is cold and wet with gusty winds coming off the river. Gene walks through muddy ground. A fog hangs over the river, enveloping Gene and isolating him from everything except the river and the trees beside it.

In Chapter 4, Gene wakes up at the beach while Finny still sleeps. The dawn is not beautiful; it is strange and gray, "like sunshine through burlap." The ocean looks dead, the gray waves look dead and the beach looks gray and dead--a tone of foreboding. In sleep, Finny also looks dead, an example of foreshadowing.

In Chapter 6, fall comes to Devon. "Fall had barely touched the full splendor of the trees, and during the height of the day the sun briefly regained its summertime power." Yet there is an "edge of coolness to imply the coming winter." The atmosphere is one of quiet transition; summer still echoes, but the coming winter (literally and figuratively) cannot be avoided.

In Chapter 7, winter settles in as Devon is buried under several snows: "[T]he ground had been clamped under snow for the winter." The arrival of real winter parallels the arrival of the "real" war" at school: "In the same way [that winter arrived] the war . . . commenced its invasion of the school. The early snow was commandeered as its advance guard."

Finally, with the conclusion of the novel, summer returns to Devon with "a beautiful New England day."  Knowles writes that "Peace lay on Devon like a blessing, the summer's peace, the reprieve . . . ." The novel begins in cold rain and fog (Gene's emotional quest), but it ends in the warmth of another summer; Gene had survived the terrible year.

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