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A Separate Peace

by John Knowles

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What role does resilience play in A Separate Peace by John Knowles?

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Resiliency means that someone can bounce back to their original state of being after experiencing a traumatic event. The three boys who experience traumatic events are Gene, Phineas, and Leper. Gene suffers emotionally; Phineas suffers physically; and Leper suffers psychologically. The question throughout the book is will each boy bounce back from his own traumatic event. This question is difficult because after suffering such trauma, usually a person learns from the event and can come out of it better than before; or, he becomes bitter and never learns anything, thereby suffering for the rest of his life. 

First there's Gene. Gene suffers emotionally because he causes his best friend to break his leg after jouncing him out of a very tall tree. Gene feels guilty for what he has done, but he also feels loss because Phineas cannot come back to school right away after the summer session. Gene had taken his best friend and roommate for granted that summer of 1942, but by the fall, he was feeling lost and alone with his buddy. Gene even gets in a fight with Quackenbush because he's not in the mood to take any guff and he explains those feelings as follows:

". . . it wasn't the words he said which angered me. It was only that he was so ignorant, that he knew nothing of the gypsy summer, nothing of the loss I was fighting to endure, of the skylarks, and splashes and petal bearing breezes, he had not seen Leper's snails or the Charter of the Super Suicide Society; he shared nothing, knew nothing, felt nothing as Phineas had done" (79).

The above passage shows Gene missing Finny, the summer, and even Leper of all people! In order for Gene to be resilient, he must bounce back from these feelings and move on. But the only way he can move on is after the Phineas accepts his apology.

Next, there's Phineas. He is the epitome of athletic greatness. Of all his classmates, he was looking forward to graduation and being able to enter the war so he could use his skills on the battlefield. Once his leg is broken, the doctor says he can never play sports again which takes him out of the war essentially. Phineas seems to decline after the accident because he goes into full denial that the war even exists. Gene worries that Phineas has gone crazy until his leg breaks a second time. It is only after the second break that Phineas admits he was pretending that there wasn't a war in an effort to comfort himself about not being able to fight it:

"Why do you think I kept saying there wasn't any war all winter? I was going to keep on saying it until two seconds after I got a letter from . . . someplace saying 'Yes, you can enlist with us'" (190).

The above passage shows Finny finally bouncing back from his state of denial and accepting his physical fate. It takes the second break to make him realize that he must go on with life in a different way, but at least he's admitting the truth now, which is a good step forward. And it is at this point that Gene and Finny are finally able to resolve what happened in the tree that day Finny first broke his leg. Phineas finally accepts the truth and forgives Gene, which frees Gene to bounce back and lead a normal life as well.

Finally, there's Leper. He actually goes to the war and suffers his trauma there. He can't stand being with people all day, every day. He can't handle the physical and mental fatigue, so he goes AWOL (absence without leave) and heads home. Leper can only be resilient if his military record, which brands him as looney, doesn't haunt him for the rest of his life. Brinker says the following about Leper:

"Leper'll be alright. There's nothing like a discharge. Two years after the war's over people will think a Section Eight means a berth on the Pullman car" (197).

So it would seem that even though it feels as if Leper could suffer for the rest of his life, he will probably bounce back just fine, too. Hence, resiliency plays a big part of A Separate Peace because the resolution of the story depends on the characters bouncing back after traumatic events, which they do for the most part. It's just too bad that Phineas dies due to complications with his leg surgery; but at least he died having resolved his issues with himself and his best friend.

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