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A Separate Peace

by John Knowles

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Why does Knowles discuss the war as Gene experienced it, leaving the narrative at Devon?

Quick answer:

Think of Knowles as composing a book in two parts: the first half is concerned with the war, and the second half is concerned with Gene's life.

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Gene inserts a very brief explanation of his war experience at the beginning of chapter ten. His quick, telescoped time in the army came near the war's end. His war experience was cut short by the dropping of the atom bomb on Japan—this makes it a contrast to Leper's earlier...

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experience. Gene inserts his own as a study in contrast. But he also inserts it, as he says, to provide continuity: his visit to Leper feels like the first in what is a war continuum that transcends whether or not he was at Devon. As he states:

journeys through unknown parts of America became my chief war memory, and I think of the first of them as this nighttime trip to Leper’s.

Chapter 10 also offers a backdrop to the end of the novel, when Gene again briefly discusses his role in World War II. He says he never killed anyone and felt no hatred toward the enemy because he had fought his war at Devon and killed his enemy there.

it is worth noting that Knowles, writing in 1959, is addressing an audience (the males, in any case), who were of his generation and could be counted to understand the war experience he describes. Therefore, he could cover it in quick strokes, almost in a shorthand.

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In the beginning of chapter 10, Gene pauses in the story to discuss his own experience as a soldier in the war. His experience wasn't anything dramatic or horrific, so a brief explanation will suffice since Leper's and Finny's experiences with World War II seem to overshadow his by importance (at least to him).

Chapter 10 is a good place to insert his own experience as a soldier because he is about to visit Leper who had just been discharged for a mental breakdown that he had at basic training. Gene, of course, didn't know this before he visited Leper; but, the authorial intrusion (by adult Gene) at this point puts the whole scene with Leper into perspective for the reader to compare together (or what is called juxtaposition). More importantly, though, it is structurally sound to insert Gene's soldiering experience here before the climax of the story which centers around "the truth" about last summer and then Finny's experience and death. It would seem that Gene ends the novel with Finny as an homage to his friend, rather than end it with his "boring" war experience.

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Why does the author leave the narrative at Devon at this point and discuss the war as Gene later experienced it?

Remember that your are only allowed to ask ONE question - five seems to be taking it somewhat to an extreme, so I will focus on your first question, which refers to the last page of the novel where the action shifts from the younger Gene to the older Gene looking back at himself and reflecting on what he learned from the experience. 

To answer this question you need to focus on the specific narrative style that is used in the story. It is called first person retrospective narration, which means it is an older narrator looking back at his or her younger self. This is a very specialised form of narration used in other novels such as Great Expectations and Jane Eyre. What is interesting about it is that we as readers need to remember that alongside the youthful narrator explaining what is happening to him or her, we have the older, maturer narrator who also comments on the action, sometimes with disapproval.

What is fitting about this narrative departure at the end of this novel is that it reflects what Gene has learned from his experience and re-states the theme of the novel. Note how the older Gene does not share in the other boys' disillusionment, because he is able to reflect more deeply on what has happened. The older Gene reflects that the war is something far deeper and intrinsically a part of the human condition. The older Gene suggests that war emerges from a kind of ignorance deep within the human heart. It is this condition of ignorance that causes people to seek out an enemy and envision the world as a dangerous, hostile environment. The novel ends with the older Gene questioning the logic and worth of such an approach:

All of them, all except Phineas, constructed at infinite cost to themselves these Maginot Lines against this enemy they thought they saw across the frontier, this enemy who never attacked that way - if he ever attacked at all; if he was indeed the enemy.

Thus the end of the novel marks a narrative departure to give us this maturer ruminations - which would be unrealistic for the younger Gene to present.

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