A Separate Peace by John Knowles

A Separate Peace book cover
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At a Glance

  • Competition vs. Admiration: In A Separate Peace, Gene is torn between seeing Finny as his rival and wanting to emulate his carefree spirit.

  • Internal Conflict: The conflict that Gene feels is psychological; he is fighting himself rather than fighting Finny.

  • Loss of Innocence: The changing of the seasons corresponds to the boys’ loss of innocence.

  • Opposing Perspectives: Knowles uses the boys in the story to illustrate different ways of coping with the outside world. 

  • Impact of WWII: The novel reflects the American domestic mood of the Second World War.

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Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

At its most meaningful level, A Separate Peace presents a thoughtfully executed psychological study of its main character, Gene Forrester. Forrester’s sense of himself is an extremely dark and critical one, provoking feelings of insecurity particularly when he is in the company of Finny. Knowles explores the dual directions these feelings take: On one level, Forrester desires to get even (to outperform) Finny, he therefore resents Finny’s superior athletic skills. On another level, Forrester also wishes to be like Finny, to share his carefree, selfless attitudes and actions. In fact, Forrester clearly is most happy when he is at peace with Finny. At the end, however, Forrester’s dark side wins this psychological conflict; the final “peace” that is established between the two occurs after Forrester causes Finny’s fall, from which Finny never recovers. This action, in a psychological sense, eliminates Finny as Forrester’s rival and allows Forrester to feel less anxious about himself.

Yet less anxious does not mean good. At the conclusion of A Separate Peace— when Finny finally asks Forrester why he caused the fall—Forrester replies that he did not do it out of any personal hatred of Finny. Instead, Forrester is fighting himself—out of blindness and ignorance, as he himself admits—and Finny ultimately understands, before he dies, how he has been victimized by Forrester’s own psychological conflict. Essentially, then, Finny is simply an object (albeit a very important object) playing a part in Forrester’s personal battles. The finishing touch to Knowles’s psychological study occurs with Finny’s burial, when Forrester cannot cry because he has the feeling that part of himself is being buried with his friend. Thus, when Forrester eventually enlists and goes off to World War II, he does so without any genuine animosity. He has symbolically killed the enemy inside himself, and so he has no further need to find another person to symbolize his dark interior self.

Knowles’s exploration of how people are controlled by psychological forces which they do not understand far surpasses the war theme that is worked into A Separate Peace . This theme involves Forrester’s attempt to find a way to cope with World War II, a different kind of reality that awaits the Devon School boys after their school year. Different ways of dealing with the exterior world are offered by Finny (who...

(The entire section is 1,387 words.)