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A Separate Peace

by John Knowles

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A Separate Peace Themes

The main themes in A Separate Peace are internal conflict, guilt and innocence, and war.

  • Internal Conflict: Gene is torn between seeing Finny as a rival or friend. However, his conflict is not truly with Finny, but with himself.

  • Guilt and Innocence: Whereas Finny's injuries and pacifism strand him in a state of perpetual innocence, Gene must face the darker parts of himself and come to terms with his guilt.

  • War: War pervades the lives of all of the characters, even those too young to actually fight. For Gene and Finny's generation, military service is not just an option: it is a guarantee.

Themes and Meanings

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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 ignores it, for as long as he can), Hadley (who approaches everything logically and reasonably), and Leper (whose romanticism fails to prepare him for the violence of enlistment and military service).

Once Forrester’s psychological battle with himself is over—it ends with Finny’s death—these themes are quickly dropped in A Separate Peace. Readers do not find out what happens to the secondary characters, nor does Knowles reveal what Forrester did during his military service. Forrester reveals that he did not do any fighting during the war, but that is all he has to say about it, and Knowles does not provide any information on Forrester’s life after the war, either. The basic theme of A Separate Peace concerns Forrester’s reconciliation with himself—the peace he establishes “separate” from the war—but the price he pays is a severe one since Forrester is far from being a happy or fulfilled individual at the novel’s end. The other themes of the novel— involving the other main characters and also the basic contrast between Forrester (as a Southerner) and Finny (as a typical Bostonian)—simply vanish at the novel’s end.


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Guilt and Innocence
In John Knowles's novel that chronicles the coming-of-age of two prep-school friends, one character—Finny—loses much of his trustfulness and innocence, while the other—Gene—progresses toward self-knowledge and maturity. That A Separate Peace takes place in the first half of the 1940s explains so many references to war. In this novel, however, the real struggle is fought in the hearts of the characters, not on the battlefield.

After Gene causes Finny's crippling fall, everything that follows, as Knowles has written, is "one long abject confession, a mea culpa, a tale of crime—if a crime has been committed—and of no punishment. It is a story of growth through tragedy." While Gene does eventually reconcile to his transgression against Finny, the process takes many years. Gene obtains some peace of mind through his final encounter with Finny, in which he shows both humility and understanding of Finny's pacifist nature. But it is only as a thirty-something adult revisiting his former school that Gene has accumulated the wisdom and maturity to fully understand the significance of what happened in his adolescence. In reconciling with his guilty conscience, Gene does more than understand the dark side of human nature. He also absorbs the best of Finny's code of behavior, "a way of sizing up the world with erratic and entirely personal reservations." While Gene will never again possess the innocence he recalls from the summer of 1942, as James M. Mellard writes in Studies in Short Fiction, "if he and the others fall short of Finny's standard, as they must, they will still gain from having reached for it."

Finny's development in the latter half of the novel can be seen in terms of loss of innocence. Since he is now physically incapacitated, unlikely to ever regain his athletic powers, his carefree ways are also gone. Although he superficially denies the existence of World War II, he secretly goes to great lengths to enlist. However, since no army will accept him due to his accident, Finny loses much of his self-confidence. He increasingly lives vicariously through Gene, coming to perceive Gene as "an extension of himself," but he always knows on some level that Gene deliberately caused his accident. Although Dr. Stanpole gives a medical explanation for Finny's death, the event can also be seen symbolically. As Douglas Alley in an English Journal article writes of Finny, "For him, there could be no growing up. A loss of innocence could only result in death."

On one level, A Separate Peace can be read as a war novel. Its title is taken from Ernest Hemingway's novel A Farewell to Arms, in which the book's protagonist, Lt. Frederic Henry, declares his own private armistice during World War I. However, unlike Hemingway's novel, Knowles's book does not concern soldiers on the battlefield; rather, it focuses on the impact of war on the lives of male adolescents, none of whom have yet engaged in combat. Despite their lack of direct involvement in World War II, boys who were not quite of draft age were often preoccupied by the American war effort.

The idea of avoiding military service in World War II was unthinkable to most young men; the questions were when they would be called to serve and which branch of the military would accept them. As Gene Forrester in the late 1950s reflects on the impact of World War II for him, "The war was and is reality for me. I still instinctively live and think in its atmosphere."

As Gene recalls, the American war effort had enormous domestic implications on his generation. For example, since nearly all of the Devon School's younger faculty were away serving in the military or in war-related jobs, substitute teachers—usually men between the ages of fifty and seventy—were brought into the school. Given the great age differences between the students and their new teachers, the former did not usually see the latter as accessible role models. Hence, the bonds between the
students intensified. Yet, the new faculty members were not unkind; as Gene recalls, "I think we reminded them of what peace was like, we boys of sixteen. We registered with no draft board, we had taken no physical examinations We were carefree and wild, and I suppose we could be thought of as a sign of the life the war was being fought to preserve. Anyway, they were more indulgent toward us than at any other time."

The American war effort impacted everyday life in more general ways. For example, as Gene recalls, "Nylon, meat, gasoline, and steel are rare. There are too many jobs and not enough workers. Money is very easy to earn but rather hard to spend, because there isn't very much to buy."

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Chapter Summaries