John Knowles

Start Your Free Trial

Download John Knowles Study Guide

Subscribe Now

John Knowles Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

All John Knowles’s novels deal with one major theme: that of men finding themselves, without destroying too much of themselves, and eventually coming to discover the ability to love. The author uses surroundings and issues that touched his own life at one time or another. Several works are set at the Devon School, a boys’ preparatory school, much like the school Knowles attended in his youth. Other novels, such as Indian Summer, A Stolen Past, and The Paragon, are set at Yale, Knowles’s alma mater.

A Separate Peace

Known as Knowles’s greatest work, A Separate Peace is considered a classic and has become widely read in American schools. It has sold millions of copies. Unfortunately, none of the author’s later works acquired critical acclaim equaling that of his first work. Many critics consider this novel to be a perfect piece of writing, one of precision and craftsmanship. A Separate Peace was derived from Knowles’s own schoolboy experiences at Phillips Exeter and is a traditional coming-of-age story. The title is taken from writer Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929), and the work itself has been compared to J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951).

The setting for A Separate Peace is the Devon School, a boys’ private school in New Hampshire. Devon educates its students to become soldiers for World War II. The novel is set in the year 1942, and patriotism is at an all-time high. Gene Forrester arrives at Devon believing that there he will develop his manhood and his moral identity. His roommate, Phineas, known as Finny to his friends, is a bright, athletic boy who seems to conquer any obstacle that is placed before him. The boys develop a close friendship, but surrounding it is an atmosphere of jealousy and mixed emotions.

Readers experience the story through the eyes of Gene, the narrator. He is the intellectual, while Phineas is the natural athlete destined for greatness. At the beginning of the novel, the boys are considered insignificant by the older students preparing for the war. The two still have time to live and gather lessons learned by others before them. Finny is a master of high jinks who enjoys continually testing the system. Not liking to play alone, Finny draws Gene into his world. Finny does everything with grace and style, while Gene, trying to keep up, flounders in his fear. Finny subjects Gene to all sorts of physical tests, even inventing a new game with Gene as the target. Although the mischief is fun at first, Gene begins to believe that Finny is trying to reduce the academic competition and corrupt Gene’s chances to become valedictorian. In an impulsive move, Gene causes Finny to fall out of a tree, and the fall injures him severely enough to end Finny’s hopes of an athletic career. Living with his guilt is difficult for Gene: Eventually this leads to a half-confession, which Finny refuses to believe.

Rumors fly through the school; accusations are spoken. Fortunately for Gene, another boy has caused a stir by suffering a mental breakdown while at war and deserting back to Devon. However, this story diverts the students’ young minds only for a while, that is, until Finny returns to school. With his entrance back to Devon, Finny is confronted by others about his accident. Some of the boys decide to have their own mock trial, with Gene as the defendant. As questions and accusations are batted about the room, Finny becomes upset by some of the questions asked but not answered. He storms out of the room, only to fall down the steps leading outside. Injured again, he is rushed to the infirmary, but this time he does not survive his injury.

Many critics have touted this novel as a great exploration of early manhood and the competition that goes with it, the battle of the athlete versus the scholar. Critic Jay L. Halio wrote that “the prevailing attitude seems to be that before man can be redeemed back into social life, he must first come to terms with himself.” Gene coming to peace within...

(The entire section is 1,771 words.)