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A Separate Peace Essay, Research Paper

John Knowles? novel A Separate Peace, involves a young boys? attempt to understand the world around him and himself. It is an age-old conflict set against a greater one: World War II. Gene Forrester, the narrator of the story, is fighting a war within himself concerning whether to live within the secluded and safe values found in a peaceful prep school or to move out of this security and into the confusion of the adult world. At the same time, he is waging a war against the domination of his best friend?s approach to life. The novel chronicles Gene?s fluctuations between accepting and rejecting the various aspects of these two worlds. A Separate Peace is an intensive inquiry into the nature of war. It is, first and foremost, a war novel, but because the action takes place far from the battlefield, it is a very unusual war novel.

One of the reasons John Knowles is such an exceptional author is that he does not waste anytime introducing the theme of war within the opening chapter. Of his first novel, Knowles once wrote:

If anything as I wrote tempted me to insert artificial complexities, I ignored it. If anything appeared which look suspiciously like a symbol, I left it on its own. I thought that if I wrote truly and deeply enough about certain specific people in a certain place at a particular time having certain specific experiences, then the result would be relevant for many other kinds of people and places and times and experiences. (Carey p.5)

Knowles wants the reader to realize from the start that there is an actual war taking place at Devon. This is the war among the boys themselves. To also remind the reader that America is at war when the story takes place, the very first paragraph suggests that in 1942 the school was not as shiny as it now is because at that time there was a war going on. The reader also learns that the summer session at Devon has been designed as part of the national war effort; classes must keep going all the time because students may be sent off to war at any moment.

Although the boys view pictures of the real war, they cannot really understand what it is like. A perfect example of such an individual is Phineas. He is Gene?s roommate, closest friend, and best athlete in the school. Phineas wants desperately to be a part of that real war. He explains to one of the teachers at Devon , Mr. Patch-Withers that, “When you come right down to it the school is involved in everything that happens in the war, it?s all the same war and the same world, and I think Devon ought to be included.” (Knowles p.20) The fact, is however, that Devon is not a part of the real war. However, Knowles wants the reader to understand that for the boys at Devon, the war outside is the focus of curiosity; they know it exists but they do not understand it.

The reader first sees the competitive aspects of war as Gene summarizes the suspected enmity between himself and Finny. He/she sees the almost insane way in which Gene talks to himself. His comments suggest an attitude toward life and friends suddenly damaged by the reality of wartime conditions. It is important to recall Finny?s argument that there can be no friendships and alliances in war. Gene begins to believe that, “we were even after all, even in enmity. The dead rivalry was on both sides after all.” (Knowles p.46) The wartime psychology, the effects of leaping from the tree, of blitzball (a game developed by Finny), and the general atmosphere at Devon all converge to shatter emotions of trust and sincerity. It is easy under these circumstances for Gene to convince himself that Finny is his enemy, that Finny has consciously sought to undermine Gene?s opportunities to excel in his studies.

Finny?s theory that there is no war has more been designed as a defense for himself. The truth is that Finny would like to go to war, to be a great soldier, to win in war as he has always done in sports at Devon. But now, on crutches because of an unsuccessful jump into the river, Finny cannot go to war and his feelings are simply that if he cannot be in the war, no one else can. The only way to prevent the other boys from participating in the war is to nullify it. Gene cannot be a part of something which does not exist. Thus, Finny?s explanation of the nonexistence of war is created as a large curtain beneath which he can hide. Finny has no fear of war, but instead a jealousy that others will be to fight while he cannot.

As the novel unfolds, the reader is watching the boys growing older and approaching the war. The enlistment of Leper (a fellow classmate) delivers the message; the war is real and the boys at Devon will soon participate in it. Leper himself is viewed as one of the two war casualties, Finny being the other. Dr. Stanpole views Finny?s death as an accident, a horrible things which happens when the country is at war. He asks when talking to Gene, “Why did it have to happen to you boys so soon, here at Devon?” (Knowles p.185) He makes it perfectly clear that Finny?s death has been caused by the effects of war on life at Devon. Indirectly it remains true that the war killed Finny.

The book is a war novel from start to finish and the last chapter underlines this. The final section adds nothing to the significance already given to the book through Finny?s death;

instead, Knowles ties together loose ends and presents certain philosophical statements which further the reader?s understanding of the book. One of the things the novelist seems to be saying is that the “enemy” Gene killed and loved is the one every man must kill, his own youth, the innocence that burns too hot to be endured. (Macmillian p.98) Gene Forrester closes the novel by saying, “If I ever attacked at all; I was indeed the enemy.” (Knowles p.196) Finny was able to cope with life, to sift the good from the mixture of good and bad, and he alone died. The horrible irony is that the person most fit for existence is finally denied it.


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