is central to the novel; the novel is spawned by a visit back to Gene's old school, and the work hinges upon a dialogue between the past and the present, and the relation of a man to his much younger self. Gene confesses that he is still stuck in the time of World War II; his memory still has a tremendous hold on him, as evidenced by his ability to recall the goings on of fifteen years' past with such detail. The presence of memory, and its role over time, is a major theme of this book; when Gene reiterates his thoughts on the past and on the lasting impact of the events he is describing, he only increases the importance of this theme within the novel.
Gene often shows how memory can be tinged by feelings that change how reality is perceived and recalled. This is especially evident when he looks for a tree by the river that has a special meaning to him. "It had loomed in my memory as a huge lone spike dominating the riverbank, forbidding as an artillery piece, high as a beanstalk," he says, his similes characterizing the tree as a great, forbidding mass (5). Yet, when he sees it, he finds it "absolutely smaller, shrunken with age," and nothing like the great giant he had remembered. Perhaps the tree had actually shrunk since Gene's time; but this is a more apt example how things can be obscured or emphasized in the memory via emotional factors, and a good introduction of the theme of memory versus reality. Gene remembers his old campus in one way, yet when he visits, he finds it quite different; this happens often, as things can seem less imposing or important when revisited, yet be so huge in one's memory.
Gene and Finny are a great example of this theme in action; Gene is naturally a rule-abiding person, and Finny has an absolute disregard for rules. This difference is also represented in the differences between the summer session and the fall session. Finny himself embodies both of those, as he is able to fit in well enough at school, yet hold his own very eccentric opinions.
Gene tells of how they were children of "careless peace," set apart from adults by their lack of knowledge of the war, and their utter abandon to their own small, happy worlds. Lackadaisical activities of the happy, peace-enveloped juniors are juxtaposed with the semi-military drills that the seniors have to endure. Just as the war encroaches upon the boys at school, their adulthood also looms before them; Gene feels this especially, and this is one of the things that traumatizes Leperbeing suddenly thrown into the world of adulthood. Throughout the novel, Gene notes the difference between his state 15 years after Devon, and his state while at the school; he notices differences between the way he is and the way he was, and how age has changed him all in all.
Both Gene and Finny experience a great deal of denial in the novel, but of different types. Gene tries his best to deny that he hurt Finny, and that he has a dark streak in his nature that causes him to lash out at innocent people. Gene is a "savage underneath," as Leper tells him, and he never is able, not even 15 years later, to come to terms with this. Finny's denial is of his best friend causing his accident; he doesn't want it to be true, so he ignores it until Brinker's trial makes sure he cannot deny it anymore. Finny also denies the existence of the war as long as he can, and tries his best to use denial to construct his own kind of fantasy-world.
These two haunt Gene especially; he feels a great deal of sorrow for what he did to Finny, yet he cannot face down his sense of responsibility and get rid of his guilt. Gene is not a bad personhe does have a conscience, and does feel remorsebut he cannot face the part of himself that is guilty of the accident.
Gene and Finny, however close they are, are very different and in many ways, complementary beings. Gene is academic, Finny is athletic; Gene is a hard worker, Finny is not; Gene follows the rules, and Finny breaks them; Gene heeds authority figures, Finny does his best to ignore them. The pair get along very well, but they seem to have little in common aside from their differences. The differences in their natures and in their reactions to Finny's accident and to the war show them as foils, as their differences, taken together, make a vivid portrait of two very different people.
Things change a great deal over time, as Gene knows; as he has changed and grown up, the school has changed entirely for him, and cannot regain the old glory it had once. Gene mentions Finny falling from the tree as being the event that marked old Devon's death; Finny's accident now becomes a symbol of the changing of the guard, the starting point from which time has passed, marking the beginning of Gene's adulthood and disillusionment. Even from the summer session to the fall, so much has changed; and the boys are unable to regain the sense of peace and security that they had over the summer. Once past, things cannot be regained; youth, peace, and innocence are transitory, as the passing of time overwhelms them and makes them unrecoverable.
Throughout Gene's schooling, war threatens to break in and destroy the fragile peace of the school. The summer session represents the height of peace, as nothing, except for Finny's accident, was able to interrupt the carefree joy of those days. But, as the fall session begins, war slowly begins to encroach on the boys; they start their "physical hardening" at the school, recruitment officers start to come around, and the boys begin to talk about enlistment and the draft. The divide between peace and war is also representative of the gap between childhood and adulthood; while peace holds out, the boys are free to be oblivious of the outside world, and are weighed down by nothing. But, when they are finally confronted by the war, they have to grow up; the strain changes them from children into adults, and obliterates the peace of their youth.
This book is made up of "Gene's" recollections, meaning that the content, events, and characters are all filtered through his individual point of view.
This theme is especially notable in Gene's characterizations of himself, and of Finny. Gene tries to present himself as a rule-abiding, nice kind of person; however, as we see from the events in the book, he is sometimes spiteful, jealous, and has quite a temper when he is stirred up. Gene is not a totally good person, as no one who intentionally injures his best friend and then tries to cover up the truth would be. However, Gene would be hard pressed to admit this, and tries to avoid the subject of his "savage" underpinning. Gene also represents Finny as a happy-go-lucky sort who has been through few problems and has no inner struggles. Even after Finny's accident, Gene insists that Finny has never been conflictedafter Finny has tried so hard to avoid implicating his friend despite his anger and bitterness. Finny is far more complex, as we find out at the end, than Gene would like to believe him to be; and as Gene finds out, what is on the surface sometimes does not denote what is hidden underneath.
Many of the boys in the bookincluding Leper, Gene, and Finnyare forced to change when they come upon some sort of crisis situation, or some test of their characters. Under the duress of having entered the military, Leper loses his quiet innocence and becomes confused and angry. Finny's happiness and peace are shattered by Gene's hurtful actions against him, and Gene becomes a better, more forgiving person because of his friend's injuries and early death. As Gene says, all of the boys at the school will change when they discover some oppressive, overwhelming force in the world; change is inevitable, as the boys in the book discover for themselves.
This book opens with Gene Forrester’s return to Devon school after World War II to revisit the place where he believes he fought his war. He remembers his last year at Devon, when he became friends with his roommate, Finny.
While Gene is thoughtful and unsure of himself, Finny is filled with confidence. This confidence is based on a physical prowess which makes him the best athlete in the school. While Gene is capable of earning the top grades in his class, Finny is the undisputed class leader. Finny’s constant invention of pranks and games and his insistence on fun and good fellowship remind the boys, who have many kinds of trouble on their minds, that the joy of living should be valued above all things.
Gene comes to feel that there is a secret rivalry between him and Finny, he even suspects that Finny’s midnight larks are part of a plot to prevent him from getting the best grades. When he realizes that he is mistaken and that he has projected his own insecurity onto Finny, he is unable to accept this fact. Suddenly presented with a chance to hurt Finny, he causes an “accident” which results in a crippling compound fracture for Finney.
Most of the novel deals with Gene’s attempts to come to terms with his act. Finny does not suspect Gene, so Gene must deal with himself in moral isolation. Though Gene tries to confess, Finny will not listen to him. Only when their classmates hold a mock trial, do Finny and Gene face what Gene has done. Perhaps as a result of the trial, Finny rebreaks his leg and dies in the resulting operation. Before the operation, in a secret visit to Finny’s hospital room, Gene learns how much he has hurt Finny and how truly innocent Finny has always been.
Though often discussed as a novel for young people, A SEPARATE PEACE is rich enough to interest adult readers. Gene’s discovery that the real enemy is not across the ocean but in his own soul is convincing and moving.
Bell, Hallman B. A Separate Peace. Boston: Twayne, 1990. A collection of critical essays that give an excellent overall view of Knowles’s novel. Includes a useful bibliography.
Flum, Hanoch, and Harriet Porton. “Relational Processes and Identity Formation in Adolescence: The Example of A Separate Peace.” Genetic, Social, and General Monographs 121 (November, 1995): 369-390. The authors view the process of identity formation through the lens of the story of an adolescent boy’s experiences during World War II at a boarding school in New Hampshire. Using the events of the book as examples of the necessary connections that are essential to the process of development, the authors explore male adolescent growth.