A Separate Peace

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A Separate Peace

John Knowles
Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Study

John Knowles


Since it was first published in 1959, John Knowles's novel A Separate Peace has gradually acquired the status of a minor classic. Set in the summer of 1942 at a boys' boarding school in New Hampshire, the novel focuses on the relationship between two roommates and best friends, Gene Forrester and Phineas. Both approaching their last year of high school and anticipating their involvement in World War II, Gene and Phineas have very different dispositions. Gene, from whose point of view A Separate Peace is told, is a somewhat athletic, shy intellectual; Phineas is a reckless non-intellectual and the best athlete at the school. As an adult looking back fifteen years, Gene recalls and comes to terms with an act he committed that left his friend physically incapacitated and ultimately contributed to his death. While daring each other to jump from a tree in a cold river, Gene jounces the limb Phineas is standing on. The latter lands on the bank of river, shattering several bones and terminating his athletic career.

A Separate Peace, which evolved from Knowles's short story "Phineas," brought its author both critical and commercial success. First published in England, it received excellent reviews there. Many critics praised the novel for its rich characterizations, artful symbolism, and effective narrative. Despite its success in England, eleven publishers in the United States turned it down before Macmillan decided to publish the American edition. As in England, the novel received excellent notices in the U.S. press. Many critics noted that the novel could be read as an allegory about the causes of war. Although A Separate Peace did not become an instant best-seller-—only selling seven thousand copies in its first American printing—it has gradually become a commercial success, selling more than nine million copies to date.

Author Biography

John Knowles was born on 16 September 1926, in the coal mining town of Fairmont, West Virginia. He was the third child of James Myron and Mary Beatrice Shea Knowles. At the age of fifteen, Knowles attended New Hampshire's prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy. The Devon School, where most of the action of A Separate Peace takes place, is based on Phillips Exeter, and many of Knowles' friends and acquaintances at Phillips Exeter were incorporated into the novel. In a New York Times interview, Knowles confirmed that the novel's "Super Suicide Society," in which members jumped from a tree into the river, really did exist at Exeter. Although not rendered permanently physically handicapped like Phineas, Knowles, after an unfortunate leap, spent most of the summer of 1943 on crutches.

After graduation from Exeter, Knowles entered Yale University for the 1944 fall term before going into the U.S. Army Air Force. Following his discharge from the service in November 1945, he reentered Yale. As a college student, Knowles submitted stories to the Yale Record, the college humor magazine. In 1949, he graduated with a B.A. in English; from 1950 to 1952, he worked as a drama critic and reporter for the Hartford Courant in Hartford, Connecticut. In the early 1950s, his novel Descent to Proselito was accepted for publication, but Knowles withdrew it on the advice of his mentor, the famous writer Thornton Wilder. In 1953, Story Magazine published his first story, "A Turn in the Sun." In 1956, Cosmopolitan published Knowles's short story "Phineas," which was later expanded into A Separate Peace.

By the middle 1950s, Knowles had become a member of the editorial staff of Holiday and was living in Philadelphia. He was also starting work on the novel that would become his most famous work: A Separate Peace.

In an Esquire article from 1985 entitled "My Separate Peace," Knowles recalled that writing the manuscript for A Separate Peace came quickly and easily for him. Working on a regular schedule, Knowles usually went to bed at midnight, awoke at seven, wrote for an hour, turning out five to six hundred words, then went to his job at Holiday. He believed "No book can have been easier to get down on paper," adding, "… A Separate Peace wrote itself." Getting the book published, however, did not come easily at all. Turning the manuscript over to a literary agent, Knowles saw his book rejected by eleven publishers. Knowles recalled the most common reaction was "Who's going to want to read about a bunch of prep boys and what happened to them long ago in the past?" Finally, in 1959, the London publisher Secker and Warburg agreed to put out the British edition of the novel. After the book opened to almost unanimous praise from English reviewers, Macmillan brought out the American edition in 1960. A Separate Peace did equally well in the United States with the American critics. With the stunning success of the novel, Knowles quit his job at Holiday and was able to devote himself to writing fiction—a luxury that very few American writers had then or have today.

Following A Separate Peace, Knowles went on to publish several other novels, including Morning in Antibes (1962), Indian Summer (1966), The Paragon (1971), Spreading Fires, and A Vein of Riches (1974). In 1981, he published Peace BreaksOut—the sequel to A Separate Peace—which retained the Devon School setting but had a different cast of characters. While Peace Breaks Out did not receive as favorable reviews as A Separate Peace, some critics commended the sequel for solid characterization and tight plotting.

Plot Summary

In John Knowles's A Separate Peace, Gene Forrester returns to visit New Hampshire's Devon School after a fifteen-year absence. He recalls his complex relationship with his roommate and best friend Phineas. His narrative begins during the summer of 1942, when Phineas goads him into jumping off a tree into the Devon River. Phineas—nicknamed Finny—is the best athlete in school, with a charismatic personality that wins over both teachers and students. He lives a life ruled by inspiration and anarchy, following his own set of rules and appearing tireless. Gene has mixed feelings about Phineas: despite his admiration and gratitude for their friendship, he envies Finny's apparent ease and the charm which allows him to break school rules without reproof. Nevertheless, when Phineas suggests they form a secret society, whose membership requires jumping from the tree into the river, Gene agrees.

When Gene fails a test after a clandestine trip to the beach with Phineas, he decides that Finny is trying to jeopardize his studies. One night before another exam, Phineas asks Gene to come to the tree to witness Leper Lepellier make the jump. Gene declines, saying that he needs to study. When Phineas accepts his excuse, Gene realizes his suspicions were unfounded. This makes him feel inferior to Phineas. He stops studying, visits the tree, and agrees to Finny's suggestion of jumping from the tree together. When they're both balanced on its branch, Gene jiggles it and Phineas falls to the ground.

Phineas's leg is shattered, and he recovers in the infirmary and later at home in Boston. He doesn't mention Gene's part in the accident, nor does anyone else. During his absence, Gene tries on Finny's clothes and feels like him, which gives him confidence. Dr. Stanpole tells Gene that Phineas will recover, but will never participate in sports again. Gene visits Finny on his way back to school after his vacation, and is shocked to see him looking like an invalid. He decides to tell Phineas the accident was his fault.

My blood could start to pound if it wanted to; let it. I was going ahead. "I was thinking about you most of the trip up."

"Oh, yeah?" He glanced briefly into my eyes.

"I was thinking about you … and the accident."

"There's loyalty for you. To think about me when you were on a vacation."

"I was thinking about it … about you because—I was thinking about you and the accident because I caused it."

Finny looked steadily at me, his face very handsome and expressionless. "What do you mean, you caused it?" his voice was as steady as his eyes.

My own voice sounded quiet and foreign. "I jounced the limb. I caused it." One more sentence. "I deliberately jounced the limb so you would fall off."

He looked older than I had ever seen him. "Of course you didn't."

"Yes I did. I did!"

"Of course you didn't do it. You damn fool. Sit down, you damn fool."

"Of course I did!"

"I'm going to hit you if you don't sit down."

"Hit me!" I looked at him. "Hit me!" You can't even get up! You can't even come near me!"

Phineas ends their discussion by telling Gene he's tired and Gene leaves, deciding to make things up to Finny once he's back at school.

Phineas telephones Gene at school. Upon learning that Gene doesn't have another roommate, he's reassured that Gene didn't mean what he said about the accident. He refuses to accept Gene's decision to become Assistant Senior Crew manager, commenting: "Listen, pal, if I can't play sports, you're going to play them for me." His words help Gene realize that one of his purposes was to become a part of Phineas. When Brinker Hadley, the head student, heckles Gene about the accident, Gene ignores the teasing although he feels terribly guilty. One afternoon, Brinker and Gene meet Leper, whose nonsensical comments drive Brinker to decide to enlist in the army. Gene is tempted to do the same. He regards enlisting as a way of escaping the past and entering adulthood. Feeling that he owes nothing to anyone, except himself, he returns to his room to find Phineas, who has returned to school.

The next morning, Brinker asks Gene about enlisting with him. Gene realizes that Phineas needs him and changes his mind. Phineas announces his intention to groom Gene for the 1944 Olympics, in which he had intended to participate before the accident. Gene begins tutoring Finny in academics and Finny tutors Gene in athletics. When a teacher declares that the purpose of exercise is to prepare for war, Phineas reminds Gene of his theory that the war is really a conspiracy amongst the world's leaders. He states his theory so convincingly that Gene momentarily believes him. Nevertheless, when Leper enlists after seeing a propaganda film, Gene joins the others in creating an heroic fantasy life for Leper. Brinker drops his enlistment plan after Gene decides not to join him and becomes a quiet rebel, quitting most of the school activities in which he's been involved.

Phineas suggests holding a winter carnival. Once the games begin, he performs a dance of joy on the prize table. Gene becomes the star of Phineas's gala and surpasses himself, feeling liberated during "this afternoon of momentary, illusory, special and separate peace." The festivities end when a cryptic telegram from Leper arrives, saying that he's escaped and needs help. Gene travels to Leper's home in Vermont, where he discovers that Leper has deserted and is suffering mental problems. Leper calls Gene a savage underneath, taunting him for having knocked Phineas out of the tree. Gene returns to school, desperate to see Phineas, and finds him in the middle of a snowball fight. Gene joins in and enjoys the fight's vitality and energy, though he wonders what will happen when they all get drafted. When Brinker asks Gene about Leper, he admits that Leper has cracked up. Brinker observes that two of their classmates—Leper and Phineas—have already been sidelined from the war. Brinker confronts Gene, insisting that they have to stop pitying Phineas so that life can go on. Phineas tells Gene he's changed his mind about the war, because he saw Leper outside the school and believes that the war caused his breakdown.

That night, Brinker takes Gene and Phineas to the Assembly Room for a mock inquiry about Finny's accident. Phineas remembers climbing the tree and falling out, and asks Gene whether he noticed the tree shaking. Gene says he doesn't recall anything like that. Phineas then remembers his suggestion they make a double jump, and that they started to climb. Someone else says Leper was there, and he's brought in. Leper admits that he saw Gene and Phineas on the tree limb, adding that they moved up and down like a piston. When Brinker insists upon getting all the facts, Phineas loses control, rushes from the Assembly Room, and falls down the marble stairs, breaking his leg again.

Dr. Stanpole comments that this break is much simpler. Gene sneaks into Finny's infirmary room, and Phineas accuses him of wanting to break something else in him. Gene flees, but returns to visit Phineas the next day. They talk about Finny's unsuccessful attempts to enlist. Gene observes that Phineas would have been lousy in the war: once bored, he would make friends with the enemy and get things "so scrambled up nobody would know who to fight any more." Finally they confront what happened in the tree. Gene agrees with Finny's analysis that "It was just some kind of blind impulse you had.… It wasn't anything you really felt against me, it wasn't some kind of hate you've felt all along. It wasn't anything personal." When Gene arrives at the infirmary the next day, he's told Phineas is dead: during the operation, some bone marrow escaped into his blood stream and stopped his heart. Dr. Stanpole likens the operating room to the war, where the risks "are just more formal than in other places."

Gene enlists in the Navy, but feels no sense of patriotism. He disagrees with Brinker's notion that the older generation is responsible for the war and with Finny's idea that the war is just a huge practical joke. Instead, he believes war is the result of "something ignorant in the human heart." He can't talk about Phineas because he can't accept the loss of his vitality, and he continues to feel guilty about his death. Gene realizes that he's ready for the war because he no longer feels any hatred. His war "ended before I ever put on a uniform; I was on active duty all my time at school; I killed my enemy there." He believes the real enemy is something he and the others have created out of their own fear.


Chet Douglass

Gene Forrester's rival for the position of class valedictorian. Unlike Gene, Chet has a genuine interest in learning and does not thrive simply on competition.


See Phineas

Gene Forrester

The narrator of A Separate Peace, Gene as an adult recalls himself at sixteen: a lonely intellectual with the tendency of analyzing his and everyone else's motives. At various times in the novel, he is highly competitive, selfish, insecure, and combative. On other occasions, he is courageous, mature, and dependable.

Throughout the novel, Gene compares and contrasts himself with his best friend, Finny, and often falls short in his own estimation. Although Gene is obviously the more scholarly of the two (Gene is academically near the top of his high school class, while Finny seldom achieves more than a "C" in his courses), Finny is the better athlete and more self-confident than his friend. Also troubling to Gene is that Finny openly flouts conventions but never gets punished for his acts. For example, on an occasion when Finny and Gene miss the mandatory school dinner, Finny cheerfully rambles a bizarre explanation to Mr. Prud'homme, the summer substitute teacher. Mr. Prud'homme, more amused than angry, decides not to punish the boys.

Gene observes many other occasions when Finny breaks the rules but never gets his comeuppance, because he has so much charm and self-confidence. He becomes increasingly jealous of Finny, and for a while he assumes Finny reciprocates those feelings. That Gene works systematically and diligently for his academic and athletic success and Finny's athletic achievements seem to come effortlessly to him fuels Gene's rivalry. Worse still for Gene, Finny doesn't even want acknowledgment for his accomplishments. For example, when Finny breaks the school swimming record with virtually no preparation, he insists that Gene—the only witness to the event—not tell anyone. For a while, it seems logical to Gene that Finny, as the school's best athlete, envies Gene his academic success. Ultimately, Finny proves Gene's theory wrong, when he genuinely encourages Gene to pursue his studies rather than join the "Super Suicide Society" one evening. Now Gene realizes that Finny never did envy him and finds this knowledge intolerable. In light of all the above, Gene impulsively jounces the limb Finny is standing on during a Super Suicide Society ritual, causing Finny his crippling accident.

As Ronald Weber writes in an article from Studies in Short Fiction, "It is Phineas's innocence that Gene cannot endure. As long as he can believe Phineas shares his enmity, he can find relief, but with this assurance gone, he stands condemned before himself and must strike out against his tormentor."

Ultimately, Gene matures through his introspection, coming to understand his terrible action against his friend. Shortly before Finny's death, he and Gene fully explore the dynamics of their relationship and the circumstances that caused Finny's accident. When Gene explains "it was just some ignorance inside me, some crazy thing inside me, something blind"—not a personal hatred of Finny or a premeditated action—Finny accepts the apology. As Ronald Weber has written, "Gene Forrester comes to learn that his war, the essential war, is fought on the battlefield within. Peace comes only when he faces up to the fact. The only escape, the price of peace, is self-awareness." James Ellis, in an English Journal article, puts it in similar terms: "Gene has discovered that his private evil, which caused him to hurt Phineas, is the same evil—only magnified—that results in war."

Mr. Hadley

Brinker Hadley's father, a World War I veteran whose patriotism offends both Brinker and Gene.

Brinker Hadley

Described as "the big name on campus," Brinker Hadley's characterization was actually based on the novelist Gore Vidal. In an interview with the Exonion, Knowles remembers Vidal as an "unusual and thriving" person, although he did not know him very well. In his realization of Hadley's slick temperament, Gene appreciates his own maturity. At one time, Gene would have ingratiated himself with someone like Hadley, but after Finny's fall Gene comes to prefer the sincerity of someone like Leper. Brinker Hadley also serves the function of being the character that arranges the mock tribunal to determine whether Gene is innocent or guilty in regard to Finny's fall.

Phil Latham

One of the less impressive authority figures at the Devon School, Phil Latham is the wrestling coach. His advice, "Give it the old college try," seems to pertain to all situations, whether they be sexual, psychological, or academic. He is not really an unsympathetic character, so much as a man without much intelligence or creativity.

Elwin Lepellier

A gentle, nonconformist student at Devon School, "Leper," as he is nicknamed, prefers snails and science projects to sports and competition. Ironically, he is the first student in the novel to enlist in the Army, because a deceptive recruiting film convinced Leper that Army life is a clean, pure experience. Soon after his induction into the Army, Leper realizes that he cannot adapt to the Spartan environment, and goes AWOL (absent without leave) in order to avoid being discharged as psychologically unfit for service. When Gene Forrester visits Leper in his Vermont home, the latter has been badly shaken by his Army experiences. Leper, aware of Gene's contempt for him, strikes back, calling him "a savage underneath." Leper also reveals that he knows Gene knocked Finny out of the tree earlier in the summer. Gene, realizing some truth to the "savage underneath" remark, physically strikes the frail Leper but does not hurt him badly.

While generally a pitiable character, Leper has a streak of pride. For example, at the tribunal scene, in which several Devon School students attempt to discover whether Gene really did cause Finny's traumatic fall, Leper will not reveal the extent of what he knows. Up until this point, most Devon School students have either ignored or ridiculed him, so he announces, "Why should I tell! Just because it happens to suit you!"


See Elwin Lepellier

Media Adaptations

  • A Separate Peace was adapted as a film directed by Larry Peerce, starring John Heyl and Parker Stevenson, Paramount Pictures, 1972, available from Paramount Home Video, Home Vision Cinema. Although generally faithful to the novel, the film of the same name received mostly poor reviews. Typical was movie critic Leonard Maltin's opinion that the "story is morbid, acting incredibly amateurish, and direction has no feeling at all for the period."

Mr. Ludsbery

One of the permanent teachers at the Devon School, Mr. Ludsbery represents the worst stereotype of a schoolmaster: phony, a stickler for rules, and given to fatuous remarks such as "Has it been raining in your part of town?" When he reproaches Gene for "[slipping] in any number of ways since last year," Gene is reminded of his friend Finny and does not care about anything else the teacher says.

Mr. Patch-Withers

A stern history teacher at the Devon School, he and his wife give a tea party for the students. There, he shows a gender side by not punishing Finny for flagrantly violating the dress code.

Mrs. Patch-Withers

The wife of the history teacher at the Devon School, she is appalled to see Finny wear his official school tie as a belt to her party.


One of the two central characters in the novel. Phineas, also known as Finny, is Devon School's best athlete and a handsome, self-confident teenager. Despite or because of these qualities, he is also arguably the most innocent of all the characters in A Separate Peace. For example, just before he and Gene fall asleep on the beach one night, Finny honestly declares that Gene is his "best pal." Somewhat taken aback, Gene cannot return the compliment and reflects "It was a courageous thing to say. Exposing a sincere emotion nakedly like that at the Devon School was the next thing to suicide." Finny is naive in other ways as well. When Gene complains about not having enough time to study, Finny is genuinely puzzled. "I didn't know you needed to study," he said simply. "I didn't think you ever did. I thought it came to you." Since Finny excels at sports with a minimum of effort—Gene witnesses his breaking the school swimming record with no preparation—he does not understand that Gene works diligently to be at the top of his class scholastically.

In Hallman Bell Bryant's A Separate Peace: The War Within, the author compares Finny to many literary or historical figures. For example, he brings to mind Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn; just as Huck could not accept the Old Testament story of Moses because he did not have any "stock" in dead folks, Finny doubts the authenticity of the Latin language because it is a "dead language." Many critics have compared Finny to J. D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye for both characters' unpretentiousness, honesty, and anti-establishment attitudes. However, other critics dissent; for example, Granville Hicks wrote in a Saturday Review article that Finny's spontaneity and unconventionality were not, like Holden's, a form of protest against authority; they were an inherent part of his nature. At one point in A Separate Peace, Gene compares the sleeping Finny to Lazarus.

After Gene causes Finny his crippling fall, Finny loses some of his innocence. Ironically, however, because of his physical disability, he becomes increasingly dependent on Gene; in fact, he even comes to see Gene as an "extension of himself," while always suspecting that Gene caused his accident. Dr. Stanpole medically explains Finny's unexpected death in these terms: "As I was moving the bone some of the marrow must have … gone directly to his heart and stopped it." Symbolically, of course, Finny's death can be interpreted otherwise; although he forgave Gene on some level, Finny's heartbreak still lingered.

Given the distance of time and the impact of maturity, the adult Gene realizes Finny's principal virtue is his lack of malice. As James Ellis puts it, "Because of his ability to admit only as much of the ugliness of life as he could assimilate, Phineas was unique."

Mr. Prud'homme

A substitute teacher at the Devon School for the summer. Given that he is not entirely familiar with the rules, he is not so strict in enforcing them.

Cliff Quackenbush

The opposite of Finny in nearly every respect, he is also Gene's nemesis. The crew manager at the Devon School, Quackenbush is a colorless, humorless character, someone who never seems to have been a child emotionally. Openly scornful of Gene for becoming assistant crew manager, Quackenbush calls him to his face "a maimed son-of-a-bitch," and a fight between them ensues. Although Quackenbush never realizes it, the insult heightens Gene's guilt and confusion over causing Finny's accident. He also touches a nerve when he sarcastically asks Gene "Who the hell are you anyway?" because introverted Gene often seems uncertain as to why he acts as he does.

Dr. Stanpole

One of the more sympathetic adults in the novel, Dr. Stanpole is a well-meaning character who speaks with a vocabulary too sophisticated for the students at Devon School. To what extent his skill as a doctor is responsible for Finny's death remains uncertain.


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."

Topics for Further Study

  • Explore the reasons for the American involvement in World War II. Compare the American degree of popular support to that of such other wars as World War I, the Vietnam War, and the Korean War.
  • Compare and contrast three significant fictional works about World War II. Some possibilities include James Jones's novel From Here to Eternity, Norman Mailer's novel The Naked and the Dead, and Arthur Miller's play All My Sons.
  • Discuss the economic impact of World War II on the United States and on Europe.

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."


Point of View

Told in first person ("I") by Gene Forrester, a man in his thirties recalling his adolescence, A Separate Peace begins with Gene's visit to the Devon School. The first pages of the novel mainly describe the physical landscape of the institution; the rest tells Gene's story, a tale in which he serves as both an observer and a participant at the center of the action. As Ronald Weber notes, "Generally, first-person narration gives the reader a heightened sense of immediacy, a sense of close involvement with the life of the novel.… With Knowles' s novel, however, this is not the case … throughout it he remains somewhat outside the action and detached from the narrator, observing the life of the novel rather than submerged in it." This is not intended as a criticism, however. As Weber explains, Knowles's choice of narration is "a highly-calculated effect.… It indicates a sharply different thematic intention, and one that is rooted in a skillful alteration of the conventional method of first-person telling."

It is important to remember that Gene, through the distance of time—specifically fifteen years—has arrived at a level of self-knowledge that few teenagers could achieve. Had Knowles limited the perspective to the highly introspective, but still adolescent Gene, A Separate Peace would have been told in a very different tone. As Ronald Weber writes, "Gene's voice … is dispassionate, reflective, and controlled; it is, in his own words, a voice from which fury is gone, dried up at its source long before the telling begins."


Most of the action of the novel is confined to the Devon School, the prep school based on Phillips Exeter. An exception is found in Chapter 10, in which Gene visits his friend Leper in his family's Vermont home. When Gene revisits the Devon School, he is particularly interested in confronting two fearful places on campus. The first is the First Academy Building, a Georgian-style red-brick structure, in which a group of Devon students brought Gene to accuse him of causing the accident that crippled Finny's life. On the stairs of the First Academy Building, another misfortune occurred which ultimately ended Finny's life. The second place of significance is the tree from which Gene and Finny leaped in their "Super Suicide Society" escapades. While the adult Gene recalls the tree as an enormous, forbidding structure, when he actually rediscovers it, the tree appears much smaller and similar to all the other trees in the vicinity.

In terms of time, A Separate Peace skips back and forth between the early 1940s and the late 1950s. Again, this time difference creates a retrospective which allows the narrator Gene to relate the events with more depth and analysis.


A Separate Peace is a book full of symbolism. One pair of symbols can be found in two rivers that flow through the school: the Devon and the Naguamsett. Gene remembers the freshwater Devon River fondly, for this was the body of water that he and Finny had leaped into many times from the tree. Ironically, after Finny's accident, Gene does not remember the Devon River with fear or disgust; the river to him symbolizes the carefree summer days, a peaceful time. On the other hand, the Naguamsett River ("governed by imaginable factors like the Gulf Stream, the Polar Ice Cap, and the moon") is an ugly, marshy, saline river into which Gene falls after a fight with quarrelsome Cliff Quackenbush. If the Devon River represents serenity, Gene associates the Naguamsett with war and winter.

Another obvious pair of symbols is in the contrast between the war being fought abroad and the relative tranquility of the Devon School, particularly in its summer session. To Gene "the war was and is reality," yet by completing his final year at the Devon School he is literally avoiding military service. Still, he and his classmates realize it is only a matter of time before they enlist or are drafted. So, if the war represents a harsh reality that schoolboys like Gene must eventually confront, then Gene and Finny's "gypsy" summer spent at the Devon School denotes illusion. In the only summer session in the school's long history, the students defy many rules, still maintain the faculty's goodwill, create new games such as "Blitzball," and begin unheard-of clubs such as the "Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session." The summer is a period of escape for Devon School's students. As Gene observes, "Bombs in Central Europe were completely unreal to us here, not because we couldn't imagine it … but because our place here was too fair for us to accept something like that." Still, Gene realizes that the "gypsy" summer spirit will not last indefinitely; "official class leaders and politicians" will replace the "idiosyncratic, leaderless band" of the summer. To recapture the carefree summer spirit, Gene and Finny have a "Winter Carnival" in which "there was going to be no government," and "on this day even the schoolboy egotism of Devon was conjured away."


An epiphany is a sudden flash of perception into the nature of a thing or event. In his most provocative insight into human nature, Gene realizes toward the conclusion of A Separate Peace "that wars were not made by generations and their special stupidities, but that wars were made instead by something ignorant in the human heart." As James Ellis writes, "Gene has discovered that his private evil, which caused him to hurt Phineas, is the same evil—only magnified—that results in war."

Historical Context

American Feelings about War

Although first published in 1959 in England, A Separate Peace is about an earlier period, specifically the early 1940s when United States had declared its involvement in World War II. It must be remembered that World War II brought out enormous patriotism in most Americans, whether they were actually working in war-related jobs, engaged in combat, or neither. While intelligent adolescents such as Gene Forrester and Hadley Brinker in ASeparate Peace might have mixed feelings about being drafted or enlisting in the war, shirking responsibility (in other words, draft dodging) was virtually unthinkable. Elwin "Leper" Lepellier, a major character in Knowles's novel, enlists in the war and does go AWOL (absent without leave). However, although he is often a sincere, sympathetic character, he does not ultimately emerge a hero.

It is also worth remembering that when A Separate Peace was first published in the United States in 1960, the Korean War had been over for about seven years, and American involvement in the War in Vietnam had not yet escalated to horrific proportions. There was little protest over compulsory enrollment in the military—the draft—or the U.S.'s role in Vietnam in the early 1960s. As U.S. involvement and troop movement escalated after 1965, however, public support for the war dimninished and many young antiwar protesters responded by burning their draft notices. Thus, while numerous critics submitted scholarly articles on Knowles's novel throughout the 1960s, by the end of the decade, the book was being considered in light of the devastation that the Vietnam War had wrought. Interestingly, left-wing and conservative critics praised A Separate Peace in different ways. The former found its antiwar sentiments appropriate and timely, particularly in light of what they perceived as the threat of atomic warfare. Yet right-wing reviewers also liked the book, often commending its treatment of original sin and redemption.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1940s: In the middle of World War II, the United States had compulsory draft registration for young men, most of whom expected to eventually enlist in the military.

    Early 1960s: While the United States still had compulsory draft registration for young men, only a few were being called up for military duty in Vietnam.

    Today: Reinstated in the early 1980s after a brief dismissal in the 1970s, draft registration is still required for young men in America, although there is little chance of being called up into a military that is currently all-volunteer.

  • 1940s: America declared its involvement in World War II, and had troops in Europe and the Pacific.

    Early 1960s: Although America had sent some troops to Vietnam, their commitment to the war effort was insignificant at the time compared to the escalation after 1965.

    Today: The United States of America is not involved in any major war effort, and relies on all-volunteer armed forces.

  • 1940s: The path to success for young men from upper-class white families often led from the best prep school to an Ivy League university.

    Early 1960s: University enrollment soared as the baby boom generation reached college age. Many government programs existed to help more young people from middle-class and impoverished backgrounds attain a college education.

    Today: College graduates still have higher average salaries than people with less education. With government financing for higher education on the decline, universities find themselves competing for the enrollment dollars of a decreasing college-age population.

Education and Adolescence in the 1960s

Many of the young people of the 1960s grew up in a different atmosphere from the youth of the 1990s. After the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, education was beginning to be emphasized as important not only to individual success but to the success of the nation. Not only were new teaching methods and standards being put into place, but the federal government began taking a greater role in funding and setting policy for education. College enrollment soared, as young people saw higher education as providing a chance to get ahead in life. Nevertheless, there were many problems with the educational system. Segregation persisted in many areas and opportunities were limited for women. The all-white, male prep school of A Separate Peace was still thriving in 1960. It was seen as a student's best chance to get into the best private universities, so pressure to succeed could be great.

The culture of the young also came of age in the 1960s. When the first American edition of the novel appeared in 1960, the United States had its youngest elected president, John F. Kennedy, who at the age of forty-three had defeated Vice President Richard M. Nixon by a margin of only 113,000 votes out of more than 69 million cast. The children of the "Baby Boom"—the large population surge that began after World War 11—were adolescents. As the decade progressed and the Baby Boomers reached college, they became an increasingly vocal part of American politics and culture. Brought up in prosperity and peace, these children questioned the morality and authority of their parents' generation and pursued individual fulfillment. Their search for meaning and identity is reflected in Gene's narrative of his own adolescent years.

Critical Overview

John Knowles's A Separate Peace, a critical success from its first printing, has evolved into one of the most frequently read novels in American high schools today. In fact, in the words of its author, it has captured a "destiny apart" from his own. Although Knowles has published many other novels, essays, and works of nonfiction, none has received the critical attention or praise of A Separate Peace. While that novel no longer commands the massive scholarly attention that it did throughout the 1960s, according to Hallman Bell Bryant, it has gone through at least seventy printings and earns Knowles somewhere between $30,000 and $40,000 a year in royalties.

Right from the start, A Separate Peace received extremely favorable notices. Since it was first published by Secker and Warburg in London, England, the British reviewers were the first to write what they liked about the book. The most significant of these pieces appeared in the Times Literary Supplement section on 1 May 1959. This review congratulated Knowles for having written a "novel of altogether exceptional power and distinction." Other English critics praised A Separate Peace, many of them saying it was the best American novel since J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, which had been published in 1953. In her Manchester Guardian review, Ann Duchene enjoyed the "tenderness and restraint" that Knowles expressed for his two major characters, Gene and Finny.

After the favorable English reception, the publishing firm of Macmillan bought the rights to the novel and issued the first American edition in February, 1960. Among the earliest reviews, Edmund Fuller wrote in the New York Times that Knowles was a writer "already skilled in craft and discerning in his perceptions." He went on to say the World War II background was more central to the action of the novel than the Devon School setting, which he realized was based on Exeter. Although Fuller found several incidents in the book to be unconvincing, he thought the novel's "major truths" more than compensated for this shortcoming. Among the few negative reviews of A Separate Peace, a Commonweal critic shrugged it off as "one more foray into the territory of guilt earned in adolescence." While most other American critics found the book a compelling achievement, several reserved criticism for the trial scene in which several Devon students attempt to ascertain the extent of Gene Forrester's involvement in Finny's accident. Fifteen years later, after A Separate Peace had been made into a movie of the same name, Linda Heinz of Literature Film Quarterly wrote that she found the mock tribunal in both the book and the movie unconvincing.

Despite A Separate Peace's immediate critical acclaim, it did not become a best-seller, nor did any book clubs immediately select it for inclusion. However, its sales picked up considerably after it won the William Faulkner Foundation Award, as well as the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award. John K. Crabbe, writing for the English Journal in 1963, recommended high school teachers of American literature consider Knowles's novel as an alternative to J. D. Salinger's popular Catcher in the Rye. Many teachers were relieved to do so, having had some apprehensions about the profanity in Catcher. James Ellis, also writing for the English Journal, called William Golding's Lord of the Flies and A Separate Peace major finds for the high school classroom. By the middle 1960s, many English teachers had made A Separate Peace a part of their curriculum.

By the early 1970s, the barrage of articles analyzing the novel had subsided. However, even in the late 1970s—almost twenty years after the book had been published—some critique and analysis persisted. For example, in George-Michael Sarotte's book Like a Brother, Like a Lover, published in 1978, the author speculates that Gene may have homoerotic feelings for Finny. As late as 1992, the English Journal was still extolling the virtues of A Separate Peace in the article "Still Good Reading: Adolescent Novels Written Before 1967."


Anne Hiebert Alton

Alton is a member of an honorary research association at the University of Sydney, Australia. In the following essay, she places A Separate Peace within three distinct literary traditions and examines the novel's strengths and weaknesses.

John Knowles based his first novel, A Separate Peace (1959), on two short stories, entitled "Phineas" and "A Turn in the Sun." An immediate success, it won the William Faulkner Foundation Award, the Rosenthal Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and an award from the Independent School Education Board. Adapted into both a stage play and a film, the novel has been praised for its "clear craftsmanship and careful handling of form" by Jay Halio in Studies in Short Fiction. It has also been hailed for its exceptional power and distinction. In addition to exploring the pathos of a complicated friendship, the novel provides insights into the human psyche and the heart of man.

A Separate Peace emulates three major literary traditions. First, it focuses on the fall of man, something central in such works as the Bible's Book of Genesis, Paradise Lost, and Lord of the Flies. The novel can be read as Gene's movement from innocence to experience, as he progresses from his ignorance of humanity's tendency towards thoughtless yet harmful actions to recognizing his own potential for such acts. More significantly, the novel chronicles Phineas' progression from his initial belief in the world's benevolence and in his own integrity—defined by a rigid set of rules such as winning at sports, never lying about one's height, saying prayers just in case God exists, and never blaming a friend without cause—to his final realization of Gene's role in the accident.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger's famous novel about Holden Caulfield's troubled adolescence and the phoniness he detects in adults, is in many ways as relevant today as when it was published in 1953.
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1920 novel This Side of Paradise is the story of how wealthy, young Amory Blaine struggles for self-knowledge in his provincial world.
  • John Knowles's novel Peace Breaks Out is the sequel to A Separate Peace. Published in 1981, Peace Breaks Out features the same setting as A Separate Peace but includes a different cast of characters.
  • Mary Gordon's 1991 collection Good Boys and Dead Girls contains twenty-eight of her essays on such writers as Virginia Woolf, Mary McCarthy, David Plante, and Edith Wharton.
  • The Portable Malcolm Cowley, edited by Donald W. Faulkner. Published in 1990, the volume contains many of Malcolm Cowley's perceptive reflections on American writers and writing.

Second, the novel is a bildungsroman, a German term meaning "novel of formation." This tradition includes such literary masterpieces as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, David Copperfield, and Little Women. The bildungsroman focuses on the development of the protagonist's mind and character from childhood to adulthood, charting the crises which lead to maturation and recognition of one's identity and place in the world. A Separate Peace follows Gene Forrester's progress through the formative years of his adolescence, and specifically his relationship with Phineas. Gene—short for Eugene—is Greek for "well-born." While Gene is from a Southern family affluent enough to send him to prep school, his identity isn't as secure as his name suggests: before the accident, he implies the posters on his wall of a large Southern estate represent his home. Initially Gene emulates Phineas: he joins him in climbing the tree and jumping into the river, being late for dinner, and taking a forbidden trip to the beach. Later, he wants to become Phineas, as when he tries on his clothes and feels confident "that I would never stumble through the confusions of my own character again." Phineas, too, feels their connection: after the accident, he informs Gene that he must become an athlete in Finny's stead. Later, Gene realizes that his "aid alone had never seemed to him in the category of help .… Phineas had thought of me as an extension of himself." However, as Gene matures he starts to develop his own identity. He recognizes his attraction to deadly things and, more significantly, he writes a narrative about his relationship with Phineas revealing the flaws in his own character which led to Phineas's death.

Third, A Separate Peace is a boys' school story, a tradition which includes such books as Tom Brown's Schooldays, Stalky and Co, Goodbye Mr. Chips, and even Dead Poets Society. It is set in what John Rowe Townsend in Written for Children refers to as the "hothouse environment" of boarding school, a self-contained world with an aura of privilege based on class and money. Typically, such a school is a place for education and growth. Here it also represents the last place of freedom and safety for the boys, guarding their last days of childhood and standing as "the tame fringe of the last and greatest wilderness," adulthood. Moreover, it functions as a microcosm of the real world, dealing with issues of leadership, discipline, rivalry, and friendship. The novel diverges from this tradition in one respect: while pre-World War I school stories focused on what Townsend maintains were " 'Games to play out, whether earnest or fun'—it was magnificent but it was not war; it had nothing to do with life and death in the trenches," A Separate Peace has everything to do with it. Gene fights his private war at school, and his actions and their effects echo the world's large-scale war. When he leaves Devon School, he feels ready to enter this war, for he no longer has any enmity to contribute. Indeed, Gene comments that he never killed anyone, nor did he develop an intense hatred for the enemy, "Because my war ended before I ever put on a uniform; I was on active duty all my time at school; I killed my enemy there." In the end, Gene realizes that his real enemy is himself and his impulse towards mindless destruction—and he believes he overcame this enemy only after causing Phineas's death.

One of the novel's strengths lies in its structure, and particularly its treatment of time. The narrative is designed as a story within a story, with the outer layer occurring on a dark November day. In contrast, the inner layer follows a progression through the seasons, beginning and ending in June. This cycle implies the notion of life going on despite everything, while the seasons' passing, along with the bleak winter's day at the beginning, suggest time's inevitable passage. The narrative is exceptionally good where time becomes broken into pieces on the day of Phineas' operation and death: Gene's movements at 10:10, 11:00, 11:10, 12:00, 2:30, and 4:45 are like heartbeats, which stop with Phineas's heart.

Another of the novel's strengths is Knowles' remarkable economy of language. The key to many of the minor characters appears in a single phrase: Elwin 'Leper' Lepellier is "the person who was most often and most emphatically taken by surprise," while Brinker Hadley cannot, "for all his self-sufficiency … do much without company." Significant events occur almost as briefly, such as when Gene reads Leper's cryptic telegram and faces "in advance whatever the destruction was. That was what I learned to do that winter." Leper's description of Gene and Phineas on the tree limb is meticulous and evocative: " 'The one holding on to the trunk sank for a second, up and down like a piston, and then the other one sank and fell." The last sentence of the novel, where Gene acknowledges the truth of humanity's inherent evil, is just as precise: "this enemy they thought they saw across the frontier, this enemy who never attacked that way—if he ever attacked at all; if he was indeed the enemy."

Knowles is a master of characterization, which we see best in his creation of Phineas who, as the epitome of careless grace, resembles the figurehead of a ship. Like Beowulf, Tarzan, and Hercules, Phineas has no last name; he is only Phineas. The name, which means "oracle" in Hebrew, has three-fold Biblical significance. Phinehas, son of Aaron, was a judge and priest: Phineas constantly judges Gene, but always with complete integrity, and in the end offers him forgiveness. Phinehas, son of Eli, was a rebellious youth who redeemed himself by protecting the Ark: while Phineas too is rebellious, he redeems himself by embodying the essence of boyhood before the war, in his love of sport for its own sake—he breaks the swimming record simply for the challenge—and in his indefatigability, always displaying "a steady and formidable flow of usable energy." Finally, Phineas the angel was the youngest of the seventy-two angels of the Lord: like these traditional bearers of peace, Phineas is unfit for war because of his fundamental idealism. As Gene comments, once Phineas became bored with the war he'd be making friends with the enemy, chatting, and generally getting things "'so scrambled up nobody would know who to fight any more."' His major role is as catalyst for Gene's developing personality. By presenting Gene with his utter uniqueness, Phineas forces him to grapple with questions of identity and to confront the unrealized depths of his own character.

Despite its many strengths, A Separate Peace contains a few flaws. Its detailed descriptions of setting are rarely well-integrated into the narrative. In addition, many of the minor characters (with the exception of Leper and Brinker) are poorly developed: Mr. Prud'homme appears as a foolish cipher, and the few women in the novel—such as the faculty wives, Leper's mother, or Hazel Brewster, the town belle—are mere stock characters. Furthermore, Knowles' symbolism falls short of its potential. While Gene implies that the tree holds great significance for him as something which is no longer intimidating or unique but to which he is still drawn, he goes no further with his speculations. However, this lack of development was intentional: as Knowles comments in his "The Young Writer's Real Friends," "If anything appeared which looked suspiciously like a symbol, I left it on its own .… I know that if I began with symbols, I would end with nothing; if I began with certain individuals I might end up by creating symbols." Finally, Gene's vantage point from fifteen years later is problematic, for it raises questions about the unreliability of his narrative and creates a disquieting sense of vagueness. We see Phineas only as Gene remembers him, thus Phineas is a construction of Gene's memory. In addition, Gene's refusal to pursue the question of whether or not he's truly changed is disturbing: while he insists he's improved since his days at school, noting his achievements of security and peace after having survived the war and gained worldly success, his tone suggests a lack of conviction. Moreover, though he implies that he's imbued some of Phineas' vitality, this doesn't appear in his narrative, and we're left to wonder whether he's really grown.

Nevertheless, Gene's narrative provides us with one valuable insight into the effects of humanity's unthinking tendencies. After the second accident, Phineas comments to Gene: "'It was just some kind of blind impulse you had in the tree there .… It wasn't anything you really felt against me, it wasn't some kind of hate you've felt all along. It wasn't anything personal."' Here, Knowles makes the point that it's exactly this sort of impulsive and impersonal action which causes war, death, and conflict in the world—and it happens constantly and repeatedly. Gene supports this notion, realizing that "wars were not made by generations and their special stupidities, but that wars were made instead by something ignorant in the human heart." This is what happened between him and Phineas, and what he believes happened to bring the world to war.

The real meaning of A Separate Peace lies in its title. Phineas' imaginary worlds create a peace separate from the world at war, and he invites others—and especially Gene—into this peaceful sphere. As the champion of Phineas' world, Gene delights in "this liberation we had torn from the gray encroachments of 1943, the escape we had concocted, this afternoon of momentary, illusory, special and separate peace." In the end, however, Gene arrives at his real peace—if he indeed does—apart from Phineas. Though he says that Finny's life and death taught him a way of living—"an atmosphere in which I continued now to live, a way of sizing up the world with erratic and entirely personal reservations"—he reaches this atmosphere only after separating himself from Phineas and finding his own identity. This process is ongoing, and entails Gene's acknowledgement that the real enemy is within himself and, indeed, within each of us: we're all liable to corruption from within by our own envy, anger, and fear. In the end, inner peace is achieved only after fighting one's own, private war of growing up. In this sense, the war is symbolic also of the inner struggle from adolescence to maturity.

Source: Anne Hiebert Alton, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1997.

David G. Holborn

In the following excerpt, Holborn describes A Separate Peace as a novel about war, especially within the human heart.

It is hard to imagine a book that has more to say to youth about to enter the conflict-ridden adult world than John Knowles' A Separate Peace. Huck Finn and The Catcher in the Rye come immediately to mind as forbears of this novel of maturation, and if Knowles lacks the range and dramatic intensity of Twain, he at least provides more answers than Salinger to the vexing problems of adolescence.

The novel is set at Devon, a small New England prep school, during the Second World War. The details and atmosphere of such a school are realistically rendered in the dormitories and playing fields, the lawn parties and the truancies. Accuracy of fact and mood makes this an interesting and gripping story. But it is more than just a good story because it has at least two other dimensions. From beginning to end little Devon is impinged upon by the world at war, so much so that the ordinary round of prep school activities takes on a militaristic flavoring. Along with the outward pressures exerted by the war are the internal pressures, particularly in the narrator Gene, which lead to self-discovery and an acceptance of human ideals and human frailties. It is the integration of these three focuses that makes this such an effective and satisfying novel.

The novel opens with the narrator's return to Devon fifteen years after the action of the story he is about to tell. He presents two realistic scenes that later become associated with important events in the story: the First Academy Building, with its unusually hard marble floors that cause the second break in Phineas's leg; and the tree, that real and symbolic tree which is the place of Finny's initial accident and the presentation of lost innocence. These detailed places occasion the narrator's meditation, and suddenly through flashback we are transported to the idyllic summer of 1942. This framework narrative and flashback technique is important because it sets up a vehicle for conveying judgments to the reader about character and action from two perspectives: sometimes we are getting Gene's reaction at the moment and other times we are receiving the retrospective judgment of the mature man.

I mention this narrative technique not merely as a matter of literary style but as an indication of the serious, thoughtful quality of the novel. The author wishes us to see the growth of Gene and at the same time experience an exciting story, not a philosophical or psychological tract. This is deftly accomplished by means of the dual perspective. The following comment on the important motif of fear illustrates the mature man reflecting on the entire experience at Devon:

Preserved along with it, like stale air in an unopened room, was the well-known fear which had surrounded and filled those days, so much of it that I hadn't even known it was there. Because, unfamiliar with the absence of fear and what that was like, I had not been able to identify its presence.

Looking back now across fifteen years, I could see with great clarity the fear I had lived in, which must mean that in the interval I had succeeded in a very important undertaking: I must have made my escape from it.

This statement is more philosophical and judgmental than most later reflective statements, since at this point the story proper has not even begun. But the mature man is heard at intervals throughout the novel, as in this analogy of war to a wave:

So the war swept over like a wave at the seashore, gathering power and size as it bore on us.… I did not stop to think that one wave is inevitably followed by another even larger and more powerful, when the tide is coming in.

Comments such as these encourage the reader to pause in the story and reflect on the significance of events, certainly an important thing to do with any novel but particularly with a novel of maturation.

The story proper begins in the summer of 1942. It is the calm before the storm, the storm of course being the world at war. For these boys—primarily Gene, Finny, and Leper—the war is still a year away. Even the faculty at Devon treat the reduced summer school class with a bemused tolerance. This summertime Devon is like Eden: the sun always seems to shine, the days endlessly filled with games on the playing fields. This Eden also has its tree and, like the original, this is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. At first, however, it is just a tree, something to jump from into the clear cool waters of the Devon River. As idyllic as this summer and this particular game of jumping from the tree are, hints of the impending war keep creeping in. Jumping from the tree becomes a test of courage, a kind of boot camp obstacle. So, taking a cue from war literature, the boys call their jumping group the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session. Always the consummate athlete, Finny jumps first with fluid grace and without apparent fear. Gene is reluctant, but cannot refuse the challenge. The two close buddies cement their friendship in this test. Leper, at least on this first occasion, does not jump. This foreshadows his later inability to cope with the pressures of the war. Already the superficial harmony of the summer is disrupted by this competition which separates the boys according to those who possess the particular skills and temperament necessary in the world of war and those who don't. The scene is a preparation for the key event of the book where Finny breaks his leg, and an early reminder that Eden cannot really exist in this world.

Certainly not all generations have had to face impending world war, but this fact does not lessen the relevance of this book for young readers today. Until recently, the nuclear threat was very much on the minds of our youth. While that threat has been greatly reduced, instant communications have made regional conflicts a part of the average family's daily viewing. Though this vicarious experience is not the same as Gene's and Finny's virtual certainty of going to war, most of today's young readers fear war and have a similar sense of a demon lurking in the woods beyond the playing fields, threatening at any moment to swallow them in their innocent play.

In A Separate Peace, however, Knowles plumbs more deeply than the war on the surface. We get hint after hint, culminating in Gene's and Finny's awareness of what really happened in the tree, that the war is also within, its battles waged in the individual breast and then subsequently between bosom buddies.

Gene and Finny have a special relationship but it is not immune—at least on Gene's part—from the petty jealousies that infect most relationships. In Gene's own words, Finny is "too good to be true." He plays games, like the blitzball he invented, for the sheer joy of exhibiting his remarkable athletic skills. He is a natural. One day he breaks the school swimming record in the hundred yard freestyle, with Gene as the only witness, but has no desire to repeat it in an official meet. The idea of having done it is enough. And because of his affability, he can talk his way out of almost any jam, as he did the day he was caught at the headmaster's lawn party wearing the school tie for a belt. One side of Gene admires Finny for these feats, while another, darker side envies him for his ability to glide through life unscathed. As Gene says about Finny after the party at the headmaster's:

He had gotten away with everything. I felt a sudden stab of disappointment. That was because I just wanted to see some more excitement; that must have been it.

The last statement is a rationalization, and a weak one at that. Knowles lets the rationalization stand without a direct statement of truth from the older man's perspective, but the irony leaves no doubt as to Gene's true feelings. Surely any reader, and particularly the youthful one, can identify with this ambivalent reaction to a friend's success. In the end Gene comes to understand and accept these feelings, and the book as a whole makes the statement that only by becoming conscious of these feelings, and coming to terms with them, can a person grow toward maturity. Refusing to face up to jealousies leads only to tragedies such as the one that occurs in this book.

Gene's envy of Finny comes to a head when he concludes wrongly that Finny is keeping him occupied with games so that his grades will suffer. Gene is the best student in the class and Finny the best athlete, but Gene thinks Finny wants him to jeopardize his supremacy in academics so Finny can shine more brightly. It is at this juncture in the book that the boys go off to the tree for what turns out to be the last meeting of the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session.

The basic facts concerning Finny's fall from the tree that results in his broken leg are revealed in the first narration of the event, but the reader has to wait for the corroborating evidence presented by Leper months later at a mock trial, along with his peculiar emotional and artistic perception of the event. The facts as presented by Gene are that his knees bent and he "jounced the limb." It is impossible to know how much, if any, forethought was involved in the disastrous movement itself. What is clear from the juxtaposition of this event and the commentary that precedes it is that Gene reacts in some recess of his being, not, as we might have expected, to get back at Finny for hampering him in his studies, but out of a sudden awareness that Finny was not jealous of him, was not competing. It goes back to the statement that Finny is too good to be true. This is a particularly keen insight into the human heart; namely, that we often strike out at others not because of the harm they have done us but because their goodness sheds light on our own mistrustfulness.

In the case of Finny, his goodness is of a peculiar kind. He is not good from the faculty's point of view since he does not study very hard and breaks as many of the rules as he can. His is a kind of natural goodness, a harmoniousness with the sun, the earth and its seasons, and his fellow man— so long as his fellow man preserves his imagination and participates in Finny's rituals of celebration. It has justly been said that Finny is not a realistic character, yet he is an interesting one, and something more than a foil for Gene. Most readers have probably had childhood friends with some of the characteristics of Finny; it is in the sum of his part that he deviates from reality.

Finny is a character fated to die, not because of anything he does, or anything anyone does to him—though Gene's action against him is significant—but because of what he is and what the world is. If the idyllic summer could have lasted forever, then Finny could have lived a full life. If winter Olympic games could have taken the place of fighting troops on skis, then Finny's leg might have been made whole again. But the world is at war and the first casualties—Leper and Finny—are those whose beings are antithetical to the disruption that is war. Finny's harmoniousness cannot coexist with the dislocation of war. Gene humorously acknowledges this when he says:

"They'd get you some place at the front and there'd be a lull in the fighting, and the next thing anyone knew you'd be over with the Germans or the Japs, asking if they'd like to field a baseball team against our side. You'd be sitting in one of their command posts, teaching them English. Yes, you'd get confused and borrow one of their uniforms, and you'd lend them one of yours. Sure, that's what would happen. You'd get things so scrambled up nobody would know who to fight anymore. You'd make a mess, a terrible mess, Finny, out of the war."

To Finny, the war was like blitzball, a free-flowing, individualistic game, with no allies and no enemies. To Gene, though he doesn't like to admit it, the war was all too real before he even got to it, so much so that his best friend became his enemy.

Leper, the character third in importance in the book, is the one most directly affected by the war and the one whose testimony at the mock trial seals the truth of the tree incident. Leper returns to Devon after having a nervous breakdown in boot camp. He is the most sensitive of all the boys, a loner and a lover of nature. His testimony not only confirms what actually happened in the tree, but also, through descriptive imagery, places the event in the context of the war. Leper's distracted mind remembers all the concrete details of the scene. Finny and Gene were in the tree and Leper was looking up, with the sun in his eyes, "and the rays of the sun were shooting past them, millions of rays shooting past them like—like golden machine-gun fire." And when the two in the tree moved, "they moved like an engine. The one holding on to the trunk sank for a second, up and down like a piston, and then the other one sank and fell." Leper, who previously saw the world in terms of snails and beaver dams, sees the action in the tree in terms of engines and machine-guns. This is because of what the war has done to him, and more subtly, it is a commentary on how a game in a tree has become a wartime battle. All three boys are pummelled by the machine of war, because, as the book seems to tell us, war is a condition of the human heart and soul.

The ultimate meaning of this book, and its universal message, is in this idea about war being something that is within us. Of the three characters discussed here, the war within is really only dramatized in Gene, but Gene is the representative boy; Leper and especially Finny are exceptions. Gene is our narrator and it is he with whom we identify. The war may flare out at various times and take on form in France or Germany, Korea or Vietnam, but when we look for the causes we should look first within. This concept ties together all the strands of the novel.

But as much as this is a book about war—within and without—it is also a book about peace. The human heart stripped naked to reveal its pride and jealousy, is a cause for sober reflection. But the title, A Separate Peace, encourages the reader to pass with Gene through the sufferings of war to achieve a peace. This peace is based upon understanding and the growth that follows such understanding. Finny achieves one kind of separate peace, the peace of death; it is left to Gene to achieve a separate peace that will allow him to live with himself and others in the adult world, chastened and strengthened by his mistake. His words at the end show us that he has succeeded:

I never killed anybody and I never developed an intense level of hatred for the enemy. Because my war ended before I ever put on a uniform; I was on active duty all my time at school; I killed my enemy there.

This growth in awareness that leads Gene to his separate peace makes the ending of this book an optimistic one. Some readers seem to feel this book is another Lord of the Flies, a novel that depicts human nature when stripped of social institutions as reverting to a frighteningly depraved state. This is not the case in A Separate Peace. Once recognized and accepted the war within is tamed.

Furthermore, Knowles does not describe the weakness within as evil, but rather as a form of ignorance. After the mock trial, Gene tries to tell Finny what it was that caused him to jounce the limb: "It was just some ignorance inside me, some crazy thing inside me, something blind, that's all it was." One chapter later war is described in the same terms by the narrator: "Because it seemed clear that wars were not made by generations and their special stupidities, but that wars were made by something ignorant in the human heart." Most ignorance is not invincible; Gene proves this.

A Separate Peace is a novel that should be read by adolescents and adults alike, and it should be discussed openly. Jealousy, misunderstanding, and fear do indeed breed violence when they are kept within. Or they can be liberated, not once and for all perhaps, but over and over again if they are seen for what they are in the light of day. This is all we know of peace in this world.

Source: David G. Holborn, "A Rationale for Reading John Knowles' A Separate Peace," in Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints, Nicholas J. Karolides, Lee Burress, John M. Kean, eds., The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1993, pp. 456–63.

Marvin E. Mengeling

In the following excerpt, Mengeling examines allusions to classical myth, particularly Greek mythology, in A Separate Peace.

There is an obvious pattern of Greek allusions in A Separate Peace. At one important point Phineas is described as "Greek inspired and Olympian." He is athletic and beautiful, blazing with "sunburned health." He walks before Gene in a "continuous flowing balance" that acknowledges an "unemphatic unity of strength." Though Gene, as any boy his age, is often given to imaginative hyperbole (as we all are when our Gods are involved), there is no doubt that to him and the other boys Phineas is "unique." Behind his "controlled ease" there rests the "strength of five people." And even if he cannot carry a tune as well as he carries other people, Phineas loves all music, for in it, as in the sea and all nature, he seems to sense the basic beat of life, health, and regeneration. His voice carries a musical undertone. It is as naked and sincere as his emotions. Only Phineas has what to Gene is a "shocking self-acceptance." Only Phineas never really lies.

At the beginning of the book Phineas sets the stage for his own special function. On forcing Gene out of the tree for the first time, he says, "I'm good for you that way. You tend to back away otherwise." Phineas knows that Gene must jump from the tree, because in some cryptic fashion which only he seems to understand, they are "getting ready for the war." Among the Devon boys only Phineas knows that they must be conforming in every possible way to what is happening and what is going to happen in the general warfare of life. The first necessary step toward successful confrontation of what is going to happen rests in self-knowledge.

One cold winter morning, after Finny's "accident," Gene is running a large circle around Phineas, being trained, as Phineas puts it, for the 1944 Olympic Games. With his broken leg Phineas knows that the Games are closed to himself; he will have to participate through Gene, who was always as disinterested in sports as Phineas seemed to be in his studies. Gene is huffing, his body and lungs wracked with tiring pains that hit like knife thrusts. "Then," he says, "for no reason at all, I felt magnificent. It was as though my body until that instant had simply been lazy, as though the aches and exhaustion were all imagined, created from nothing in order to keep me from truly exerting myself. Now my body seemed at last, to say, 'Well, if you must have it, here!' and an accession of strength came flooding through me. Buoyed up, I forgot my usual feeling of routine self-pity when working out, I lost myself, oppressed mind along with aching body; all entanglements were shed, I broke into the clear." After finishing the grueling run Gene and his Olympian coach have the following significant and two-leveled conversation:

Phineas: You found your rhythm, didn't you, that third time around. Just as you came into that straight part there.

Gene: Yes, right there.

Phineas: You've been pretty lazy all along, haven't you?

Gene: Yes, I guess I have been.

Phineas: You didn't even know anything about yourself.

Gene: I don't guess I did, in a way.

At one point Gene decides that Phineas' seemingly irrepressible mind (he ignored many of the small rules of behavior at Devon) was not completely unleashed, that he did abide by certain rules of conduct "cast in the form of Commandments." One rule is that you should not lie. Another is that one should always pray because there just might be a God. And there is the idea that is the key to the entire Phineas outlook: that "You always win at sport." To Phineas, sports were the absolute good, the measure of the balanced life. The significance that eludes Gene at this point, as it eludes most people everywhere today, is that everyone can and should win at sports, because in the Greek view of Phineas sports are not so much a competition against others—a matter of pride and winning at any cost—but a competition against oneself, a healthy struggle in which one measures his capacities without ego, fear, or hubris. We easily identify with Gene's total disbelief when Phineas privately shatters a school swimming record but wishes no public recognition. He says, "I just wanted to see if I could do it. Now I know." This is the Olympic Games spirit as it should be and as it perhaps once was. Phineas adds, "when they discovered the circle they created sports." And when they discovered the circle they also created the universal symbol for the whole man.

Using classical myth as a tool for understanding the present is hardly new to literature. James Joyce, for one, demonstrated with genius its relevance to modern life and art. In A Separate Peace, myth is molded and altered when necessary to fit Knowles' dramatic purposes. The episode concerning the Devon Winter Carnival, that special artistic creation of Phineas, not only provides excellent examples of Knowles' mythological method, but is thematically very important as marking the symbolic point of passage for the Olympic spirit—its flame of life—from Phineas to Gene. It is during the carnival scene that Phineas, leg in cast, dances a rapturous and wild bacchanal, his special, and last, "choreography of peace." For the briefest of moments in a drab world's drabbest season Phineas creates a world of Dionysian celebration that infuses Gene with divine enthusiasm. At this point, Knowles chooses to blend the figure of the young Phoebus Apollo (Phineas before the fall) with that of the resurrected Dionysus (Phineas after his fall; who has finally discovered what "suffering" is).

In ancient Greece the Dionysian festival began in the spring of the year with Greek women travelling into the hills to be "reborn" again through mystical union with the God of Wine. They danced, they drank, they leaped in wild frenzy as all restraint melted away. At the center of the ceremony they seized a goat, perhaps a bull, sometimes a man (all believed to be incarnations of Dionysus), and tore the live victim to shreds. A ceremony of pagan communion followed in which the victim's blood was quaffed and the flesh eaten, whereby the communicants thought their souls would be entered and possessed by their resurrected god. Knowles surely bore in mind the festival of Dionysus when erecting his superb carnival scene. In a sense, this invention of Phineas marks his resurrection, for it is the first project in which he has exhibited personal interest since his fall. At last, though briefly, the "old" Phineas seems to have returned somewhat in body and spirit. Amid a scene of mayhem, in which "there was going to be no government, even by whim," the boys circle around Brinker Hadley, throw themselves upon him, and forcibly take his jealously guarded cache of hard cider. They drink, they dance, they throw off the fear and "violence latent in the day," losing themselves completely in the festival of Phineas. Then, with the burning of Homer's book of war, The Iliad, a specialized version of the Olympic Games begins, a somewhat nicer type of "warfare." Soon, from the monarch's chair of black walnut—whose regal legs and arms end in the paws and heads of lions—Phineas rises to full height on the prize table, and at the "hub" of the proceedings begins his wild bacchanal. Gene says that "Under the influence not I know of the hardest cider but of his own inner joy at life for a moment as it should be, as it was meant to be in his nature, Phineas recaptured that magic gift for existing primarily in space, one foot conceding briefly to gravity its rights before spinning him off again into the air. It was his wildest demonstration of himself, of himself in the kind of world he loved; it was his choreography of peace."

Prior to the Carnival, Gene says he had acted simply as a "Chorus" to Phineas, but now the beautiful boy-god, sitting amid the tabled prizes, makes a request of Gene: on a physical level, to qualify for their Olympic Games; on a spiritual level, to qualify for salvation. During the past weeks Gene has made the Phineas outlook and spirit more and more a part of his own, and so infused, he now reacts to the request in the only way possible: "…it wasn't cider which made me in this moment champion of everything he ordered, to run as though I were the abstraction of speed, to walk the half-circle of statues on my hands, to balance on my head on top of the icebox on top of the Prize Table, to jump if he had asked it across the Naguamsett and land crashing in the middle of Quackenbush's boat house, to accept at the end of it amid a clatter of applause—for this day even the schoolboy egotism of Devon was conjured away—a wreath made from the evergreen trees which Phineas placed on my head."

Somehow, Gene has mystically been passed the saving spirit and Code of Phineas. His new growth and knowledge are immediately tested. The Carnival ends prematurely when Gene receives an ominous telegram from Leper Lepellier asking Gene to come to his winter-bound home in Vermont. Gene suspects that the fruits of such an isolated meeting will not be pleasant ones, but he also knows that he must sometimes face certain harsh realities alone, even if only a little at a time. Also, he realizes that he has a chance to endure now, for the influence of Phineas, god of sun, light, and truth, is always with him. As he finally approaches Leper's house he thinks that, like Phineas, "The sun was the blessing of the morning, the one celebrating element, an aesthete with no purpose except to shed radiance. Everything else was sharp and hard, but this Grecian sun (my italics) evoked joy from every angularity and blurred with brightness the stiff face of the countryside. As I walked briskly out the road the wind knifed at my face, but this sun caressed the back of my neck."

Now Gene does not immediately dash away when learning the grim tale of Leper's Section-Eight. The summer before Gene would have run quickly from such unpleasantness back to the maternal and more secure confines of old Devon, but now he needs "too much to know the facts," and though he finally does run away in the "failing sunshine" from the horrible details of Leper's casualty, he has shown strong signs of significant progress. "I had had many new experiences," Gene says, "and I was growing up."

Physically, Phineas dies. The reasons are twofold. All gods must die physically; it is in their nature to be spiritual, and in the case of many, sacrificial. Phineas dies that Gene might live. Second, Phineas must be crushed physically to emphasize that the present world is really no place for the full-blown powers and principles which he represents in his symbolic guise of Phoebus Apollo. Changes in man's psychological makeup do not erupt like some overnight volcano of the sea. Such transition is always painfully slow, necessarily too slow. But perhaps now, in a ruptured world that is heaped with war's unromantic statistics and computerized cruelties, humanity will choose to reemerge from its emotional rubble. Gene always had the brilliance, the IQ, the "brains," but they were untempered by a proper emotional stance. He had envy and he had great fear. He had no balance. Phineas disappears in a physical sense, but his spiritual influence, a portion of his code, will endure in Gene—a tiny spark in the darkness searching for human tinder. The spirit of Apollo has possessed its prophet and will now speak through his mouth. Gene's self has become "Phineas-filled," and to Gene, Phineas was "present in every moment of every day" since he died. First Gene and then perhaps a few others will relearn the road to Greece. "I was ready for the war," Gene says, "now that I no longer had any hatred to contribute to it. My fury was gone, I felt it gone, dried up at the source, withered and lifeless. Phineas had absorbed it and taken it with him, and I was rid of it forever." Even fifteen years later when Gene returns to Devon he approaches the school down a street lined with houses to him reminiscent of "Greek Revival tempes." The cause of wars within and without the individual, that "something ignorant in the human heart," has now been exorcised.

The purgated emotions of negative content had been fear, jealousy, and hate, emotions which result in wars both personal and global. The positive emotions which then must replace them are friendship, loyalty, and love toward all mankind and nature, emotions which result in peace and an appreciation of life and its beauty. Even though Phineas had broken every minor and stuffy Devon regulation, never had a student seemed to love the school more "truly and deeply." Edith Hamilton writes in The Greek Way that "To rejoice in life, to find the world beautiful and delightful to live in, was a mark of the Greek spirit which distinguished it from all that had gone before. It is a vital distinction." So although the world is not yet ready for the apotheosis of some golden Greek Apollo, perhaps it is prepared, after its most recent blood gluts and promises of human extinction, for the first faltering step toward a world full of the Phineas-filled, a step which must necessarily begin with the conquering of a small part of the forest of self—a step toward the far frontiers of ancient Greece.

Source: Marvin E. Mengeling, " A Separate Peace: Meaning and Myth," in English Journal, Vol. 58, No. 9, December, 1969, pp. 1322–29.


Douglas Alley, "Teaching Emerson Through 'A Separate Peace,"' in English Journal, January, 1981, pp. 19-23.

Hallman Bell Bryant, "A Separate Peace": The War Within, Twayne, 1990.

John K. Crabbe, "On the Playing Fields of Devon," in English Journal, Vol. 58, 1969, pp. 519-20.

Anne Duchene, in a review of A Separate Peace in Manchester Guardian, May 1, 1959.

James Ellis, "'A Separate Peace': A Fall From Innocence," in English Journal, May, 1964, pp. 313-18.

Edmund Fuller, "Shadow of Mars," in New York Times Book Review, February 7, 1960.

Linda Heinz, "'A Separate Peace': Filming the War Within," in Literature Film Quarterly, No. 3, 1975, p. 168.

John Knowles, "The Young Writer's Real Friends," The Writer, Vol. 75, July, 1962, pp. 12-14.

John Knowles, "My Separate Peace," in Esquire, March, 1985, pp. 106–9.

James M. Mellard, "Counterpoint and 'Double Vision' in 'A Separate Peace'," in Studies in Short Fiction, No. 4,1966, pp. 127-35.

J. Noffsinger, A. M. Rice, et al. "Still Good Reading: Adolescent Novels Written Before 1967," English Journal, April, 1992, p. 7.

A review of A Separate Peace, in Commonweal, December 9, 1960.

A review of A Separate Peace, in Times Literary Supplement, May 1, 1959.

Ronald Weber, "Narrative Method in 'A Separate Peace'," in Studies in Short Fiction 3, 1965, pp. 63-72.

For Further Study

Hallman Bell Bryant, "Symbolic Names in Knowles's A Separate Peace," in Names, Vol. 34, No. 1, March, 1986, pp. 83-8.

An analysis of some of the character's names in the novel.

Concise Dictionary of Literary Biography Broadening Views, 1968-1988, Gale, 1989, pp. 120-35.

Biographical information on John Knowles and his work. Includes revised typescript from one of Knowles's works.

Jay L. Halio, "John Knowles's Short Novels," Studies in Short Fiction Vol. I, Winter, 1964, pp. 107-09.

A survey of several of Knowles's shorter novels.

Granville Hicks, "The Good Have a Quiet Heroism," in Saturday Review, March 5, 1960, p. 15.

Early review which praises A Separate Peace, and analyzes Finny's character, concluding he is not really a hero.

Isabel Quigly, The Heirs of Tom Brown: The English School Story, Oxford University Press, 1984.

This book-length study looks at the genre of the "school story" and is useful in an analysis of Knowles's novel as it fits into this genre.

Michael-George Sarotte, Like a Brother, Like a Lover, Doubleday, 1978.

In this book-length study of male homosexuality in literature, Sarotte argues that Gene's suppressed homoerotic emotions for Finny are integral to his character.