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A Separate Peace

A Separate Peace

by John Knowles

Memory and the Past Theme

In A Separate Peace, memory is unreliable. It forgets certain events, changes others, misinterprets the truth and presents it as fact anyway. But memory also illuminates, because it…forgets certain events, changes others, and presents skewed reality as fact. The same problems with memory are also its assets, because it tells us what's important, what's not, and a whole truckload of info about whoever's doing the recollecting. Memory illuminates, even through the facts it leaves out.

Questions About Memory and the Past

  1. Does the narrator still feel guilty about his actions as a sixteen-year-old boy, or has he made his peace with what happened at Devon?
  2. The narrator says that everyone has a piece of the past that they use to define reality, and that his is the war. How does this color the way we read his narrative? Why is it that this piece of his life is what has stuck with him?
  3. At the end of the novel, Gene says that he lives in Finny's created atmosphere. From his narrative, do you get a sense that this is true? In what way is this relic from the past (his feelings about Phineas) defining his character at the present?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

That the narrative is told to us in retrospect inhibits our ability to understand Gene and Finny's relationship. The unreliability of memory means that we can't trust any of the tale.

That the narrative is told in retrospect provides us a greater understanding of Gene and Finny's relationship, since we benefit from the narrator's commentary and insight.

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