Study Guide

A Separate Peace Analysis

By John Knowles

  • Tone

    Contemplative, Introspective, "Loaded," as they say

    Because the narrative is told in retrospect by an older and (maybe) wiser Gene, A Separate Peace is infused with a sense of reflection. Anecdotes are interspersed with long, contemplative musings on war, youth, the past. At times, the tone can feel just a little heavy-handed, but we'll be less judgmental and call it "loaded," as in loaded with lots of symbolic meaning. For example: "Isn't the bone supposed to be stronger when it grows together over a place where it's been broken once?" (11.15). Also known as "Let me talk about our friendship in thinly veiled metaphorical language." You get the idea.

  • Genre

    Coming-of-Age, War Drama (sort of)

    Generally, any book dealing with a bunch of teenagers is going to be a coming-of-age story. More directly, A Separate Peace deals with much of the angst that goes with, well, being sixteen. All those identity crises, all that jealousy and hero-worship – it's classic young people stuff. As far as War Drama goes, this isn't exactly a classic war drama; there are no actual war scenes in this novel. But A Separate Peace does depend on the conflicts and emotions of war, and this drama carries the story to its conclusion.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The phrase "separate peace" is a military term, and it's a bit complicated. If one nation has an alliance with another nation, it can refuse to fight that other nation's enemy by forming a separate peace. In other words, your best friend Betsy is at war with that pain-in-the-butt chick from shop class, Chelsea. As Betsy's friend, you're supposed to fight her battles with her, but you form a "separate peace" with Chelsea so that you can remain a bruise-free spectator. You're still allied with your friend Betsy, but you're out of the fray.

    Now check out the one mention of this phrase in the novel, at the end of Chapter Nine: "It wasn't the cider which made me surpass myself, it was 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." These lines offer us a second meaning, and this one with less military jargon. Just take the term literally – a separate peace. A peace that is separate from the rest of the world, isolated somehow, protected. Sound like Devon? Like youth? Exactly. The rest of the world is at war, but Gene and the other boys at Devon have achieved a peace outside of that war, a peace that is separate from it.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    At the end of the novel, Gene concludes that what made Phineas different was his lack of resentment, lack of fear. Everyone, he claims, identifies an enemy in the world and pits themselves against it. Everyone that is, except for Phineas. Great, but the guy's dead. So it doesn't look like his viewpoint did him much good in the world, does it?

    Let's backtrack a moment to Gene's final conversation with Finny, in the Infirmary before his surgery. Gene tells Finny that he wouldn't be any good in the war. He's too kind, too playful, too naïve to genuinely fight any real enemy. To Finny, it would just be sport, and sports are always good, and everyone always wins. But Gene isn't just talking about the war. (They never are, in this novel.) He's talking about the adult world from which the boys at Devon are isolated and which they will all need to enter, eventually. Finny isn't just ill-equipped for the war, he's ill-equipped for reality.

    In a way, then, Phineas needed to die for the story to reach its logical conclusion. Men like Finny don't exist in the world; they can't, because they're simply too good for it. Few relationships at Devon aren't based on rivalry, Gene tells us, which is why he's so disturbed when Finny removes himself from competition. Finny, with his fantasies and naiveté, is on a higher, separate plane from the rest of us. Either he will be corrupted by the world, or destroyed by it, and in this novel, it's the latter.

    So, back to that ending. Gene's explanation of Finny as an exception to the rest of us is expected; but that last line of the novel isn't. Gene turns the tables, switches his focus from the exception to the norm, which he questions: "...if he was indeed the enemy." Maybe, he ventures, Phineas's outlook was the better one. Maybe enemies are fictional, enmity a mere self-infliction. Either way, the adult Gene is still questioning and trying to learn, which is an optimistic response to his Chapter One hope that he would someday achieve growth and harmony.

  • Setting

    The fictional Devon school in rural New Hampshire, 1942-3

    The setting of A Separate Peace – both time and place – are integral to the story and its meaning. As you'll read, well, everywhere in this guide, the backdrop of World War II establishes a series of parallels with the daily lives of the boys at Devon. "War" is both a military and personal term. (Gene fights a war against his own jealousy and fear, he identifies Finny as the enemy, and the boys all struggle against their personal demons.)

    As far as place is concerned, Devon is presented as an almost Edenic paradise. (Edenic = Eden-like. Get used to it, you'll see this word a lot in literary criticism.) The trees, the animals, the peaceful, lazy rivers – you get the picture. Notice how the war slowly creeps into the academy, starting with recruiters and ending with troops in Chapter Thirteen? Devon's initial isolation from the rest of the world is as important as its peaceful atmosphere. The boys are physically sequestered from adults and from war, but this barrier is an impermanent one.

  • Writing Style

    Indulgent, Heavily Descriptive

    Knowles doesn't really hold back with the lyrical descriptive paragraphs. The upside is, we get these gorgeous, lasting images depicting Devon and its students. Like this one:

    …Phineas in exaltation, balancing on one foot on the prow of a canoe like a river god, his raised arms invoking the air to support him, face transfigured, body a complex set of balances and compensations, each muscle aligned in perfection with all the others to maintain this supreme fantasy of achievement, his skin glowing from immersions, his whole body hanging between river and sky as though he had transcended gravity and might be gently pushing upward with his foot… (6.12)

    Passages like this one create an almost dream-like atmosphere – fitting, since we're in someone's memory here.

  • Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

    Sports, Games, and the War

    A Separate Peace spends a lot of time talking about the war, and as much time talking about sports. At first these seem like completely different things. Sport is, as Finny sees it, "purely good," whereas war is destructive and, as Gene says, caused by "something ignorant in the human heart."

    Of course, the kicker is that, at least for the boys at Devon, the war holds strange parallels to sport. Their eagerness to enlist suggests a misguided understanding of warfare as the ultimate game. Phineas, the master of all sports, is devastated to discover he can't be part of the fun. Of course, the novel argues that war is purely evil, as opposed to purely good fun and games.

    Once you start looking, you see the idea of sport cropping up all over the place at Devon, from Finny's purely innocent Blitzball to the rivalry Gene establishes between himself and Finny – a rivalry that proves itself to be deadly. As peace deserts Devon, as the boys move from their youth to adulthood, sports are perverted from their once "purely good" form and take on warlike traits. No better example exists than Leper's obsession with skiing. Once a solitary and reflective afternoon activity, skiing is taken over and made into an instrument of war. There's also the idea of the Olympics; Finny tries to use sport to compensate for not being able to participate in war. And don't forget the tree incident itself – a devastating, warlike perversion of what was once purely good, tree-jumping sport.

    Finny's Broken Leg

    OK, read this exchange between Phineas and Gene:

    "Isn't the bone supposed to be stronger when it grows together over a place where it's been broken once?"

    "Yes, I think it is."

    "I think so too. In fact I think I can feel it getting stronger" (11.15-7).

    As you might have guessed, they're not just talking about the bone. They're talking about their friendship. The ever-optimistic Phineas believes that, having suffered a break in their relationship (betrayal, suspicion, confession), the boys have patched things up (forgiveness) and their friendship is now stronger than ever. This is…dubious, to say the least. Finny's leg is much weaker now than it was before, as demonstrated in a few chapters by fall #2. So we have to ask whether the same is true of their friendship, if it, too, is weakened by the break. What do you think?

    The Winter Carnival

    OK, by now you've probably heard us talk on and on about the two sessions at Devon, Summer and Winter, and how they represent, respectively, youth/innocence/peace/rebellion and rules/authority/war/adulthood. If this is true, then even the name "Winter Carnival" is in itself oxymoronic (contradictory). How can you have a carnival of games during the somber, rule-driven Winter Session? Phineas, that's how. When Finny, the spirit of the Summer Session, returns to Devon in the Winter, crippled, he is pitted against the rules and authority of this rather serious time. Of course, Finny has no enemies, so he doesn't see it that way. "I love the winter," he says, and adds that it loves him back. The carnival is, then, a victory for Phineas, proof that the "atmosphere" he "creates" can prevail in a time of war. At least, this WOULD be the conclusion, had the Winter Carnival not ended with the arrival of a telegram from Leper, having been driven mad by the war, the very event that will pull Phineas out of his world of fantasy and back into wartime reality.

  • Narrator Point of View

    First Person (Central Narrator)

    Gene Forrester tells his own story in retrospect while visiting Devon as an adult. This leads to a truckload of point-of-view confusions. As the narrative progresses, we can never be certain which emotions belong to the sixteen-year-old Gene, and which represent the views of the narrator. It also brings us into the realm of unreliability. We don't know if the narrator lying, or even if, after all these years, he's even capable of telling the truth. With the emotional complexity of the events he's describing, it's very possible that Gene, even as an adult, still doesn't fully understand what he was feeling in 1942-3. He could be confused, repressing, or even outright lying. It's messy stuff, this first-person business.

  • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis:

    Anticipation Stage and "Call"

    Narrator Gene's return to Devon

    This is where we first become aware of the monster – or monsters, as the case has it here. We're talking the war (World War II), wars in general, personal wars, hate, jealousy, and fear. Narrator Gene expresses a desire to overcome the fear he once felt at Devon, we can tell that's what the narrative of his youth will explore.

    Dream Stage

    The Summer Session

    The peaceful, youthful bliss of the summer session constitutes the dream stage. We're aware of the aforementioned "monsters," but when Gene tackles Finny and they "struggle in equality," or when the boys bike joyfully to the beach together, those monsters seem farther away than ever.

    Frustration Stage

    The competition heats up.

    It all begins when Gene begins actively competing with Finny. When he fails his test after their return from the beach, he consciously alters their relationship from one of friendship to one of enmity. Matters escalate when he realizes that, not only is Finny a more charismatic, athletic, and likable boy, he's also a better person: he doesn't feel any resentment towards Gene.

    Nightmare Stage

    The Winter Session

    Finny's two falls form the bookends for the nightmare stage. How appropriate. In between is all the desolation of the Winter session, including Leper's enlistment and subsequent madness, Brinker's railing on Gene and his fall from the grace of academic leadership roles to the part of rebel, and Finny's relegation to cripple status.

    The Thrilling Escape From Death, and Death of the Monster

    All that chit-chat in Chapter Thirteen

    As Gene so eloquently explains in the final chapter of A Separate Peace, everyone feels enmity toward someone or something else. There will always be war, even if those wars are personal rather than military. There is an "ignorance" in the "human heart" that fuels the "monsters" of this novel. And this is true for everyone – except Phineas. Finny may have failed the "thrilling escape from death" bit, but it is he who broke free from the monster(s).

  • Plot Analysis

    Initial Situation

    Everything is peachy keen in the Summer Session of 1942

    Oh sure, there's a world war on and all, but it doesn't seem to be affecting these boys too much. If there's going to be a conflict, it's going to have to be internal, something inside the ideal world that Gene has painted for us as a starting point.


    Gene harbors feelings of fear and resentment toward his best friend and roommate

    This conflict rears its ugly head on the beach, when Gene refuses to return Finny's oh-so-cute "you're my best pal" confession, but we catch glimpses of its ears even earlier in the text. When Gene wants Finny to get in trouble for wearing the tie as a belt, for example, we know that something is up.


    Finny is a good guy

    This epiphany only provokes Gene into further jealousy and fear. Not only is Phineas a better athlete and world-class troublemaker, but he's also a bigger person than Gene. This is more than a sixteen-year-old with dubious self-awareness can take.


    Finny's fall

    We've been building towards some large-scale manifestation of Gene's animosity for a while now. And Knowles certainly delivers. This is not only the climax of the plot, but also the most emotional and psychologically scrutinized moment of the text. Everyone will be talking about it for the next year and 150 pages, we swear.


    Will Gene be found out?

    This stage lasts for a solid chunk of the novel. Gene lives in perpetual fear that someone will find out he caused the accident, that Brinker will make his joking accusations serious, that Finny will know the truth, etc. But there's added suspense since we don't actually know for sure whether Gene intentionally jounced the limb. We're not sure if it was an accident, if it was subconscious, or if it was purposefully malicious. And Gene doesn't seem too sure either.


    Finny falls down the stairs; people stop pestering Gene; Finny dies

    When Finny tells Brinker off and leaves the Assembly Hall, the novel's big suspense scene is over. Finny's fall means that no one's going to be concerned with what happened a year ago, and Finny's death only secures that fact. The last conversation between the boys is the real meat of the denouement, however, since everything comes to light. Finny finally faces what happened in the tree, he admits his true feelings about the war, and Gene gives him a great little speech about the nature of his character and its incompatibility with fighting.


    Chapter Thirteen

    Gene's musings in Chapter Thirteen draw the purse-strings neatly on the novel. He ties together the novel's themes and draws a variety of conclusions concerning Phineas, war, Brinker, and the nature of the universe. Honestly. We promise. Go read your book.

  • Three Act Plot Analysis

    Act I

    Act I takes us through the peaceful Summer session at Devon and ends right about the time Finny declares his best-friendship for Gene and Gene decides to kindly NOT return the favor. At this point, we're pretty much tied to the whole jealousy-fear-resentment plot line.

    Act II

    Act II then follows said jealousy-fear-resentment plotline all the way through Gene's machinations and discovery of Finny as better-than-he. It ends when things are at their worst – when Finny falls from the tree.

    Act III

    The rest of the novel makes up Act III: all the suspicions, guilt, and identity-switcheroos – you know the drill. It ends with Gene reflecting, fifteen years later, on the lessons from his friendship with Finny and those years at Devon, and how they infused his experiences in WWII and beyond.

  • Allusions

    Literature, Philosophy, and Mythology

    Virgil (1.27)
    Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1.48, 4.35), Far from the Maddening Crowd (1.48)
    Lazarus (4.2)
    Voltaire, Candide (4.35)
    Molière (4.35), Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (12.63)
    Homer, the Iliad (9.41)
    Julius Caesar, Commentarii de Bello Gallico (11.70-82, 12.19)

    Historical Figures

    Franklin Delano Roosevelt (3.43, 8.116, 11.24)
    Winston Churchill (3.43, 11.24)
    Josef Stalin (3.43)
    Benito Mussolini (3.43, 7.85)
    General MacArthur (5.42, 8.46)
    The bombing of Pearl Harbor (7.89)
    Elliott Roosevelt (8.47)
    Chiang Kai-shek (8.49)
    Adolf Hitler (9.14, 11.11)
    Charles de Gaulle (9.15)
    Henri Giraud (9.15)