Study Guide

A Separate Peace Memory and the Past

By John Knowles

Memory and the Past

Chapter 1
Gene Forrester

Everything at Devon slowly changed and slowly harmonized with what had gone before. So it was logical to hope that since the buildings and the Deans and the curriculum could achieve this, I could achieve, perhaps unknowingly already had achieved, this growth and harmony myself (1.13).

This becomes the governing question for all of A Separate Peace – whether or not Gene has achieved growth and harmony. As readers we are meant to reconsider this question again in the reflections of Chapter Thirteen.

I didn't entirely like this glossy new surface, because it made the school look like a museum, and that's exactly what it was to me, and what I did not want it to be. In the deep, tacit way in which feeling becomes stronger than thought, I had always felt that the Devon School came into existence the day I entered it, was vibrantly real while I was a student there, and then blinked out like a candle the day I left (1.2).

Gene has not learned from Finny's death; he's still manipulating reality to serve his purposes.

Unbelievable that there were other trees which looked like it here. It had loomed in my memory as a huge lone spike dominating the riverbank, forbidding as an artillery piece, high as the beanstalk. Yet here was a scattered grove of trees, none of them of any particular grandeur (1.17).

This sets the stage for narrative unreliability. We have to doubt the accuracy of Gene's story, not because he's actively lying, but because memory is flawed and subjective.

Changed, I headed back through the mud. I was drenched; anybody could see it was time to come in out of the rain (1.20).

Check that out – Gene is "changed" simply by having visited the tree, by having returned to Devon at all, maybe even by his telling of his story. The question, then, is…HOW is Gene changed?

Chapter 5
Gene Forrester

The effect of his injury on the masters seemed deeper than after other disasters I remembered there. It was as though they felt it was especially unfair that it should strike one of the sixteen-year-old, one of the few young men who could be free and happy in the summer of 1942 (5.2).

Look at how Gene's memory affects the "facts" of the story. He attributes to the masters his own feelings, that he was fortunate that summer to be free and happy.

Chapter 9
Gene Forrester

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, and separate peace (9.64).

The "peace" that Gene repeatedly identifies at Devon is only obtained by escaping from the current times – by escaping from war.

Chapter 13
Gene Forrester

There is no stage you comprehend better than the one you have just left (13.3).

How well does Gene comprehend, now, his own time at Devon? Do his narrative and reflections prove or disprove this statement?

Around them spread a beautiful New England day. Peace lay on Devon like a blessing, the summer's peace, the reprieve, New Hampshire's response to all the cogitation and deadness of winter. There could be no urgency in work during such summers; any parachutes rigged would be no more effective than napkins (13.16).

Gene's feelings on the war are the result of Finny's death. Now that his personal enemy is gone, he can feel nothing but peace, even with the extremities of war encroaching on Devon.