Study Guide

A Separate Peace Youth

By John Knowles

Youth

Chapter 1

The tree was not only stripped by the cold season, it seemed weary from age, enfeebled, dry. I was thankful, very thankful that I had seen it. So the more things remain the same, the more they change after all—plus c'est la même chose, plus ça change. Nothing endures, not a tree, not love, not even a death by violence (1.19).

How has the event of Finny's death changed over time, as Gene seems to suggest here?

Although they were old stairs, the worn moons in the middle of each step were not very deep. The marble must be unusually hard. That seemed very likely, only too likely, although with all my thought about these stairs this exceptional hardness had not occurred to me. It was surprising that I had overlooked that, that crucial fact (1.10).

Look at the hints the narrator gives us in the early chapters as to what's coming later. His narrative casts a discriminating light on the events of his youth, illuminating only what's most important.

This was the tree, and it seemed to me standing there to resemble those men, the giants of your childhood, whom you encounter years later and find that they are not merely smaller in relation to your growth, but that they are absolutely smaller, shrunken by age. In this double demotion the old giants have become pigmies while you were looking the other way (1.18).

Has Gene's view of Phineas similarly changed, or does he still look as a moral and heroic "giant" in Gene's mind?

Chapter 8
Phineas

"What makes you so special? Why should you get it and all the rest of us be in the dark?"

The momentum of the argument abruptly broke from his control. His face froze. "Because I've suffered," he burst out (8.103-4).

This questions the notion of Gene growing older and wiser while Finny remains left behind in a world of youth. It reminds us that, in some ways, Finny has learned lessons that Gene has not.

Gene Forrester

Now, in this winter of snow and crutches with Phineas, I began to know that each morning reasserted the problems of the night before, that sleep suspended all but changed nothing, that you couldn't make yourself over between dawn and dusk. Phineas however did not believe this. I'm sure that he looked down at his leg every morning first thing, as soon as he remembered it, to see if it had not been totally restored while he slept (8.14).

Gene has moved on into this new Winter Session, a time of maturity and growth. Finny is absent, so he misses the transition. When he comes back to Devon, he's still in Summer-mode.

Phineas was a poor deceiver, having had no practice (8.72).

Finny remains the epitome of youthful naiveté, even after his injury.

Chapter 10
Gene Forrester

I waited for Leper; in this wintery outdoors he loved, to come to himself again. Just as I knew the field could never grow again, I knew that Leper could not be wild or bitter or psycho tramping across the hills of Vermont (10.55).

Gene repeatedly associates certain places and times with peace or sanity. And yet…he proves to be wrong, as Leper is just as crazy in the snow as he was in the dining room. This is consistent with what we've seen at Devon, too.

Chapter 12
Gene Forrester

I felt him turning to look at me, and so I looked up. He had a particular expression which his face assumed when he understood but didn't think he should show it, a settled, enlightened look; its appearance now was the first decent thing I had seen in a long time.

He suddenly slammed his fist against the suitcase. "I wish to God there wasn't any war" (12.43-4).

What Finny hates isn't the war, it's the idea of a world he doesn't fit into. Finny may be all deity-like in the Summer Session at Devon, but he's ill-equipped to deal with the harsh realities of the adult world. And that's what he resents.

…levels of reality I had never suspected before, a kind of thronging and epic grandeur which my superficial eyes and cluttered mind had been blind to before. They unrolled away impervious to me as though I were a roaming ghost (12.30).

Gene has moved into the adult world, which means leaving his youth behind. That sense of emergence is reflected here as he considers his old self, his young self, dead.

Chapter 13
Gene Forrester

There is no stage you comprehend better than the one you have just left, and as I watched the Jeeps almost asserting a wish to bounce up the side of Mount Washington at eighty miles an hour instead of rolling along this dull street, they reminded me, in a comical and a poignant way, of adolescents (13.3).

And there you have it. The transition from peace to war is much like the transition from youth to adulthood. (Just, you know, with fewer pimples.)