A Separate Peace focuses on the friendship between two sixteen-year-old boys, and it's…complicated. Friendship is a combination of admiration, respect, jealousy, and resentment. For all the camaraderie between them, these boys are still driven by good old healthy competition, which at times can end up being, well, less than healthy. Friendship blurs identity, as one boy begins to assimilate the life of the other. You know, Talented Mr. Ripley-style and all.
Gene and Finny form a closer, stronger friendship as the narrative progresses.
Gene and Finny are closest when the narrative begins, and move gradually apart as it progresses.
A Separate Peace explores not only military warfare (it takes place during World War II), but personal wars. Feelings of hostility, resentment, and fear dominate even what should be the most peaceful of environments. The novel claims that we all identify enemies in the world around us, that we "pit ourselves" against them so as to have an object for our hate and fear. Wars, both personal and political, are thus "the result of something ignorant in the human heart," an inability to understand the self and others.
Gene's relationship with Finny is an allegory for World War II.
In A Separate Peace, youth exists in its own environment, isolated physically, mentally, and emotionally from the rest of the world. Growing up, then, involves a transition from this sheltered environment to the harsh realities of things like war, hatred, and fear. Yet these realities permeate and destroy the world of youth, particularly given the setting (World War II, which threatens peace even for the young).
A Separate Peace challenges traditional notions of "youth" as opposed to "adulthood."
A Separate Peace explores the difficulties with understanding the self during adolescence. (When we say it like that, it sounds like buckets of fun, doesn't it?) Identity is complicated enough as the narrator enters adulthood in a time of war, but a difficult friendship with a fellow student and rival leads to a further confusion of identity. Attempting to alter identity serves any number of purposes, from escaping guilt to living through others to dealing with insanity, but these attempts ultimately fail; the characters are forced to deal with their selves, actions, and personal identities.
Gene and Phineas's friendship is threatened when Gene alters his own identity to be more like Finny.
Gene and Phineas develop a closer friendship when Gene alters his own identity to be more like Finny.
At first, A Separate Peace presents the classic struggle between young anarchy and old, established rules. This plays out at a boarding school, where the rules indeed seem restrictive and unwarranted. But other systems of rules soon emerge, as even the poster child for adolescent rebellion lives by a set of "commandments." Rules, then, do not always restrict and control. We learn that the best indication of a character is the rules that he lives by and the principles he follows.
In A Separate Peace, identity is defined by the rules which one follows and those one chooses to break.
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.
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.
Jealousy is just one of a slew of negative emotions in A Separate Peace, among them fear and resentment. What makes these feelings so difficult is that they're accompanied by admiration, respect, and love – all the ingredients for one very confusing friendship between adolescent boys. We see that jealousy drives people to unthinkable and incomprehensible action, understood least of all by those responsible for it.
Gene's biggest flaw is his inability to distinguish between amiable competition and destructive jealousy.
Fear abounds on multiple levels in A Separate Peace, accompanying the various "wars" fought throughout the course of the novel, wars both military and personal. Adolescent fear of the future stems from fear of the self, as the novel's young men wonder whether they are capable of functioning in a world consumed by war and hatred. We also see fear revolving around personal identity and, most prominently, fear of one's own character, of the crimes of which one may be capable.
"Leper" Lepellier is the only character in A Separate Peace not consumed by fear.