Study Guide

A Separate Peace Themes

By John Knowles

  • Friendship

    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.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. Do Phineas and Gene have an equal friendship, or is one boy on top? Does this question change if you're looking at their relationship 1) from Gene's point of view, 2) from Finny's point of view, 3) objectively? (Are those last two even possible in this novel?)
    2. When Finny returns to Devon in September, how has his relationship with Gene changed from the summer months?
    3. At what moment does Gene betray Finny? ("When he causes his fall from the tree" is not the only answer to this question.)
    4. What is the nature of Gene's relationship with Leper?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Warfare

    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.

    Questions About Warfare

    1. What are the different types of warfare we see in A Separate Peace? Which is the most destructive?
    2. Finny doesn't admit the war is real until Leper goes crazy. What's up with that?
    3. At the end of the novel, Gene claims that he killed his enemy at Devon. To whom/what is he referring? ("Phineas" is not the only answer to this question.)

    Chew on This

    Gene's relationship with Finny is an allegory for World War II.

  • Youth

    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).

    Questions About Youth

    1. Who is more mature, Gene or Finny? Does Gene grow past Phineas after the accident, or does he regress? What does "mature" mean in this novel, anyway?
    2. In the beginning of A Separate Peace, it would seem that joining the army represents a transition to the adult world. Does Leper's fate confirm or dispute that theory?
    3. Does Phineas's injury push him into the world of adulthood or further into his youthful fantasies?

    Chew on This

    A Separate Peace challenges traditional notions of "youth" as opposed to "adulthood."

  • Identity

    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.

    Questions About Identity

    1. Gene in many ways assimilates Finny's identity after the accident. Think about the differences between Gene's reasons for doing this, and Finny's reasons for encouraging it. (Yes, you're right, that wasn't a question. But it got you thinking, didn't it?)
    2. If these characters are always shifting – like Brinker's big transition from leader to rebel – how is the self defined in A Separate Peace? Is Leper a different person after his military experience, as Gene claims he is?
    3. Does narrator Gene have a different identity than sixteen-year-old Gene?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Rules and Order

    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.

    Questions About Rules and Order

    1. What are the different systems of rules and order that we see in A Separate Peace? When do they conflict? Which "wins out" at the end of the day?
    2. Gene says of Devon's rules that, when you broke them, they broke you. Is he referring only to Finny's fall? What does he mean? Is that true in the novel?
    3. The narrator mentions Finny's "commandments" several times in the novel. Does Gene, too, live by these rules? Do these rules change after Finny's accident?

    Chew on This

    In A Separate Peace, identity is defined by the rules which one follows and those one chooses to break.

  • Memory and the Past

    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

    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

    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.

    Questions About Jealousy

    1. Gene states in Chapter Three that "Phineas always had a steady and formidable flow of usable energy" (3.40). When this sort of energy is gone – say, long after the accident, when Finny stands with Gene outside the gym, catching his breath and balanced on crutches – does Gene still envy him?
    2. Does Gene's jealousy of Phineas abate at any point? When? Why? How do you know?
    3. Is jealousy ever constructive in A Separate Peace?

    Chew on This

    Gene's biggest flaw is his inability to distinguish between amiable competition and destructive jealousy.

  • Fear

    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.

    Questions About Fear

    1. What are the different sources of fear for the Gene in A Separate Peace? Which is the most inhibiting for Gene?
    2. How is fear different for the sixteen-year-old Gene than it is for the narrator? Where do we see these differences illuminated? Can we trust the narrator in these instances?
    3. Does fear spur Gene to action, or hold him back from action? How does it affect his behavior?

    Chew on This

    "Leper" Lepellier is the only character in A Separate Peace not consumed by fear.