This book opens with Gene Forrester’s return to Devon school after World War II to revisit the place where he believes he fought his war. He remembers his last year at Devon, when he became friends with his roommate, Finny.
While Gene is thoughtful and unsure of himself, Finny is filled with confidence. This confidence is based on a physical prowess which makes him the best athlete in the school. While Gene is capable of earning the top grades in his class, Finny is the undisputed class leader. Finny’s constant invention of pranks and games and his insistence on fun and good fellowship remind the boys, who have many kinds of trouble on their minds, that the joy of living should be valued above all things.
Gene comes to feel that there is a secret rivalry between him and Finny, he even suspects that Finny’s midnight larks are part of a plot to prevent him from getting the best grades. When he realizes that he is mistaken and that he has projected his own insecurity onto Finny, he is unable to accept this fact. Suddenly presented with a chance to hurt Finny, he causes an “accident” which results in a crippling compound fracture for Finney.
Most of the novel deals with Gene’s attempts to come to terms with his act. Finny does not suspect Gene, so Gene must deal with himself in moral isolation. Though Gene tries to confess, Finny will not listen to him. Only when their classmates hold a mock trial, do Finny and Gene face what Gene has done. Perhaps as a result of the trial, Finny rebreaks his leg and dies in the resulting operation. Before the operation, in a secret visit to Finny’s hospital room, Gene learns how much he has hurt Finny and how truly innocent Finny has always been.
Though often discussed as a novel for young people, A SEPARATE PEACE is rich enough to interest adult readers. Gene’s discovery that the real enemy is not across the ocean but in his own soul is convincing and moving.
Bell, Hallman B. A Separate Peace. Boston: Twayne, 1990. A collection of critical essays that give an excellent overall view of Knowles’s novel. Includes a useful bibliography.
Flum, Hanoch, and Harriet Porton. “Relational Processes and Identity Formation in Adolescence: The Example of A Separate Peace.” Genetic, Social, and General Monographs 121 (November, 1995): 369-390. The authors view the process of identity formation through the lens of the story of an adolescent boy’s experiences during World War II at a boarding school in New Hampshire. Using the events of the book as examples of the necessary connections that are essential to the process of development, the authors explore male adolescent growth.
The title A Separate Peace is taken from Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms:
I was glad to be alone. I had the paper ... about the war. I was going to forget the war. I had made a separate peace. (Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms)
Knowles' title has many symbolic inferences. The most important perhaps is signified by Gene's narratorial comment as he reflects back on that time when he and the other boys were sixteen and away at school alone together.
I think we reminded [the elderly substitute teachers] of what peace was like, we boys of sixteen. We registered with no draft board, we had taken no physical examinations. We were carefree and wild, ... a sign of the life the war was being fought to preserve.
This remark both signifies and foreshadows that personal peace parallels war's peace but, unlike war's peace, which is collective, personal peace is separate; it's private; it is exclusively one's own. Some ways a separate peace was achieved in the characters lives related to youth; to guilt; to the war; to life and death; to growing up; and to peace of mind.
- Peace is achieved between Finny and Gene after Finny's hospitalization.
- Gene attains peace form guilt.
- Finny attains peace when he accepts his physical disability caused by the accident that prevents him from enlisting.
- Finny attains peace when he accepts Gene's part in his accident as an inner impulse, not an inner intent based on a secret hatred: "It was just some kind of blind impulse you had ... it wasn't some kind of hate you've felt all along."
- Finny and Gene attain peace between themselves.
- Finny attains ultimate peace when he dies, with his heart at peace with Gene.
- Gene attains peace within himself as he comes of age and enlists.
- Personal peace attained contrasts with the peace from war only hoped for though not yet not realized.
- Gene finds peace of mind.
- The boys attain peace from the fear that gripped them being alone together in the face of life and war away at school.
Only Phineas never was afraid, only Phineas never hated anyone. Other people experienced this fearful shock somewhere, this sighting of the enemy, and so began an obsessive labor of defense,...