Analysis of ‘A Separate Peace’, by John Knowles
John Knowles was born in Fairmont, West Virginia to wealthy parents who could afford to send him to Philip Exeter Academy. Though the novel is not autobiographical in that the incidents described there never happened, Devon School where much of the action took place is a thinly disguised fictionalization of Philip Exeter Academy where John Knowles studied. John Knowles achieved instant fame when A Separate Peace was published. None of his later works gained its popularity.
Relevance of the Title
The world was at war in 1942 but Gene Forrester and his classmates had nothing to do with it. Though the term had not become current then, they were pacifists who wanted no part of the war. “Separate Peace” is a military term that refers to peace treaties signed by some nations with countries which are at war with the allies of the signatories. Thus, Switzerland had a separate peace with Germany though US which was an ally of the Swiss, was at war with the Germans.
Codependency and the Erosion of Identity
The central motif of the novel is the friendship between Gene and Finny and the codependency it fuels until their identities merge into one. Gene is not happy with his identity and wants to be like Finny. Initially he resents Finny’s physical abilities and easy charm. He senses that Finny is trying to be like him by excelling in academics. This resentment that borders on hatred is the motive behind the “accident” in which he jiggles the branch on which Finny stands causing him to fall awkwardly breaking his leg. Finny can no longer take part in sports so he becomes like Gene. Gene submits to being coached by Finny as Finny is trying to live his life through Gene. Soon after the fall, Gene puts on Finny’s clothes and appears to be the double of Finny.
Enemies That Exist in the Human Mind
A Separate Peace is a novel about war. It is true that no shot is fired in the course of the story nor does anyone die in battle. The war here is the one that is waged in the human mind. The mind is the ground where enemies are created and where the battle is fought. In Gene’s mind for a time, Finny is an enemy; in retaliation, he jounces the branch causing Finny to fall awkwardly and injure himself. Once this act is done, peace or at least reconciliation comes to Gene’s mind. From then on, Gene becomes Finny. For every human being, there exists an enemy who has to be hunted down and destroyed. For Gene, this enemy could have been Finny who was better than him in many ways or it may have been his own self which did not let him rise above envy and resentment.
Gene is the protagonist and the narrator of the novel. When the novel opens, Gene, who is thirty something, is back in Devon School hoping to lay certain ghosts. The story develops in flashback style. He takes us back couple of decades to a certain summer when he spent a session there. Finny is his best friend but he also is envious of Finny’s easy charm and his physical prowess that enables him to excel in sports. Gene is outstanding in studies nevertheless he lacks confidence. He secretly believes that Finny is working hard to better him in academics. This resentment makes him jounce the branch on which Finny is standing, consciously or unconsciously, causing him to fall awkwardly breaking his leg. Immediately after this incident, Gene dons the persona of Finny, practicing for sports at which he has no natural flair.
Finny is handsome, charming and endowed with an easy spirit that allows him to get along well with all around him. His only flaw is that he does not see faults in others even when they exist; he believes that all are like him, without malice. His animal spirits often lead him into trouble but he talks his way out of it all. Though sport loving, he does not actively seek victory.
In the summer of 1942, when the WWII is looming over the US, Gene Forrester and Finny (Phineas) are students at Devon School. Gene and Finny are the best of friends but they are unlike each other. Gene is an introvert who excels in academics whereas Finny’s passion is sports. They are founders of a secret society that demands that members undergo the initiation rite of jumping from a tree into the river below. Gene envies Finny’s physical abilities and wants to be a record breaking athlete like him. Meanwhile he suspects that Finny is working hard to catch up with him in academics. This envy turns into an emotion bordering on hatred. This love-hate relationship is resolved one day when Finny tells Gene that he expects him to do brilliantly. Finny is not jealous of Gene’s achievements, Gene realizes.
Soon after, they go to the tree from where they usually jump into the river. While standing on the branch, Gene unexpectedly bends his knees causing the branch to bounce. Finny falls from the tree on the bank and injures his knee. The doctor tells him that his sports career will not take off. He had been hoping to participate in the Olympics. Gene wants to confess but circumstances prevent him. Later, Finny coaches Gene in swimming as he tries to actualize his dreams through Gene. Gene too tries to be Finny’s double, pursuing sports actively.
Woven into the story of Gene and Finny are incidents involving their classmates, Leper and Brinker. Leper is a soft spoken boy who loves nature but strangely he is the first one to enlist in the army. But the military training that he receives unsettles his mind. Brinker appears to know of Gene’s role in the accident that broke Finny’s leg. He holds an inquest where he calls Gene and Finny as witnesses. Finny refuses to accept that Gene could have caused his fall intentionally. He angrily storms out of the room and runs down the marble stair case. While doing so, he slips and falls down and shatters his leg again. A few days later he undergoes surgery. During the course of surgery, bone marrow enters the blood stream and he suffers a cardiac arrest and passes away. Gene now considers himself the cause of Finny’s death. But just before the surgery he has confessed to Finny that his action of jouncing the branch had not been one that arose from hatred – an explanation that Finny accepts.
The novel has war at its heart – both the wars that are fought in the hearts of men and those between nations. Gene’s theory is that man seeks out a private enemy and a private war even when none exists in real life. Only someone who has no malice in him like Finny, for example, is immune to it. Finny does accept the notions of victory or enemy which is why Gene tells him that he would have made a poor soldier. Good soldiers know their enemies whom they want to destroy.
The Sessions at Devon School
The summer session at school symbolizes the innocence of youth; teachers are kind and understanding, they allow Finny to get away with glib talk. In contrast, the winter session is tough and gloom filled. It reflects the burdens of adulthood and loss of Elysium.
- I found it. I found a single sustaining thought. The thought was, You and Phineas are even already. You are even in enmity. You are both coldly driving ahead for yourselves alone. . . . I felt better. Yes, I sensed it like the sweat of relief when nausea passes away; I felt better. We were even after all, even in enmity. The deadly rivalry was on both sides after all.
These lines from Chapter 4 show Gene acknowledging the resentment he feels for Finny. He believes that Finny too feels it and he tries to outshine Gene in academics as he does in sports. Gene is envious of Finny’s easy charm and effortless physical grace. Because he thinks the resentment is mutual, he does not feel any shame. Once the myth of Finny’s rivalry is shattered, he is consumed by shame and guilt.
- He had never been jealous of me for a second. Now I knew that there never was and never could have been any rivalry between us. I was not of the same quality as he. I couldn’t stand this. . . . Holding firmly to the trunk, I took a step toward him, and then my knees bent and I jounced the limb. Finny, his balance gone, swung his head around to look at me for an instant with extreme interest, and then he tumbled sideways, broke through the little branches below and hit the bank with a sickening, unnatural thud. It was the first clumsy physical action I had ever seen him make. With unthinking sureness I moved out on the limb and jumped into the river, every trace of my fear of this forgotten.
Finny’s fall from the tree is the climax of the novel. It comes on the heels of Gene’s realization that Finny had never been envious of his success. Thus morally, Finny was superior to Gene. Gene leaves the question of guilt in causing Finny to fall, hanging in the air. The only clue to the state of his mind comes from the short sentence, “I couldn’t stand this. . . .” When Gene jounces the branch, seconds before he falls, Finny turns and looks at him in a strange way showing he is aware of Gene’s role in the fall.
- “Listen, pal, if I can’t play sports, you’re going to play them for me,” and I lost part of myself to him then, and a soaring sense of freedom revealed that this must have been my purpose from the first: to become a part of Phineas.
This telephonic conversation is the one in which Gene acknowledges his ultimate aim of subsuming his own identity in that of Finny’s. Gene has been managing the crew team in order to fulfill his athletic requirements. Finny wants to take over coaching Gene so that he, Finny, can fulfill his dreams of excelling in sports and hopefully participating in Olympics through Gene. Thus Gene becomes Finny, and Finny, Gene. Finny is physically disabled and Gene morally handicapped.
- I never killed anybody and I never developed an intense level of hatred for the enemy. Because my war ended before I ever put on a uniform; I was on active duty all my time at school; I killed my enemy there. Only Phineas never was afraid, only Phineas never hated anyone.
These words by Gene are ambiguous; his battle was fought while at school. No shot was fired, there were no victors nevertheless it was a war in earnest. Gene believed that all people have private enemies whom they have to conquer. The words “I killed my enemy there” give us no clue about who the enemy was – was it Finny or was it Gene’s inner self?