Thursday, April 6, 2017

A Separate Peace by John Knowles

John Knowles published his first book A Separate Peace in 1959 and though he would go on to write other books, A Separate Peace renains his most famous, an American classic that has never gone out of print.  I read it in high school and I remember the novel as a cautionary tale about how in a moment of anger and envy you can do something rash that you will always regret. The book made an impression on me and I wanted to read it again to see if that would still be true.

A Separate Peace is narrated by Gene Forrester one of the two main characters in the novel.  When the story begins he has returned to Devon, the New England boy's prep school where he was a student fifteen years prior. As Gene walks the grounds of Devon he is haunted by the place and the rest of the book will transport us back to what happened that summer of 1942 at Devon when sixteen year old Gene and his best friend Phineas (Finny) were students there.

One thing I had forgotten about a Separate Peace is the big role World War II plays in the story.  Gene, Finny and their classmates are juniors about to enter their senior year.  Upon graduation they will be enlisting..  The younger teachers are already overseas and the school has a gloomy atmosphere.  The one exception to all the somberness is Gene's best friend Phineas.  If there is a war going on you would never know it from Finny who has lost none of the school spirit.  Finny is the best athlete at the school and popular with everyone. He also loves to break the rules and he gets away with it because of his charm and ability to talk his way out of anything.  Gene, his best friend, is more introverted and a follower at least where Finny is concerned. Gene never says no to Finny.  The most he will do is make a sarcastic renark and grumble but Gene always gives in and he has come to resent this a great deal.

One day Finny suggests that he and Gene go to the beach which the school forbids since it's hours away.  They  arrive back from the beach the next morning just in time for Gene to take his trigonometry exam which he fails because he is too exhausted. He blames Finny and begins to suspect that Finny wanted him to fail, that Finny is jealous of the fact that Gene is an A stdent and was trying to sabotage him.  Gene confronts Finny who is suprised that Gene felt this way:

"I didn't know you needed to study", he said simply, I didn't think you ever did.  I thought it just came to you ... Listen I could study forever and never break C.  But it's different for you, you're good.  You really are.  If I had a brain like that, I'd have my head cut open so people could look at it... Why didn't you say you had to study before? Don't move from that desk.  It's going to be all A's for you".  

Gene's reaction to this is odd.  You would think he'd be sorry to have misjudged his best friend but instead Gene gets angrier.  He now realizes that Finny was never jealous of him at all and that Finny is such a born athlete that he doesn't need to practice and that Finny assumed that would be true for Gene and studying.  As Gene says " I was not the same quality as he.  I couldn't stand this".  

What follows is Finny suggesting they put it behind them and that he and Gene go to the tree for a dive into the river.  This was Finny's favorite thing to do that summer. But it was also dangerous. Gene agrees and goes with Finny in what will turn out to be their final tree jump. Finny climbs up tne tree first and Gene climbs up the wooden rungs behind him. Then holding onto the tree trunk Gene moves toward the limb and bends his knees a bit which shakes the tree and FInny ahead of him loses his balance and falls to the ground.   Finny's leg is badly broken and sports will be over for him. The rest of the novel is the fallout from what happened on that tree that day..

What I discovered by rereading A Separate Peace and checking out what the critics have said is it's a novel about friendship and betrayal certainly but it is also and maybe even primarily a novel about war, Not World War II where real enemies existed but wars in general where misunderstandings and jealousies can develop not only between friends but peoples and countries and battlelines get drawn.  Or as Gene says at the end of the book reflecting on his time at Devon and his subsquent service in the army:

"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 ...this enemy who never attacked that way -- if he ever attacked at all; if he was indeed the enemy. 

A Separate Peace is a beautifully written book.  It's a dark novel and autobiographical since the author John Knowles went to Exeter Academy which the fictional Devon is modeled after and he also served in World War II so the subject matter here is deeply felt.  I'm glad I read A Separate Peace and it's interesting how different rereading the novels of our teenage years can be when we pick up the book decades later.


  1. Great review of this book.

    I have not read it but I would like to.

    The characters, plot and themes seem so interesting. The causes of conflict between people is such an interesting, but sometimes troubling subject.

  2. Thank Brian. I would recommend it Along with Lord of the Flies and Of Mice and Men it's one of the books that stuck with me from high school. Upon rereading it was a different book than how I remembered it. I had forgotten that A Separate Peace was set during World War II and so I saw it as a straightforward tale of the guilt one boy feels for hurting his best friend but the author was making a wider point about war in general.