Posted on June 4, 2015 | Back to Literature
Here be spoilers.
In my experience, there are two major reactions when someone finishes reading John Knowles' A Separate Peace. Half the readers adore the book, the other half shrug their shoulders and wonder why the first half made such a big fuss. (Incidentally, I was one of those people who adored it.) I last read the book as a senior in high school where it was, and continues to be, a perrennial favorite on teacher and librarian reading lists for teens. As I did previously with The Secret Garden, I decided to look at the book again to see if my adoration spanned the decades. If it did, then I could probably recommend A Separate Peace as one of those "timeless" young adult novels like Catcher in the Rye, Anne of Green Gables or To Kill A Mockingbird.
I can honestly say that I still greatly enjoyed the book, but perhaps not for the same reasons I did in 1984. When I was seventeen, the book's themes of teenage angst, fear and betrayal resonated loudly with me. This time 'round, my reaction was more intellectual, less visceral. I admired Knowles' prose, which was often downright poetic, sometimes pompous. I appreciated a glimpse into a privileged world and an age which no longer exists, but which Knowles understood completely as the book was based largely on his experiences at the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. But what I really came to appreciate was the rather complex psychology behind his two main characters, Gene and Phineas.
But first some background...
The book's narrator, Gene, is from some unnamed southern state and is attending the prestigious but isolated Devon School in 1943. By this time, the United States has been embroiled in the Second World War for two years and the conflict overseas almost becomes a character itself. Everything that Gene and the other students at the all-boys school do is overshadowed with the fearful realization that life at Devon is a short-lived dream. All too soon, it will be over and they will be asked to fight for their country. Gene is particularly serious-minded about such things, and equally sober about his classwork. His roommate, Phineas (called "Finny" by the other boys), is just the opposite. Blithful and carefree, Finny refuses to let either the war or academics derail his enjoyment of life.
The book starts during a special summer class session designed to help students obtain their diplomas before they're conscripted into the military. The school is mostly empty and in this more permissive atmosphere Finny is at his best. Daily distractions include late night card games and spontaneous athletic competitions. Finny eventually creates a loose fraternity called the "Suicide Squad of the Summer Session," which requires the members to hurl themselves out of a tall tree into the nearby Devon River. Finny sees this stunt as something that builds character, but Gene begins to resent the constant drain on his study time, especially when his grades start to slip. Gene's lingering resentment eventually culminates in him intentionally knocking Finny out of the tree, causing him to fall onto the riverbank below. The result is a broken leg, but the real injury is Gene's treachery. The rest of the novel takes place over the following Fall and Winter and deals with both teens trying to reconcile the betrayal, sometimes through denial, sometimes through deception, finally through grim honesty.
A Separate Peace is not a long novel, but it packs a lot into its 200 pages, particularly when it comes to the reasons behind what people do and how everyone can wear a false face. Gene is a classic anti-hero (or "frenemy", if you prefer), still a rare phenomenon in young adult literature. Knowles keeps the reader torn between feeling sympathetic and appalled by the boy's actions. Finny doesn't help the situation. He spends most of his time denying his friend's guilt, even when Gene confesses fully. You're never sure if Finny's actions are based on his disbelief that anyone could dislike him, or that he simply cares more for Gene than was ever reciprocated. Either way, Finny's a victim many times over. And in my re-reading of the book, it was this duality of character which still made the book resonate. Everyone's had someone they admired or cared for who turned out to be false — but this is often first experienced during our teen years. It's still a heartbreaking life lesson and that, for me, is what makes the book a classic.
Knowles based A Separate Peace on a short story entitled "Phineas" (read my review here). The author went on to write a dozen more novels during his lifetime — including A Separate Peace's sequel-of-sorts, Peace Breaks Out (1983) — but none received the accolades or the devout reader following as this debut work.