A Separate Peace tells the story of a sixteen-year-old boy at boarding school in New Hampshire during World War II, and the mixed feelings of admiration and jealousy he harbors for his best friend and roommate. (Things get messy pretty fast, as you might expect from a bunch of ill-supervised adolescents.) Published in 1959, the novel is the first from author John Knowles, who would follow his breakout success with many more novels, short stories, and essays, including a sequel of sorts, Peace Breaks Out. Still, nothing ever topped Knowles's debut; A Separate Peace remains his most popular and well-known work. Just ask any of the high school students who have read it in class.
Speaking of English class, Knowles seems to have followed that old English teacher's adage: write what you know. Like the main character and narrator of A Separate Peace, Knowles was born in the South (West Virginia) and during World War II attended boarding school in New Hampshire, at Phillips Exeter Academy. His descriptions of the fictional "Devon school" in A Separate Peace are largely based, physically, on the Exeter campus. (Yes, those marble stairs are still there. Yes, they're still very hard.) Even parts of the plot – like the jumping out of the tree gig, or the character of Phineas – came from Knowles's experiences as a student. (So just think: someday you could write a novel that 1) stands as one hallmark of great modern American literature, and 2) embarrasses the heck out of your high school friends.)
You know all those stories you see on the news about overzealous soccer moms, irate hockey dads, referees that got beat-up, and cheerleaders with not-so-accidentally twisted ankles? Jealousy makes people do crazy things, especially when it comes to athletics. Now, if you've ever competed in ANYTHING, you know that particular feeling well. It's an odd combination of admiration and resentment. One minute you're worshipping at the feet of your hero-of-the-week, and the next you're eyeing a baseball bat with less-than-benevolent intentions.
What is it that makes us want to win so badly, even at the most trivial of tasks? You know, like that time you were finger-painting with the kids from down the street and entire jar of black paint just happened to spill on their Picasso-like rendition of King Kong? Competition is supposed to be healthy, but where do you draw a line between benign rivalry and a referee with a black eye?
Fortunately, A Separate Peace helps in this grand debate by establishing quite clearly that knocking your best friend out of a tree is on the wrong side of that line, and you'd best not be crossing into uber-rivalry territory any time soon, lest in the process you lose your sense of personal identity and discover all the atrocities of war and the human condition.
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.