Note: As a general rule, I’m not concerned about spoilers for this blog. I’m going to talk about the ending and twists for any book I read, so, spoiler alert.
I think by the time we read “A Separate Peace” in my junior year of high school, I had seen “Dead Poets Society” too many times.
You know, the group of boys who are totally unprepared to face the real world, form a secret society with performance rituals, and feel their friendship blossom just before a tragic accident takes away the charismatic leader of the group, who is also the person you least expect to die — if you would ever really expect that from a classic boarding school story.
As a quick summary, “A Separate Peace” takes place over the course of one year, summer to summer, at the Devon School, a boarding school in New Hampshire. The novel primarily follows Gene Forrester, our narrator and protagonist, and his friendship with Phineas, or “Finny.” The boys’ friendship is revealed during the first summer with “blitzball” and the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session, both activities of Finny’s creation. Gene begins to suspect that these games are an attempt by Finny to distract Gene from his academic studies.
At a meeting of the Super Suicide Society at the end of the summer, Gene and Finny climb a tree over the river, where boys at the school usually practice jumping from a sinking ship as a wartime preparation, and Gene “jostles” the branch where Finny is about to jump. Finny falls to the shore and shatters his leg, rendering him unable to play sports, at which he truly excels.
When Finny returns to school — after Gene has visited him and confessed to intentionally knocking him out of the tree, a confession which Finny does not accept — he has rejected the reality of the war, claiming it is a ruse by men in power to manufacture shortages and fear. Another friend, “Leper” Lepellier, a sensitive boy, signs up to join the army and receives a Section Eight discharge from service after demonstrating psychological issues. When Gene goes to visit Leper, he is confronted with the fact that Leper knows he knocked Finny out of the tree intentionally. Having finally recovered his friendship with Finny, Gene angrily leaves Leper at his home.
Several other boys, in an attempt to stop coddling Finny on the matters of both the war and his disability, arrange for a late night trial of Gene, who they jokingly believe intentionally broke Finny’s leg. When Leper unexpectedly shows up at the trial Finny remembers that he and Gene were in the tree together on that fateful day and runs from the room. Encumbered by his still healing injury, he falls down the marble stairs of the building and causes another fracture.
After Finny is transported to the hospital wing, Gene visits his room. Finny tells Gene he doesn’t believe Gene had any ill will toward him in the tree during the summer. Gene tells Finny he doesn’t believe he would have been any good in the war, even without a broken leg. The two reconcile just before Finny is sent into surgery, during which a piece of bone marrow escaped into his bloodstream, stopping his heart and ending his life.
Unlike in “Dead Poets Society,” in John Knowles novel, there is no dependable adult who helps Gene, Phineas, and Leper figure out what life is all about. Instead, they have the war. A character in itself, World War II exists in the novel as a setting, character and theme wrapped into one. It is the war that necessitates a coming-of-age for these students, rather than pursuing their own passion or destiny in the “real world,” their duty is more important for the Duration.
It occurs to me only after writing extensive notes about the role of WWII in Knowles’ novel that while reading this in high school, I never considered the war as anything more than a background setting to the story. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
If this novel was a horror story, the war — not Gene, with his underlying insecurities and rage, which I’ll delve into more — would be the antagonist of the story. Far off at the beginning, the boys can live a carefree summer. Page by page, however, the reality of the war creeps nearer. It claims Leper Lepellier, and just when it might seize our narrator, Phineas returns to ward it off, to minimize it and momentarily destroy it. By the end of the book, without Finny to shield Gene and the Devon School, the war has infiltrated campus completely, housing troops and sewing machines for making parachutes.
“As I crossed the Far Common I saw that it was rapidly becoming unrecognizable … and also certain less tangible things: a kind of snap in the atmosphere, a professional optimism, a conscious maintenance of high morale. I myself had often been happy at Devon, but such times it seemed to me that afternoon were over now. Happiness had disappeared along with rubber, silk, and many other staples, to be replace by the wartime synthetic, high morale, for the Duration.”“A Separate Peace,” pp. 201-202
It helped me, in reading this, to recognize the war as the true antagonist creating tragedy for our cast of characters — mostly because many times throughout the novel our narrator, our assumed protagonist, serves as a deeply negative force. Bildungsroman is a deeply personal genre when you are, in fact, coming of age. Perhaps as a high schooler it is just easier to identify with Finny’s good-natured likability and ignore the fact that he and Gene are foils, and cannot exist without the other. No man has only Finny’s success without any of Gene’s jealousy. There is no charisma, good humor, or likability without underlying superiority, entitlement and rage.
In the end, Gene becomes a fully realized character seemingly through absorbing Phineas’s positive character traits. Reading through this time, I struggled with whether I should take this transformation literally — if Knowles truly meant for us to understand that Gene took parts of Finny through their friendship and his early death. The more likely alternative is that Gene simply learned lessons from the parts of Finny that contrasted his own nature until he finally was shaped into a man with good and evil inside.
Although Gene ends the novel with reflecting on the evil of men, to which he says only Finny’s heart was immune, it is clear in their final conversation that Finny’s heart could be corrupted by more than his own bone marrow. Through the lies he has told about the war and the world around him, it becomes evident that Finny has told lies about himself and to himself. I mostly found Gene and Finny’s final conversation to be quite gratifying (even knowing the ultimate conclusion), but I also consider it to be the one place in which Gene’s unreliable narration combined with Finny’s lies to himself combine to leave questions unanswered. Does Finny really believe that Gene was acting on “blind impulse” in the tree? Does Gene also believe that it wasn’t personal, or is he taking an escape from guilt Finny is offering? I would like to see into Finny’s brain, but this is the genius of Knowles’ use of Gene overthinking — the audience, too, is forced to decide if they believe what Finny is saying, or if they believe what Gene thinks about him.
” ‘I’ll hate it everywhere if I’m not in this war! Why do you think I kept saying there wasn’t any war all winter? I was going to keep on saying it until two seconds after I got a letter from Ottawa or Chungking or some place saying, ‘Yes, you can enlist with us.’ ““A Separate Peace,” pp. 190
I found my re-read of this classic novel to be much more enlightening than I remember in high school. If you decide to pick up this novel for the first time — which I highly recommend! — I would encourage you to not give too much credence to questions that may arise about Gene, Finny, and which of them arises as the “better person.” You’ll be in for a much more enjoyable read if you allow every character you encounter to possess good and evil — and the capacity for growth. That’s what coming of age is really about.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this novel! I tried to keep this post to just one or two big themes that I felt guided my reading, but I have many more thoughts about these characters and this story. In the meantime, thanks for reading!
P.S. — I have already started on the next classic for this series, which is Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening,” so be on the lookout for that!