95 pages 3 hours read

John Knowles

A Separate Peace

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 1959

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Published in 1959, A Separate Peace, by John Knowles, depicts a teenager’s coming-of-age at a New England boy’s boarding school during the final years of World War II. The novel explores peace and conflict in a space that is both isolated from the war and beginning to feel the compromise as the war encroaches on the campus in both literal and figurative ways. A semi-autobiographical book based on Knowles’s boyhood tenure at Exeter in New Hampshire, A Separate Peace raises questions of loyalty, friendship, and the valorization of war. The novel portrays a secondary educational system that has been retooled to prepare boys for war rather than college.

Gene Forrester, the novel’s narrator, relates the events of his senior year at the Devon School, beginning in the summer of 1943. Gene returns to campus fifteen years after graduating to confront and process the sites of traumatic incidents during a period he describes as the most formative of his life. In the summer of 1943, Gene and Phineas (or “Finny”) are roommates and best friends. They are sixteen and too young to enlist in the military or be drafted, but are on the cusp of the final year at school in which the curriculum focuses in earnest on training boys for the military. For Gene, his relationship with Finny—as with the friendships between most boys at the Devon School—is complicated by competitiveness.

Finny, who is charming, athletic, and reckless, constantly challenges Gene to take risks and push himself. One summer evening, Finny decides that he and Gene should take on a challenge that no underclassman has. It has become a part of the senior training regimen for boys to climb a particular tall tree near the river and jump from an extremely high branch. To the awe of his classmates, Finny completes the stunt, goading Gene to do the same. Finny and Gene form a secret “suicide society” that requires them to jump from the tree on a nightly basis while the rest of the society members watch. One night, Gene realizes that his ongoing competition with his friend has been entirely one-sided. In a burst of resentment and anger, Gene jostles the branch that both boys are standing on, causing Finny to fall and shatter his leg.

Suddenly, the most promising athlete on campus will be lucky if he ever walks again. Gene, consumed with guilt and self-doubt, tries to confess, but Finny doesn’t believe him and becomes distraught at the suggestion that Gene hurt him on purpose, so Gene hides his culpability. When Finny returns to school, the two continue their friendship as Gene grapples with his conscience. Their mutual friend and classmate Brinker Hadley insinuates that he suspects that Gene may have purposely caused Finny’s accident. One night, Brinker and a group of boys appear in Gene and Finny’s dorm room and summon them to one of the campus’s classroom buildings for an illicit trial, in which Brinker accuses Gene of shaking the branch. Disturbed and upset, Finny storms out of the makeshift courtroom and, unsteady on his cane, falls down the long, marble staircase outside. The boys summon the doctor, who takes Finny to the infirmary and confirms that he has rebroken his leg. However, it is a clean break this time and should be simple to repair. Gene approaches Finny in his hospital bed, and although Finny is angry at first, he finally understands that Gene acted impulsively and forgives him.

When Gene returns that afternoon to visit his friend, the doctor informs him that while setting Finny’s leg, some of the bone marrow leaked into his bloodstream and stopped his heart. Finny is dead. At the end of the school year, Brinker and Gene prepare to join the Coast Guard and the Navy respectively. Gene, who enlists but is never shipped overseas, observes that he has adopted Finny’s peaceful nature. While Gene and the rest of the boys were preoccupied with competition and defeating one another, Finny did not see his friends as enemies and rivals. Although he serves in the military, Gene has no animosity left to direct toward the opposing side. He notes that this animosity and competitiveness is divisive, often creating an enemy that was not there to begin with. 

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By John Knowles