One of my all time, top 20, favorite books is ‘A Separate Peace’ by John Knowles. I love this book so much, in fact, that today I am doing a singular edition of Spice Of My Shelves!
A taste of the story: Gene returns to the boarding school he stayed at during World War 2, and reflects on the incident that occurred there that him forced to face the dark side of human nature.
And by the way, the author, John Knowles, did serve in the U.S Air Force during WW2.
‘There was a swift chain of explosions in my brain, one certainty after anther blasted – up like a detonation went the idea of any best friend, up went affection and partnership and sticking by someone and relying on someone in the jungle of a boys’ school, up went the hope that there was anyone in this school – in this world – whom I could trust.’
‘There were few relationships among us at Devon not based on rivalry.’
‘Preserved along with it, like stale air in an unopened room, was the well known fear which had surrounded and filled those days, so much of it that I hadn’t even known it was there. Because, unfamiliar with the absence of fear and what that was like, I had not been able to identify its presence.
Looking back now across fifteen years, I could see with great clarity the fear I had lived in, which must mean that in the interval I had succeeded in a very important undertaking: I must have made my escape from it.
I felt fear’s echo, and along with that I felt the unhinged, uncontrollable joy which had been its accompaniment and opposite face, joy which had broken out sometimes in those days like Northern Lights across black sky.’
‘I was used to finding something deadly in things that attracted me; there was always something deadly lurking in anything I wanted, anything I loved. And if it wasn’t there, as for example with Phineas, then I put it there myself. ‘
‘It seemed clear that wars were not made by generations and their special stupidities, but that wars were made instead by something ignorant in the human heart.’
This book is not only well written, packed with symbolism, and full of powerful themes like friendship, human nature, war, peace, and the fall of man, but it really is truly emotional and feels so raw with Gene and Finny’s pain. Oh, by the way, Finny is the other main character, and is pretty much the opposite of Gene. The former is confident, athletic, a leader, and content, while Gene is insecure, academic, a quiet watcher, and jealous of Finny… and angry that Finny isn’t more sensitive towards him. The way these two boys rub each up against each other, try to become each other in a sense, and grow up during that year at school together is very moving. I TOTALLY recommend this book, obviously, and because it’s so cool, I’m including an essay that I wrote in English class about it on this post. If you’ve read the book, you might enjoy it. If you haven’t read the book, DO NOT READ IT. There are too many spoilers…
Love you guys!
A Separate Peace – Novel Analysis final draft
Humans are endlessly conflicted – they have hearts that yearn for peace, friendship, and acceptance, yet in the same hearts there exists an inner blindness and ignorance that continuously threatens others, forcing them to erect defenses. Humans, in short, are destined for pain and war. In A Separate Peace, author John Knowles presents this truth, comparing our inner struggles to the wreckage of World War 2. While following the conflicts of two best friends in boarding school, Knowles tenderly explores the questions of what causes war, the nature of humanity, and the meaning of true peace. He masterfully communicates his messages of forgiveness, friendship, right and wrong, and good and evil through beloved characters, beautiful imagery, and profound symbolism.
The entire novel is narrated from the perspective of Gene Forrester, an exasperating but sympathy-evoking teenage boy. The name Gene is an interesting choice for the main protagonist. Gene is remarkably similar to the Greek root word gen, which means race. It seems Gene Forrester could represent most of mankind and its search for security and peace. Always looking for true acceptance at school, Gene has to play two steps ahead of everyone else, anticipating every possible threat. Gene was ‘too well protected against the great fear of boys’ school life, which is to be “taken in,” ‘ and ‘rejected anything which had the smallest possibility of doubt about it,’ (pg 118). His best friend, ironically, seems ‘too good to be true’ (pg 44). A truly conflicted character, Gene by turns completely invalidates and puts down a younger student, then defends an absent minded, vulnerable friend. Like most of us, Gene is a pretty decent fellow, but will give in to pressure. Contrasted starkly beside him is Phineas, whose name represents a man under a covenant of peace. Finny ‘could shine with everyone,’ (pg 40). In fact, he is very much like the sun Gene describes one winter morning: ‘the blessing of the morning, the one celebrating element, an aesthete with no purpose except to shed radiance’ (pg 140). Finny would perhaps never think to defend Leper, the outcast of the Devon school; in Finny’s world, there is no such thing as rejection, only fun, games, and acceptance. Knowles portrays a fearful boy seemingly under a curse of mistrust and mishap, and another under a blessing of peace and boyish joy. One very sensitive; the other slightly oblivious. Nevertheless the two are so close that Gene’s aid to Finny after the accident never seemed ‘in the category of help… Phineas had thought of me [Gene] as an extension of himself,’ (pg 180). Phineas carries joy to Gene; Gene provides Phineas with loyal companionship and admiration. When one individual, however, is living a charmed, naive existence and the other is continually fighting the fear of rejection, conflict is bound to erupt.
The imagery of A Separate Peace continues the themes of friendship, conflict, inevitable doom, and peace. Gene describes the eventual peace which Devon achieves as a ‘reprieve’ (pg 197), a sort of canceling of his debt – or a postponement of his punishment. Even fifteen years later after the accident, Gene blames himself as the one who destroyed Finny’s innocence. Gene has to find a way to ‘come in out of the rain,’ (pg 14) which seems to represent the guilt and regret that he was drenched in. Just as Gene, when his understanding of who Finny was was threatened, had experienced a ‘swift chain of explosions in his brain’ (pg 52) and had to explore the ‘new dimensions of isolation’ (pg 59) around him, so Finny also eventually lost his innocence when he discovered the truth of his accident. Finny ‘thrashed wildly in the darkness’ (pg 184). Everything he had believed about Gene and their friendship crumbled, and he was shaken to his foundation. Devon was a ‘nest of traps’ (pg 110) for Finny in more ways than one. Over and over again, Knowles draws contrasts between purity and guilt, between clean white snowy mountains, and the icy slush mixed with dirt lying on Devon’s campus. People, Knowles seems to be saying, are neither purely black or white, good or bad – we are home to both these polar opposites.
The symbolism of the book is fascinating, and sobering. Knowles compares the times of tragedy and shock that affect our lives to waves from the ocean which ‘bore on us’ (pg 109), ‘seemingly inescapable,’ (109) but which may leave us safe temporarily. However, another wave could be on its way any time, any day. One cannot take peaceful times for granted. On the day he travels to Finny’s home to tell the truth about the incident on the tree, Gene says he ‘felt like a wild man who had stumbled in from the jungle to tear the place apart,’ (pg 69). Again, the guilt of feeling that he had destroyed Finny’s blissful, peaceful world. And, of course, Gene’s fight to kill the hatred and fear in his heart is symbolized by the ever-raging world war; Gene was ‘on active duty’ (pg 204) all his time at Devon. Victory came, but at a high cost. Some have likened the tree that Gene pushed Phineas out of to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – yet it also seems to represent a kind of life-defining choice that Gene made in his younger years, which loomed ‘as a huge lone spike’ (pg 13) in his memory. When he returns to the sight fifteen years later, he finds he has grown, and in a tiny way, been able to move on. The tree has become ‘weary from age, enfeebled, dry,’ (pg 14). Gene’s old choice no longer holds so much power over him. Even in a world so broken by guilt and tragedy, redemption is possible.
Gene found in Finny the power of forgiveness and unconditional love. At the same time, Gene showed Finny the reality of suffering, pain, and fear. Knowles tells us this dark side of our lives cannot and should not be denied. Our knowledge of evil now has to be addressed. And yet we have a decision left to us: how will we handle this knowledge? This heart-rending story drives home the point that though our world constantly seems to be sliding downhill, and real threats are coming our way every moment, we need to step away. We need to take a step back from our walls, and towers, and weapons, and schemes, plans, and assumptions. We need to find a haven – and create a separate peace.