Review: A Separate Peace by John Knowles

20 Books of Summer 2015: Book 2

For those high school students who hit up my blog to “research” their papers: knock it off. You’re reading good stuff, even if you won’t realize it for another decade. Like The Great Gatsby, John Knowles’ A Separate Peace was wasted on me in high school. (Will put this theory to the test when I read Catcher in the Rye in a few weeks.)

From the back cover: Set at a boys’ boarding school in New England during the early years of World War II, A Separate Peace is a harrowing and luminous parable of the dark side of adolescence. Gene is a lonely, introverted intellectual. Phineas is a handsome, taunting, daredevil athlete. What happens between the two friends one summer, like the war itself, banishes the innocence of these boys and their world.

When I read this in high school, I focused on the school aspect, on the bonds and bickering that brought Gene and Finny together. The line at the end of the summary: “what happens…like the war itself, banishes the innocence of these boys” would have prompted a sigh and eye-roll. What this means to any student: “you have to write ANOTHER paper on the loss of innocence”. Happily, there is a lot of direct commentary on the war at the end; pulling quotes for a paper is easy. In fact, here’s one on innocence right up front:

Trick knees and punctured eardrums were minor complaints and not yet disabilities which would separate a few from the fate of the rest. We were careless and wild, and I suppose we could be thought of as a sign of the life the war was being fought to preserve. (24)

Don’t you want to run to English class right now? Back to the point: The chemistry between Gene (uptight) and Finny (freewheeling) is natural and easy to understand. I suspect I will eventually tire of predictable “opposites attract” pairings, but this one is balanced by a touch of jealousy:

It was hypnotism. I was beginning to see that Phineas could get away with anything. I couldn’t help envying him that a little, which was perfectly normal. There was no harm in envying even your best friend a little. (25)

Over the course of the novel, this jealousy ebbs and surges. It’s very high school. I remember feeling vicarious guilt at Gene’s envy when I first read it because it was uncomfortably familiar. Notice the way Gene downplays it with the justification of “perfectly normal” and the double insistence that it’s only “a little”. The incident that provokes tension between him and Finny is fabulously layered. Gene’s inner debates flip between absolution for himself, justification, and excuses. He gets caught in his own logic and catches the reader too; the end of the novel is as much a surprise to the reader as to Gene. I still can’t decide if it comes out of left field to force the novel’s conclusion, or whether it was blindingly obvious all along and I was too stuck in Gene’s perspective to see it. But that’s the fun of reading this post-HS. I can get caught in it now. I can focus on the story without thinking about the loss of innocence or wondering why some seemingly important point was excluded from the Cliff’s Notes. (If I ever teach an English course, my reading quizzes will be entirely composed of excluded details.)

More interesting, and the meaning of “a separate peace,” is Finny’s insistence that the war isn’t real and Gene’s reaction to this proclamation:

I fell without realizing it into the private explanation of the world. Not that I ever believed that the whole production of World War II was a trick of the eye manipulated by a bunch of calculating fat old men, appealing though this idea was. What deceived me was my own happiness; for peace is indivisible, and the surrounding world confusion found no reflection inside me. So I ceased to have any real sense of it. (123)

This is the novel’s chief strength: it’s ability to pull/push the war into and out of focus. As the boys prepare for their 18th birthdays and decide whether to enlist or be drafted, the war feels inevitable, not romantic (this is not The Red Badge of Courage). At times, I found myself curious about perspectives other than Gene’s. He comments on his fellow students, but his single-minded focus on Finny leaves everyone else a little flatter. This book is stunningly well-written and deserves much praise for its execution. Though the plot sometimes crawls, there’s compensation from the vivid imagery and thorough character development (so far as Gene and Finny are concerned). The calm pacing and emphasis on extra-curriculars/socializing instead of the war/school add to the illusion of “peace” that Gene enjoys. The moments of action and angst are sharpened by their placement among soothing prose. Towards the end, when Gene is being confronted about his loose attitude toward the war, he receives an odd pep-talk from the father of another student:

“There are doggone many exciting things to enlist in these days. There’s that bunch they call the Frogmen, underwater demolition stuff. I’d give something to be a kid again with all that to choose from. […] You have to do what you think is the right thing, but just make sure it’s the right thing in the long run, and not just for the moment. Your war memories will be with you forever, you’ll be asked about them thousands of times after the war is over. People will get their respect for you from that—partly from that, don’t get me wrong—but if you can say that you were up front where there was some real shooting going on, then that will mean a whole lot to you in years to come. (199)

I keep turning this passage over and over in my head. It’s the kind of speech I’d expected to hear more often, but it doesn’t come until the end. (Which is great; Knowles’ more nuanced passages feel natural.) There are few instances of wartime propaganda presented at the school and they are so stylized that Gene pushes them aside, as does almost everyone else. There’s something so jarring about someone wanting “to be a kid again” in the violent context of war.

Overall: 4.5 It’s moving, sad, and at times very funny. It feels authentic. When I learned that Knowles was at an all boys school in the early 1940’s, I was not surprised. Somehow, the book hits on all the things that always happen at boarding schools in literature, but nothing feels cliche or unsupported.

Translation: Read it again. And if you’re reading it now for class: this is the ultimate “English class book”—a common theme, upfront quotables, the right amount of symbolism… and it’s short! You can do it!

6 thoughts on “Review: A Separate Peace by John Knowles”

  1. Being a Brit, I was never forced into this one in school, so read it for the first time last year – and loved it! It’s so beautifully written, and the characterisation felt so true. That mingled feeling of friendship, admiration and jealousy – oh yes, been there. Unfortunately, you’ve made me really want to re-read it again now…

  2. Like Fiction Fan this wasn’t on our English Syllabus and I’ve never read it. Your enthusiasm for it in your review has made me want to though. I may even think about the loss of innocence as well as enjoying the friendship and mixed emotions .

    1. The Great Gatsby is worth rereading; it’s a favorite of mine now even though I completely misunderstood it and thought it was boring in High School.

      Thanks for the kind words and I look forward to reading more of your reviews!

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