Alton is a member of an honorary research association at the University of Sydney, Australia. In the following essay, she places A Separate Peace within three distinct literary traditions and examines the novel's strengths and weaknesses.
John Knowles based his first novel, A Separate Peace (1959), on two short stories, entitled "Phineas" and "A Turn in the Sun." An immediate success, it won the William Faulkner Foundation Award, the Rosenthal Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and an award from the Independent School Education Board. Adapted into both a stage play and a film, the novel has been praised for its "clear craftsmanship and careful handling of form" by Jay Halio in Studies in Short Fiction. It has also been hailed for its exceptional power and distinction. In addition to exploring the pathos of a complicated friendship, the novel provides insights into the human psyche and the heart of man.
A Separate Peace emulates three major literary traditions. First, it focuses on the fall of man, something central in such works as the Bible's Book of Genesis, Paradise Lost, and Lord of the Flies. The novel can be read as Gene's movement from innocence to experience, as he progresses from his ignorance of humanity's tendency towards thoughtless yet harmful actions to recognizing his own potential for such acts. More significantly, the novel chronicles Phineas' progression from his initial belief in the world's benevolence and in his own integrity—defined by a rigid set of rules such as winning at sports, never lying about one's height, saying prayers just in case God exists, and never blaming a friend without cause—to his final realization of Gene's role in the accident.
What Do I Read Next?
Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger's famous novel about Holden Caulfield's troubled adolescence and the phoniness he detects in adults, is in many ways as relevant today as when it was published in 1953.
F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1920 novel This Side of Paradise is the story of how wealthy, young Amory Blaine struggles for self-knowledge in his provincial world.
John Knowles's novel Peace Breaks Out is the sequel to A Separate Peace. Published in 1981, Peace Breaks Out features the same setting as A Separate Peace but includes a different cast of characters.
Mary Gordon's 1991 collection Good Boys and Dead Girls contains twenty-eight of her essays on such writers as Virginia Woolf, Mary McCarthy, David Plante, and Edith Wharton.
The Portable Malcolm Cowley, edited by Donald W. Faulkner. Published in 1990, the volume contains many of Malcolm Cowley's perceptive reflections on American writers and writing.
Second, the novel is a bildungsroman, a German term meaning "novel of formation." This tradition includes such literary masterpieces as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, David Copperfield, and Little Women. The bildungsroman focuses on the development of the protagonist's mind and character from childhood to adulthood, charting the crises which lead to maturation and recognition of one's identity and place in the world. A Separate Peace follows Gene Forrester's progress through the formative years of his adolescence, and specifically his relationship with Phineas. Gene—short for Eugene—is Greek for "well-born." While Gene is from a Southern family affluent enough to send him to prep school, his identity isn't as secure as his name suggests: before the accident, he implies the posters on his wall of a large Southern estate represent his home. Initially Gene emulates Phineas: he joins him in climbing the tree and Page 253 | Top of Article jumping into the river, being late for dinner, and taking a forbidden trip to the beach. Later, he wants to become Phineas, as when he tries on his clothes and feels confident "that I would never stumble through the confusions of my own character again." Phineas, too, feels their connection: after the accident, he informs Gene that he must become an athlete in Finny's stead. Later, Gene realizes that his "aid alone had never seemed to him in the category of help .… Phineas had thought of me as an extension of himself." However, as Gene matures he starts to develop his own identity. He recognizes his attraction to deadly things and, more significantly, he writes a narrative about his relationship with Phineas revealing the flaws in his own character which led to Phineas's death.
Third, A Separate Peace is a boys' school story, a tradition which includes such books as Tom Brown's Schooldays, Stalky and Co, Goodbye Mr. Chips, and even Dead Poets Society. It is set in what John Rowe Townsend in Written for Children refers to as the "hothouse environment" of boarding school, a self-contained world with an aura of privilege based on class and money. Typically, such a school is a place for education and growth. Here it also represents the last place of freedom and safety for the boys, guarding their last days of childhood and standing as "the tame fringe of the last and greatest wilderness," adulthood. Moreover, it functions as a microcosm of the real world, dealing with issues of leadership, discipline, rivalry, and friendship. The novel diverges from this tradition in one respect: while pre-World War I school stories focused on what Townsend maintains were " 'Games to play out, whether earnest or fun'—it was magnificent but it was not war; it had nothing to do with life and death in the trenches," A Separate Peace has everything to do with it. Gene fights his private war at school, and his actions and their effects echo the world's large-scale war. When he leaves Devon School, he feels ready to enter this war, for he no longer has any enmity to contribute. Indeed, Gene comments that he never killed anyone, nor did he develop an intense hatred for the enemy, "Because my war ended before I ever put on a uniform; I was on active duty all my time at school; I killed my enemy there." In the end, Gene realizes that his real enemy is himself and his impulse towards mindless destruction—and he believes he overcame this enemy only after causing Phineas's death.
One of the novel's strengths lies in its structure, and particularly its treatment of time. The narrative is designed as a story within a story, with the outer layer occurring on a dark November day. In contrast, the inner layer follows a progression through the seasons, beginning and ending in June. This cycle implies the notion of life going on despite everything, while the seasons' passing, along with the bleak winter's day at the beginning, suggest time's inevitable passage. The narrative is exceptionally good where time becomes broken into pieces on the day of Phineas' operation and death: Gene's movements at 10:10, 11:00, 11:10, 12:00, 2:30, and 4:45 are like heartbeats, which stop with Phineas's heart.
Another of the novel's strengths is Knowles' remarkable economy of language. The key to many of the minor characters appears in a single phrase: Elwin 'Leper' Lepellier is "the person who was most often and most emphatically taken by surprise," while Brinker Hadley cannot, "for all his self-sufficiency … do much without company." Significant events occur almost as briefly, such as when Gene reads Leper's cryptic telegram and faces "in advance whatever the destruction was. That was what I learned to do that winter." Leper's description of Gene and Phineas on the tree limb is meticulous and evocative: " 'The one holding on to the trunk sank for a second, up and down like a piston, and then the other one sank and fell." The last sentence of the novel, where Gene acknowledges the truth of humanity's inherent evil, is just as precise: "this enemy they thought they saw across the frontier, this enemy who never attacked that way—if he ever attacked at all; if he was indeed the enemy."
Knowles is a master of characterization, which we see best in his creation of Phineas who, as the epitome of careless grace, resembles the figurehead of a ship. Like Beowulf, Tarzan, and Hercules, Phineas has no last name; he is only Phineas. The name, which means "oracle" in Hebrew, has three-fold Biblical significance. Phinehas, son of Aaron, was a judge and priest: Phineas constantly judges Gene, but always with complete integrity, and in the end offers him forgiveness. Phinehas, son of Eli, was a rebellious youth who redeemed himself by protecting the Ark: while Phineas too is rebellious, he redeems himself by embodying the essence of boyhood before the war, in his love of sport for its own sake—he breaks the swimming record simply for the challenge—and in his indefatigability, always displaying "a steady and formidable flow of usable energy." Finally, Phineas the angel was the youngest of the seventy-two angels of the Lord: like these traditional bearers of peace, Phineas is unfit for war because of his fundamental Page 254 | Top of Article idealism. As Gene comments, once Phineas became bored with the war he'd be making friends with the enemy, chatting, and generally getting things "'so scrambled up nobody would know who to fight any more."' His major role is as catalyst for Gene's developing personality. By presenting Gene with his utter uniqueness, Phineas forces him to grapple with questions of identity and to confront the unrealized depths of his own character.
Despite its many strengths, A Separate Peace contains a few flaws. Its detailed descriptions of setting are rarely well-integrated into the narrative. In addition, many of the minor characters (with the exception of Leper and Brinker) are poorly developed: Mr. Prud'homme appears as a foolish cipher, and the few women in the novel—such as the faculty wives, Leper's mother, or Hazel Brewster, the town belle—are mere stock characters. Furthermore, Knowles' symbolism falls short of its potential. While Gene implies that the tree holds great significance for him as something which is no longer intimidating or unique but to which he is still drawn, he goes no further with his speculations. However, this lack of development was intentional: as Knowles comments in his "The Young Writer's Real Friends," "If anything appeared which looked suspiciously like a symbol, I left it on its own .… I know that if I began with symbols, I would end with nothing; if I began with certain individuals I might end up by creating symbols." Finally, Gene's vantage point from fifteen years later is problematic, for it raises questions about the unreliability of his narrative and creates a disquieting sense of vagueness. We see Phineas only as Gene remembers him, thus Phineas is a construction of Gene's memory. In addition, Gene's refusal to pursue the question of whether or not he's truly changed is disturbing: while he insists he's improved since his days at school, noting his achievements of security and peace after having survived the war and gained worldly success, his tone suggests a lack of conviction. Moreover, though he implies that he's imbued some of Phineas' vitality, this doesn't appear in his narrative, and we're left to wonder whether he's really grown.
Nevertheless, Gene's narrative provides us with one valuable insight into the effects of humanity's unthinking tendencies. After the second accident, Phineas comments to Gene: "'It was just some kind of blind impulse you had in the tree there .… It wasn't anything you really felt against me, it wasn't some kind of hate you've felt all along. It wasn't anything personal."' Here, Knowles makes the point that it's exactly this sort of impulsive and impersonal action which causes war, death, and conflict in the world—and it happens constantly and repeatedly. Gene supports this notion, realizing 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 is what happened between him and Phineas, and what he believes happened to bring the world to war.
The real meaning of A Separate Peace lies in its title. Phineas' imaginary worlds create a peace separate from the world at war, and he invites others—and especially Gene—into this peaceful sphere. As the champion of Phineas' world, Gene delights in "this liberation we had torn from the gray encroachments of 1943, the escape we had concocted, this afternoon of momentary, illusory, special and separate peace." In the end, however, Gene arrives at his real peace—if he indeed does—apart from Phineas. Though he says that Finny's life and death taught him a way of living—"an atmosphere in which I continued now to live, a way of sizing up the world with erratic and entirely personal reservations"—he reaches this atmosphere only after separating himself from Phineas and finding his own identity. This process is ongoing, and entails Gene's acknowledgement that the real enemy is within himself and, indeed, within each of us: we're all liable to corruption from within by our own envy, anger, and fear. In the end, inner peace is achieved only after fighting one's own, private war of growing up. In this sense, the war is symbolic also of the inner struggle from adolescence to maturity.
Source: Anne Hiebert Alton, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1997.
David G. Holborn
In the following excerpt, Holborn describes A Separate Peace as a novel about war, especially within the human heart.
It is hard to imagine a book that has more to say to youth about to enter the conflict-ridden adult world than John Knowles' A Separate Peace. Huck Finn and The Catcher in the Rye come immediately to mind as forbears of this novel of maturation, and if Knowles lacks the range and dramatic intensity of Twain, he at least provides more answers than Salinger to the vexing problems of adolescence.
The novel is set at Devon, a small New England prep school, during the Second World War. Page 255 | Top of Article The details and atmosphere of such a school are realistically rendered in the dormitories and playing fields, the lawn parties and the truancies. Accuracy of fact and mood makes this an interesting and gripping story. But it is more than just a good story because it has at least two other dimensions. From beginning to end little Devon is impinged upon by the world at war, so much so that the ordinary round of prep school activities takes on a militaristic flavoring. Along with the outward pressures exerted by the war are the internal pressures, particularly in the narrator Gene, which lead to self-discovery and an acceptance of human ideals and human frailties. It is the integration of these three focuses that makes this such an effective and satisfying novel.
The novel opens with the narrator's return to Devon fifteen years after the action of the story he is about to tell. He presents two realistic scenes that later become associated with important events in the story: the First Academy Building, with its unusually hard marble floors that cause the second break in Phineas's leg; and the tree, that real and symbolic tree which is the place of Finny's initial accident and the presentation of lost innocence. These detailed places occasion the narrator's meditation, and suddenly through flashback we are transported to the idyllic summer of 1942. This framework narrative and flashback technique is important because it sets up a vehicle for conveying judgments to the reader about character and action from two perspectives: sometimes we are getting Gene's reaction at the moment and other times we are receiving the retrospective judgment of the mature man.
I mention this narrative technique not merely as a matter of literary style but as an indication of the serious, thoughtful quality of the novel. The author wishes us to see the growth of Gene and at the same time experience an exciting story, not a philosophical or psychological tract. This is deftly accomplished by means of the dual perspective. The following comment on the important motif of fear illustrates the mature man reflecting on the entire experience at Devon:
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.
This statement is more philosophical and judgmental than most later reflective statements, since at this point the story proper has not even begun. But the mature man is heard at intervals throughout the novel, as in this analogy of war to a wave:
So the war swept over like a wave at the seashore, gathering power and size as it bore on us.… I did not stop to think that one wave is inevitably followed by another even larger and more powerful, when the tide is coming in.
Comments such as these encourage the reader to pause in the story and reflect on the significance of events, certainly an important thing to do with any novel but particularly with a novel of maturation.
The story proper begins in the summer of 1942. It is the calm before the storm, the storm of course being the world at war. For these boys—primarily Gene, Finny, and Leper—the war is still a year away. Even the faculty at Devon treat the reduced summer school class with a bemused tolerance. This summertime Devon is like Eden: the sun always seems to shine, the days endlessly filled with games on the playing fields. This Eden also has its tree and, like the original, this is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. At first, however, it is just a tree, something to jump from into the clear cool waters of the Devon River. As idyllic as this summer and this particular game of jumping from the tree are, hints of the impending war keep creeping in. Jumping from the tree becomes a test of courage, a kind of boot camp obstacle. So, taking a cue from war literature, the boys call their jumping group the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session. Always the consummate athlete, Finny jumps first with fluid grace and without apparent fear. Gene is reluctant, but cannot refuse the challenge. The two close buddies cement their friendship in this test. Leper, at least on this first occasion, does not jump. This foreshadows his later inability to cope with the pressures of the war. Already the superficial harmony of the summer is disrupted by this competition which separates the boys according to those who possess the particular skills and temperament necessary in the world of war and those who don't. The scene is a preparation for the key event of the book where Finny breaks his leg, and an early reminder that Eden cannot really exist in this world.
Certainly not all generations have had to face impending world war, but this fact does not lessen Page 256 | Top of Article the relevance of this book for young readers today. Until recently, the nuclear threat was very much on the minds of our youth. While that threat has been greatly reduced, instant communications have made regional conflicts a part of the average family's daily viewing. Though this vicarious experience is not the same as Gene's and Finny's virtual certainty of going to war, most of today's young readers fear war and have a similar sense of a demon lurking in the woods beyond the playing fields, threatening at any moment to swallow them in their innocent play.
In A Separate Peace, however, Knowles plumbs more deeply than the war on the surface. We get hint after hint, culminating in Gene's and Finny's awareness of what really happened in the tree, that the war is also within, its battles waged in the individual breast and then subsequently between bosom buddies.
Gene and Finny have a special relationship but it is not immune—at least on Gene's part—from the petty jealousies that infect most relationships. In Gene's own words, Finny is "too good to be true." He plays games, like the blitzball he invented, for the sheer joy of exhibiting his remarkable athletic skills. He is a natural. One day he breaks the school swimming record in the hundred yard freestyle, with Gene as the only witness, but has no desire to repeat it in an official meet. The idea of having done it is enough. And because of his affability, he can talk his way out of almost any jam, as he did the day he was caught at the headmaster's lawn party wearing the school tie for a belt. One side of Gene admires Finny for these feats, while another, darker side envies him for his ability to glide through life unscathed. As Gene says about Finny after the party at the headmaster's:
He had gotten away with everything. I felt a sudden stab of disappointment. That was because I just wanted to see some more excitement; that must have been it.
The last statement is a rationalization, and a weak one at that. Knowles lets the rationalization stand without a direct statement of truth from the older man's perspective, but the irony leaves no doubt as to Gene's true feelings. Surely any reader, and particularly the youthful one, can identify with this ambivalent reaction to a friend's success. In the end Gene comes to understand and accept these feelings, and the book as a whole makes the statement that only by becoming conscious of these feelings, and coming to terms with them, can a person grow toward maturity. Refusing to face up to jealousies leads only to tragedies such as the one that occurs in this book.
Gene's envy of Finny comes to a head when he concludes wrongly that Finny is keeping him occupied with games so that his grades will suffer. Gene is the best student in the class and Finny the best athlete, but Gene thinks Finny wants him to jeopardize his supremacy in academics so Finny can shine more brightly. It is at this juncture in the book that the boys go off to the tree for what turns out to be the last meeting of the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session.
The basic facts concerning Finny's fall from the tree that results in his broken leg are revealed in the first narration of the event, but the reader has to wait for the corroborating evidence presented by Leper months later at a mock trial, along with his peculiar emotional and artistic perception of the event. The facts as presented by Gene are that his knees bent and he "jounced the limb." It is impossible to know how much, if any, forethought was involved in the disastrous movement itself. What is clear from the juxtaposition of this event and the commentary that precedes it is that Gene reacts in some recess of his being, not, as we might have expected, to get back at Finny for hampering him in his studies, but out of a sudden awareness that Finny was not jealous of him, was not competing. It goes back to the statement that Finny is too good to be true. This is a particularly keen insight into the human heart; namely, that we often strike out at others not because of the harm they have done us but because their goodness sheds light on our own mistrustfulness.
In the case of Finny, his goodness is of a peculiar kind. He is not good from the faculty's point of view since he does not study very hard and breaks as many of the rules as he can. His is a kind of natural goodness, a harmoniousness with the sun, the earth and its seasons, and his fellow man— so long as his fellow man preserves his imagination and participates in Finny's rituals of celebration. It has justly been said that Finny is not a realistic character, yet he is an interesting one, and something more than a foil for Gene. Most readers have probably had childhood friends with some of the characteristics of Finny; it is in the sum of his part that he deviates from reality.
Finny is a character fated to die, not because of anything he does, or anything anyone does to him—though Gene's action against him is significant—but because of what he is and what the world Page 257 | Top of Article is. If the idyllic summer could have lasted forever, then Finny could have lived a full life. If winter Olympic games could have taken the place of fighting troops on skis, then Finny's leg might have been made whole again. But the world is at war and the first casualties—Leper and Finny—are those whose beings are antithetical to the disruption that is war. Finny's harmoniousness cannot coexist with the dislocation of war. Gene humorously acknowledges this when he says:
"They'd get you some place at the front and there'd be a lull in the fighting, and the next thing anyone knew you'd be over with the Germans or the Japs, asking if they'd like to field a baseball team against our side. You'd be sitting in one of their command posts, teaching them English. Yes, you'd get confused and borrow one of their uniforms, and you'd lend them one of yours. Sure, that's what would happen. You'd get things so scrambled up nobody would know who to fight anymore. You'd make a mess, a terrible mess, Finny, out of the war."
To Finny, the war was like blitzball, a free-flowing, individualistic game, with no allies and no enemies. To Gene, though he doesn't like to admit it, the war was all too real before he even got to it, so much so that his best friend became his enemy.
Leper, the character third in importance in the book, is the one most directly affected by the war and the one whose testimony at the mock trial seals the truth of the tree incident. Leper returns to Devon after having a nervous breakdown in boot camp. He is the most sensitive of all the boys, a loner and a lover of nature. His testimony not only confirms what actually happened in the tree, but also, through descriptive imagery, places the event in the context of the war. Leper's distracted mind remembers all the concrete details of the scene. Finny and Gene were in the tree and Leper was looking up, with the sun in his eyes, "and the rays of the sun were shooting past them, millions of rays shooting past them like—like golden machine-gun fire." And when the two in the tree moved, "they moved like an engine. The one holding on to the trunk sank for a second, up and down like a piston, and then the other one sank and fell." Leper, who previously saw the world in terms of snails and beaver dams, sees the action in the tree in terms of engines and machine-guns. This is because of what the war has done to him, and more subtly, it is a commentary on how a game in a tree has become a wartime battle. All three boys are pummelled by the machine of war, because, as the book seems to tell us, war is a condition of the human heart and soul.
The ultimate meaning of this book, and its universal message, is in this idea about war being something that is within us. Of the three characters discussed here, the war within is really only dramatized in Gene, but Gene is the representative boy; Leper and especially Finny are exceptions. Gene is our narrator and it is he with whom we identify. The war may flare out at various times and take on form in France or Germany, Korea or Vietnam, but when we look for the causes we should look first within. This concept ties together all the strands of the novel.
But as much as this is a book about war—within and without—it is also a book about peace. The human heart stripped naked to reveal its pride and jealousy, is a cause for sober reflection. But the title, A Separate Peace, encourages the reader to pass with Gene through the sufferings of war to achieve a peace. This peace is based upon understanding and the growth that follows such understanding. Finny achieves one kind of separate peace, the peace of death; it is left to Gene to achieve a separate peace that will allow him to live with himself and others in the adult world, chastened and strengthened by his mistake. His words at the end show us that he has succeeded:
I never killed anybody and I never developed an intense level of hatred for the enemy. Because my war ended before I ever put on a uniform; I was on active duty all my time at school; I killed my enemy there.
This growth in awareness that leads Gene to his separate peace makes the ending of this book an optimistic one. Some readers seem to feel this book is another Lord of the Flies, a novel that depicts human nature when stripped of social institutions as reverting to a frighteningly depraved state. This is not the case in A Separate Peace. Once recognized and accepted the war within is tamed.
Furthermore, Knowles does not describe the weakness within as evil, but rather as a form of ignorance. After the mock trial, Gene tries to tell Finny what it was that caused him to jounce the limb: "It was just some ignorance inside me, some crazy thing inside me, something blind, that's all it was." One chapter later war is described in the same terms by the narrator: "Because it seemed clear that wars were not made by generations and their special stupidities, but that wars were made by something ignorant in the human heart." Most ignorance is not invincible; Gene proves this.
A Separate Peace is a novel that should be read by adolescents and adults alike, and it should be Page 258 | Top of Article discussed openly. Jealousy, misunderstanding, and fear do indeed breed violence when they are kept within. Or they can be liberated, not once and for all perhaps, but over and over again if they are seen for what they are in the light of day. This is all we know of peace in this world.
Source: David G. Holborn, "A Rationale for Reading John Knowles' A Separate Peace," in Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints, Nicholas J. Karolides, Lee Burress, John M. Kean, eds., The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1993, pp. 456–63.
Marvin E. Mengeling
In the following excerpt, Mengeling examines allusions to classical myth, particularly Greek mythology, in A Separate Peace.
There is an obvious pattern of Greek allusions in A Separate Peace. At one important point Phineas is described as "Greek inspired and Olympian." He is athletic and beautiful, blazing with "sunburned health." He walks before Gene in a "continuous flowing balance" that acknowledges an "unemphatic unity of strength." Though Gene, as any boy his age, is often given to imaginative hyperbole (as we all are when our Gods are involved), there is no doubt that to him and the other boys Phineas is "unique." Behind his "controlled ease" there rests the "strength of five people." And even if he cannot carry a tune as well as he carries other people, Phineas loves all music, for in it, as in the sea and all nature, he seems to sense the basic beat of life, health, and regeneration. His voice carries a musical undertone. It is as naked and sincere as his emotions. Only Phineas has what to Gene is a "shocking self-acceptance." Only Phineas never really lies.
At the beginning of the book Phineas sets the stage for his own special function. On forcing Gene out of the tree for the first time, he says, "I'm good for you that way. You tend to back away otherwise." Phineas knows that Gene must jump from the tree, because in some cryptic fashion which only he seems to understand, they are "getting ready for the war." Among the Devon boys only Phineas knows that they must be conforming in every possible way to what is happening and what is going to happen in the general warfare of life. The first necessary step toward successful confrontation of what is going to happen rests in self-knowledge.
One cold winter morning, after Finny's "accident," Gene is running a large circle around Phineas, being trained, as Phineas puts it, for the 1944 Olympic Games. With his broken leg Phineas knows that the Games are closed to himself; he will have to participate through Gene, who was always as disinterested in sports as Phineas seemed to be in his studies. Gene is huffing, his body and lungs wracked with tiring pains that hit like knife thrusts. "Then," he says, "for no reason at all, I felt magnificent. It was as though my body until that instant had simply been lazy, as though the aches and exhaustion were all imagined, created from nothing in order to keep me from truly exerting myself. Now my body seemed at last, to say, 'Well, if you must have it, here!' and an accession of strength came flooding through me. Buoyed up, I forgot my usual feeling of routine self-pity when working out, I lost myself, oppressed mind along with aching body; all entanglements were shed, I broke into the clear." After finishing the grueling run Gene and his Olympian coach have the following significant and two-leveled conversation:
Phineas: You found your rhythm, didn't you, that third time around. Just as you came into that straight part there.
Gene: Yes, right there.
Phineas: You've been pretty lazy all along, haven't you?
Gene: Yes, I guess I have been.
Phineas: You didn't even know anything about yourself.
Gene: I don't guess I did, in a way.
At one point Gene decides that Phineas' seemingly irrepressible mind (he ignored many of the small rules of behavior at Devon) was not completely unleashed, that he did abide by certain rules of conduct "cast in the form of Commandments." One rule is that you should not lie. Another is that one should always pray because there just might be a God. And there is the idea that is the key to the entire Phineas outlook: that "You always win at sport." To Phineas, sports were the absolute good, the measure of the balanced life. The significance that eludes Gene at this point, as it eludes most people everywhere today, is that everyone can and should win at sports, because in the Greek view of Phineas sports are not so much a competition against others—a matter of pride and winning at any cost—but a competition against oneself, a healthy struggle in which one measures his capacities without ego, fear, or hubris. We easily identify with Gene's total disbelief when Phineas privately shatters a school swimming record but wishes no public recognition. He says, "I just wanted to see if I could do it. Now I know." This is the Olympic Games spirit as it should be and as Page 259 | Top of Articleit perhaps once was. Phineas adds, "when they discovered the circle they created sports." And when they discovered the circle they also created the universal symbol for the whole man.
Using classical myth as a tool for understanding the present is hardly new to literature. James Joyce, for one, demonstrated with genius its relevance to modern life and art. In A Separate Peace, myth is molded and altered when necessary to fit Knowles' dramatic purposes. The episode concerning the Devon Winter Carnival, that special artistic creation of Phineas, not only provides excellent examples of Knowles' mythological method, but is thematically very important as marking the symbolic point of passage for the Olympic spirit—its flame of life—from Phineas to Gene. It is during the carnival scene that Phineas, leg in cast, dances a rapturous and wild bacchanal, his special, and last, "choreography of peace." For the briefest of moments in a drab world's drabbest season Phineas creates a world of Dionysian celebration that infuses Gene with divine enthusiasm. At this point, Knowles chooses to blend the figure of the young Phoebus Apollo (Phineas before the fall) with that of the resurrected Dionysus (Phineas after his fall; who has finally discovered what "suffering" is).
In ancient Greece the Dionysian festival began in the spring of the year with Greek women travelling into the hills to be "reborn" again through mystical union with the God of Wine. They danced, they drank, they leaped in wild frenzy as all restraint melted away. At the center of the ceremony they seized a goat, perhaps a bull, sometimes a man (all believed to be incarnations of Dionysus), and tore the live victim to shreds. A ceremony of pagan communion followed in which the victim's blood was quaffed and the flesh eaten, whereby the communicants thought their souls would be entered and possessed by their resurrected god. Knowles surely bore in mind the festival of Dionysus when erecting his superb carnival scene. In a sense, this invention of Phineas marks his resurrection, for it is the first project in which he has exhibited personal interest since his fall. At last, though briefly, the "old" Phineas seems to have returned somewhat in body and spirit. Amid a scene of mayhem, in which "there was going to be no government, even by whim," the boys circle around Brinker Hadley, throw themselves upon him, and forcibly take his jealously guarded cache of hard cider. They drink, they dance, they throw off the fear and "violence latent in the day," losing themselves completely in the festival of Phineas. Then, with the burning of Homer's book of war, The Iliad, a specialized version of the Olympic Games begins, a somewhat nicer type of "warfare." Soon, from the monarch's chair of black walnut—whose regal legs and arms end in the paws and heads of lions—Phineas rises to full height on the prize table, and at the "hub" of the proceedings begins his wild bacchanal. Gene says that "Under the influence not I know of the hardest cider but of his own inner joy at life for a moment as it should be, as it was meant to be in his nature, Phineas recaptured that magic gift for existing primarily in space, one foot conceding briefly to gravity its rights before spinning him off again into the air. It was his wildest demonstration of himself, of himself in the kind of world he loved; it was his choreography of peace."
Prior to the Carnival, Gene says he had acted simply as a "Chorus" to Phineas, but now the beautiful boy-god, sitting amid the tabled prizes, makes a request of Gene: on a physical level, to qualify for their Olympic Games; on a spiritual level, to qualify for salvation. During the past weeks Gene has made the Phineas outlook and spirit more and more a part of his own, and so infused, he now reacts to the request in the only way possible: "…it wasn't cider which made me in this moment champion of everything he ordered, to run as though I were the abstraction of speed, to walk the half-circle of statues on my hands, to balance on my head on top of the icebox on top of the Prize Table, to jump if he had asked it across the Naguamsett and land crashing in the middle of Quackenbush's boat house, to accept at the end of it amid a clatter of applause—for this day even the schoolboy egotism of Devon was conjured away—a wreath made from the evergreen trees which Phineas placed on my head."
Somehow, Gene has mystically been passed the saving spirit and Code of Phineas. His new growth and knowledge are immediately tested. The Carnival ends prematurely when Gene receives an ominous telegram from Leper Lepellier asking Gene to come to his winter-bound home in Vermont. Gene suspects that the fruits of such an isolated meeting will not be pleasant ones, but he also knows that he must sometimes face certain harsh realities alone, even if only a little at a time. Also, he realizes that he has a chance to endure now, for the influence of Phineas, god of sun, light, and truth, is always with him. As he finally approaches Leper's house he thinks that, like Phineas, "The sun was the blessing of the morning, the one celebrating element, an aesthete with no purpose except to shed radiance. Everything else was sharp and hard, Page 260 | Top of Article but this Grecian sun (my italics) evoked joy from every angularity and blurred with brightness the stiff face of the countryside. As I walked briskly out the road the wind knifed at my face, but this sun caressed the back of my neck."
Now Gene does not immediately dash away when learning the grim tale of Leper's Section-Eight. The summer before Gene would have run quickly from such unpleasantness back to the maternal and more secure confines of old Devon, but now he needs "too much to know the facts," and though he finally does run away in the "failing sunshine" from the horrible details of Leper's casualty, he has shown strong signs of significant progress. "I had had many new experiences," Gene says, "and I was growing up."
Physically, Phineas dies. The reasons are twofold. All gods must die physically; it is in their nature to be spiritual, and in the case of many, sacrificial. Phineas dies that Gene might live. Second, Phineas must be crushed physically to emphasize that the present world is really no place for the full-blown powers and principles which he represents in his symbolic guise of Phoebus Apollo. Changes in man's psychological makeup do not erupt like some overnight volcano of the sea. Such transition is always painfully slow, necessarily too slow. But perhaps now, in a ruptured world that is heaped with war's unromantic statistics and computerized cruelties, humanity will choose to reemerge from its emotional rubble. Gene always had the brilliance, the IQ, the "brains," but they were untempered by a proper emotional stance. He had envy and he had great fear. He had no balance. Phineas disappears in a physical sense, but his spiritual influence, a portion of his code, will endure in Gene—a tiny spark in the darkness searching for human tinder. The spirit of Apollo has possessed its prophet and will now speak through his mouth. Gene's self has become "Phineas-filled," and to Gene, Phineas was "present in every moment of every day" since he died. First Gene and then perhaps a few others will relearn the road to Greece. "I was ready for the war," Gene says, "now that I no longer had any hatred to contribute to it. My fury was gone, I felt it gone, dried up at the source, withered and lifeless. Phineas had absorbed it and taken it with him, and I was rid of it forever." Even fifteen years later when Gene returns to Devon he approaches the school down a street lined with houses to him reminiscent of "Greek Revival tempes." The cause of wars within and without the individual, that "something ignorant in the human heart," has now been exorcised.
The purgated emotions of negative content had been fear, jealousy, and hate, emotions which result in wars both personal and global. The positive emotions which then must replace them are friendship, loyalty, and love toward all mankind and nature, emotions which result in peace and an appreciation of life and its beauty. Even though Phineas had broken every minor and stuffy Devon regulation, never had a student seemed to love the school more "truly and deeply." Edith Hamilton writes in The Greek Way that "To rejoice in life, to find the world beautiful and delightful to live in, was a mark of the Greek spirit which distinguished it from all that had gone before. It is a vital distinction." So although the world is not yet ready for the apotheosis of some golden Greek Apollo, perhaps it is prepared, after its most recent blood gluts and promises of human extinction, for the first faltering step toward a world full of the Phineas-filled, a step which must necessarily begin with the conquering of a small part of the forest of self—a step toward the far frontiers of ancient Greece.
Source: Marvin E. Mengeling, " A Separate Peace: Meaning and Myth," in English Journal, Vol. 58, No. 9, December, 1969, pp. 1322–29.
Douglas Alley, "Teaching Emerson Through 'A Separate Peace,"' in English Journal, January, 1981, pp. 19-23.
Hallman Bell Bryant, "A Separate Peace": The War Within, Twayne, 1990.
John K. Crabbe, "On the Playing Fields of Devon," in English Journal, Vol. 58, 1969, pp. 519-20.
Anne Duchene, in a review of A Separate Peace in Manchester Guardian, May 1, 1959.
James Ellis, "'A Separate Peace': A Fall From Innocence," in English Journal, May, 1964, pp. 313-18.
Edmund Fuller, "Shadow of Mars," in New York Times Book Review, February 7, 1960.
Linda Heinz, "'A Separate Peace': Filming the War Within," in Literature Film Quarterly, No. 3, 1975, p. 168.
John Knowles, "The Young Writer's Real Friends," The Writer, Vol. 75, July, 1962, pp. 12-14.
John Knowles, "My Separate Peace," in Esquire, March, 1985, pp. 106–9.
James M. Mellard, "Counterpoint and 'Double Vision' in 'A Separate Peace'," in Studies in Short Fiction, No. 4,1966, pp. 127-35.
J. Noffsinger, A. M. Rice, et al. "Still Good Reading: Adolescent Novels Written Before 1967," English Journal, April, 1992, p. 7.
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A review of A Separate Peace, in Commonweal, December 9, 1960.
A review of A Separate Peace, in Times Literary Supplement, May 1, 1959.
Ronald Weber, "Narrative Method in 'A Separate Peace'," in Studies in Short Fiction 3, 1965, pp. 63-72.
For Further Study
Hallman Bell Bryant, "Symbolic Names in Knowles's A Separate Peace," in Names, Vol. 34, No. 1, March, 1986, pp. 83-8.
An analysis of some of the character's names in the novel.
Concise Dictionary of Literary Biography Broadening Views, 1968-1988, Gale, 1989, pp. 120-35.
Biographical information on John Knowles and his work. Includes revised typescript from one of Knowles's works.
Jay L. Halio, "John Knowles's Short Novels," Studies in Short Fiction Vol. I, Winter, 1964, pp. 107-09.
A survey of several of Knowles's shorter novels.
Granville Hicks, "The Good Have a Quiet Heroism," in Saturday Review, March 5, 1960, p. 15.
Early review which praises A Separate Peace, and analyzes Finny's character, concluding he is not really a hero.
Isabel Quigly, The Heirs of Tom Brown: The English School Story, Oxford University Press, 1984.
This book-length study looks at the genre of the "school story" and is useful in an analysis of Knowles's novel as it fits into this genre.
Michael-George Sarotte, Like a Brother, Like a Lover, Doubleday, 1978.
In this book-length study of male homosexuality in literature, Sarotte argues that Gene's suppressed homoerotic emotions for Finny are integral to his character.
"A Separate Peace." Novels for Students. Ed. Diane Telgen. Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale, 1997. 240-261. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 6 Apr. 2010.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2591500022