Site Loader
Rock Street, San Francisco

In A Separate Peace, John Knowles displays the main character, Gene Forrester’s, coming of age and harsh entrance to his adult life through war, death and psychological destruction. What started out as an innocent and naïve summer in 1942, quickly transforms into a darker environment as World War II becomes a factor constantly looming over the lives of the students at Devon School. The atmosphere that World War II creates within the school directly correlates to the atmosphere that develops within Gene’s own state of mind. Paranoia, jealousy and guilt plague his mental state, as a result of the friendship he has with Finny. Finny is the link between these two most prominent wars in the novel. His idyllic character is unable to exist in a world of war and also causes the destruction of Gene’s psyche. The presence of war in A Separate Peace, by John Knowles, including World War II and Gene’s internal war, both result in physical and mental casualties ultimately leading to the loss of innocence and the death of Finny.World War II plays a key role in the evident switch from a calm and innocent summer to the war filled school year, shown through the differences in the school campus and the changes in both social activities and people. The school campus itself is encompassed by two rivers, the Devon River and the Naguamsett River. The Devon River represents the innocence of pre-war life. Phineas and Gene, along with their other friends often jump into the Devon River from a tree during the summer. The Naguamsett River is, “…ugly, saline, fringed with marsh mud and seaweed. A few miles away it is joined to the ocean, so that its movements are governed by unimaginable factors like the Gulf Stream the Polar Ice Cap, and the moon” (Knowles 37). This river represents life after the war; a period where innocence is lost. Unlike the Devon River, the Naguamsett branches out into the ocean, similar to how a person moves on from their childhood and into the real world, filled with the struggles and hardships of adulthood. Gene and Finny enjoy their summer and have seemingly innocent fun until Gene causes Finny to fall into the Devon River and break his leg, resulting in the end of their innocent Devon River filled life and entrance into the Naguamsett.Social activities, along with the main characters, lost their innocence, as the war began to inspire new games and clubs being created at Devon School. According to David G. Holborn, “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” (Holborn). During the summer, jumping off of a tree into the Devon River was just another way for the boys to have fun. As the school year began, this fun activity soon turned into a test of one’s camaraderie and bravery. Finny and Gene formed a club during the school year called The Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session, which included themselves and the people who they would jump off the tree with over the summer. They also allowed new members to join, but they needed to show their worth by jumping off the tree. These members were forced to jump so they wouldn’t appear to be fearful. This activity transforms from an innocent jump into an entrance to the war-like atmosphere forming at Devon overnight. Hobbies done simply for pleasure and fun, are now starting to become extinct due to the impinging war and the ambience it creates within the school. In addition to jumping off the tree, the war inspired a new game called Blitzkrieg Baseball, also known as Blitzball. During the mid-nineteenth century, Blitzkrieg was a form of warfare, commonly associated with Nazi Germany, designed to create disorganization among enemy lines through concentrated firepower, using tanks, planes, and artillery, along a narrow front. (Blitzkrieg, Britannica) The boys at Devon School use this military tactic to incorporate into their game. Knowles, “presents microcosms where boys play war games while the adult war, the supposed rational world, fights and kills” (Hamm). Gene, Finny, and the rest of the students create their own war-like community in the midst of a far more serious war. As the war becomes increasingly prevalent in the school, students find it difficult to latch on to the once innocent activities that made up their lives, ultimately making it harder for them to hold on to their innocence.World War II additionally greatly effected the mindsets and personalities of students at Devon, including one of Gene’s close friends, Leper. This minor character has a huge shift in mindsets from being a sane, naïve, young student, to a crazy, depressed soldier, showing that the war has the ability to affect all people. At the beginning of the novel, Leper presents the story through a child-like lens. He enjoys nature and is seen as a peaceful character in the book, creating a shock in both the readers and the other students when he is the first student in the grade to enlist into the army. He soon deserts, his pure mind incapable of handling the barbaric behavior that he encounters on the battle-field. These images introduce him to what war is truly like, show him the savage side of people, and along the way make him go crazy. David G. Holborn best describes this transformation: “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” (Holborn). When Leper describes the event that resulted in Finny’s injury, he explains the movement as an engine, one figure went down, the other figure went up and then came falling back down. This description exemplifies how Leper’s mindset has altered to that of a soldier, as well as further shows how jumping off the tree was no longer an innocent activity. The battlefield proved to be a deathbed for hundreds of thousands of American soldiers, but the casualties do not cease to exist beyond the war fronts.       Another war present throughout A Separate Peace that is not universally present, yet still has the power to cause an equal amount of destruction as World War II, is Gene’s own psychological war. “It is a period of moral agony and doubt for Gene as he feels the war within his heart increase in intensity, parallel to that of the war raging across the world outside…” (Rowe). Gene’s deteriorating mindset that creates the war within himself, stems from his jealousy of Finny and continues to worsen as Gene begins to feel uncanny amounts of paranoia and guilt. Gene’s mindset makes him need to be superior in everything he does. Being friends with a natural in just about everything, such as Finny, makes it hard to do this. The one thing Gene has going for him is his academic abilities; he is striving to be valedictorian and has the some of the best grades in his class. When his grades start to slip, he immediately blames Finny and him forcing to join an afterschool club. He becomes paranoid and thinks that everything Finny does is to hurt him, instead of blaming himself. In A World Of War in A Separate Peace, Hamm explains this accusation by stating, “In Chapter 4, when Gene fails his first test and puts his academic standing in jeopardy, his animosity toward Finny reaches its zenith. He imagines that Finny hates him and is deliberately sabotaging his studies so that he, Finny, will be the only one on top” (Hamm). Gene also forces himself to believe that there is an unspoken competition between himself and Finny. The only reason he is able to hide his increasingly strong disliking for Finny is because he imagines that Finny also feels this way about Gene. When Gene realizes that this is far from the truth, he realizes that Finny is once again superior to him- this time not in physique or athletic abilities, but in character.Gene’s realization of him being subordinate to Finny in all aspects of life, including academics, was the spark of his mind’s destruction. He has a mental break that results in him subconsciously causing Finny to fall out of the tree they jumped out of over the summer and break his leg. Although it is clear that Gene’s mind must have suffered enough pain to cause him to hurt his best friend to almost die, his mindset worsens after this event. Gene begins to experience more paranoia, thinking that Finny will discover what he did and they will lose their friendship. Additionally, he is consumed with guilt. At one point the guilt and paranoia become too much to handle, and he tells Finny what he did. Instead of becoming angry, Finny refuses to believe that Gene would do that to him. Gene refuses to tell truth, furthering his paranoia and guilt. By the end of the novel, Gene experiences jealousy, paranoia, and guilt to the extreme- a combination that was bound to make him explode.     The multiple prominent casualties in the novel, such as the end of a peaceful summer and naïve games, and the mental deterioration of both Leper and Gene, led to the ultimate fatalities of Finny and the characters’ loss of innocence. When Gene succumbed to his desire to make Finny pay for his “misdemeanors”, he was ultimately losing the war taking place within himself. When Gene states, “…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” (Knowles 196), he is describing the internal war he experiences at school. He fought before he was drafted and he killed his own innocence along the way. Gene’s form of taking justice into his own hands was by depriving Finny of everything that was important to him, similar to how he “deprived” Gene of being smart and getting good grades- the one thing that defined who he was. Gene made himself believe that Finny was playing a key role in his declining academic status and his feeling of inferiority in all aspects of life. Once he was able to convince his mind that this was true, he was too far gone. Gene causing Finny to fall off the tree was a direct result of the distortion he created in his mind. After Finny fell and his life was ruined, Gene lost the war to himself, also losing his own innocence along the way.In addition, Leper loss his own innocence by volunteering to go off to war. His character started out as a nature lover who was scared to jump out of the tree with Gene and Finny. Even though he was unable to carry out this act of bravery, he was able to join the war. Leper didn’t last long before he deserted and went crazy. Leper’s innocent mind was incapable of comprehending the brutality and death that plagued the war. He tries to force his mind to become strong enough to go to war before it was ready, ultimately causing him to go crazy and lose his innocence before it was time.Finny’s death was the final casualty as a result of both World War II and Gene’s mental deterioration. Throughout A Separate Peace, it is stated on multiple occasions that Finny is just unable to exist in a world of war. This is best explained by David Holborn as, “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 is” (Holborn). Finny was able to survive and thrive during the summer before school started and the beginning of the school year because he was an idyllic character living in an idyllic setting. After the war became more present in everyday life, he couldn’t survive. He was too pure a character to live in a war infested world. Gene even has a harsh but accurate response to imagining Finny fighting in the war:”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 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.” (Knowles 182)Jokes were often made about Finny going to war because he believed that the war was an inside job. He had a pure and innocent mindset, unable to imagine that humans would intentionally hurt other humans. This is the same mindset that made it hard for him to believe that Finny would intentionally hurt him. After Leper returns from the war, Finny comes to the realization that war is not an inside job, it is real. This revelation causes him to lose his naïve understanding of a perfect world and ultimately his innocence. He is additionally brought to reality at the end of the novel when Brinker holds a court meeting to try to figure out why Finny actually broke his leg. When the truth was discovered, Finny learns that his best friend did try and succeed in hurting him, further destroying this perfect world he envisions. Finny finds it so difficult to cope with these realizations that the only possible way to escape was through death. He runs away from truth that both World War II and Gene presented him with and in the process he falls down a marble staircase. This is where he encounters his final fall from innocence and life.            The death of Finny and Gene’s loss of innocence were two of the most prominent fatalities, caused by the destruction occuring in Gene’s mind and at Devon School as a result of World War II and Gene’s internal war. The ending of a peaceful pre-war summer and its activities, the destruction of Gene and Leper’s mental states were all a part of the calamity these wars created, leading up to the ultimate casualties of loss of innocence and Finny’s death. Located above one of the most important buildings at Devon has the phrase, “Here Boys Come to Be Made Men” in scripted (Knowles). It is fitting that the place where Finny has his final fall, ending Gene’s internal war and their innocence has this inscription.     

Post Author: admin


I'm Eunice!

Would you like to get a custom essay? How about receiving a customized one?

Check it out