A Separate Peace by John Knowles Essay

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Despite covering the period of World War II, the novel A Separate Peace, the author of which is John Knowles, does not narrate about military campaigns and battles. Instead, it seems to draw a parallel between an external war and an internal struggle within an individual. This essay will give a summary of the novel, describe its main characters, dwell on the issues raised in the book, and provide a personal opinion.

The Summary of the Novel

The events of the book are set in the Devon School during World War II. The narrator, Gene Forrester, was 16 years old at that time and had a friend, Phineas, or Finny for short. Finny liked to jump from a tree into the nearby river and encouraged Gene to do the same even though he was scared of it. Finny was so excited about this activity that he organized the Suicide Society. To join it, other boys had to jump from the tree into the water. Perhaps, this occupation was attractive because the school rules forbade it.

Finny was the best athlete in Devon, and Gene wanted to be the most successful student to resemble his friend. Gene, therefore, contributed much time and effort to his studies, but as he was continuously distracted by Finny, he thought that his companion intended to thwart his progress. Gene’s grievance against his friend led to deplorable consequences. When Finn asked his friend to jump from the tree with him once again, Gene impulsively shook the branch, on which they were standing. Finn fell off the tree and damaged his leg, which brought an end to his athletic career.

While Finny was in the hospital, Gene befriended Brinker Hadley, who jokingly accused him of injuring his mate on purpose. However, this new friend turned out to be an enemy. One night, when Finny was already out of the hospital, Brinker gathered him and Gene in the Assembly Room and conducted a trial, during which Finn became convinced of his friend’s blame for his injury. He rushed out of the room angrily, but fell on the stairs and broke his wounded leg. The following day, Gene managed to talk to his companion and explain to him that he had made the accident happen due to an impulse, not on purpose. The friends made peace, but after a while, Finn died during an operation. Gene returned to Devon 15 years later and remembered all the described events. The novel ends with his reflections about enemies, peace, and war.

The Characters of the Book

The first main character of the novel is Gene Forrester, the narrator. In his youth, he was “a somewhat athletic, shy intellectual” (Study guide, 2015, p. 1). Gene admired his friend’s sports achievements and the ability to talk others into ventures, and it inspired him to improve his academic record to become the best student. However, this desire caused him to develop envy and resentment since he suspected Finny of hindering his studies. These feelings induced a sudden urge that made Gene drop his friend off the tree. Gene did not do it intentionally as he regretted that deed and felt guilty. Perhaps, his self-blame was so strong that he no longer wanted to be himself and subconsciously denied his identity. In the end, he identified himself with his dead friend, which is apparent from the scene of the burial: “I could not escape a feeling that this was my own funeral, and you do not cry in that case” (Knowles, 2014, p. 194). Thus, Gene was not inherently evil, and the sense of guilt made him despise his personality.

Another main character is Phineas, Gene’s best friend and roommate. Although he tended to disobey rules and instigated others to do the same, he was a good-natured boy. He trusted his friend, which was why he did not believe Gene’s confession that he was to blame for Finny’s injury. Gene was dear to Phineas since the latter forgave his mate quickly even after he learned that his invalidism was Gene’s fault. Thus, Finny was a kind-hearted and genuine person who became a victim of circumstances.

The novel also has an antagonist, Brinker Hadley, who has the leadership among students. His obsession with discipline and will to justice made him reveal the truth about Finny’s fall. Probably, he is partly responsible for Finny’s death because Finny would not have hurt himself once again if he had not been enraged by the trial. Brinker also expressed his interest in war throughout the novel, but eventually, he seemed to become disappointed in it and rejected it.

The Themes of the Novel

One of the main themes of the book is warfare, as its events happen in the time of World War II. However, there is also another battle depicted in the book. Gene wages his internal struggle because he has contradictory feelings toward his friend. He wavers between admiration and jealousy, affection and hatred, friendship, and rivalry. Eventually, he concludes that people are apt to make enemies of those who do not intend to harm them. Perhaps, this is the reason for many conflicts and wars.

Another theme concerns rules and the consequences of disregarding them. The novel shows clearly that all the troubles began when Finny decided to jump from a tree, which was a prohibited activity. Sansom (2018, pp. 22-23) considers this plant symbolic and compares it to the biblical tree, which was also forbidden for Adam and Eve to approach. Thus, the book conveys the thought that rules are invented for a reason, and disobeying them may lead to grave consequences.

Finally, the novel raises the issue of such feelings like fear and jealousy. The first sensation is related to the war, as adolescents realize that one day, they may have to fight as soldiers. It also refers to the fear of oneself, when a human understands what terrible deeds he is capable of. The novel depicts that a person consumed with envy may represent a threat to the object of his or her jealousy. Thus, people should be aware of their feelings and prevent negative ones from affecting their behavior.

Personal Opinion

Apart from the themes mentioned above, the novel shows examples of good and bad friends. Finny represents a person capable of true friendship since he enjoys being together with his companion. Gene, on the contrary, is an example of an unworthy friend because, despite his admiration for Finny, he considered him his rival and envied him, which made their relationship unhealthy. According to Rini (2016, p. 1451), if man rates someone among his friends but subconsciously dislikes him, chances are that in a complicated situation, he will not decide in favor of their friendship. The novel, therefore, teaches that friendly relation implies sincerity and absence of internal grievances that may cause a person to spite his or her mate.


In conclusion, it should be said that the book is worth reading because it raises the essential problems that people face in their everyday life. Perhaps, after reading this novel, readers will review their attitude to their friends and enemies. The book will be of particular interest to adolescents since its main characters are juveniles who try to find their place in this world and solve interpersonal problems that are common at this age.

Reference List

Knowles, J. (2014) A separate peace. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Rini, R. A. (2016) ‘Why moral psychology is disturbing’, Philosophical Studies, 174(6), pp. 1439-1458.

Sansom, J. (2018) ‘The tree of panic in A separate peace’, Kansas English, 99(1), pp. 22-24.

Study guide for John Knowles’s ‘A separate peace’ (2015) Farmington Hills, MI: Gale, Cengage Learning.

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