An Indivisible Peace
It is very inevitable that somewhere in our lives, we have been touched by a special bond called “friendship”. That special bond might happen in the most unusual time and place. It might even be connected not just with love, but also with envy and selfishness.
A Separate Peace is a timeless novel which depicts a tale of two best friends named Gene and Finny or Phineas who are both away from their homes to attend boarding school during World War II. Since both of them are experiencing the same hardships, pressures and turmoils that come with boarding school, they both create a unique bond and help each other survive tough times. They help each other develop independence and courage while trapped in a boarding school that’s full of distressing things.
The plot revolves around Devon School which is said to be the most beautiful school in New England because it helps its male students master both scholarly and athletic facets of their lives. Devon School is a boarding school which has an atmosphere of privileged students.
The students who are accepted in Devon both possess class and money. It is very usual that a school is just a place for educational achievements and at the same time, personality growth. But Devon isn’t just an ordinary institution for it’s a place wherein the boys get the chance to be carefree without worrying about their reputations being ruined.
The novel is set on World War II, a very crucial point for the boys because it is the time wherein they’ll choose which certain military branch will they enlist in. The boys aren’t really forced to enlist in the military but during that time, being involved in the war is truly a great status symbol for it proves the courage of a man. Both Gene and Finny possess contrasting personalities.
Gene is a man who excels in his academic and on the other hand, Finny is excellent in sports. The state of being a pacifist also lies in Finny’s nature. Although Gene’s character isn’t that bad, it is Finny who is well-adored by their teachers and schoolmates. He doesn’t have enemies and a lot of people look up to him and want to be in his shoes for his extraordinary skills in sports. Gene is the type of man who runs rebellious things inside his head. When they both go to the beach, Finny told Gene that they’re now “best pals” but Gene doesn’t respond for a darkness in his heart is already accummulating.
He is doubtful of Finny’s “pure” character. He believes that Finny is just showing his sincere side because he is deeply jealous with him and his achievements and that he wants to sabotage him. Since Finny is not doing well academically, Gene doubts that Finny wants to destroy him academically by diverting his attention. With this in mind, Gene decides to get even with Finny. Gene even mentions that “[Finny] 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.” (Knowles 18).
But what Gene thought isn’t harmful turns out to be a very critical situation. Gene’s grudge towards Finny is unbearable that’s why while jumping on a tree during a summer day, he intentionally shook the tree which causes Finny to lose his balance and fall drastically.
Although Finny already has a doubt that Gene intentionally did it, he never seriously thinks about it for he believes that his best friend cannot do it. Finny’s leg become broken which disabled to him to play sports again. He somehow loses his self-confidence knowing the fact that he cannot engage himself with the one thing he’s passionate with which is sports.
He returns to Devon in crutches and in a pitiful state, but he never bears a grudge in his heart. Both he and Gene develops their bond more stronger. They willingly share each other’s skills. Gene tutors Finny in his academic subjects while Finny teaches Gene about the foundations, tactics and techniques of sports.
For a while, they forget about the war in which they are pressured to enlist to. Time comes wherein Gene is put in a mock trial for someone suspects that he’s the cause of Finny’s injury. Finny then realizes that his best friend actually knocked him off the tree. Fifteen years later, Finny knocked himself again off a marble staircase which causes his recovering leg to become worse again.
Gene’s conscience undoubtedly bothers him so in the infirmary, he visits Finny and asks for forgiveness for the monstrous crime that he has committed. Finny unconditionally accepts his plea for forgiveness and assures him that nothing will change between them. Finny dies and although Gene is shocked about his death, he still continues to enlist in the Navy. Gene then realizes the misery that he created out of his dark and jealous heart and decides to change his view of the world.
The central focus of the heartwarming novel is to depict that each individual in the world is longing for his own separate peace and will do anything to attain it. Each individual has his own way of achieving his separate peace. In Gene’s case, he attained his separate peace by knocking off Finny in the tree.
Gene fears that his bestfriend will sabotage and betray him that’s why he chooses to get even with him. Although he doesn’t have a concrete evidence that Finny is really set to destroy him, he still continues his plan and thus, satisfying himself with Finny’s downfall. Looking at Finny’s case, his separate peace is to detach himself from the war and so he uses his excellence in sports to get away from the enlistment. The characters of the novel both have fears that’s why they create their own defense mechanisms to hide the truth that is driving their lives.
During those times, the boys in Devon also act in conformity. They do things which they think would be acceptable with their friends. Instead of listening to what their hearts really want, they listen to what their friends must say about what is acceptable and what is not. Of all the schoolboys, Finny is the only one who enjoys his life using his own standards. His kind-hearted and genuine character sets him apart from his friends including Gene. Finny follows everything that his heart dictates and he always sees that the things that he’s doing is a heartwarming reflection of his love for life.
A Separate Peace is beautifully woven to show the evils that are lurking inside a human’s heart. It depicts that a human has fears and insecurities which cause him to release his “dark” and “flawed” side. On the lighter side, it is truly humbling to know that not all humans are indeed evil for there exist some who’s love and light for life overpower the evil and greed of human hearts.
It’s clearly demonstrated in Finny’s tale who has always been loving and pure. He forgives his best friend and shows him that it’s never too late to change and open up his heart to the world. Finny’s sincere character was proven when he said 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.
When Finny dies, Gene is left to realize how his conceit killed his best friend. It’s a tough time for Gene but he later gives forgiveness to himself and moves on with his life using a sadder yet wiser perspective. He even recalls his best friend in a heartbeaking way: “During the time I was with him, Phineas created an atmosphere in which I continued now to live, a way of sizing up the world with erratic and entirely personal reservations, letting its rocklike facts sift through and be accepted only a little at a time, only as much as he could assimilate without a sense of chaos and loss.
No one else I have ever met could do this….When [others] began to feel that there was this overwhelmingly hostile thing in the world with them, then the simplicity and unity of their characters broke and they were not the same again.” (Knowles 194). A Separate Peace not only chronicles a tale of two best friends but it also has a historical context that lies beneath its story. It is known that the novel was first published in England in 1959, but it doesn’t actually mean that the time of the novel is 1959. The novel focuses on the early 1940s wherein United States had proclaimed its participation in World War II. Aside from the country’s participation, World War II brought out enormoue valor and patriotism in each citizen’s heart.
Even though some of them are not actually engaged in combat, each citizen felt When A Separate Peace was first published in the United States in 1960, the Korean War had been over for approximately seven years. Also at that time, the country’s participation in Vietnam War had not yet heightened to greater proportions. The United States made it compulsary for men to enroll in the military particularly the draft which is the U.S.’s role in Vietnam in the early 1960s.
A small protest happened to diminish the compulsory participation but in the end, the young antiwar protesters were forced to respond by burning their draft notices. It was also in 1960s where the youngest president of United States, John F. Kennedy, was elected. At the age of forty-three, he had defeated Vice President Richard M. Nixon. During Kenndy’s term, the population was hugely comprised of adolescents and by the time they have reached college, they greatly became a dominant part of American politics and culture. They have started to doubt and question the authority of their parents’ generation. In line with their scrutiny, they have also started to search their own meaning of identity which was also reflected in the novel through Gene’s search of his individuality.
By the end of 1960s, A Separate Peace already praised by a wide array of conservative critics. The novel was praised in various ways. Some critics find the book’s antiwar sentiments very moving, accurate and timely while some deeply admire the book’s moral lessons especially the part wherein it showed that a sin’s redemption is still possible no matter how great a sin can be. A Separate Peace is not only hailed for its moving historical contexts, but also because it emulates several valuable themes such as war, rivalry, guilt and friendship. On a certain level, the novel emulates the war topic for it concentrates the huge impact World War II has created on the male adolescents.
The novel focuses on the dificulty the young men are facing with their decisions about the war. Most of them are in the verge of deciding whether to enlist themselves in the war. Some of them are even preoccupied with the thoughts of their tentative acceptance on their desired military branch. The Word War II caused great implications on Gene’s generations especially the fact that most of their young teachers are away to do war-related jobs. Thus, most of the teachers left to instruct them were men between the ages of fifty and seventy. Since a huge age discrepancy lies between them, the teachers cannot directly relate with the students’ mind. The students’ bond immediately intensified.
It is also very evident that the existence of rivalry is very dominant in the novel. All the students in Devon do their best to fit in with the “society” their friends have created. If not trying to fit in, some of them are doing implicit things to get even with their friends. It is well portrayed in Gene and Finny’s wherein Gene does his best to exceed Finny.
Guilt is also a very domineering theme in the novel. In the end, Gene realizes that he’s living in his self-contained world which is filled with hatred and disgust for others particulary his best friend Finny. Of the mentioned themes, friendship stands out most for it is the root of everything. It depicts that friendship doesn’t just curtain all the good things, but underneath the relationship lies hidden desires and envy.
Gene’s experience with Finny depicts to the readers that harbouring false motives towards other people can lead to disastrous things. He also shows that it is impossible for an individual to create complete peace in his heart until he confronts the evil in his heart and let the light shine through it. He realizes that “wars were not made by generations and their special stupidities, but that wars were made instead by something ignorant in the human heart.” It’s a compelling fact that Gene is able to acknowledge that the real enemy lies within himself. He admits that his false attitude is the cause of the corruption of his entire character .
The novel ends with the portrayal that “separate peace” can only be achieved when an individual learns how to fight his personal evils. What’s good in this tale is that it clearly demonstrates that no matter how impure a human’s heart is, there’s still a chance for him to change and put things in its right places.
- Bryant, Hallman Bell. A Separate Peace: The War Within. Twayne Publishers: Boston, 1990.
- Knowles, John. A Separate Peace. Bantam Books: New York, 1959.
- McDougal-Littell. “Author Spotlight: John Knowles.” Available online at: http://www.mcdougallittell.com/lit/guest/knowles/