Some Thoughts on A Separate Peace

I was in a bookstore while on a weekend shopping trip. The title had been stuck in my head all day, just kind of rotating around nonchalantly, meaninglessly, as phrases do. A Separate Peace. I’ve never known anything about the book, but the title has always seemed to me singularly beautiful. The kind of title you wish you had thought of first. Shimmering with meaning. With significance. I have no idea how it came into my mind.

That night, I was ambling around a bookstore when I looked down, and there it was. A Separate Peace, laying on a shelf with the most beautiful, evocative cover I have seen in a long time. I picked it up, read the back.

I almost never buy literature. I have a shelf full of it, and I’ve read my fair share of it. I like my books that I read for pleasure to be meaningful; I don’t necessarily like for them to be profound. Books that are profound often lack a certain story-telling element that I find necessary for enjoyment. But something was definitely calling to me from this book. Something in my spirit was propelling me to buy it. I’m still not sure why.

My mom likes to do amazing stocking stuffers, and she had requested that I pick out two books for her to put in mine. At the end of my search, I took her The Bridge to Belle Island, by Julie Klassen, and A Separate Peace, by John Knowles. She held up the latter, saying with mild surprise, “Really, you want this one?” I answered, “It’s very pretty.” And that was that.

It appeared in my stocking, and sat on my shelf for a few weeks. This weekend, I finished it. It was profound. There’s no getting around that. I wished heartily for one of my literature-reading circles in my college classes, where the professor could tell us what the greats thought about it, and we could fire back with what we thought about it. But I don’t have that, and, as a change, I have decided to reflect on what it means to me before I look up any reviews to see what it means to others. The author of the afterword in my copy, David Levithan, talks about “the double life of all great literature—there is what it is meant to mean, and then there is what it means to any given reader.” I thought I would share a few of my thoughts on it. There are spoilers ahead.

  • The book is set in a New England boy’s school, Devon, during WWII. It follows its protagonist, Gene Forrester, who is sixteen through being on the cusp of eighteen. He is in his final years of high school, contemplating going to war and dealing with adolescent friendships, most prominently with his roommate, Phineas (Finney). It is a coming of age story, but I think it speaks more deeply than simply to the things we learn as we are propelled from childhood to adulthood. It is a very human story.
  • I loved the New England private school setting. There is something deeply interesting and compelling about it, not to mention that historic feeling that is so unique.
  • Obviously the most profound thing the book has to offer is a study of the human condition. Of our negative capabilities. Our sins. Our ability to hurt other people, and the consequences of that, what to do with that. I don’t want to sound too negative here because I believe we also have endless positive capabilities, so I’ll caveat what I’m about to say with that. But the novel touches on that dark spot in our soul, those things we are most ashamed of that we spend our lives trying to cover or convince ourselves are not there. Of course, as a Christian, I believe that there is an answer to that: grace. But we try so desperately to convince ourselves that we are incapable of harm or bad things, almost as if to save ourselves. We believe that there are good people and bad people, and we are good people. I would imagine many can identify to some extent with the narrator/protagonist, Gene. He’s a rule-follower. A studious kid, not half-bad as an athlete, reasonably popular. He is mesmerized by his friend, Finney, who is one of those kids who has a certain flare about him that draws people; Finney is excellent at sports, has a unique outlook, and a strong charisma. He doesn’t follow the rules. Gene, I think, secretly believes he is a better person than Finney, and yet, at the same time, or maybe at varying times, Finney is also through Gene’s eyes also morally perfect. He doesn’t seem to grasp the gray areas at sixteen to seventeen years old. The boys, while close, are very different and don’t understand each other. They are also deeply jealous of one another, a very common thing among childhood friends. I felt a deep pity for Gene because he doesn’t know he is ensnared in Finney’s intoxicating web. He, while not charismatic, is actually the stronger personality, but he doesn’t have the confidence yet to be his own man. As Finney drags Gene away from his studies and into things he wouldn’t normally do, as the unspoken simultaneous magnetism and rivalry between them grows, all I could think of, now being just turned thirty, was… Finney, for all his undeniable charm, unmistakeable good qualities, and real charisma, is someone I would absolutely not want a child of mine hanging out with. That is so simple to see as an adult. But in a school setting, the play is set, and the players are absolute, as are the peer leaders, and there is no perspective.
  • When Gene realizes Finney is jealous of him academically, and his rage builds, he believes Finney hates him, and he hates Finney. Later, Gene gaslights himself into believing that it was all in his head and Finney was perfect. But I think he got it right the first time. I also think that, while Gene isn’t one to play a deep rivalry game and he felt no malice towards Finney for his athletic prowess, he was more ruthless in his own perfectionism than he ever would have thought. But because of the social structure, he was used to thinking of people like himself as good and people like Finney as bad. When he comes face to face with his own dark capabilities, it shatters him, as it does all of us—all the more so because he had never realized he was capable of sin. Or at least not that kind of sin.
  • When Gene, in a split second, shakes the limb and Finney falls, I think we, the readers, all get that sinking feeling. Most of us have likely never injured someone when angry with them, but we have all been in a rage before. So angry that if our feelings, our looks, our words could do real damage… Gene doesn’t know what to do with that sort of realization in himself any more than the next person, especially because he is so young. And he can’t hide from it, can’t tell himself lies to smooth it over. The damage is on display for him to see every day. He is, because he has a strong moral code, unwilling to compensate mentally, so he won’t even cushion the blow for himself. He is also unwilling to look at outside causes, such as the fact that Finney knew the tree was dangerous and that he should not climb it. However, Gene sees in a glance the depravity of his soul, or as a Christian would think of it, that thing that separates him from God absent grace. For anyone who has ever struggled with an inordinate burden of guilt, this episode will feel very significant. Again, it makes me think of faith. Of that load that is too difficult for us to bear, that weight of sin. And of why grace, from God and from each other, and the love that comes with it, is the most vital thing in the world.
  • I liked that Gene was casually Southern. This was a nice little surprise in a book that I had thought would be about two New England boys. In literature, generally the every-man American is not Southern. This isn’t a complaint. It’s just a truth that is caused, I think, by economic disparities. There is more opportunity in other places, and so the representative characters usually end up being from those places, often because the authors are from those places. If a character is a Southerner, they are typically defined by that alone, and not necessarily capable of being representative, especially if the setting is not in the South. That was not the case here, which probably has something to do with Knowles’s own West Virginia roots.
  • I didn’t realize until I lead Levithan’s afterword that A Separate Peace has a lot of significance almost as a gay literary icon. As I read the book, it did cross my mind that Gene and Finney almost have a pull of attraction between them, and that the words used to describe that attraction are often used in literature romantically. So I could see how this could be read into the book, almost in a Brideshead way. But in an interview much later in life, Knowles said that there was nothing romantic in the relationship between the two, and that, given the time and place, if they had been gay, it would have changed the way he had written everything, which, once you think about it, would be very true. It would have been much more careful; they would have been much more careful. So I don’t want to deny the meaning the book has to anyone, but this did have me thinking… Do we, as we read books and watch TV (or write) tend to think of romantic relationships as the only ones that have this level of impact on our lives? (The answer is: yes.) But all sorts of relationships outside romantic ones define us, move us, get into our heads, have meaning for us. Knowles was emphatic about the point that they are seen as friends, and I think this is why: he wanted to delve into the significance of relationships that aren’t romantic. While we pretend that amorous connections drive everything, friendships and other connections have an impact on us whether we recognize them or not, and I think Knowles wanted us to recognize that.
  • I wrote about the American war novel here. This book could fit alongside any of them. It reminded me most strongly of The Red Badge of Courage and A Farewell to Arms. The former, for its “young man contemplating war” theme, and the latter for its searching for the meaning of life. A Separate Peace isn’t solely a war novel, though. It proclaims that in the title. By taking peace, literal and spiritual, as one of its themes, the war was always going to be a side character. As a side note, it was a brilliant insight into what it was like to be a teenage boy during the WWII years, waiting for eighteen to hit.
  • I think I was led to the book for a reason. I’m glad I read it. Even if it was profound.