John Knowles, “A Separate Peace”

By: Emma Cohron

A Separate Peace by John Knowles is a coming-of-age novel about two teenage boys growing up at a boarding high school during the second World War. The novel begins with the narrator, Gene Forrester, walking around the campus for the first time in fifteen years, reminiscing on his time as a student and the momentous events that took place at the Devon school in New Hampshire. The narrator then remembers back to 1942 when he was just sixteen years old. He recalls his best friend at the time, a boy named Phineas, Finny for short. He speaks fondly of Finny, a carefree, fearless boy with a love for athletics and little regard for the anxiety the other young men at the Devon school are experiencing as a result of the war. One of Finny’s favorite activities is climbing a tree that stands next to a river on campus, stepping out across it’s limbs, and then jumping out into the river where the water is deep enough to catch his fall. One day, while out at the tree with a few friends, Finny suggests that he and Gene climb up the tree and jump in together. Gene agrees and follows Finny up the tree. However, when Gene reaches the limb Finny is on he is overcome with the urge to bounce the limb and Finny with it. As a result, Finny falls to the ground beside the river and breaks his leg, permanently crippling him and ending his athletic career. Finny goes home for a few weeks to recover, and during this time receives a visit from Gene who, wracked with guilt, confesses his part in the accident. Finny cannot fathom that his best friend would cause him harm, and therefore refuses to believe the confession. When Finny returns to school their relationship continues as normal. However, as the novel progresses the effects of the war inch closer to home for the boys as the oldest boys train to be soldiers and are drafted into the war. One of Gene’s good friends, Elwin “Leper” Lepellier enlists, and eventually goes AWOL and returns home after being traumatized by the experience. Upon Leper’s return Brinker, another friend of Finny and Gene’s, sets up a mock trial to investigate the accident that resulted in Finny’s broken leg. During this trial Leper, who was at the tree at the time of the accident, testifies that he witnessed Gene bounce the branch causing Finny to fall. Finny, still hesitant to accept this reality, storms out of the room to avoid hearing the rest of the testimony. As he leaves he slips on a marble staircase, falls, and breaks his leg again. He is sent to the infirmary where Gene visits him, and Finny explains that he understands that Gene caused his accident out of impulse, not out of malice. The next day Gene returns to the infirmary to comfort Finny, but is informed by the doctor that during Finny’s surgery bone marrow leaked out of his broken leg and traveled to his heart causing it to stop and Finny to die. The novel concludes with Gene musing upon Finny, their friendship, the war, and peace.

The novel explores several themes through Finny and Gene’s relationship. The foremost of these themes is codependency, as Finny and Gene’s relationship shifts into codependency after the accident. Gene relies on Finny as emotional support for the guilt he feels over the accident, and Finny relies on Gene for academic help (as Gene is a much better student) and lives vicariously through Gene in athletics since he is no longer able to compete. Their identities become so entangled that Gene describes attending Finny’s funeral as akin to attending his own. Additionally, the novel represents the metaphorical transition from boyhood to manhood through the changing of seasons. The novel begins in the summer with the boys feeling carefree and unencumbered by rules or academics as the war is waged far from home. Finny’s accident occurs at the end of summer, and thus begins the winter term at Devon. The winter term comes with Gene’s guilt for his role in Finny’s accident and the war creeps closer to home as the boys’ classmates are drafted and enlist. As the winter term progresses, the boys are faced with the difficult choice of whether or not to enlist and if so, what branch they will choose. The main conflict, the cause of Finny’s fall, comes to a head with the mock trial where Gene’s actions are exposed to the rest of the boys and Finny falls and ultimately dies. These thematic elements help to drive the novel and increase its efficacy as a work of realism.

John Knowles was widely praised for A Separate Peace. The novel was published by Secker & Warburg in 1959 based on Knowles’ short story “Phineas” which was published in the May 1956 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine. Given that Knowles attended Phillip-Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, a private secondary school largely resembling the Devon school of the novel, many scholars believe that the novel is loosely based on Knowles’ own experiences. Knowles was the first winner of the William Faulkner Foundation award for notable first novel for A Separate Peace in 1961, and the book was a New York Times bestseller in 1960 and a National Book Award finalist in the fiction category in 1961. 

The novel has a long history of challenges, and was even one of the ALA’s top 100 novels of the 20th century to be banned or challenged. It was first challenged in Vernon-Verona-Sherill, NY School District in 1980 for being a “filthy, trashy sex novel.” Interestingly, there is no explicit description of sex in the novel, nor is there any implicit reference to any sexual activity occurring behind the scenes. There is neither a single woman in the entire novel nor any implication of homoerotic elements on the part of the author. In fact, John Knowles stated “It would have changed everything, it wouldn’t have been the same story. In that time and place, my characters would have behaved totally differently… If there had been homoeroticism between Phineas and Gene, I would have put it in the book, I assure you. It simply wasn’t there.” It was also challenged at high schools in Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Illinois, and North Carolina throughout the 1980s for its use of language described as “unsuitable”, “graphic” , and “offensive”. Uses of the terms “ass”, “damn”, “hell”, and “bastard” appear throughout the novel, likely inciting these challenges.

Further Reading

John Knowles:

Plot summary:

Thematic analysis:

Challenges to the novel: