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A Separate Peace

John Knowles

Study Questions & Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

Study Questions

1. To what extent should we consider Gene to be an unreliable narrator? How does this concern affect our understanding of the story that he tells and our attitude toward him?

A Separate Peace is a novel told entirely in flashback, by a narrator—Gene Forrester—who is our only source of information regarding the events that he recounts. As the story develops, the initial trust that exists between reader and narrator gradually frays, as we realize that Gene, while probably not lying about the events of the story, is clearly withholding information about his own motivations for, or reactions to, the deeds of himself and others. This reservation is apparent in the way that he talks about his friendship with Finny in the first few chapters: though Gene initially declares Finny to be his best friend and claims that he is neither jealous nor resentful of the charismatic athlete, it soon becomes clear, through subtle asides and various inconsistent behaviors, that the relationship is actually marked by forceful envy and even hatred. When Finny and Gene illicitly spend the night at the beach, for example, Finny declares his happiness in the two boys’ friendship; Gene, however, makes no such utterance.

At critical moments in the story, Gene simply describes external events without revealing his thoughts, emotions, and motivations. This disturbing lack permeates the climax of the novel, and we wait in vain for the narrator to tell us what passed through his head prior to and during the terrible moment of Finny’s fall. Similarly, Gene’s narration becomes dispassionate at the makeshift trial when it becomes clear that his secret crime will be revealed. Thus, throughout the novel, even as Gene is theoretically opening up to the reader, an important part of him remains sealed off.

Gene’s status as an unreliable narrator creates a problem of sympathy that persists throughout the novel. Because it is Gene’s perspective through which we see the story, Gene is the character with whom the reader most closely identifies. Yet, in his refusal to explain himself or the emotions and reasoning behind his perspective, he remains beyond our understanding, making it difficult for us to give him our wholehearted sympathy. Whether or not we think Gene has deliberately caused Finny’s fall, we begin to feel increasingly alienated from him. Thus, even as we become ever more invested in the story’s outcome, we become distrustful of its narrator.

2. Discuss the relationship between codependency and identity in A Separate Peace and how these concepts help define the relationship between Gene and Finny.

Early on in the novel, Gene’s relationship to Finny seems to be defined by simple envy. Finny is athletic and quick-tongued, with a powerful and assertive spirit; Gene feels overshadowed and even controlled by his friend. After Finny’s fall, however, Gene seems to be purged of his animosity and resentment, and he begins to blur the line between himself and his friend. Just before knocking Finny out of the tree, he seems to realize that Finny is his moral superior. Over the course of the rest of the novel, he tries to escape his own, pettier self by losing himself in Finny. The post-accident scene, in which Gene rather bizarrely dresses in his friend’s clothes and, looking in the mirror, finds contentment in the notion that he looks exactly like Finny, symbolizes this attempted merging of identities. In allowing Finny to train him to be the athlete that Finny himself can no longer be, Gene seems to be letting Finny live through him. Yet, just as Finny lives through Gene, Gene lives through Finny by letting Finny’s identity overwhelm his own. Thus, the two exist in a codependent state, each needing the other. Soon they share the same dreams and illusions: that the Olympics will proceed in 1944 as usual and that the war is merely a conspiracy; they thus live amid a “separate peace.” The more time goes by and the more the war encroaches upon Devon, the more the boys depend upon each other to maintain this fantasy. Ultimately, then, while this codependency allows the boys to remain content and feel secure, it hampers their entrance into the reality of adulthood. So, too, does it limit their development as individuals in touch with their own individual identities. This codependency may be unhealthy, even destructive, as the bizarre manner of Finny’s death—the fatal penetration of bone marrow into the heart—seems to suggest.

3. How does World War II function in the novel on a symbolic and thematic level? How does it relate to the title of the book?

The war constitutes a looming presence throughout the novel, constantly pressing in on Devon and drawing closer to the boys. Its symbolic meanings are numerous: it represents a loss of innocence, the coming of adulthood, and, most important, the way that human beings, out of ignorance, regard the world as a hostile place and look for enemies where none exist. Each character, the narrator suggests at the end of the novel, creates an enemy for himself and deals with that enemy in various ways. Leper’s reaction to the enemy is to lose himself in madness; Brinker copes by assuming a bravado and insisting upon order; Gene, too, fights a private war—against Finny and his own dark nature. Finny alone does not see enemies everywhere; he is enamored with peace and creates the “separate peace” of the title for himself. The summer session is one such innocent peacetime, when the war still seems far away. After his injury, however, Finny is forced to find a sense of peace in denial, by pretending that the war is just a hoax. The “separate” quality of Finny’s peace stems from his unwillingness to conceive of an enemy and Gene’s inability to join him in this peace because he cannot wholly dispel his envy toward, and resentment of, Finny.

Suggested Essay Topics

1. What role does Leper play in the novel? What does the author suggest about the nature of his relationship to Gene and Finny?

2. Discuss the importance of setting in specific scenes through-out the novel, especially in regard to what it reveals about characters and events. How do natural settings contrast with or complement the thematic content of certain scenes?

3. Contrast Brinker and Finny. How do their personalities relate to the winter session and summer session, respectively?

4. Discuss the symbolism of Finny’s fall. Is A Separate Peace a novel of sin and redemption? Is Gene redeemed in the end?

5. Analyze the role of competition in the relationship between Gene and Finny. How does Finny’s invented game of “blitzball” work as a symbol of Finny’s approach to competition? Why is it significant that he excels at sports while Gene shines in academics?

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