Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The central relationship in the novel—that between Finny and Gene—involves a complex dynamic of seeking to establish, yet being uncomfortable with, identity. Early in the book, the boys’ relationship seems fueled, in part, by Gene’s envy and resentment of his friend’s dominating spirit. As Finny demonstrates his physical prowess, Gene feels the need to accentuate his academic prowess. Finny’s fall from the tree, however, apparently purges Gene of his darker feelings and steers their relationship in a different direction so that codependency rather than envy characterizes it. The scene immediately following the fall symbolizes this evolution, as Gene dresses in Finny’s clothes and sees himself as looking exactly like him. From this point on, he and Finny come to depend on each other for psychological support. Gene plays sports because Finny cannot, allowing Finny to train him to be the athlete that Finny himself cannot be. This training seems an avenue for Finny simply to live vicariously through Gene. But Gene actively welcomes this attempt by Finny, for just as Finny derives inner strength from fulfilling his dreams through Gene, so, too, does Gene find happiness in losing his own self (which he seems to dislike) in Finny’s self (which he likes very much).
Thus, the boys’ relationship becomes a model of codependency, with each feeding off of, and becoming fulfilled by, the other. This codependency preempts the development of their individual identities, perhaps dangerously: by living within their own private illusion that World War II is a mere conspiracy and continuing to believe that Gene (and Finny through him) will go to the Olympics and that the outside world can never curtail their dreams, the boys are refusing to grow up and develop their own ambitions and responsibilities. Not even Finny’s death, though it separates them physically, can truly untangle Gene’s identity from Finny’s—he feels as though Finny’s funeral is his own. In a sense, the reader realizes, the funeral is indeed Gene’s own; so much of him is merged with Finny that it is difficult to imagine one boy continuing to exist without the other. It is perhaps only his ultimate understanding that Finny alone had no enemy that allows the older Gene to reestablish a separate identity—one that he considers, however, inferior to Finny’s.
A Separate Peace takes place during wartime and is emphatically a novel about war—and yet not a single shot is fired in the course of the story, no one dies in battle, and only the unfortunate Leper even joins the military before graduation. Instead, Knowles focuses on the war within the human heart, a war that is affected by the events of World War II but exists independently of any real armed conflict. For Knowles—or at least for his narrator, Gene—every human being goes to war at a certain point in life, when he or she realizes that the world is a fundamentally hostile place and that there exists in it some enemy who must be destroyed. The novel implicitly associates this realization of the necessity of a personal war with adulthood and the loss of childhood innocence. For most of Gene’s classmates, World War II provides the catalyst for this loss, and each reacts to it in his own way—Brinker by nurturing a stance of bravado, for example, and Leper by descending into madness.
Gene himself, though, states that he fought his own war while at Devon and killed his enemy there. The obvious implication is that Finny, as the embodiment of a spirit greater than Gene’s own, was his enemy, casting an unwavering shadow over Gene’s life. One might alternatively interpret Gene’s statement to mean that this enemy was himself, his own resentful, envious nature, which he “killed” either by knocking Finny from the tree or by obtaining forgiveness from Finny for doing so. In either case, the overall theme is clear: all humans create enemies for themselves and go to war against them. Everyone, that is, except Finny, the champion of innocence, who refuses to believe that anyone could be his enemy. In a sense, Finny’s death is inevitable: his innocence makes him too good for the war-torn and inimical world in which the rest of humanity lives.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
There are a number of significant transformations within the course of A Separate Peace. Finny is transformed from a healthy athlete into a cripple after his accident and then sets about transforming Gene into an athlete in his stead. These developments function as part of the broader process by which Gene’s identity blurs into Finny’s, a transformation symbolized by Gene’s putting on Finny’s clothes one evening soon after the accident. Meanwhile, the summer session at Devon, a time of peace and carefree innocence, metamorphoses into the winter session, in which rules and order hold sway and the darkness of the war encroaches on Devon. In a broad sense, the novel is intimately concerned with the growth of boys into men. The horrifying visions of transformation that drive Leper from the army—men turning into women, men’s heads on women’s bodies—embody all of the anxieties that plague his classmates as they deal with the joint, inevitable onset of war and adulthood.
A Separate Peace is filled with athletic activities, from the tree-climbing that is central to the plot to swimming, skiing, and snowball fights. For the most part, these games shed light on the character of Finny, who is a tremendous athlete but who nevertheless despises competition (in contrast to Gene) and imagines athletics as a realm of pure vitality and achievement, without winners and losers. This mindset is evident in the way that he behaves after breaking the school swimming record—he refuses to let Gene tell anyone about his feat—and in the game of blitzball, which he invents. Blitzball is the perfect game for Finny because it requires tremendous exertion and agility yet is impossible to win and focuses on pure athleticism rather than the defeat of opponents.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The summer session at Devon is a time of anarchy and freedom, when the teachers are lenient and Finny’s enthusiasm and clever tongue enable him to get away with anything. This session symbolizes innocence and youth and comes to an end with Finny’s actual and symbolic fall, which ushers in the winter session, a time embodied by the hardworking, order-loving Brinker Hadley. The winter session is dark, disciplined, and filled with difficult work; it symbolizes the encroaching burdens of adulthood and wartime, the latter of which intrudes increasingly on the Devon campus. Together, then, the two sessions represent the shift from carefree youth to somber maturity. Finny, unwilling or perhaps unable to face adulthood, dies and thus never enters into this second, disillusioning mode of existence.
Finny’s fall, the climax of the novel, is highly symbolic, as it brings to an end the summer session—the period of carefree innocence—and ushers in the darker winter session, filled with the forebodings of war. So, too, does Finny’s fall demonstrate to Gene that his resentment and envy are not without consequences, as they lead to intense feelings of shame and guilt. The literal fall, then, symbolizes a figurative fall from innocence—like Adam and Eve, who eat from the Tree of Knowledge and are consequently exiled from the Garden of Eden into sin and suffering, the students at Devon, often represented by Gene, are propelled from naïve childhood into a knowledge of good and evil that marks them as adults.
World War II symbolizes many notions related to each other in the novel, from the arrival of adulthood to the triumph of the competitive spirit over innocent play. Most important, it symbolizes conflict and enmity, which the novel—or at least the narrator, Gene—sees as a fundamental aspect of adult human life. All people eventually find a private war and private enemy, the novel suggests, even in peacetime, and they spend their lives defending themselves against this enemy. Only Finny is immune to this spirit of enmity, which is why he denies that the war exists for so long—and why, in the end, Gene tells him that he would be no good as a soldier—because he doesn’t understand the concept of an enemy. It is significant that the war begins to encroach upon the lives of the students with any severity only after Finny’s crippling fall: the spirit of war can hold unchallenged influence over the school only after Finny’s death.