A Separate Peace

by: John Knowles

Motifs

Main ideas Motifs
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Transformations

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.

Athletics

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.