The Boarding School Microcosm: The Unrealistic Portrayal of “Real Life” in the Institutions of Young Adult Literature

Young adult novels set at boarding schools typically feature protagonists that encounter trials not necessarily representative of life outside of fiction on their journey towards adulthood. Rather, these texts amplify struggles and cause problems for the characters detrimental to their coming of age, presenting overwhelming problems of inaccuracy in boarding school novels and rendering them less realistic than merited. Death, alcohol abuse, and behaviors indicative of mental unwellness occur without much (if any) adult interference, and the young characters struggle to succeed within the academic environment at a level that would, in reality, be just cause for concern among their peers and superiors alike. Novels such as J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, John Knowles’ A Separate Peace, and John Green’s Looking for Alaska portray the dramatization of adolescent struggles within a boarding school setting, serving as prime examples of the tragedies of youth as depicted in a fictional school setting. Thusly, the archetypical boarding school novel within the young adult category of literature stresses trauma too heavily and cannot be considered truly reflective of reality.

Popular in literature, the boarding school setting provides a consolidated means of offering an audience access to multiple aspects of a teenage character’s life. In reality, the setting does indeed combine social life with academic and personal. While that translates as a more dynamic version of the typical school story in juvenile fiction, the practice of using boarding school as a safe environment in which young people are able to thrive as a result of constant, careful monitoring of a high standard is a “basic assumption” that “is a common, socially condoned, and usually unquestioned premise that sending children to boarding school is good for them. A common phrase used to justify this practice is that boarding school will be ‘the making of them’” (Schaverien 683-4).

While boarding schools are by no means an ideal atmosphere in which adolescents can gain exposure to a multidimensional world, as no environment is absolutely perfectly suited for learning and growth, the setting is typically depicted as one contributing to the success of the ideal child. “Despite the popular literature on this topic there is little written, from within the analytic world, about the lasting psychological and sociological impact of boarding schools” (Schaverien 686). This flawed social representation catalyzes the perception of the shortcomings of boarding schools, fueling the inaccurate fictional portrayals of the location that are only dramatized by the portrayal of the negligence of adult figures and lack of appropriate regulations. The typical school story in young adult literature details the lack of adult aid in the trials the young characters face while coming of age, but the boarding school story highlights this even more, providing a broader setting for those authority figures to disappear from.

Devon Preparatory, the fictional boarding school of A Separate Peace, embodies this imperfect boarding school setting then exaggerates it, featuring few responsible adults who bother to interfere in the misbehaviors and reckless teenage boy activities of main characters Finny and Gene. The latter serves as both the protagonist and narrator and spends time throughout the course of the novel—even in his musings set in the future in the first chapter—simply describing the school’s physical properties: “Devon is sometimes considered the most beautiful school in New England, and even on this dismal afternoon its power was asserted” (Knowles 8). The book features Devon as only a setting to be respected; it is not the nature of the boarding of students itself but rather the lack of supervision that this particular setting allows that results in Finny’s tragic accident.

While Devon itself cannot necessarily be held responsible for the actions of the characters and the resulting broken leg of their friend while adventuring, their occurrences would be much less likely at a public school or in a non-academic setting altogether. This casual establishment of Devon as the product of the author’s desire to protect the integrity of boarding schools can be attributed to how “Knowles carefully shields his fictional academy from criticism” (Pitofsky 390). In constructing the setting to be more representative of the typical school story than the more detailed boarding school story, the author has the ability to stay fairly realistic and avoid playing into the stereotypical dramas associated with fictional boarding and preparatory schools. Nevertheless, the dramatization in A Separate Peace occurs at such a level that is ridiculous in comparison to realistic standards for school-age children like Finny and Gene and the adventures upon which they embark.

This fiction, despite its attempts to make the boarding school setting more realistic, is not an accurate portrayal of adolescence because of the “remote and indistinct” setting Knowles creates:

First of all, he keeps the Devon School and its routines offstage throughout the novel. Second, when the students in A Separate Peace suffer physical and emotional trauma, Knowles makes it clear that their injuries are self-inflicted and therefore Devon should not be held responsible. Knowles’s efforts to turn the reader’s attention away from the school have a paradoxical effect. On the one hand, they weaken A Separate Peace by making its main setting remote and indistinct; on the other, they help to explain the novel’s enormous popularity (Pitofsky 390)

The isolation and lack of accountability Devon has in these boys’ lives permits them to act more independently; Devon’s remote location might have its appeal to readers, but it does result in the abandonment of its care of its students like Gene and Finny. Devon is not responsible for them as a real school would be, consequently allowing them to engage in dangerous activities.

Gene and Finny’s summer session spent in blatant defiance of the strictness of their Masters serves as an example of their embracement of liberties at the school, further demonstrated by Finny’s bold attempts to befriend the Masters enough to permit their jumping out of trees and missing meals. “The Master was slipping from his official position momentarily, and it was just possible, if Phineas pressed hard enough, that there might be a flow of simple, unregulated friendliness between them, and such flows were one of Finny’s reasons for living” (Knowles 22). Despite the apparent severity of the few adults in the novel, such as the Master who bothers calling Finny out for missing “nine meals in the last two weeks” there seems to be very little care on behalf of the school authorities about the boys on a daily basis when they are getting into trouble (Knowles 22). The boys are left to self-regulate—a practice common for fictional youth in boarding school novels but rarely successful, as would be more likely in reality: “Enough broken rules were enough that night” (Knowles 55). Furthering the idea that boarding school novels are not reflective of reality to the extent they are frequently given credit, in such texts there are no guidance counselor check-ins, no true punishments or scrutinizing of Finny’s fall and Gene’s role in the altercation… this novel is characteristic of a typical young adult novel in which the adults are rarely seen on center stage because they simply do not care. “In some ways, Knowles raises the suspicion that the authorities at Devon were negligent” (Pitofsky 403). The lack of adult attention only serves as a detriment to the wellbeing of these young characters.

A Separate Peace, like so many other young adult boarding school novels, allows its characters to participate in unrealistic activities because of the setting and the freedoms it allows (and, consequently, the loopholes and following trouble the youth find). Because of this, the characters are less relatable and the text is less effective as realistic fiction. Boarding school novels similar to Knowles’ hold their characters to unrealistically low standards and fail to interject responsible adults or realistic roadblocks for the adolescents, rendering them less like reality than audiences often give them credit for.

The Catcher in the Rye reveals the flaws of boarding school young adult literature similarly, emphasizing the lack of adult supervision and necessary interference in the self-regulation of adolescents in order to facilitate their successful coming of age. Protagonist Holden Caulfield spends only a short time at the beginning of the novel at his boarding school, Pencey Prep, but the significance of the setting on his mental health is great, an attribution augmented by the audience’s knowledge of his past failures at multiple other boarding schools. The exposure to competition among the other male characters and Holden’s desperate and successful attempts to depart the school speak to the unrealistic adult supervision in the novel, ridiculously lax even in the 1950s.

Holden’s repeated use of the words “phonies” and “hot-shots” reveal his discomfort with the masculine competition he experienced at boarding school. He identifies the rivalry aspect of the environment as being harmful to his search for a truthful, genuine life that will ideally provide him with some stability. Pitofsky’s review of masculine competition in The Catcher in the Rye substantiates the argument that Holden lacks the ability to find sincere characters in the book because his preparatory school has exposed him to other characters who do not aid him in growth, as a school in reality does intend to provide, as speaks to the nature of education. “The character tries to keep his distance from the materialism and self-importance he associates with ‘hot-shots,’ but boarding-school culture circa 1950 offered no refuge from aggressive masculine competition” (68). Holden is not in an environment that he feels allows him to thrive without threat when he is at one of his many boarding schools.

Holden’s relationship with his roommate, a popular young man by the name of Stradlater, reveals how he interacts with other characters his age, who are intended to be very average depictions of teenagers to highlight Holden’s lack of lucidity. The challenges the struggling protagonist faces (such as writing his paper for him, and attempting to talk to women) are amplified by his complaints that he does not fit in with the other characters, and then the descriptions of those characters going out and succeeding athletically and socially. “[H]e is perpetually reminded that other characters do not view success the way he does” (Pitofsky 74). Holden refers to Stradlater as a man “madly in love with himself” (Salinger 27). Holden’s criticisms of his roommate and even his professors past and present are vapid, judgmental to a point at which they are invalid and instigating even more unruly behavior from Holden that should warrant his institutionalization but do not until much, much later in the novel as a result of his lack of true adult aid at school.

Holden’s aforementioned failure to succeed at any preparatory school preceding Pencey enunciate this point: “Thus, it is not hard to understand why Holden, a character with no discernible “furnace of ambition,” “will to excel,” or desire to be “toughened up,” has struggled to find a niche at the boarding schools he has attended” (Pitofsky 73). Pencey serves a non-therapeutic setting when all Holden needs to establish or regain mental stability at a realistically socially permissible level is some sort of therapy. Holden does not receive any sort of therapy at school—only later in the novel, when we see that he is in a mental institution and allowed to go back to school in the fall. It is only when he departs for New York City from Pencey that we see Holden encounter any sort of therapeutic setting, such as with his sister, or in the park. Consequently, this lack of help may cause readers to feel a sense of detachment from the character and his supposedly realistic story: “Holden’s decline in health may seem like an exceptional case, far removed from most people’s everyday experience” (Baer & Gesler 405).

What should come unsurprisingly, then, to a disconnected audience, is Holden’s alienation from succeeding at boarding school from the start, given his personality, incapable of developing—much less maintaining—a healthy mindset because he is unable to compete with the unrealistic standards of athleticism and romantic successes of his male peers at school but does mellow out when he is in some sort of setting in which he is given the opportunity to relax and contemplate his perception of himself.

The habits and lack of supervision of the adults in the contemporary bestseller Looking for Alaska also render it a typical boarding school novel, ranking among the likes of A Separate Peace and The Catcher in the Rye because of their struggling male protagonists in particular. The severity of the behaviors and consequences the students face in John Green’s 2005 tome is unrealistic in that their opposition of adult authority literally results in character Alaska’s death. The likelihood of these children getting away with smoking and drinking to the extent they do at Culver Creek Preparatory School is unfathomable in reality, as the negligence of the few adults in the book, such as decrepit Dr. Hyde and the Eagle, is not an accurate portrayal of typical adult interference.

The characters lie to their superiors and one another easily, taking turns covering for their friends and taking blame. They cuss, smoke, and drink… all while recognizing the detriments of their habits on their health and stability at school. Yet no adult bothers to truly interfere—in fact, the Eagle permits a trip to the Colonel’s mother when the children cannot verifiably be credited with actually visiting his mother (they do not). Alaska notes the Colonel’s affection for the students and secretly negligent policies, despite his attempts to enforce punishment. She attributes his occasionally authoritative behavior to his love of the school and belief that “busting [the kids] is good for the school and good for [them]… The Good versus the Naughty” (56).

According to Lewis et al., Looking for Alaska very heavily emphasizes the disconnect between those adolescents coming of age and their adult superiors. Although “Looking for Alaska demonstrates how adolescent behaviors have as much to do with adult expectations of them as they do with any “natural” need for rebellion or opposition,” the positioning of the adults’ interference with the children actually causes their detriment (47). Looking for Alaska provides a contemporary example of this unrealistic approach to boarding school fiction, taking away the merit from its accuracies by unequally emphasizing the faults of the setting.

The trouble the adolescents featured in these novels get in far exceeds any similarly aged people would in real life as a result of the isolation they face in boarding schools. This removal from the rest of society is not only physical—emotionally, these realistic fiction novels negate any positive influence from adults, sometimes excluding them completely from a situation and eliminating possibility for growth as a result of mature relationships developing in an academic setting. Accordingly, the young adults featured in this category of literature fail to flourish as civilized, well rounded individuals and are left to their own devices in fictional situations that are extremely dramatic.

Works Cited

Baer, Leonard D., and Wilbert M. Gesler. “Reconsidering the concept of therapeutic landscapes in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.” Area 36.4 (2004): 404-13. Web.

Green, John. Looking for Alaska. New York: Dutton Juvenile, 2005. Print.

Knowles, John. A Separate Peace. London: Heinemann, 1987. Print.

Lewis, Mark A., Robert Petrone, and Sophia Tatiana Sarigianides. “Acting Adolescent?: Critical Examinations of the Youth-Adult Binary in Feed and Looking for Alaska.” The ALAN Review Winter (2016): 43-50. Web.

Pitofsky, Alex. “Masculine Competition and Boarding-School Culture in The Catcher in the Rye.” Studies in American Culture 34.1 (2011): 67-85. Web.

Pitofsky, Alex. “Unseen Academy: John Knowles’s A Separate Peace.” Papers on Language & Literature 49.4 (2013): 390-414. Web.

Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1951. Print.

Schaverien, Joy. “Boarding school: The trauma of the ‘privileged’ child.” Journal of Analytical Psychology 49.5 (2004): Web.

The Before and the After: Finding Identity in the Midst of War

Everyone, at some point, has an experience that so profoundly alters his or her life that it seems to define time itself. For many Americans, the tragic terrorist attacks that took place on September 11, 2001 fractured life into two pieces: before and after. World War II similarly affected the people of the era, especially teenage boys, for whom the world of childhood was distinct from the world of adulthood–the world of war. The characters in John Knowles’s novel A Separate Peace struggle to find their own identities during the transition to adulthood in the midst of the looming threat of World War II and their own personal wars. Each boy at the Devon School reacts differently in response to growing up. The complicated relationships between Leper, Finny, and Gene, as well as the plot and setting of the novel explore this identity crisis during a period of history when adolescent boys defined themselves in terms of the war, because the transition from child to adult was clearly defined by the military draft.

Although he is unwilling to jump from the tree after Finny and Gene or volunteer to shovel snow, Leper is the first boy to respond to the draft and take the proverbial leap. His reaction to the war surprises everyone. Before he leaves, he is quiet and gentle, with a “wide and unfocused” smile (Knowles 99). Leper makes an important observation about responses to the war, right before he decides to enlist, when he says, “. . . ‘I’m almost glad this war came along. It’s like a test, isn’t it, and only the things and the people who’ve been evolving the right way survive'” (Knowles 125). The war breaks Leper, ultimately, because he cannot handle change. His hallucinations are of change; of the corporal’s face “changing into faces [he] knew” and into a woman, and a broom changing into a severed leg (Knowles 150). The ever-changing nature of the war damages him–he stays in the dining room because of the dependability of it, where “[he] never [wonders] what’s going to happen” (Knowles 142). He confronts the war as well as his future but is unprepared for the harsh reality of either.

Finny is the symbol of childhood and innocence. He is optimistic, but refuses to see the darkness in life, instead insisting, “The winter loves [him]. . .as much as you can say a season can love” (Knowles 111). This view that everything he loves will love him back is sadly proven more false than true in his rejection by the military and Gene’s jealousy for him. His fall, coincidentally beginning the fall of the school year and, metaphorically, the transition into adulthood, is the event which forces the boys at the Devon School to respond to the reality of war. Finny changes from an athlete to a cripple and must cope with the idea that something he wants may not want him. He does this by finding a separate peace, a childlike unconcern, and pretending that the war cannot affect him; in fact, he denies its existence entirely. Gene describes him as “the essence of this careless peace” (Knowles 24). As the two boys near the draft age, they remain hidden in this dangerous ignorance of the war–Phineas especially, as he is also unaware of the second, more personal war with his “best pal” (Knowles 48). Finny, the representation of the purity and perfection of childhood, escapes the sad fate of war, although he unknowingly fights his own with Gene.

If Finny symbolizes childhood, Gene symbolizes adulthood and the impending war. To Finny, Gene’s “‘West Point Stride’ [is] intolerable” (Knowles 19). Gene has a different sort of crisis in the process of finding his identity. He is caught up in himself, and how much he hates himself, and longs to be like Finny, who he loves. This is the basis for his one-sided war with Finny, before the death of Finny’s future when Gene jounces him out of the tree. In order to find his own identity, Gene has to move past his jealousy of Finny. He decides to remove the root of this jealousy entirely. While Finny is innocent, Gene is guilty, and while Finny is genuine, Gene is sarcastic. Finny is a life-saver, who rescues Gene from tumbling from the tree, and Gene is a killer, who intentionally causes Finny’s fall. In the face of the larger war, however, Gene reacts differently. He loses himself in Finny, in childhood, and the peace that accompanies it. It is only after Finny’s death, when the war seeps in, that Gene recognizes the reality of both wars, and comes to his own epiphany–”wars were made instead by something ignorant in the human heart” (Knowles 201). Although this new idea shapes Gene, the way of thinking that Finny has left behind is ever-present. He says, “During the time I was with him, Phineas created an atmosphere in which I continued now to live”–a way of holding onto childhood optimism by accepting as much as possible “without a sense of chaos and loss” (Knowles 202). In this way, although Gene symbolizes the adult world and inevitably succumbs to the reality of growing up, he remains with a shadow of Finny’s peace.

How Leper, Finny, and Gene react to the war is what creates their identity: The war and the idea of war is so prevalent in their lives that it defines them. As the seasons change and time presses forward, the boys change in their perspectives and develop their new identities in response to this fear of the future. It is with a matured outlook that Gene returns fifteen years after his time at the Devon School, and realizes that he has finally moved past his fear of growing up. His experiences, darkened by the shadow of war, have left permanent impressions on his character. Similarly, the memories of personal, life-changing moments may lose their potency–the world continues to revolve and evolve and time may be redefined in new ways–but their effects will always linger.

Dramatic Change in A Separate Peace

High school is a time for great physical, mental, and emotional changes in youth. Some students experience a one-foot height change, others, an epiphany. These changes happen over the course of high school, but can be brought about quickly under the correct circumstances. In the novel A Separate Peace by John Knowles, Phineas is another victim of high school changes, catalyzed by injury. He begins his adolescent life normally, as a superb athlete, yet a tragic “accident” wrecks his chance at a this normal life and puts Finny in a state of denial. However, he eventually accepts his reality by snapping out of his dreamer mentality. The progression of Finny’s mental state is indicative of how trauma can catapult the normally unsettling growth of youth in high school into a state of disbelief and denial, detaching one from reality.

Finny begins life at Devon school as a dreamer. He has a free spirit, creating activities and doing odd things for pure amusement. As Finny is trying on unusual clothes, he ponders “…what would happen if I looked like a fairy to everyone” (17). Phineas really does not care what others think about him; he is just curious for his own sake. This dressing scene and the pages following in which he wears the pink shirt demonstrate his carefree attitude towards life. After swimming in the school pool and breaking a record, Phineas notes how “The only real swimming is in the ocean”(37). He is unimpressed by the fact that he breaks the school’s record, but wishes to swim in the ocean, as if doing so were somehow a greater feat. He does not pay heed to the fact that he is breaking an important rule, and might even miss class. The first few chapters of A Separate Peace stress the dreamer mentality of Phones in other ways. In addition, Finny has no visible fear of things that others commonly are afraid of. For example, the dreaded tree is a nonissue in the mind of Finny. He jumps first, saying, “here’s my contribution to the war effort” (8). Others in his group of friends tremble at the sight of the tall tree. Even Gene is skeptical about the safety of the tree to begin with, only jumping after Finny goes first for reassurance. Phineas chooses what needs to be done, and sticks with his decisions without fear of failure.

To save Gene from falling from the tree, Finny “shot out and grabbed my [Gene’s] arm, and with my balance restored, the panic immediately disappeared” (24). He does what has to be done instantly, without questioning himself in the process. Finny lacks fear of things that could be serious issues to others. It is this lack of fear that makes his injury so tragic. After his fall from the limb, Phineas denies that Gene jounced the limb, and disavows the existence of a raging war. It seems to Gene that Finny actually believes that the war is a joke made up to subdue the people. When discussing other conspiracies, Finny states that “they couldn’t use that trick forever, so for us in the forties they’ve cooked up this war fake” (107). Phineas of course denies the existence of the war with his inner logic, seeming sensible and realistic. This constant self-justification is proof that Finny really does not even believe the theories himself. He is just using them as a shield to avoid his own reality. He asserts this theory again when Mr. Ludsbury talks of the war; Finny explains that Ludsbury believes in the war because he is “Too thin. Of course” (114). This statement goes back on his former idea that “fat old men” created the war and contrasts Ludsbury to these men. Mr. Ludsbury is a symbol for the rest of Devon, and even the rest of the world. Everyone believes in the war but Finny, and he is alone in his theories because he needs the protection. The theories of “fat old men” give a sense of justification to Finny that he is not needed in the war, even though he would love to participate. It kills Finny to sit at home without truly participating.

Phineas also denies the fact that he fell directly because of Gene jouncing the limb. Finny does begin, after his injury, to suspect Gene by having a “crazy idea, I must have been delirious”(58). This idea is immediately dismissed by Finny, however, as it could ruin the friendship. Finny chooses not to pursue this topic because it would get him nowhere, much like accepting the war would. Nothing could be done to change the past at this point. As response to Gene’s visit and confession, Finny asserts, “Of course you didn’t do it. You damn fool. Sit down, you damn fool”(62). No matter how Gene tries to approach the topic with Finny, his feelings of disbelief will not budge. He is completely denying this fact because Gene is his only true friend, and their bond could be ruined for him if it were true. After his final accident and before his untimely death, Finny does eventually accept the harsh reality of his situation. He acknowledges the existence of the war. After Leper’s ordeal Finny realizes that “If a war can drive somebody crazy, then it’s real all right! Oh I guess I always knew, but I didn’t have to admit it”(156). The war had then personally affected one of Phineas’s close friends, forcing the reality of it onto him. Finny could no longer lie to himself and others about the war. He lied about the war because he could not participate in it: “I’ll hate it everywhere if I’m not in this war! Why do you think I kept saying there wasn’t any war all winter?”(182). Finny’s leg injury prevented his probable experience if the war. A great athlete like Finny’s past self would have been perfect for the war, but all of his chances were ruined when he was jounced by the limb. Finny accepts that Gene caused all of this, that all of his pain and suffering was due to Gene. After his second fall when, Gene attempts a late night visit, Finny yells, “You want to break something else in me! Is that why you’re here!”(176). It is not just limbs however that were broken due to Gene. Finny’s chances at life, a future, and a normal high school were all ruined as well. Fortunately, Finny holds no grudges on his deathbed, accepting and giving reasons that did what he did. Finny explains that “It wasn’t anything you really felt against me, it wasn’t some kind of hate you’ve felt all along. It wasn’t anything personal” (183). Finny eventually understands the subconscious feelings that Gene has been having. He accepts this fact knowing that Gene is not to blame, and should not feel sorrow towards Finny. He ends his short dreamy life as a realist, with no regrets or qualms regarding his killer.

In his short life, Finny passes through three personas involving stages of acceptance: a dreamer, denialist, and finally a realist. His crippling injury took away his childish perspective, and forced hiding and lies upon him. His second injury removed his shields and forced an acceptance of harsh reality. Seeing life from a different perspective, whether it be as a cripple or a realist, can give the reader an entirely different mindset for determining what is important, and what can be easily forgiven.

Growing Up in A Separate Peace

As Ernest Hemingway once wisely proclaimed, “All things truly wicked start from innocence” (Hemingway 73). The truth in Hemingway’s words is that most everything does begin as pure and true, and only through a series of components does it turn into something that could be labeled as “wicked.” The most common of these components for human beings is the end of youth and ignorance in the form of adolescence. Coming of age siphons off the innocence initially inhabiting a person as they mature becoming more aware of their surroundings and themselves. This concept is illustrated throughout John Knowles’ novel A Separate Peace, a story of individual growth in the midst of the chaos of World War II at Devon Academy, a prestigious all-boy school in New England. Protagonist Gene Forrester and his best friend Phineas face the darker side of adolescence in this harrowing and thought-evoking parable. The widespread destruction occurring in the distant war is reflected in the more local and personal damage characters such as Gene and Phineas are experiencing in everyday life; the war itself is another component that aids in the ruination of innocence. The events of one summer, like the world war, banish the innocence of these boys and their world. With the dynamic and evolving characters of the novel, John Knowles develops the quintessential Bildungsroman to demonstrate the downfall of innocence in the face of adolescence during a wartime setting.

Before Gene and Phineas share the ultimately fatal incident in the tree, Gene is ignorant to suffering; he is childish, fearful, and unsure of himself. Adolescence is a difficult time for any youth, but growing to maturity during wartime presents unique pressures. In the very beginning of the novel, a tree overhanging the Devon River, used as part of an obstacle course preparing the senior class for recruitment, triggers the war within Gene when his friend Phineas, known as Finny, challenges him to jump into the river from one of its highest branches. The tree, a Biblical symbol referencing the story of the Garden of Eden, represents temptation to Gene, “…it is the means by which Gene will renounce the Eden-like summer peace of Devon and, in so doing, both fall from innocence and at the same time prepare himself for the second world war” (Ellis 79). Gene eventually gives in to this temptation, saying, “With the sensation that I was throwing my life away, I jumped into space…I felt fine” (Knowles 17). However, Gene was not throwing away his life, only beginning to demonstrate his insecurity in feeling threatened by both Finny’s dare and the natural obstacle the tree presents. By continuing with his actions nonetheless, he is placing his fear aside in a gesture characteristic of an inexperienced adolescent, and by acknowledging that indulging in this temptation was satisfactory to him, he is just starting to learn what he is capable of yielding to, no matter the consequences. Additionally, as the first chapters of the novel progress, it becomes evident that Gene is hiding a deep resentment for Finny, a jealousy of his athleticism, spiritual purity, self-assuredness, and easygoing nature that he could never achieve. These feelings are pushed aside so as to not be apparent to Finny, classmates and teachers, and even to Gene himself, but they are subtly recognizable as the storyline follows Gene’s own stream of consciousness. Gene shows his uncertainty of himself when he asks himself questions such as, “Why did I let Finny talk me into stupid things like this? Was he getting some kind of hold over me?” (Knowles 17). These unanswered questions prove not only Gene’s troubles with Finny, but also his feeling of losing control over his very being. The opening of the novel brings to light certain characteristic negative traits belonging to Gene, “…his fear of not measuring up in the eyes of his peer group, his latent hostility towards and envy of Finny, and his tendency to use indirect responses such as sarcasm in verbal retaliation” (Bryant 43). There are also physical symbols in the boys’ weight and height that exemplify Gene’s lack of growth at this point of the plot. Gene claims to be five feet, nine inches until Finny, “…had said in public with that simple, shocking self-acceptance of his, ‘No you’re the same height I am, five-eight and a half’” (Knowles 16), revealing in Gene’s small lie his adolescent insecurity and his intent on gaining even the slightest advantage on Finny. Another example includes the 150 pounds Finny weighs in comparison to Gene’s 140 pounds, symbolic of the fact that “Finny is a ‘larger’ person than Gene in terms of spirit; he has a greater heart and more magnanimity, which would symbolically account for his greater weight” (Bryant 43). The physical similarities between the two make the psychological differences more pronounced, the major difference being that Gene has neither the security nor the confidence of his friend. In addition, Finny’s personality accentuates Gene’s naivety and juvenile behavior, his overall ignorance that allows him to be labeled as innocent, in the scene where Finny insists on wearing his pink shirt, a radical fashion item for the time period. Gene declares the flamboyant shirt “makes him look like a fairy” (Knowles 24), but Finny’s humorous responses show that he is undaunted by taunting and is surer of himself and his sexuality than Gene. Even more bewildering to Gene than the shirt itself is Finny’s insistence that it is an emblem, telling Gene that he “was reading in the paper the other day that we bombed Central Europe for the first time” (Knowles 24). Finny’s unusual show of patriotism and celebration of overseas achievements in the war makes Gene uncomfortable; he knows he does not have the courage to be indifferent to judgments against him or to contribute to the “war effort” when he is just starting to wage war on the changes occurring within himself. Therefore, Knowles reveals in the first part of the book Gene’s starting point of change, the callow base from which he will grow.

The point of the rising action in A Separate Peace develops onward from the most primitive yet most complex event of the novel – Phineas’ “fall” from the symbolic tree and subsequently Gene’s fall from innocence and ignorance. Before Gene essentially causes Finny’s devastating fall from the tree to the riverbank, his envy, confusion, confliction, and anger boil over. He experiences absurd paranoia, thinking to himself, “Finny had deliberately set out to wreck my studies…That way he, the great athlete, would be way ahead of me. It was all cold trickery, it was all calculated, it was all enmity” (Knowles 53). Gene confronts Finny in an attempt to force him to confirm his motives for the creation of all his unique “extracurriculars” that he believed would prepare them for war, such as blitzball, the Super Suicide Society, and spending the night on a nearby beach. When Gene realizes during the confrontational conversation that it is entirely one-sided – Finny never intended to disrupt him, Finny has no resentment or jealousy towards him – his spirit is crushed. Gene now understands that he is “not of the same quality” (Knowles 59) as Finny, and he is “…not capable of maintaining the spiritual purity that distinguishes Phineas and so must as he discovers his own savagery betray Phineas” (Ellis 80). This betrayal shows itself when Finny asked Gene to perform a “double jump” from the tree with him, a sign of Finny’s forgiving interpretation of their friendship, and Gene complies, only to jostle the branches where Finny stands ready to jump, knocking him down to land awkwardly on the riverbank and shatter the bones in his left leg. The act is obviously unpremeditated; he cannot stand his inferiority to Finny, and so he impulsively and reflexively brings Finny back to a standing in which he can compete with him again. It is at this point that Gene has pushed away his innocence and peace of mind completely by practically pushing Finny figuratively from his superiority and literally from the tree; it serves as Gene’s initiation into “the ignorance and moral blackness of the human heart” (Ellis 82). This demonstrates that, “The price of peace is self-awareness” (Weber 55). In order for Gene to assure his own individuality, he subconsciously has a need to relegate Finny, who represents the aspects of Gene’s own personality, such as intuitivism, purity, and sensitivity, which need to be eliminated in preparation for participating in the war raging overseas. In addition, the scene involving the pink shirt, plus an intimate scene on the beach in which Finny sincerely tells Gene he is his best friend without receiving a response, are crucial in asserting that Gene is not altogether comfortable with his sexuality, an intuition that, as mentioned before, can be connected to adolescent insecurity. Gene’s reflexive disposal of Finny has the potential to be related to his destruction of his innermost emotions that make him vulnerable; vulnerability is not a quality desirable to a youth who has the knowledge that he will soon be thrust into a horrific war. Next comes Gene’s rebirth, his baptism by jumping into the river immediately following Finny’s fall. This leap into the water below is the leap into adulthood; it is the first of Gene’s actions since the start of the novel that he is absolutely sure of, as he narrates, “With unthinking sureness I moved out on the limb and jumped into the river, every trace of my fear forgotten” (Knowles 60). Gene’s jump is a rite of passage to him, and the water that he jumps into cleanses him of his youth, changing his understanding of himself and the world that comes with the transition from innocence to experience. The baptismal symbol signifies the restoration of Gene’s life and the start of his new identity (Foster 153-160). The irony is that the tree is both the platform of temptation and baptism. Also, the tree is important over the spectrum of Gene’s life because, “…it is by turns an occasion for danger, friendship, betrayal, and regret” (Wolfe 101), all features of typical of maturation and coming-of-age, bringing to light to the use of a Bildungsroman literary plot form. It is necessary to recall that the basis of this event around which the exemplum is formed is fear – fear of upcoming war service, of losing one’s individuality, and of entering the adult world.

After Finny’s actual fall and Gene’s symbolic one, Gene reaches catharsis through dealing with the loss of innocence, ignorance, and ultimately Finny himself as both the war and Gene’s adolescence come to an end. While Finny is recovering from his injury, Gene is guilt-ridden and regretful. No one knows that he was the reason for Finny’s injury, not even Finny, until the climax of the novel in which a group of Devon boys accuse Gene, causing a hurt and bewildered Finny to struggle to get away from them all, only to fall down a flight of marble stairs, advance his injury, and later die in surgery. Gene comes to realize his own moral ugliness in the very first conversation he shares with Finny since the fall, “He was never going to accuse me…and I thought we were competitors! It was so ludicrous I wanted to cry” (Knowles 66). Even now, Gene cannot stand Finny’s spiritual purity. His temporary solution to the internal conflict he feels is to assume Finny’s identity, firstly by putting on Finny’s clothes and secondly by trying his hand at a bout of rule-breaking that Finny would be proud of. This demonstrates a typical attempt of a growing youth; in the face of an identity crisis, one may find courage and reassurance in adopting a personality that does not belong to them, often opposite to their own, as is the case with Gene. By attiring himself in Finny’s clothes, “Gene takes the first step in a profound self-evaluation. Through a series of acts of identification with Finny, he will keep alive the very side of himself that he had sought earlier to suppress” (Bryant 70). Gene’s deep shamefulness causes his desire to hide himself. This goes on until the climactic scene when the true details of Gene’s crime are brought to light in front of Finny and a large group of Devon students. During this time, Gene has been growing and changing, and his final transformation takes place when he visits Finny for the last time in the hospital before he has the surgery that, unbeknownst to them, will end his life. When he sees the stricken Finny, Gene is now more experienced and less shocked by violence because, “there were hints of much worse things around us now…the newsreels and magazines were choked with images of blazing artillery and bodies half sunk in the sand of a beach somewhere” (Knowles 179); this illustrates his acceptance of both the war overseas and the war between childhood and adulthood within him. Gene’s purging of pity, and also his maturation, is shown when he makes a full confession to Finny about the events at the tree; it is the first time that both Gene and Finny come to terms with it. Gene acknowledges that Finny embodied a type of enlightenment that he had never reached, and he guesses that, “Finny’s innocence represents the spirit of peace so that his very presence would make war appear unacceptable. His goodwill and fundamental idealism would overcome the fear and hostility that fuel war between men” (Bryant 106), which is exactly why Finny was the vital component to Gene’s coming of age. The death of Finny, a true innocent soul, is symbolic to the end of Gene’s years of ignorance and innocence. When he says, “I did not cry then or ever about Finny…I could not escape the feeling that this was my own funeral, and you do not cry in that case” (Knowles 194), he is exemplifying this very concept. Additionally, Knowles creates the first few pages of the novel to be narrated by an adult Gene visiting the grounds of Devon Academy for the first time in fifteen years, with the majority of the plot a flashback, a necessity to capture the completeness of a Bildungsroman, and to show the extent of Gene’s change. On this solemn visit in the opening of the book, the adult Gene makes a series of realizations that prove his personal advancement. He notes that he often used sarcasm in his youth as security for his weakness, that he and all his companions at Devon had spent their time in blissful selfishness, and that the harmony and change at Devon was now reflected in himself. He remarks wisely, “The more things remain the same, the more they change after all…nothing endures, not a tree, not love, not even death by violence” (Knowles 14). Overall, Gene has changed for the better after that semester with Finny and since his acceptance of his life to come.

John Knowles’ A Separate Peace is one of the great American novels; it is representative of the theme that growing older snatches away the ignorance and innocence of youth, and growing older during a war only quickens this process. The classic account of friends Gene and Phineas, interwoven with moral messages both subtle and direct, is a poignant and evocative timeline; it is the tale of one of the most challenging yet most common transitions that one can experience in life. The immersion into a harsh reality of adulthood, complete with injury, complex relationships, forthcoming warfare, and even death, as well as the revelations of human limitations, are what Knowles symbolizes with the events before, during, and after the fall of Gene and Finny at the tree. This novel appeals to the humanity of its reader because of the empathy it demands. As human beings, the experience of painful but necessary growth into adulthood is relatable, a journey of deepening understanding about responsibility and a place in the wider world. If it were not such a paramount theme of this book and life itself, would it not be repeated time and time again? The characters names are different, from Tom Sawyer to Holden Caulfield to Gene Forrester, but the principal constituent of the story is always the same – simply, growing up.

Works Cited

Bryant, Hallman Bell. A Separate Peace: The War Within. Boston: Twayne, 1990. Print.

Ellis, James. A Separate Peace: The Fall from Innocence. John Knowles’ A Separate Peace. Comp. Harold Bloom. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2000. N. pag. Print.

Foster, Thomas C. “If She Comes Up, It’s Baptism.” How to Read Literature like a Professor: A Lively and Entertaining Guide to Reading between the Lines. New York: Quill, 2003. N. pag. Print. Hemingway, Ernest. A Movable Feast. London: Jonathan Cape, 1964. Print.

Knowles, John. A Separate Peace; a Novel. New York: Macmillan, 1960. Print.

Weber, Ronald. Narrative Method in A Separate Peace. Readings on A Separate Peace. Comp. Jill Karson. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven, 1999. N. pag. Print.

Wolfe, Peter. A Separate Peace Shows That the Condition of Life Is War. War in John Knowles’s A Separate Peace. Comp. Dedria Bryfonski. Detroit: Greenhaven, 2011. N. pag. Print.

An Analysis of the Dissimilarity Between Phineas and Brinker

While World War II rages in Europe, a different type of struggle affects the young students at an all-boys private boarding school. “A Separate Peace”, by John Knowles, outlines the emotional struggle at Devon during the 1942 summer and winter sessions. This conflict is best illustrated by Knowles’s use of varying personalities in two of the primary characters, Phineas and Brinker Hadley. Although the same age, the boys exhibit different personalities that correspond to the differing moods at Devon during the summer and winter sessions. The laid-back anti-war personality of Phineas reflects the mood during the summer session, while the orderly pro-war attitude found at Devon during the winter term corresponds to the personality of Brinker. Brinker and Phineas’s views on war, as well as their reactions to Phineas’s fall, are shaped by their respective personalities. The author uses Brinker and Phineas to represent the contrasting attitudes at Devon during the summer and winter sessions. The winter session is characterized by the conservatism and pro-war attitude of the faculty and students. The pro-war attitude is demonstrated throughout the year by the curriculum’s emphasis on physical preparedness and mental agility for use in war. Brinker thrives in the orderly, militaristic setting of the winter session. “I liked Brinker in spite of his Winter Session efficiency; almost everyone liked Brinker.” Knowles uses the character of Brinker to exemplify the efficiency of Devon’s operation. Brinker’s serious attitude mirrors the somber formality the war creates at Devon. In vivid contrast to the winter session, the summer session lacks structure and order. Phineas’s attitude parallels the carefree days of the summer session. The “gypsy days” of summer are laid-back and far less stressful than the regular school year. While reminiscing over his summer at Devon at the beginning of the winter term, Gene states:The traditions had been broken, the standards let down, all rules forgotten=2E In those bright days of truancy we had never thought of What We Owed Devon, as the sermon this opening day exhorted us to do.The summer session is untouched by the war, and is not tainted by preparations for the inevitable. The winter session transforms Devon into a strict, institutional school that prepares students like Brinker for military service, while the summer brings the carefree innocence of students like Phineas to the school. Brinker and Phineas’s contrasting views on the war in Europe reveal their personality differences. Brinker begins the school year believing that military service is both necessary and enjoyable. He encourages other students to enlist, and often makes reference to his own plans to join the military. It is his persuasive skills that almost convince Gene, Phineas’s closest friend, to enlist during the beginning of his senior year. Brinker’s views on military service and bravery are made evident in the following moment:”Everybody in this place is either a draft-dodging Kraut or a…a…” the scornful force of his tone turned the word into a curse, “a nat-u-ral-ist!” He grabbed my arm agitatedly. “I’m giving it up, I’m going to enlist. Tomorrow.”However, Brinker does not enlist during his senior year, but chooses to join the Coast Guard after his graduation. For the majority of the school year, Phineas believes that old men “cooked up this fake war” to control the young adult population. Phineas’s disbelief in the war is further demonstrated by his goal to train Gene for the 1944 Olympic Games. Ironically, the views of Phineas and Brinker each evolve completely during the winter session. As his enlistment date nears, Brinker begins to see war as a matter that should not be supported or avoided without great thought. Before his death, Phineas reveals his desire to participate in the war, in spite of his injured leg. The opinions of Brinker and Phineas on the war and military service display the distinct beliefs of the two young adults. The reaction of the two men to Phineas’s fall from the tree exposes the contrast between their respective personalities. Although Phineas is the most physically affected by the fall, he does not attempt to place blame. He maturely accepts the situation because he recognizes that pointing fingers will not speed his recovery or have positive results. Phineas expresses his disinterest in the accident when he attempts to prevent Brinker’s investigation. After Brinker begins to question Leper about the accident:Phineas [got up] unnoticed from his chair. “I don’t care,” he interrupted in an even voice, so full of richness that it overrode all the others. “I don’t care.”Phineas’s decision to continue his life even after his terrible fall demonstrates his mature, yet almost naive, attitude. However, Brinker is unwilling to allow the issue to be simply forgotten. Instead, he constantly pesters Gene about the accident, eventually culminating with a nighttime escapade to hold a mock trial. By hanging onto his notion about Gene’s involvement in the fall, Brinker reveals his own insecurities. By attempting to destroy his closest academic rival’s reptutation, Brinker is really augmenting his own achievement and prestige. Because Brinker lacks self-esteem, he takes pleasure in creating uncomfortable situations for Gene and Phineas. Phineas’s choice to move on with his life contrasts sharply with Brinker’s decision to prolong the investigation into the crime. The contrasting personalities of Brinker Hadley and Phineas in “A Separate Peace” are a source of significant conflict during the 1942 summer and winter sessions at Devon. Although they are the same age, Brinker’s aggressive, manipulative attitude differs greatly from Phineas’s honest, spontaneous personality. These differences are easily seen through the two boys’ perspectives on the war, as well in as their reactions to Phineas’s fall. Phineas’ laid-back, anti-war personality recalls the general feeling of the summer session at Devon, while Brinker’s orderly, pro-war character expresses the sentiment of the winter session. In their own ways, Brinker and Phineas each represent the views of many people during the 1940’s.

One Tree, Hidden Meanings: A Close Reading of Symbolism in A Separate Peace

Everyone has a specific object or place that immediately floods them with memories. Whether it be the stretch of road where they crashed or a pencil they used to pass a huge test, these items are everywhere. The memories they hold can be painful or joyful, a beginning or and end, but what every object or place has in common is that it holds significance beyond what meets the eye. Such a symbol in A Separate Peace by John Knowles, specifically to Gene Forrester and Finny, is the tree along the bank of the Devon river. While it may look like any other tree on the bank of the river to most people, to the students at Devon during 1942, it symbolizes many things. The tree serves many purposes in the novel A Separate Peace, some of which being to symbolize friendship, fear, and youth. One of the main things that the tree in a Separate Piece symbolizes is the friendship and bond only formed through an abnormal activity. For Gene and Finny especially, this action is jumping into the river from the tree. Out of this bond forms the “Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session.” Gene depicts the formation of the society when he recalls “Rigid, I began climbing the rungs, slightly reassured by having Finny right behind me. “We’ll jump together to cement our partnership,” [Finny] said. “We’ll form a suicide society, and the membership requirement is one jump out of this tree.” “A suicide society,” I said stiffly. “The Suicide Society of the Summer Session” (Knowles 31). The tree serves as a means to bond Gene and Finny even more than before as explained in how they cement their partnership. Without the tree to jump from, there never would be a society and Gene and Finny never would experience the bond created in their jumps from the tree. While the idea of jumping from the tree binds the two friends, the first jump indebts Gene to Finny. Finny saves Gene from suffering a drastic fall from the tree, so Gene is forever grateful to Finny. Gene realizes this fact when he reflects that “If Finny hadn’t come up right behind me…if he hadn’t been there…I could have fallen on the bank and broken my back! If I had fallen awkwardly enough I could have been killed. Finny had practically saved my life” (Knowles 32). While Gene is not ecstatic Finny even forced him up onto that limb and so he does not give Finny a large outward expression of gratitude, the sequence of events that created the society and Finny saving Gene solidifies the special bond between the two. They are in something bigger than their feelings towards each other. Even though the Suicide Society is short-lived and largely unimportant, their bond becomes so much stronger than simply being normal friends. Gene stays by Finny’s side to the end while Finny is on his deathbed for more reasons that just that he ultimately caused his death. He didn’t stay out of pity or a sense of duty, Gene stands unwaveringly even when Finny pushes him away, as he loves Finny. Gene and Finny aren’t friends, they are brothers due to a simple friendship being cemented and blossoming into something more through the experiences they share, many of which occur due to the tree on the bank of the Devon River. While friendships thrive due to the tree, fear also has its roots in the tree and the experiences it holds during the summer session of 1942. Eventually Gene fears what he has become, but it all began as a fear of his best friend. Gene describes his delusional anger and animosity towards Finny when he recalls “I found a single sustaining thought. The thought was, You and Phineas are even already. You are even in enmity…Finny had deliberately set out to wreck my studies…that explained his insistence that I shared all his diversions…It was all cold trickery, it was all calculated, it was all enmity” (Knowles 53). Gene accuses Finny of trying to hurt Gene, but the feeling stems from jealousy and a deep, hidden fear that Finny really is so much better than him. Gene must console himself and justify his anger towards Finny in some way, and he chooses to do it in a way that frames Finny. All the pent up disgust and anger towards Finny boils over when, jumping from the tree with Finny once again, Gene says “…my knees bent and I jounced the limb. Finny, his balance gone…tumbled sideways… and hit the bank with a sickening, unnatural thud. With unthinking sureness I moved out on the limb and jumped into the river, every trace of my fear of this forgotten” (Knowles 59-60). Gene fears for himself and what Finny is supposedly trying to do to him, so he makes the decision to push him. Not only does he alter Finny’s life in one action, but he feels nothing after, jumping into the river with no emotion at all. Gene let his emotions get the best of him and control him, as the jealousy he has always had for Finny that leads to the fear of Finny taking away the one thing Gene has the advantage in: his studies. Gene acknowledges this when he finally admits “I never killed anyone and I never developed an intense level of hatred for the enemy. Because my war ended before I ever even put on a uniform; I was on active duty my whole time at school; I killed my enemy there. Only Phineas was never afraid, only Phineas never hated anyone” (Knowles 204). The fear of betrayal Gene feels towards Finny culminates at the tree, and for that reason the tree can be seen as a means to bring out fear of others and one’s own inner thoughts and beliefs. The final thing the tree symbolizes in A Separate Peace is youth. The whole story is told as a flashback when Gene revisits Devon many years later, and many of his initial reflections begin at the tree and how he grew up on the very same branches that are now dying. The main reflection Gene has is described when he thinks “This was the tree, and it seemed to me standing there to resemble those men, the giants of your childhood, whom you encounter years later and find that they are not merely smaller in relation to your growth, but that they are absolutely smaller, shrunken by age. In this double demotion the old giants have become pigmies while you were looking the other way” (Knowles 14). Gene reflects that the tree symbolizes how he has matured since the time he spent at Devon. He and all of his friends where just boys during their time there, and the fact that their youth is so important puts even more emphasis on the fact that they where being sent to war less than a year from the time of the flashback Gene is having. The decaying tree shows how something that was once an accomplishment to jump from is now dying, and the memories made there are fading with it. Everyone grew up so much at that tree from Finny’s life being changed to Gene realizing that a small part of him has always had disdain for Finny’s charisma and seeming perfection. This tree holds major milestones and events in the lives of all the boys who attended Devon during the summer session of 1942. It symbolizes war as students prepared by jumping from it. It symbolizes tragedy, but it also symbolizes joy and freedom. The tree on the edge of the Devon River is where the boys of Devon were exposed to the real world in Finny’s fall and its consequences, but also in the joy found in friendship. Thus, it also represents youth, as making mistakes, learning from them, but having fun along the way is what growing up is all about. The tree at Devon symbolizes much about what life was like there during the year of 1942, as it was full of friendship, fear, and growing up. Many people can not only point out a specific place that brings them memories, but they can confidently say that it is where they grew up more than anywhere else. The tree was such place at Devon. The summer session of 1942 is when these boys became men due to all the tragedy occurred but being able to live on. There is more than what meets the eye to one specific tree at Devon, and that is what makes the tree so symbolic of 1942 Devon School.

Symbolic Wages of War

As children begin to age and minds start to mature, they are able to comprehend that the world can be a trying place full of crime, death, and war. The older a person gets, the more responsibilities and problems they will encounter. Some may never be involved in a physical war, but anyone can struggle with a symbolic war. In John Knowles’ A Separate Peace, Finny and Gene fight their own war, one that relates greatly to the war occurring in the outside world: the second world war. Throughout the plot, Finny and Gene manage to wage their own non-physical war, that contains just as much loss as a real one.

The jealousy that Gene has for Finny shapes their relationship into a battleground, accumulating physical and symbolic casualties along the way. Gene’s hatred of Finny leads him to jounce the limb of the tree branch that Finny is perched upon. Finny, who had such a bright future ahead of him full of athletic opportunities, is stripped of his dreams when his leg is shattered after falling. Therefore, Finny is the main casualty of Gene’s war. The lives lost in a real war may be greater in number than just one, Finny, Gene feels as if his own life has been stripped away after his best friend dies. Attending Finny’s funeral, Gene says, “I did not cry then or ever about Finny. I did not cry when I stood watching him being lowered into his family’s strait[laced burial ground outside of Boston. I could not escape a feeling that this was my own funeral, and you do not cry in that case” (186). Gene feels like he has suffered through his own death since his best friend has been taken away from him and replaced with nothing but emptiness. Their extremely close and affectionate relationship makes them support one another in a way where they complete each other. At one point, before the accident, Finny convinces Gene to come to the beach with him saying, “I hope you’re having a pretty good time here. I know I kind of dragged you away at the point of a gun, but after all, you can’t come to the shore with just anybody… the proper person is your best pal, which is what you are” (40). This proves how much the two boys care about each other; Finny shows a never before seen vulnerable side while Gene sacrifices his grades to please his friend. The casualties that Gene faces are similar to lives that are lost during a war because he takes Finny’s death as his own.

During the 1940s, the time period that the novel takes place in, World War II is a reoccurring issue that reappears various times. Most everyone wishes that the war will end soon to end the pain end suffering, but many sacrifices must be made along the way in order to become victorious. In physical wars, soldiers will lose their lives, and their families will grieve. Soldiers who do survive will live the rest of their lives with painful memories of the war, wishing they could go back and do something differently, saving someone’s life or sparing someone else’s. In A Separate Peace, Gene suffers losses as well, relating to the loss of life in a war. After returning to Devon, Gene does not want to accept the fact that he crippled his best friend for life, and avoids certain situations that will jolt him into reality. Gene says that he “did not want to see the trays of snails which Leper had passed the summer collecting replaced by Brinker’s files. Not yet” (75). Seeing how much the room changed will only prove to Gene that everything has changed, and nothing will ever be the same. He is not ready to admit his guilty feelings. This relates to veterans in real wars because they are hesitant to return home in fear of not being able to adapt back to their old lifestyle. They are afraid to embrace this new change and refuse to acknowledge the difference by telling themselves that everything is the same and that nothing at all has changed. Gene believes he is competing with his best friend, Finny, in academic and athletic abilities. Finny always is eager to convince Gene to halt his studies and break rules, like jumping off trees, instead. Gene attempts to “win” by studying more and putting in much more effort into his academics to make up for his lesser athletic ability that Finny has. Gene does technically win by killing Finny’s chances of becoming an athlete and enlisting in the war when Gene jounces the limb of a tree that Finny is perched upon, but Gene considers this victory to be a Pyrrhic one. He immediately regrets his decision to make his friend fall and shatter his leg. In a surgery to fix his leg, Finny dies when a piece of bone marrow floats through his bloodstream to his heart, leaving Gene with no more competition. Gene feels as if a part of himself died along with Finny when his “enemy” died, for taking the life of another takes something out of the killer they never can be able to regain. Soldiers feel this similar sense of remorse too when they kill another human in the battlefield; the guilt of stripping someone of their life will follow them around for the rest of their lives, become a new war they may struggle with. Another way that soldiers cope with returning home after the traumatic memories they hold, is to change their everyday routine. Gene does this when he says, “I was late for my afternoon appointment. I never used to be late. But today I was, even later than I had to be” (75). Here he is avoiding certain situations where he may feel guilty about Finny’s leg. Before the accident, Gene was one of, if not the best student at Devon, but now he is cleansing himself of all memories and routines attached to the war that he battled with Finny. Even when winning in war, the winner will have lost something of value that they will never get back.

At times of war, soldiers are confused on who is to blame for their fighting. They are told that they are to fight the enemy, but it is difficult to truly know if the opposing side is evil since they are simply fighting for what they believe in. Gene’s actions of making Finny fall off the tree is what inevitably leads to Finny’s death. Some students, like Brinker Hadley, have suspicions that Gene made Finny fall. Even Brinker parallels his situation to a fallen soldier: “‘there is a war going on. Here’s one soldier our side has already lost. We’ve got to find out what happened’” (168). He and the other students desire to know who is to blame for the accident and to know who the enemy is. During this investigation, Finny himself even begins to show doubt in Gene’s innocence. Both boys are confused as to who they can trust, and who they should hate. In the last line of the novel, Gene reflect, “I killed my enemy [at school] … all of them, all except Phineas, constructed at infinite cost to themselves these Maginot Lines against this enemy they saw across the frontier, this enemy who never attacked that way-if he ever attacked all; if he was indeed the enemy” (196). This shows how confused Gene is about who the enemy is. At the time of Finny’s accident, Gene believed Finny was his opposer in the sense that they were competing to be superior to one another. But now it is unclear to Gene if his enemy was indeed Finny, his best pal, or himself, the envy devouring his mind.

Students at Devon learn to fight their own wars, while soldiers fight in physical ones. The relationship between Finny and Gene is a microcosm of the outside world since Gene’s jealousy of his friend creates a miniature war. Their battling results in casualties, just like a real war. Gene’s inability to resolve his internal conflict of hating Finny results in not only his suffering but the suffering of others as well. This resentment that Gene feels shapes his relationship with Finny into a symbolic war that results in casualties, the same as a physical war.