A Look at the Ideas Evident in John Knowles’ Book, A Separate Peace
A Separate War and Peace
“In the same way the war, beginning almost humorously with announcements about [no] maids and days spent at apple-picking, commenced its invasion of the school”. The quiet atmosphere of Devon was rudely interrupted as the maids and harvesters were called to war duty. These examples and others amplify World War II as a vital and significant event in the backdrop of A Separate Peace. The motifs of war and sports are connected, Finny’s absence brings the war to Devon, and Phineas and Gene have a number of important connections to the war.
A Separate Peace is a novel filled with a plethora of symbolic and allegorical meanings, and among the most important are the recurring motifs of sports and war. When Phineas—the best athlete at Devon—suffers a fall, he becomes a casualty and is sidelined from the war forever. Throughout the novel, Finny repeatedly discusses with Gene about the war saying, “that’s what this whole war story is. A medicinal drug . . . The fat old men who don’t want us crowding them out of their jobs. They’ve made it up”. Only near the end of Finny’s life is it revealed to us the truth that Finny longs to be a part of the war. But this can never happen because Finny is a representation of peace; peace and war can never mix and this results in the death of Phineas. Similarly, after his fall, Finny trains Gene for the 1944 Olympic Games even as Gene insists that the Olympics will be canceled because of the war. This is because Phineas can’t fulfill his dream and participate himself. This further develops the concepts that “Phineas thought of [Gene] as an extension of himself” and that Gene is truly “Phineas-filled”. Phineas’ persistence for Gene to participate in the Olympics develops the relationship between Gene and himself. Finny takes on the role of a coach or a father as Gene becomes the athlete or child because Finny hopes Gene will fulfill his dreams for him. Blitzball, another representation of the motifs, embodies the war. Blitzball gets its name from the German military tactic Blitzkrieg. It is built upon the principles that everyone is the enemy, similar to war in real life. Through Phineas, John Knowles brings together two completely opposite ideas and exemplifies how they can never live in harmony.
Likewise, when Phineas and the concept of sports leave Devon, the war slowly creeps in. As stated by Phineas himself, “sports don’t seem so important with the war on”. This is first shown at the start of the Winter Session, but later confirmed after his death. During Finny’s period of rehabilitation, Brinker and Gene decide to enlist in the war effort. Gene also attempts to take up a job which—much to Finny’s chagrin—“has got [nothing] to do with sports”. Only after Finny’s return does Gene realize that he needs Finny, and that this is reciprocated by Phineas. After Finny’s death, a part of Devon is given to the war effort to make parachutes. This is the last piece of the puzzle needed to understand that the war has come to Devon. After the subsequent conversation with Mr. Hadley—a military veteran himself—Gene leaves Devon to join the war. He later goes on to say, “I was on active duty all the time at school; I killed my enemy there”. This advocates the idea of war entering Devon long before, and justifies the notions of maturation and its leading into the war.
Furthermore, both Gene and Phineas have multiple connections with the war themselves. During the Summer Session, Phineas leads the boys in playing games and breaking rules. They are immersed in their own world, apart from the war; they are in a “separate peace.” In the novel, Phineas uses the war to his advantage. When confronted at the headmaster’s tea for using the Devon school tie as a belt, Finny says, “it all ties in together with the war . . . this bombing in Central Europe, because when you come right down to it the school is involved in everything that happens in the war”. In reality there was no bombing in Central Europe but by using a made up story about the war, Phineas is able to escape from a monumental offense. Another predominant part of the novel is Gene’s internal conflict. It is first revealed to us in the early stages of the novel that Gene is unable to reciprocate Finny’s feelings toward him. “This time [Finny] wasn’t going to get away with it. I could feel myself becoming unexpectedly excited at that”. Later on when Gene jounces the limb, it is out of feelings of enmity and jealousy because “[he] was not of the same quality as [Finny]”. These feelings are the enemy Gene talks about killing later in the novel and thus he is on “active duty” throughout the book.
World War II is a critical and instrumental aspect in the backdrop of A Separate Peace. As it turns out, the recurring motifs of sports and war have a pivotal connection. It is evident that during Finny’s absence, the war manages to creep in and destroy peace at Devon. Phineas and Gene also hold many parallels to the war themselves. Without the war, A Separate Peace would lose meaning to key processes such as maturation and innocence. The war causes the boys to mature from adolescence to adulthood: Gene kills his enemy, Brinker regresses from a model student to a rebel, Leper changes from sane to psychotic, and Phineas—as an embodiment of purity and peace—perishes. Without the war, Devon wouldn’t be “A Separate Peace.”
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A Separate War and Peace “In the same way the war, beginning almost humorously with announcements about [no] maids and days spent at apple-picking, commenced its invasion of the school”. […]