Comparison of John Knowles’ Book, A Separate Peace, and John Green’s, Looking for Alaska
Comparing A Separate Peace and Looking for Alaska
A Separate Peace is set in a Vermont boarding school during the 1940s, and Looking for Alaska is set in an Alabama boarding school during the early twenty-first century, but despite the differences in setting these books can be compared through the similar purposes of their characters. In A Separate Peace there is Finny and in Looking for Alaska there is Alaska, these characters serve a similar purpose in their respective stories. The purpose of Finny and Alaska is to introduce a remarkable, interesting, and unique character, to provide a connection to the main character, and to demonstrate that everyone can suffer from internal collapse.
The first important purpose of Finny and Alaska is to demonstrate a unique personality fundamental to the connections between Finny, Alaska, and Gene and Miles. In A Separate Peace, Finny is shown to be an incredible athlete who is seemingly perfect. This statement is exemplified Gene’s description of Finny playing blitzball; “he created reverses and deceptions and acts of sheer mass hypnotism which were so extraordinary that they surprised even him.” (Knowles 31) Additionally, Finny is shown to be of honorable character as is illustrated by his set of rules, as Gene described,
“’Never say you are five feet nine when you are five feet eight and a half’ was the first one I encountered. Another was, “Always say some prayers at night because it might turn out that there is a God.”
But the one that had the most urgent influence in his life was, “You always win at sports.” (Knowles 26)
The irony is that he does not follow the school’s rules, but that does not necessitate a dishonorable character. In Looking for Alaska, Alaska is portrayed as a unique and interesting character, and she shares some similarities to Finny. The most prominent similarity is her desire to break the school’s rules. Though Finny and Alaska are somewhat similar, there are major differences between them. First of all, Alaska is not considered unique for being athletic or incredibly good at sports. Instead, Alaska is introduced as a physically attractive, interesting, and at times unstable character. Secondly, Alaska is shown to have self-destructive behavior and be very impulsive, and this is demonstrated through her excessive smoking and drinking habits. “She smiled with all the delight of a kid on Christmas morning and said, ‘Y’all smoke to enjoy it. I smoke to die.’” (Green 44) Although this is intended in a somewhat joking manner, this quote still exemplifies her self-destructive behavior because of her intensive smoking. While Finny appears to be somewhat impulsive, he does not share Alaska’s self-destructive behavior. Though they do have similarities, their differences indicate a slightly different purpose. Alaska is shown to be more flawed than Finny who is shown to be, in a sense, perfect. Finny’s major flaw is not being able to accept that everything is not perfect, as is shown by his failure to accept the truth. Finny’s misconstrued version of reality eventually leads to his death because of his failure to realize that Gene began to distrust him. Similarly, Alaska’s impulsiveness also ultimately causes her death because of her irresponsible driving.
The second primary purpose of Finny and Alaska is to provide a connection to Gene and Miles, respectively. Gene and Miles represent the voice in each book, but they are not necessarily the most important characters. In A Separate Peace, the story is told from the point of view of Gene, and yet almost the entirety of it concerns Finny and he is as important as Gene, if not more so. Looking for Alaska is told through Miles, but like a Separate Peace, most of the story concerns Alaska and she is at least as important as Miles. Finny is presented as Gene’s best friend and during their summer at Devon, and he encourages Gene to break the rules of the school. However, their friendship is not perfect, and Gene becomes paranoid that Finny is trying to constrain his studies by wasting his time. This is indicative of a highly competitive atmosphere at Devon. This ubiquitous attitude results in Gene causing Finny’s accident and, ultimately, his death. After Finny’s accident, however, it becomes clear that Gene regrets causing it and he is aware that his previous assumptions were wrong. Gene is filled with regret and anger at himself, “I hit him hard across the face. I didn’t know why for an instant; it was as though I were maimed. Then the realization that there was someone who was flashed over me.” (Knowles 71). This example makes it clear that Gene is, at the very least, angry with himself for causing Finny’s accident because he hit Quackenbush after being called maimed. In Looking for Alaska, Alaska not only a friend, but a love interest for Miles. The connection between Miles and Alaska is further complicated because of the addition of the Colonel and, to a lesser extent, Takumi; they also become friends with Miles and therefore are entangled in the story. Similarly to Finny, Alaska encouraged Miles to break the rules of the school and participate in the pranks on the weekday warriors. After Alaska’s death, Miles spent a large portion of his time grieving and attempting to decipher her death with the Colonel. From this it is clear that he not only cared about Alaska, but he wanted to find out more about her and the interesting circumstances of her death. Miles was partially responsible for Alaska’s death, as he and the Colonel allowed Alaska to drive while intoxicated. Therefore, he was not only filled with grief because of Alaska’s death, but also with regret because of his irresponsibility. From these connections it can be determined that an interesting, unique character must also have a strong connection with the primary character.
The third important purpose of Finny and Alaska is to demonstrate that anyone can suffer from internal collapse. Throughout a Separate Peace, Finny refuses to accept that everything is not perfect. He refuses to believe that there are losers in sports, even though there clearly are. He refuses to believe that Gene is the cause of his accident, “’I deliberately jounced the limb so you would fall off.’ He looked older than I had ever seen him. ‘Of course you didn’t’” (Knowles 62). He continues this attitude even though it becomes abundantly clear that Gene did indeed cause his accident. This ultimately leads to his internal collapse. Finny becomes increasingly upset, “’You get all your facts!’ I had never seen Finny crying, ‘You collect every f—ing fact there is in the world!’ He plunged out the doors” (Knowles 169). This quote demonstrates that Finny did not want the facts of his accident to be revealed, most likely because he eventually found out that Gene was the cause of it. Finny then fell down the stairs and was injured again, this time he was killed from his own bone marrow. Finny’s death is symbolic because it illustrates his internal collapse, via a death with a proximate internal cause. In Looking for Alaska, Alaska’s death was caused almost exclusively be her own behavior, as her death was caused by driving while drunk. Her internal collapse was ultimately the result of her mother’s death and her idleness when it happened. Because of this, she is very impulsive and shows little regard for her own life. Miles and the Colonel discovered the connection to her mother when contemplating the circumstances of her death, “She’s drunk and pissed off and she’s in a hurry, so she thinks she can squeeze past the cop car, and she’s not even thinking straight, but she has to get to her mom, and she thinks she can get past it somehow” (Green 211). This quote explains the significance between Alaska’s death and her mother’s death, for Alaska still felt regretful and angry at herself because of her inaction during her mother’s death. From these two examples, it can be concluded that although Finny and Alaska were unique and amazing in their own right that would not save them from themselves.
In summation, the books a Separate Peace by John Knowles and Looking for Alaska by John Green demonstrate the importance of a unique and interesting character and the significance of that character’s ultimate failure. The purpose of the character’s connection to the narrator can also be explored and it can be concluded that this connection is necessary, for if it were not neither Finny nor Alaska would be significant. It can also be concluded that an important character’s internal collapse can be important to a story, whether by the fault of another or not. All of these factors illustrate the advantages for high quality characters in books.
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