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.
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