A Separate Peace

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A Separate Peace Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on John Knowles's A Separate Peace. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of John Knowles
The son of a successful coal executive, John Knowles grew up in a prominent wealthy West Virginia family. He attended Phillips Exeter Academy starting at age fifteen and graduated in 1944. He then served briefly in the Army Air Corps Aviation Cadet program and went to Yale after World War II. After graduating in 1949, Knowles worked as a journalist and travel writer and later began to publish short stories in magazines. Knowles's friend Thornton Wilder, another famous writer, encouraged him to write a novel based on his personal experience, so Knowles started writing A Separate Peace in the mid-1950s. Published first in Britain in 1959 and then the United States in 1960, A Separate Peace earned rave reviews and won Knowles the William Faulkner Foundation Award for best first novel and a nomination for the National Book Award. Knowles went on to write half a dozen more novels and spent the rest of his career teaching writing at various universities, including Princeton.
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Historical Context of A Separate Peace
Characters in A Separate Peace act like patients given a diagnosis of a terminal illness: they must make the most of the time they have left on earth. The very real threat of being drafted to serve in World War II made the age of 16 or 17 a final safe haven in which to enjoy friendships, sports, and the other carefree pleasures of youth. Elwin "Leper" Lepellier's experience of enlisting in the Army, only to be terrified and soon desert, conveys the pressure and fear that adolescents faced during World War II. Even those who joined the war effort willingly often came back scarred for life.
Other Books Related to A Separate Peace
A Separate Peace is most often associated with another famous first novel about the struggles of an adolescent prep school student, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. The Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace depict the physical and emotional turmoil of adolescence with an unprecedented dose of candor and detail. Catcher does so by taking an uncensored look into the mind of one character; A Separate Peace looks closely at the bond between two adolescent friends. The specter of World War II darkens both books as their protagonists attempt to preserve their youthful innocence while the grave and brutal reality of the adult world threatens to make them grow up too soon.
Key Facts about A Separate Peace
  • Full Title: A Separate Peace
  • When Published: 1959 in Britain; 1960 in the U.S.
  • Literary Period: Modern American; Post-War Fiction
  • Genre: Coming of age novel (bildungsroman)
  • Setting: The Devon School, a private academy in New England in 1942–1943
  • Climax: Finny's fall; Finny's admitting that the war is real; Finny's death
  • Point of View: First person (Gene Forrester narrates)
Extra Credit for A Separate Peace

A Separate Flop. Paramount Pictures released a film version of A Separate Peace in 1972. The movie was poorly received by critics and was a commercial failure.

A similar reality. In writing A Separate Peace, Knowles drew heavily on his experience of spending two summers at Exeter in 1943 and 1944, which he has described as among the happiest times in his life. The character of Phineas is based directly on a student named David Hackett, who Knowles befriended in the summer of 1943 at Exeter. Hackett attended Milton Academy, a rival high school, during the regular school year.