A Separate Peace

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 15 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

A Separate Peace is set against the backdrop of World War II. In the United States in 1942, 16 and 17-year-olds were all too aware of the fact that they would most likely be drafted into the military when they turned 18. What’s more, there was an ever-present social pressure for young men to join the military even if they weren’t drafted, since this kind of service was seen as a duty that all Americans ought to take upon themselves. This is why Brinker Hadley’s father tells both Brinker and Gene at the end of the novel that they should enlist in whichever faction of the military will one day make them most proud, since these sorts of details were—at that time—largely what determined whether or not a man was deemed respectable.

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. Both 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. The Catcher in the Rye does so by taking an uncensored look into the mind of one character, whereas A Separate Peace looks closely at the bond between two adolescent friends. Furthermore, it’s worth mentioning that Knowles wrote a sequel to A Separate Peace entitled Peace Breaks Out. The novel is also set at the Devon School and examines the period of peace following World War II. In fact, it’s quite similar to A Separate Peace, since it also follows two students whose relationship takes on various complications due to betrayal and distrust. In other ways, A Separate Peace is something of a distant forebear to André Aciman’s novel of young male attraction, Call Me by Your Name. Although it’s notoriously unclear whether or not Gene and Finny’s relationship is romantic, their subtle and nuanced bond is similar to the varied and complicatedly tender connection that develops between Aciman’s protagonist and his love interest.
Key Facts about A Separate Peace
  • Full Title: A Separate Peace
  • When Published: 1959 in Britain; 1960 in the United States
  • 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: Having discovered that Gene intentionally caused him to fall and break his leg, Finny rushes down a hallway and tumbles down a set of stairs, shattering his leg once again.
  • Antagonist: Jealousy, resentment, and violence

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.

Inspiration. 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, whom Knowles befriended in the summer of 1943 at Exeter. Hackett attended Milton Academy, a rival high school, during the regular school year.