In A Separate Peace, John Knowles examines optimism, suggesting that it can sometimes lead to denial. As someone who makes the best of any situation, Finny focuses only on what he thinks is good. He deeply appreciates the purity of athletics, thinking that sports are an “absolute good” and believing that everyone always wins whenever they play sports, since the mere act of taking part in such activities is rewarding in and of itself. This underscores his wholesome approach to life, demonstrating his optimistic attitude and unwillingness to consider loss or defeat. However, it’s worth noting that this mindset is rather easy for him to adopt, since he’s a talented athlete and therefore rarely loses a game. The closest he comes to defeat is when he falls and breaks his leg, an accident that renders him unable to continue his athletic career. Rather than wallowing in his own destruction, though, Finny remains cheerful, deciding that he’ll train Gene for the 1944 Olympic Games while also pretending that World War II doesn’t exist. In some ways, this reaction has to do with Finny’s love of sports and his propensity to respond optimistically to hardship. In other ways, though, this sudden preoccupation with the Olympics is a form of denial, since he uses it to distract himself from the thing that upsets him most: that he can’t take part in the war. When he finally admits this to Gene, readers see that his positivity isn’t as unshakable as it seems, and Knowles intimates that people often use optimism to mask and obscure unhappiness.
Finny’s pure, good-natured way of thinking is apparent early in the novel. “You always win at sports,” he tells Gene, meaning that everyone wins, no matter what happens in a given game. This is because anyone who takes part in a sporting event will benefit from the mere fact that they’ve participated in something Finny sees as an “absolute good.” To Finny, athletics represent the best parts of the human soul, embodying healthy competition, endurance, collaboration, and courage. Furthermore, Finny applies this optimistic attitude to other areas of his life, clearly unafraid of encountering hardship or losing, as made evident by the daring conversations he has with teachers at Devon, in which he says ludicrous things and tries to win them over, apparently unafraid of what might happen if he fails to convince them not to punish him. In this sense, Finny sees all of life as a certain kind of sport, constantly testing himself because he has nothing to lose—after all, “you always win at sports.”
Finny’s all-encompassing optimism makes sense, considering that he hasn’t had to face much defeat in his life. As the school’s best athlete, he rarely finds himself on the losing side of an athletic competition, and as a young man from a wealthy family, he has encountered very little in the way of adversity. Accordingly, it’s easy for him to remain optimistic—that is, until he falls out of a tree and injures himself so seriously that he’s never able to play sports again. Nonetheless, he apparently retains his positive worldview in the aftermath of this accident, choosing to focus on helping Gene become a talented athlete instead of wallowing in self-pity. To do this, he informs Gene that he’ll be training him to qualify for the 1944 Olympic Games. Although this outlandish plan aligns with Finny’s general approach to life, it’s so overzealous that it soon comes to seem that Finny is purposefully distracting himself from his new shortcomings. In keeping with this, he hatches a bizarre conspiracy theory that World War II isn’t real. While he trains Gene for the Olympics, he insists that powerful adults have made up a story about the war in order to keep young men like Gene and Finny himself in line. Because of this, he argues, Gene should focus only on qualifying for the Olympics, not on the prospect of joining the war. By setting forth this theory, Finny effectively insulates Gene and himself from the harsh realities of the outside world, managing to maintain a sense of levity and optimism in an otherwise bleak cultural moment.
Despite his best efforts, though, Finny can’t protect himself from the miserable truth that there’s a war happening and that it will most likely affect everyone at Devon—everyone, that is, except for him. When Gene tells him that their quiet, mild-mannered friend, Leper, left the military because he went “crazy,” Finny finds it hard to maintain his optimistic, unrealistic conspiracy that there isn’t really a war. To that end, he realizes that if Leper’s stint in the military could cause him so much strife, the war must be as real and terrible as everyone says. “Oh I guess I always knew but I didn’t have to admit it,” he tells Gene, confirming that his decision to ignore the war was a way for him to actively deny reality. It is in this same moment that he calls off his plan to train Gene for the Olympics, halting his idealization of athletic purity and the inherent goodness of sports—an idealization that has helped him deny what’s really going on in the world. Later, he admits that he’s been writing to every military organization he can think of, spending the entirety of the school year trying to find a way to contribute to the war. Because no organization will take him, though, he decided to focus on other things, turning his attention to the Olympics and gushing about Gene’s prospects in order to distract himself from his disappointment. Regardless, though, he’s eventually forced to acknowledge reality, thereby suggesting that his optimism has failed to shield him from his own discontent—an indication that this kind of denial (or perhaps denial in general) is ineffective and fleeting.
Optimism, Idealization, and Denial ThemeTracker
Optimism, Idealization, and Denial Quotes in A Separate Peace
To keep silent about this amazing happening deepened the shock for me. It made Finny seem too unusual for—not friendship, but too unusual for rivalry. And there were few relationships among us at Devon not based on rivalry.
So the war swept over like a wave at the seashore, gathering power and size as it bore on us, overwhelming in its rush, seemingly inescapable, and then at the last moment eluded by a word from Phineas; I had simply ducked, that was all, and the wave’s concentrated power had hurtled harmlessly overhead.
It wasn’t the cider which made me surpass myself, it was this liberation we had torn from the gray encroachments of 1943, the escape we had concocted, this afternoon of momentary, illusory, special and separate peace.