John Knowles’s A Separate Peace is a novel about violence and rancor even though Gene, its protagonist, never actually faces battle. The book begins as news of World War II sweeps over Gene and his best friend, Finny, infiltrating their final summer term and academic year at the Devon School. Despite the constant presence of the war, though, Finny and Gene exist in the halcyon days of youthful innocence, focusing on schoolboy antics and their blossoming friendship. In this regard, they resist the war’s looming influence, simultaneously maintaining and creating a sense of peace that exists separately from the rest of the world. Given this innocence, then, it’s surprising when Gene develops a secret rivalry with Finny, convincing himself that Finny is trying to become a more well-rounded student than him. Thinking this way, Gene causes Finny to fall off a tree overhanging the river, sending his friend plummeting to the bank. This fall changes the course of Finny’s life, and as the consequences of this ugly act reverberate throughout the novel, Gene comes to see that any sense of enmity in his relationship with Finny has sprung from his own toxic sense of rivalry. In turn, A Separate Peace focuses not only on the encroaching influence of literal war on young men like Gene, but also on the internal wars that humans often wage with themselves and their loved ones—wars that ruin a person’s ability to enjoy the simple beauty of things like friendship and innocent happiness.
As 17-year-olds, growing up for Gene and Finny means hurdling toward World War II. As they pass an idyllic summer at Devon, they’re well aware that they’re destined to join the military when they turn 18, as evidenced by the fact that Gene refers to the boys a year older than him as “draft-bait” who might as well already be considered soldiers, since their lives have been consumed by training regimens and a “physical hardening regimen.” Finny and Gene, though, have not yet reached this point, leaving them free to experience the simple pleasures of adolescence. And yet, they can’t ignore what’s happening to the students just one year older than them, which is why Finny suggests that they should jump from a tree overhanging the Devon River—a task that the older boys must complete as part of their pre-military training. This desire to take part in the same exercises as the “draft-bait” students indicates that Finny and Gene are already entangled in the war effort, even if their experience of it is—for the time being—remote and abstract. No matter their age, it seems, they can’t avoid thinking about and preparing for the war.
As the war rages on outside the sheltered environment of Devon, Gene experiences another kind of rivalry. Although he and Finny are affectionate best friends enjoying what will most likely be their last summer as innocent adolescents, a bitter kind of enmity works its way into Gene’s mind. Knowing that Finny is well-liked and the best athlete in school, he starts to suspect that his best friend doesn’t want him to do too well in academics, thinking that Finny wants to be the most well-rounded student in school. This occurs to him because Finny is always trying to distract him from his studies, constantly convincing him to have fun instead of preparing for tests or completing his homework. Consequently, Gene decides that his friendship with Finny isn’t really as innocent as it seems. With this mindset, he senses that he and Finny are “both coldly driving ahead for [themselves] alone,” seeing their friendship not as a beautiful relationship with mutual affection, but as a competition based on self-interest. In other words, he applies the antagonism inherent in war to his bond with Finny, taking cues from the outside world in a way that destroys the insulated, blissful peace that he and Finny have managed to maintain in spite of World War II’s reigning influence.
Driven by this sudden sense of rivalry, Gene unthinkingly causes Finny to fall out of the tree. In doing so, he ends Finny’s athletic career, thereby taking away the thing his friend loves most. And though Finny seems to willfully forget that Gene most likely caused his fall, he later finds himself unable to process his emotions when it finally becomes clear—at the end of their senior year—that Gene acted against him. In fact, he’s so flustered by this realization that he falls down a set of stairs, an accident that ultimately leads to his death in the school infirmary. By calling attention to this chain of events, Knowles illustrates the devastation that rivalry can bring to otherwise healthy relationships, since Finny’s injury and death can be traced back to Gene’s misplaced resentment in the tree that fateful summer day.
At the beginning of the novel, Gene romanticizes the idea of joining the military and fighting in World War II. By the end, though, he tries to avoid any actual fighting, enlisting only so that he can join the safest branch of the military (instead of waiting to get drafted, which might put him on the front lines). This change of heart suggests that he has learned that only sadness, loss, and regret come from embracing the kind of rivalrous mindset that war requires. After all, he allowed this kind of thinking to steer his relationship with Finny, and now Finny is dead. Simply put, he comes to believe that wars are made “by something ignorant in the human heart.” Indeed, it is this emotional ignorance—this bitterness and inability to appreciate love—that he has allowed to leak into his friendship with Finny. And in doing so, he has ruined the “separate peace” that their relationship afforded him, proving that the kind of enmity that accompanies war and rivalry is destructive and tragic.
War and Rivalry ThemeTracker
War and Rivalry Quotes in A Separate Peace
Nothing endures, not a tree, not love, not even a death by violence. Changed, I headed back through the mud. I was drenched; anybody could see it was time to come in out of the rain.
I think we reminded them of what peace was like, we boys of sixteen […]. We were careless and wild, and I suppose we could be thought of as a sign of the life the war was being fought to preserve […]. Phineas was the essence of this careless 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.
I found a single sustaining thought. The thought was, You and Phineas are even already. You are even in enmity. You are both coldly driving ahead for yourselves alone […]. I felt better. We were even after all, even in enmity. The deadly rivalry was on both sides after all.
He had never been jealous of me for a second. Now I knew that there never was and never could have been any rivalry between us. I was not of the same quality as he.
Holding firmly to the trunk, I took a step toward him, and then my knees bent and I jounced the limb. Finny, his balance gone, swung his head around to look at me for an instant with extreme interest, and then he tumbled sideways, broke through the little branches below and hit the bank with a sickening, unnatural thud. It was the first clumsy physical action I had ever seen him make. With unthinking sureness I moved out on the limb and jumped into the river, every trace of my fear of this forgotten.
Across the hall […] where Leper Lepellier had dreamed his way through July and August amid sunshine and dust motes and windows through which the ivy had reached tentatively into the room, here Brinker Hadley had established his headquarters. Emissaries were already dropping in to confer with him.
In the same way the war, beginning almost humorously with announcements about [no more] maids and days spent at apple-picking, commenced its invasion of the school.
To enlist. To slam the door impulsively on the past, to shed everything down to my last bit of clothing, to break the pattern of my life […]. The war would be deadly all right. But I was used to finding something deadly in things that attracted me.
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.
Fear seized my stomach like a cramp. I didn’t care what I said to him now; it was myself I was worried about. For if Leper was psycho it was the army which had done it to him, and I and all of us were on the brink of the army.
You’d get things so scrambled up nobody would know who to fight any more. You’d make a mess, a terrible mess, Finny, out of the war.
I never killed anybody and I never developed an intense level of hatred for the enemy. Because my war ended before I ever put on a uniform; I was on active duty all my time at school; I killed my enemy there. Only Phineas never was afraid, only Phineas never hated anyone.