A Separate Peace by John Knowles

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The title of my book is A Separate Peace by John Knowles. The bottom line of this story is that the two main characters Gene, the shy, closed off smart one, and Phineas, the rebellious, attractive, and athletic one, are in an all-boys school in New England during the early stages of World War II. Despite their differences, the two friends are basically inseparable until their innocence and peace are disrupted with talks of warfare, the wondering of “Who am I really?” and searching for one’s identity, and last but not least, envy. This book entails how much friendship can fall apart over the span of one summer and more, and how far one’s mind can truly stray away from reality, and give into impulse thoughts. My reaction to the story was that I was very interested in the plot line and greatly entranced with the overloading detail that came with the writing throughout the story.

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The story is set in Devon School in New England in the years 1942-1943, but this is merely a flashback from the main character’s point of view, as the story starts off in 1958 at the same location. The academy he attends is an all boys school which is quite large as there are many unused buildings and the students and staff live on campus. Although in 1958 the school looks much nicer and polished with a coat of varnish, the main character realizes how much more dreary it looked in 1942-1943, as there was the war going on and there was no time for maids or other clean-up staff. “There was nothing to distract me as I made my way across a wide yard,called the Far Common, and up to a building as red brick and balanced as other major buildings, but with a large cupola and a bell an a clock and Latin over the doorway- the First Academy Building” (Knowles, 11).

“Phineas stopped talking for once, so that now I could hear cricket noises and bird cries of dusk, a gymnasium truck gunning along an empty athletic road a quarter mile away, a burst of faint, isolated laughter carried to us from the back door of the gym, and then overall, cool and matriarchal, the six o’clock bell from the Academy Building cupola, the calmest, most carrying bell toll in the world, civilized, calm, invincible, and final” (Knowles, 18). These quotes are from the protagonist’s point of view and although it seems like he thoroughly enjoys his happy and lively school, as the story goes on he realizes how sad and dreary it really is and the mildew smelling atmosphere it creates.

The setting does affect the plot because while Gene and Phineas are at school, they have limited things they can do despite the fact that they can both be very sneaky and know their ways around school rules. As they both spend all of their time at the school they tend to wander around and they seek out the empty parts of their campus. When they escape the safe and calm aura of their school the outside world helps to really wake them up and realize that there is much more beyond their school and everything may not actually be ok.

For most of the story, the setting does not change besides when Phineas drags Gene out one day off campus to go the beach to be free and when Gene and another one of his acquaintances Leper Lepellier do community work by shoveling snow of the railroads. I think the change might be important because year round they are stuck at the same place with very little things they can go and do and see, but when they are in the more open world they can really see how much possible freedom they could hold. It also lets them see what is actually out there and what’s going on, as information that they receive inside the school may or may not be true.

The protagonist in this story is named Gene Forrester who is sixteen years old at the time this story. Although the book does not give a direct description of what he looks like, a couple of things that have been mentioned are that he is fairly handsome and that he is 5’8 and weighs 140 pounds. One personality trait that Gene holds is that he is lost and envious.

I believe he is lost because he has strayed away from who he really is, and who he was. Gene had no idea what he would do without Phineas and he has no sense of identity. He depends on Phineas a lot and finds a little too much comfort in being with him. He is also envious because it is shown throughout the book that Gene is obviously jealous of Phineas and wants to be him so badly that it becomes almost obsessive. He makes up things in his head that Phineas also resents him and so that justifies his hatred. “I was Phineas, Phineas to the life,”… “I had no idea why this gave me such intense relief, but it seemed, standing there in Finny’s triumphant shirt, that I would never stumble through the confusions of my own character again,” (Knowles, 62). “I couldn’t help envying him that a little, which was perfectly normal. There was no harm in envying even your best friend just a little,” (Knowles, 25).

This quote shows how Gene felt when he was in Phineas’ clothes while he was gone and the enjoyment he got from feeling like he was Phineas in his true form. This quote is a prime example of him being lost, as he mentioned questioning himself at the end of the quote, and how he takes his envy as far as to want to physically be that person and blur his true self. The second quote is him trying to brush off his envy as something that isn’t too serious, but it goes to show that his envy eventually turns into hate.

The next characteristic I have found Gene to have is that he is very insecure and unconfident. His insecurity mostly comes from looking at his best friend and comparing himself in terms of body build and his personality in general. Gene isn’t very strong in the athletics division, while Phineas is. Gene also never does anything without Phineas and often complies to everything he does in fear of being judged and mocked by him. Gene isn’t very strong in the athletics division, while Phineas is. Gene also says that he won’t try out for the sports Phineas tells him to, as he thinks he can’t do them and believes he will never be as good as him. I also think that he is so self-conscious that he lets Phineas take advantage of him, lets him talk him into doing stupid and wild things. “Why did I let Finny talk me into stupid things like this? Was he getting some kind of hold over me?,” (Knowles, 17).

“Every time, when I got myself into position to jump, I felt a flash of disbelief that I was doing anything so perilous. But I always jumped. Otherwise I would have lost face with Phineas, and that would have been unthinkable,” (Knowles, 34).
These quotes explain and support my idea of Gene being insecure because in the first quote, even though he knows what he is about to do is completely crazy and insane, he still does it because Phineas told him to do it, and the thought of Phineas controlling him still doesn’t stop him from doing it. In the second quote, it’s just about the same idea as the first one, but with more traces of his insecurity and competitive spirit that only seems to rise when Phineas is involved. He thinks that being less than him or having anyone think that he was below Phineas was completely out of question and he wouldn’t allow it, as he wouldn’t want to be seen as cowardly or that he was a buzzkill.

The last attribute that Gene has is that he is a coward. Not specifically in the way of him being scared to jump off the tree or to do anything risky, but the fact that he has never said no to Phineas when he tells him to do those things and has never once gone too far in his questioning. Gene doesn’t stand up for himself or protest because if he loses Phineas, he loses everything. He’s scared of being a nobody and of not having Phineas by his side to protect him and leech off of. He constantly needs him there and will never do anything that goes against him in fear of Phineas leaving, which means Gene no longer as his peace of feeling like he is one with him. “I went along; I never missed a meeting.

At that time it would have never occurred to me to say, “I don’t feel like it tonight,” which was the plain truth every night,” (Knowles, 34). “Going there risked expulsion, destroyed the studying that I was going to do for an important test the next morning, blasted the reasonable amount of order I wanted to maintain in my life, and it also involved the kind of long, labored bicycle ride I hated. “All right,” I said,” (Knowles, 46). These two quotes represent how even if he thought the consequences of his actions and even his own feelings, he was always too weak to speak up, all to maintain his out of control and toxic friendship. Phineas has stated before that he would do anything for Gene, so naturally, Gene decided that he would do the same for him, but it has gotten to the point of where it is unhealthy. He feels too small to tell Phineas his real thoughts, all because if he does, that might be the breaking point in their relationship. Phineas is his idol, and Gene is just a weak and cowardly follower.

In the book, there are two things that could be considered the antagonist. One of them is the war that is going on, which is one of the main reasons that Gene and Phineas’ friendship is falling apart and how traces of insanity and dissociation start to creep in. I believe that the main and true, but hidden, the antagonist is Phineas or Finny. He is described to be 5’8 and 150 pounds, but he still has an even body build. He is known for being handsome, and Gene gives details of him having sharp features and nice hair. One trait that Phineas holds is that he is, along with Gene, a coward, but in a more selfish and scheming kind of way.

Phineas is also a coward because even though he proposes all the risky and dangerous things he and Gene do, Phineas never does anything without Gene. He only does it if he knows that Gene will join him, and Gene does whatever Phineas wants him to do. I also believe he is a coward because of the manipulative tendencies he has with Gene, calling him scared, and the possibility of him knowing that Gene kisses the ground that he walks on and basically worships him. He takes advantage of all of this and soaks in the compliments and motivation that Gene gives him, except it goes straight to his ego. ““Oh yes I did. I’m good for you that way. You have a tendency to back away from things otherwise.””(Knowles, 18). “

“Let’s go jump in the river,” he said under his breath as we went out of the sun porch. He forced compliance by leaning against me as we walked along, changing my direction; like a police car squeezing me to the side of the road, directed me unwillingly toward the gym and the river,” (Knowles, 29). These quotes show how Phineas is indeed manipulative and that is what makes him the true coward and villain. He needs to trick and force others into his wrongdoings and activities just to satisfy his ego and hide his true fear of not being the greatest and most loved. Phineas affects the main character and the story because the whole reason anything ever happened, which was him getting pushed out of the tree, were his actions towards Gene and how he fueled his obsession with Phineas and never once considered thinking of how Gene felt. Once Phineas becomes crippled, they both seem to leech off of each other even more than before. Although Phineas seems to provoke this kind of behavior and shows no sign of acknowledgment or stopping himself.

The theme of this book is that the menacing change from Gene and Phineas’ relationship being based on codependency into losing one’s identity and becoming someone else for self-enjoyment. Gene and Phineas’ friendship began with envy and hatred from Gene towards Phineas not because he wanted to be better than him, but because he wanted to be him. “I thought the issue was settled until at the end he said, “Listen pal, if I can’t play sports, you’re going to play them for me,” and I lost part of myself to him then, and a soaring sense of freedom revealed that this must have been my purpose from the first; to become a part of Phineas,” (Knowles, 85). According to the text on page 62, Gene is seen alone in his dorm with Phineas’ clothes on, and he enjoys feeling like he is him. Looking at himself in the mirror gives him a sense of pride and confidence, and also a discovery and identity.

These two pieces of evidence show much Gene depends on Phineas, and that he wants to change who he is so much that he wants to be another person. This theme has significance in my life because many people try to change who they really are, and try to become someone they’re not. Like some others, even after Phineas died, Gene didn’t let the aspect of longing to be him and when Phineas dies, he feels as though it was himself that passed. Gene feels as though he cannot think of existing without Phineas by his side. In everyday life, many people try to be someone they are not and while others are more subtle with it, others take it as far as physically morphing themselves and telling themselves and others that they are that person.

One important symbol in this book is when Phineas falls out of the tree and breaks his leg. It is the highest point of the story and one where Gene realizes how far he took his resentment towards Phineas, and the damage of what he had impulsively done. “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,” (Knowles, 60). This quote shows how at that moment, Gene saw Phineas at his weakest and not in his usual perfect state. This symbol added meaning to the story because it was the last bit of fun they had that summer, but right after the accident, it turns into a dark and sad winter filled with regret, guilt, and reliance.

This event marked where the story would go downhill from, and how things would only continue to get worse as they went on. The second important symbol in this story is Phineas’ death. When he fell down the stairs, that was a shock to everyone as he had just gotten better from a previously broken leg. During the surgery on his leg, the doctor informs Gene that Phineas had died during the procedure, as bone marrow had made its way into his bloodstream and stopped his heart completely.

“During the time I was with him, Phineas created an atmosphere in which I now continued to live, a way of sizing up the world with erratic and entirely personal reservations, letting its rocklike facts sift through and be accepted only a little at a time, only as much as he could assimilate without a sense of chaos and loss,” (Knowles, 202). This quote is of Gene talking about after Phineas was gone, and even though his physical being was not present, Gene still felt like he held a part of him in himself like he still lived his life. This symbol added meaning the story because when Phineas died, Gene let himself go in some form. Part of him was lost, and there was no way to get it back. He even decided that he was going to enlist in the war, which would’ve sounded crazy if Phineas had heard him say that. He realized how far he took this whole creating an enemy out of Phineas, even if all of it might’ve been in his head. The loss makes him see what he had really done, and the regret and remorse that will forever stay with him, for one mistake he made as a dumb, insecure and envious sixteen year old.
The efficacy of the writing was both very beautiful and disturbing in a way.

The author will write about something that is seemingly innocent, and then later in the story, its true meaning will be revealed in an unexpected way. The way his words are phrased may be covered, but once you look into it it has a much deeper meaning and you realize that it connects to something else and shows the truth behind it. “All of them, all except Phineas, constructed at infinite cost to themselves these Maginot Lines against this enemy they thought they saw across the frontier, this enemy who never attacked that way- if he ever attacked at all; if he was indeed the enemy,” (Knowles, 204).

The way the author wrote this book was truly mesmerizing; with the odd way he would describe things, the language he used, and the slight symbolism he put behind so many sentences is what made me truly invest in this book. “Only Phineas was never afraid, only Phineas never hated anyone. Other people experienced this fearful shock somewhere, this sighting of the enemy, and so began an obsessive labor of defense, began to parry the menace they saw facing them by developing a particular frame of mind….,” (Knowles, 204). I didn’t find many weaknesses in the authors writing, besides the confusing and odd things he wrote, which implied one thing or another, but never confirmed any of it.

I don’t see this as much of a weakness, as it can be a good discussion in the classroom or anywhere else to see what different people think about what the author said, while never knowing if it’s true or not as the author never confirmed anything. This story has changed my way of thinking with how deep it goes into the innocence of two teenage boys, and how big but seemingly small factor can flip everything upside down. I thought that this book was pretty good, and would recommend it to others, although the end of the book was a big shock and a bit of a letdown, as I was not expecting the author to kill off Phineas. I would still show it to others, as the way it ended fueled my wonder of wanting to know more even more so than I had thought.

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A Separate Peace by John Knowles. (2019, Jul 10). Retrieved October 5, 2022 , from

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