A Separate Peace by John Knowles

May 20, 2009

separate-peace Plot summary (with spoilers): A Separate Peace is a coming-of-age story by American writer John Knowles, and as such is a book that many high school and college students have been assigned to read for one class or another. The story begins in 1957 with the narrator, Gene Forrester, returning to the Devon School, a private boarding academy that he had attended 15 years before. Gene specifically wants to see a certain tree standing near the river, so he makes his way over there. As he approaches the tree, Gene remarks that it looks smaller than he remembered it being from his school days, which is probably due to his change in perspective now that he’s an adult.

From there, the story flashes back to the year 1942 when Gene was a 16-year-old high school student. It’s the summer session at Devon, so there are fewer students and teachers around. The rules are far more relaxed than during the regular school term, and Gene’s best friend Phineus (Finny) intends to take full advantage of that fact. Finny is described as a highly charismatic boy that the other students are instantly drawn to. He’s the best athlete at the school, and has won many prizes in football and other sports. Finny is also very daring. He’s the one who suggests that a group of students try jumping out of the tree into the river — a dangerous leap that even 17-year-old seniors have trouble with as they incorporate it into their paratrooper training (for World War II). Finny and Gene make the jump; everyone else is too scared.

As the Summer Session continues, readers get a more in-depth view of what Gene and Finny’s relationship is like. Finny is clearly the leader, while Gene struggles with his feelings about the other boy. Sometimes, Gene truly likes Finny and enjoys hanging out with him. Increasingly, however, Gene resents what he perceives as Finny’s deliberate attempts to derail Gene’s academic studies. Gene, who himself is jealous of the way Finny is able to cruise through school on his athleticism and charm alone, in turn thinks that Finny is jealous of Gene’s academic abilities. So when Gene fails a trig test thanks to having been at the beach with Finny, he starts viewing their friendship in a new light.

Things come to a head when Finny once again disrupts Gene’s studies, this time to go out to the tree, where classmate Leper Lepellier is supposedly going to attempt a jump. Gene is angry because he’s trying to study for a French test, and he knows very well that the cowardly Leper won’t actually make a jump. He thinks that Finny has put Leper up to this on purpose. When they get out to the tree, Leper does indeed back out. Finny then proposes that he and Gene perform a double jump instead. They both climb up, with Finny in the lead. As they’re on the limb, Gene bends his knees, which jounces the branch, sending Finny tumbling to the ground.

Finny’s leg is severely broken, and while he’ll be able to walk again, he’ll never be able to play sports. From there, the novel turns more introspective, as Gene examines his emotions and actions at the time of the incident. Was it really an accident, or did he deliberately jounce the limb so Finny would fall? This debate takes up the rest of the novel, with both Gene and Finny wavering back and forth as to what really happened.

Liked:

  • The first part of the novel that talked about Gene and Finny’s friendship was very good. Finny in particular was an interesting character, and the two boys had a rather strange dynamic.
  • I liked that Gene was the narrator here. It provides readers with a classic case of the “unreliable narrator”, as Gene often withholds information that would be important for the reader to know. This is particularly evident during the branch-jouncing scene, where Gene doesn’t recount his feelings and actions in as much detail as he could have, and in the mock tribunal scene, where Gene again holds back.

Disliked:

  • All the stuff with Leper and his foray into the snow troopers was really boring to me. I guess I understand why Knowles put those scenes in the book (because Leper was the first one from Devon to really be a part of the war, and because Leper apparently saw what happened at the tree), but still… the strongest characters were definitely Gene and Finny. Leper didn’t even come close, so I had to struggle to get through those parts.
  • I didn’t like how Finny reacted in the tribunal scene. Gene tried to tell him that he caused the fall on purpose, but Finny refused to believe that his best friend could act that way. But then when other people say the same thing, he finally “gets it”? That bugged me. And of course he had to hobble away as fast as he could, which lead to another fall — and his death during surgery. His reaction seemed really out of place, especially since he had always stuck up for Gene in public before. They should have had it out in private or something.
  • I thought the wrap-up was too long and unsatisfying. There shouldn’t have been much more to say after Finny’s death, but the story continued to drag on. And there was no real resolution to Gene’s feelings. I didn’t think Gene had actually learned anything or changed because of what happened, which made me feel the whole book was a waste.

Rating:

I first read A Separate Peace when I was in 8th grade, and I vaguely recalled liking it. But this second reading as an adult made me totally change my mind. This novel has numerous flaws and ultimately comes up short of being a thought-provoking work. I give this dull book just 2 stars out of 5.

Leave a Reply