Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A Separate Peace by John Knowles

I haven’t read this small novel since I was in the 10th grade, so it was interesting to reread it now, with oh so many more years of experience behind me, much like the narrator, Gene Forrester.

Gene has returned to his private prep school, The Devon School, 15 years after graduation and begins to recall his friendship with his roommate, Finny, beginning in the summer of 1942. On the surface, they present a facade of being best friends, getting along so well, no one would suspect anything could ever be wrong. Yet, they couldn’t have been more different. Gene is quiet, serious, intellectual, and not terribly athletic. Finny is boisterous, impulsive, not a good student, but a great athlete. Finny believes that people are innately good; Gene believes people have ulterior motives. That summer, their differences cause cracks in their facade of friendship.

At school for an unprecedented summer term, due to the war, all school rules seem to fall by the wayside. One afternoon, after jumping out of a tree into the Devon River, Finny pushes the unwilling Gene into doing it also. The jumping becomes a ritual of the summer for Finny, Gene and a few other friends. But when Finny forms the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session with nightly mandatory meetings, Gene begins to suspect that Finny’s motives are to take him away from his studies and he begins to resent his roommate.

Gene and Finny continue in this pattern behavior, with Finny proving his athletic ability and pulling Gene away from his studies, and Gene always giving in to Finny's demands and resenting it. Even after Gene explains that he is aiming to be the best student of their year, Finny still manages to persuade him to come to the river for the ritual jump. This time, though, Finny wants them to jump together. Out on the tree limb, Gene bounces it ever so slightly, but enough to cause Finny to fall and shatter his leg on the river bank.

Gene’s feelings of guilt cause him to confess to Finny that the fall was his fault, but Finny refuses to believe him. It is only later that Finny does become convinced of Gene’s culpability and the idea that this is so proves to be too much for him.

The underlying theme of war is present throughout this novel, but the main theme is the idea of a separate peace, a peace that is made separate and apart from the world at large. Devon provides it by keeping the war at bay, out of the lives of the students, despite on campus training of senior for combat. Finny’s separate peace is the state of denial he lives in, refusing to admit that the world can be full of hostility. Gene’s is more complicated, but he too makes a separate peace. The question is with whom- Finny or himself?

Knowles wrote A Separate Peace in 1959 and it didn’t take long for it to find its way on to high school and college reading lists. It is, after all, a classic coming of age story that stills stands up in today’s world.  But it is also a challenged novel. In 1980, the Vernon-Verona-Sherill, NY School District deemed it a "filthy, trashy sex novel." In 1985, the Fannett-Metal High School in Shippensburg, PA challenged it because of its allegedly offensive language. In 1989, the Shelby County, TN school system thought it was inappropriate for high school reading lists because the novel contains "offensive language." In 1991, A Separate Peace was challenged, but retained in the Champaign, IL high school English classes despite claims that “unsuitable language” makes it inappropriate. That year it was also challenged by the parent of a high school student in Troy, IL citing profanity and negative attitudes. Students were offered alternative assignments while the school board took the matter under advisement, but no further action was taken on the complaint. And in 1996, it was challenged at the McDowell County, NC schools because of "graphic language.

Oh dear! I forgot to notice this stuff when I reread A Separate Peace, especially the filthy, trashy sex parts. But I did notice Knowles’ lovely writing style, the way he structured the story to create a wonderful unreliable narrators in Gene. After all, he is presenting only his version of the story, which is the nature of first-person narration and should always be suspect. (Oskar Matzerath from Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum still remains my favorite unreliable narrator.)

Apparently the people who awarded John Knowles these well deserved honors also forgot to notice what an unsuitable book it is:
1961 The Rosenthal Award
         The William Faulkner Award
1961 National Book Award nominee

If you liked Lord of the Flies and Catcher in the Rye, it is a pretty safe bet you will also enjoy A Separate Peace.

This book is recommend for readers 14 and up.
This book was purchased for my personal library.

The Glencoe Literature Library has an excellent online study guide for A Separate Peace

A Separate Peace
John Knowles
1959, 2003
208 Pages


  1. I enjoyed Lord of the flies and Catcher in the rye but somehow missed this one. I hope to remedy that very soon. Thank you for another fine review.

  2. I also read A Separate Peace in high school although I couldn't say which year. I have forgotten nearly all of it! Great to have the update.

  3. Barbara, I think this is a little more subtle that Lord of the Flies and Catcher in the Rye, but the impact is just as strong. Enjoy!

    Joyce, I find it interesting to go back and reread high school books, though I would probably pass on Silas Marner.

  4. Fabulous review! I love reading classic YA novels and trying to entice my sons to read them, too. I will definitely get a copy of this one. Thanks a lot!
    Mary, A Book A Day

  5. A very good review, Alex, and a good reminder of a very good book. I read "A Separate Peace" years ago when I was a student in London -- not as a school-book, not as a YA novel, but as a piece of fiction that many people were reading at that time. I was very moved by it then, and I am now inclined to re-read it. It amazes me that American school districts should have thought it "unsuitable." Thanks for bringing it back to mind.

  6. A Seprate peace is an icredbily book you will not be able to but down until you read the very last word.This book is an amazeing jouney beetwen two best freind that are always together.