A Separate Peace John Knowles John Knowles “All of my books are based on places, places I know very well and feel very deeply about. I begin with that place and then the characters and the plot emerge from it… A Separate Peace began with a playing field at Exeter Academy.” – John Knowles John Knowles • John Knowles was born in 1926 in Fairmont, West Virginia • His father and mother were originally from Massachusetts, where the family spent summer vacations. • Knowles’s best known works are set in New England • At the age of 15, Knowles was admitted to a New England boarding school, Phillips Exeter Academy. John Knowles • Knowles’s affection for Exeter Academy is reflected in his first novel, A Separate Peace • Shortly after he entered school, the US declared war on Japan and entered WWII • Knowles went into the military after graduating high school and trained to be a pilot. • When the war ended, he decided to go back to school and attended Yale. A Separate Peace • The central story of the novel begins less than a year after the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii • Most Americans at this time did not want the US to enter the war • The novel is not about World War II, but the war has a strong influence on the characters Themes • Loss of Innocence – Gene’s loss of innocence is a loss of illusions about human nature in general and himself in particular – Gene discovers the darker side of human nature – He discovers in himself the potential for violence and destructiveness – Gene mistakenly suspects Finny of acting spitefully toward him and he begins to act with malice towards Finny. When he discovers he is mistaken about Finny he must confront the truth about himself. Themes • Friendship – Gene and Finny’s friendship involves a strong identification with each other. – Finny fails to see needs of Gene’s that are different from his own; Gene unconsciously projects his own resentments onto Finny. – The over-identification that the boys have towards each other, leads to Finny’s injury, which strengthens their friendship for a time. – Gene becomes more athletic like Finny used to be and Finny becomes more like Gene’s old self. Themes • Fear – The mature Gene sees fear as the underlying force that drove his life at Devon. Gene feels that when one can face their fears, then they have found the key to controlling the destructive aspects of human nature. – Gene lives in constant fear at Devon – fear of failure, fear of humiliation, fear of authority – After making peace with Finny, Gene discovers freedom from fear and realizes it was fear that bred in him the capacity for hatred and violence. Themes • Alienation – Gene and his classmates experience a detachment of alienation from the rest of the world. They are sheltered from the harsh realities of the war and world by privilege. (peaceful and positive) – Gene experiences alienation in his guilt over Finny’s fall. Gene is alone with a terrible secret and he becomes less trusting. (negative) – Gene is even more alienated when Finny turns against him, but he is finally restored when he is forgiven.