Literature / A Separate Peace

A Separate Peace is a 1959 novel by John Knowles, a coming-of-age story symbolizing Cold-War paranoia during World War II. The events take place from Summer, 1942 to Summer, 1943.

Gene Forrester, a student at a boarding school, sabotages his successful best friend, Phineas, out of perceived jealousy. When Gene realizes that Phineas was not trying to sabotage him, Gene finds out too late that Phineas was a true friend, and Phineas becomes crippled in an accident by Gene. The rest of the story details Gene's and Phineas's friendship and Gene's attempts to reconcile with what had happened.

Surprisingly required reading in a lot of schools, despite the Homoerotic Subtext.

The examples below will discuss major twists at length. Do not continue reading if you want to avoid spoilers.

Provides examples of:

  • Added Alliterative Appeal: At the beginning, Gene and Phineas create the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session.
  • Ambiguous Innocence: Finny, by way of Alternate Character Interpretation. He's consistently depicted as friendly and kind, and at the end of the book, Gene concludes that Finny was free of the paranoid outlook borne by everyone else in the story. However, Gene is an Unreliable Narrator, and Finny is revealed as a Stepford Smiler near the story's end, suggesting that some of his innocent behavior may be a facade.
  • Boarding School: The story is set in Devon, a fictional prep school based on a real school that Knowles attended.
  • Break the Cutie:
    • Leper, Gene's good natured classmate, does not adjust well to war at all and gets a Section 8 discharge.
    • Finny seems to take the leg injury well... Until he breaks down in front of Gene and reveals that denying WWII is happening is his way of coping with the knowledge that he is no longer fit for military service.
  • Broken Pedestal: Gene's perception of Finny is a muddled mix of deep-buried resentment and idealization of his friend. The latter gets dashed real quick when Finny unpacks his own feelings of depression regarding his Career-Ending Injury.
  • Calvinball: Blitzball is kinda like this. There are rules, but they seem to be made up at random as they go.
  • Career-Ending Injury: Finny is never the same again after his leg injury.
  • Chekhov's Gun: At the beginning, Gene (as an adult) visits the marble stairs and notes that they are very hard. Near the end, this is where Finny breaks his leg for the second time, ultimately leading to his death.
  • Downer Ending: Finny dies of a complication in his second surgery, and Gene is still struggling with his own feelings of grief and futility many years later.
  • Female Gaze:
    • Gene's narration tends to linger on Finny's attractiveness quite a bit, especially when they're swimming together.
    • There's also the scene where Gene describes Brinker's well-shaped behind for a long moment (Though some interpretations of the book see this scene as Gene describing Brinker being a fine ass of a different variety).
  • Gay Bravado: Finny wears a pink shirt without caring if he looks like "a fairy."
  • Green Eyes: Finny's eyes are green, as pointed out repeatedly by Gene, and fits with his spirited, carefree personality.
  • Memetic Badass: Leper, an in universe example. When he goes off to join the army, the students joke about how he has been at every major battle in the war. However, it's a actually a big subversion. While they're joking about him winning the war, he's at boot camp, longing for his collection of snails and the beaver dam, trying to retain his individuality and not go crazy.
  • Sanity Slippage: Poor Leper goes off the deep end in a major way after he heads off to boot camp. When Gene visits him at home after he finally snaps and gets dishonorably discharged, he's a barely functional wreck who explodes at the slightest thing.
  • Skipping School: Early in the book, Finny and Gene cut class for a day to head to the beach.
  • Stepford Smiler: Finny. He's a constant source of energy and positivity, but a lot of it is eventually revealed to be his way of coping with the harsh reality that his broken leg means he'll never be able to fight in the war.
  • Tragic Bromance: Played with. Finny and Gene's relationship bears most hallmarks of this trope—they're very close and Gene is profoundly affected by Finny's death, even fifteen years later—but it's subverted in that Gene doesn't truly consider Finny his best friend due to his deep-seated jealousy and paranoia, feelings which cause the accident that eventually leads to Finny's death.
  • Unknown Rival: Played for Drama. Gene secretly views Finny as his rival and assumes Finny feels the same; this leads him to cause Finny's accident. At the end of the book, Gene reflects that everyone acts this way, constructing lines of defense against an imagined enemy; only Finny (according to Gene) didn't behave this way.
  • World War II: Set during the time period and acts as the looming backdrop of the story. Most of the characters are either planning to go off to war after graduation or sign up early midway through the story.

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