A Separate Peace, by John Knowles, is set in the early years of World War II. The plot centers on the relationship between Gene and Phineas, two boys who attend the Devon School, a boarding school in New England. Carefree and exceedingly outgoing, Phineas commands the relationship with a trademark brand of rule breaking and leadership. Gene, on the other hand, is a more of a follower, and goes along with Phineas’ exploits simply for the sake of their friendship. However, both of their lives are changed forever when Gene knocks Phineas out of a tree after a paranoid realization of enmity between the two boys. Want to find out how the story ends? You’ll have to read it for yourself.
The war is, of course, one of the most important influences on all of the boys at the Devon School. As Gene puts it, “Sixteen is the key and crucial and natural age for a human being to be… When you are sixteen, adults are slightly impressed and almost intimidated by you. This is a puzzle, finally solved by the realization that they force your military future, fighting for them” (Knowles 41). Enlisting in the Army provides an escape route, of sorts, from the peaceful, idyllic life of the school. Some students see the war slowly approaching them, and are tempted by enlisting and ending the anticipation. Others do not have the courage to simply jump right into the thick of it, and delay their enlistment indefinitely. Phineas, however, adopts a cheerful attitude about the war, even stating that the war is a sham thought up by “the fat old men who don’t want us crowding them out of their jobs” (Knowles 115). The war affects each character differently, and their reactions are a fascinating reflection of their inner personality.
An important aspect of the writing itself is Knowles’ choices about which information to reveal and which to withhold. For example, in the moments before Gene knocks Phineas out of the tree, Knowles abstains from revealing Gene’s thoughts, instead choosing to vividly describe the setting. This caused me to inquire as to what exactly was going through Gene’s mind just before the incident, and what drove him to carry it out. These choices also factor in the climax of the story, where Knowles chooses to omit all foreshadowing, such that the plot twist at the end is a complete surprise.
A Separate Peace would appeal to teens and young adults, as the complex dynamics of friendship between two sixteen-year-olds are the central thematic topics. However, it may also appeal to those who were that age during World War II, as it would give them a chance to compare their experiences as teens during the war to those of Knowles’ characters. Yes, I understand that they would be 87 by now, but I feel that they would still enjoy it.