First published in 1959, John Knowles’ breakout novel A Separate Peace achieved worldwide acclaim from critics and readers alike; despite a 35-year career as a writer, the novel remains Knowles’ most famous and celebrated work. The coming-of-age elements in the book have lent themselves to thousands of high school curricula since the book was released, and A Separate Peace has become a staple of the modern classic genre.
A Separate Peace presents itself as a pseudo-autobiographical account of the author’s experiences at Phillips Exeter Academy, a prestigious boarding school in Exeter, New Hampshire. While the plot of the novel is completely fabricated, the aspects of boarding school life and culture are modeled after Knowles’ experiences; Knowles provides his characters with a secret society that resembles one that he was a member of during his time at Phillips Exeter, and he has explicitly acknowledged that characters in the piece are modeled after his fellow students.
The book is told from the perspective of Gene Forrester, a student at Devon Academy during World War II. As the war rages on overseas, Gene acknowledges that life at the boarding school seems isolated; as carnage ensues, the campus of Devon remains shockingly carefree. The protagonist of the story finds himself growing up as the world expects its youth to devote themselves to the war, and he struggles with the forced maturity that he and his peers encounter.
The novel centers itself around the relationship that Gene holds with his best friend, Finny. Gene alternately idolizes and loathes Finny; while Gene is grateful for the friendship he shares, he finds himself ultimately very jealous of the fact that rules seem to bend around Finny due to his outgoing and good natured personality. Knowles explores the dual-faceted nature of this relationship, as Gene struggles between the love he feels for his best friend and the jealousy he feels for his simple and happy existence. In the words of Gene, “Phineas was the essence of…careless peace. ”
As the summer session ends, Gene finally encounters his impulsive and irrational hatred for Finny that spawns as a consequence of his jealousy. The relationship between Gene and Finny left Finny exposed, and Gene’s rage is ultimately subsided when he injures Finny to a degree that ultimately ends his once-promising sports career. From here, the novel devolves into an an episodic detailing of life at the boarding school, and the consequences that Gene encounters as a result of his act of violence against Finny.
Ultimately, A Separate Peace is a presentation of the thoughts and ideas of a person who is encountering just what it means to become an adult. Rather than dealing with standard coming-of-age themes, the first-person narration is a description of the thoughts and ideas of the protagonist. Because the book is based on the experiences of Knowles, he gains a notably insightful and raw description of Gene’s stream of ideas. Knowles has an inescapable ability for introspection within the protagonist, in part because the character is largely based on himself.
A Separate Peace is an exploration into the growth and development that is forced upon this group of high school students. The piece is unique in its sincerity; Gene acknowledges his lapses in judgement and his misconstrued ideas, yet he still follows through. The novel is a raw, unadulterated idea of growing up.