A Separate Peace- A reading from the 27th of May 2013

on May 28, 2013 in Books, Journal

A Separate Peace


A Separate Peace, by John Knowles, has always been a book surrounded in mystery ever since it entered my care many years ago. Though it has been patiently resting on my desk since it was assigned me by a teacher I can no longer name, though I feel some confidence in saying that it was probably in the middle school years, it has since continually caught my eye in passing. All of my books have been moved and reorganized a dozen times or more in that span and each time for some unknown reason this one would always end up near me. Normally this would be no great thing as it’s not uncommon for me to have books lying about everywhere, but in this case it was a book that I was very little acquainted with. Now I am sure that, before the reading I’m about to discuss, I had read the book at the time of its assignment, however, I am just as sure that I did so under protest which is the manner in which I did all school activities. It’s amusing to see that even though I’m sure I exerted the full force of my engrained antagonism against this book for its chief sin of being homework I still kept it. In all this time it never occurred to me to get rid it and I’m afraid to admit it might be because somewhere inside me I actually believe that because a teacher somewhere told me that this book contained something I needed, when he or she could have given me any of a million books, that it could not be entirely without merit. This startling confession aside I was wandering a bit aimlessly through my room when I became possessed of a need to finally revisit this quiet yet persistent little book. My hand-me-down, mid-seventies, and well worn paperback with browning pages was more than ready to be remembered.

It didn’t take me but a few pages into the first chapter for me to recall the one small plot point that had found a crevice to survive in deep in my memory. When Gene, the narrator, begins to set the stage for the New Hampshire boarding school I remembered a simple little fact, someone falls down the stairs at the end. That was it, the only piece of this novel that had survived from the first reading and all it took was a mention of the polished marble of the first hall to revive it. There is an interesting parallel between the narrative structure and my current reading. Gene is returning to the sight of the novel fifteen years later and laments the efforts to preserve the Devon school. The polished wood and marble seem to him newer and more haunting than when he had lived there, whereas to myself, who was similarly returning to the school after a comparable length of time found it ripe with foreboding. For him the tragedy was behind him and for me it lingered ahead. Gene was confronted with a Devon that was starkly different from the one carved into his memory. The tree, which towered over the landscape as an event far more than it did in any physical sense, the fields, and the dormitories all in conflict with the school he remembered,


“This was the tree, and it seemed to me standing there to resemble those men, the giants of your childhood, whom you encounter years later and find that they are not merely smaller in relation to your growth, but that they are absolutely smaller, shrunken by age. In this double demotion the old giants have become pigmies while you were looking the other way.”(Knowles 6)

Though this thought may be indicative of Gene’s want to diminish the significance of that tree it also stirred my native distrust of first person narrators, particularly in flashback. This distrust, which has been an invaluable reading tool and joyfully employed and honed while delving into the depths of such works as The Island of Dr. Moreau and Grinning White Teeth both of which are perhaps due for more extensive reading, sets in early in this novel and daringly lays in the foreground throughout. I found myself constantly wondering if the idealistic portrayal of Phineas was accurate or merely another aggrandized childhood memory. This brings to light one of the major themes that I have found within this work and that is of the question as to whether or not we can, by choice, dictate the reality we live in.

This novel is set firmly in the hands of a band of school boys, Phineas and Gene in particular, coming of age during the height of the second world war. Despite the appearance of complete seclusion from the global struggle it seems that the strain of conflict seeps even into the marrow of the school. Athletics and academics evolve into arenas that forge jealousies and rivalries indicating that there is some animalistic competition in human nature that exists regardless of religion, politics, or background. The tragedy behind this fact is that it seems to assert itself without warning or instigation as though it was just there all along waiting for any excuse to usurp the mind wherein it lay waiting. Phineas, as described by a guilt ridden narrator, appears to be alone immune from this competition. He beats a school swimming record with no regard for any accompanying accolade, he creates games that cannot be won, and I think truly believes his staggering physical accomplishments are shared somehow with anyone and everyone. Many of the tragic elements of this novel flashed onto the page and were gone before I could even rightly comprehend what had happened. Gene’s sudden jealousy, his causing Phineas’ fall from the tree, his conflicting need for honest forgiveness and fervent denial all strike in well timed succession throughout the book.

I think that Phineas’ determination to disbelieve the existence of the war, while attributing it to the controlling interests of far away old men, and Gene’s several attempts to alter the history of his actions in his own mind highlight these boy’s need to control the truth of the world in which they live. Phineas looks to protect himself from the truth of what he’s lost both physically and with regard to someone he refers to often as his best friend, and Gene looks to do the same with the shame he feels over what he has done. They both seem to think that if they just believe it hard enough they can convince the world, and thereby themselves, that nothing bad ever happened. Even when Gene finds the courage to confess what he did that truth is too terrible for them to believe openly so they choose to have a delusion that it simply never happened. Of perhaps some historical significance this is quite similar to the United States before its forced entrance into the war where there seemed to be a determined self imposed ignorance of what was going on in Europe in the hopes of remaining detached.

However, the deconstruction of these delusions has two phases that succeed one another towards the end of the book. The first is that of Leper, the naturalist entranced by the image of the war supplied by the government, and the second is Brinker’s tribunal. Both of these events force Leper and Gene respectively to confront the world as it is rather than how they would see it. Gene cannot cope with Leper’s psychotic break and coldly turns away from him. I believe that this is in part because, as he to that point had refused to see, it would force him to admit that in its rawest form human nature might be beyond restraint in which case the evil that consumed him which had caused him to shake his friend from a tree forever changing Phineas’ life would endanger every moment of every day from then on. He could never be certain that another time or another second of lapsed watchfulness would not spill some other horror.  In this way the denial of the evil done becomes every bit as tragic as the evil itself. Even as Brinker begins his school yard tribunal having suspected the truth behind Phineas’ fall both Phineas and Gene hold fast to their desperate belief that it just wasn’t true.

It is Phineas’ flight from the tribunal which led to his falling down the stairs of the First Hall that had stuck with me after all these years, however I did not remember at all what had followed. I had prepared myself for Phineas to die on those stairs which is why finding out that he had only reinjured his broken leg bewildered me and left me emotionally unprepared for his death following the complications with setting the bone. It struck me very soundly in a way that could only be engineered by my vaguest of memories from all those years ago. This makes Gene’s confession, the honest and whole confession which was unlike his first attempt to do so, so much more powerful. The novel builds this tragedy throughout with simple strokes and deceptive subtlety. With the backdrop of a world at war this story shows that even the last refuge of peace there is a darkness hiding.

I make no pretense at review, however I did enjoy the work and its sad reminders that even in our closest friendships we sometimes let jealousies fester. There is no doubt that I gave it a fairer reading then I did before but there is certainly a wealth more here than I have discussed today. It puts me in the mind to revisit other works that have a similar sort of place in my memory such as Bridge to Terabithia. I will return A Separate Peace to its place on my desk and there’s no doubt my mind will linger there again in the fields of the Devon school someday soon.

Knowles, John. A Separate Peace. New York: Bantam, 1975. Print.



3 Responses to “Favorite Music Pieces”

  1. Sarah VB says:

    I think I remember watching something on VH-1 (Behind the Music, probably) that said that Bat Out of Hell was originally intended as a rock opera for an updated Peter Pan storyline. Sometimes I wonder how that would have played out onstage.

    • Bowdoin says:

      I vaguely remember seeing that as well. I don’t think there is enough narrative in the Bat out of Hell trilogy to actually stage anything directly from the songs, but if there is some grand epic plot line that ties them all together I’d be the first in line to see that fireworks display.

  2. Fan #24601 says:

    “Bowdoin has a gift for choosing and arranging his words in an iambic pentameter-y way so that there’s a mellifluous flow to the words” – Devon Jackson. He’s not wrong there! However I don’t agree with this bit: “What was less effective was the music, which is a bit flat.” I thought that the music was lovely, and really enjoyed the it. In fact, on more than one occasion I have wished to myself for there to be instrumental versions of the song. Being 100% honest, it’s partially because I love the music, and partially because I want to do karaoke with the songs… 😀

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