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A Separate Peace: a Definition of a Classic

English II ` Doug Van Hollen

10-2 Feb. 19, 1998

Unit: Novel

Assign: Book Critique

A Separate Peace: a Definition of a Classic

Many books are published every day by authors all over the world hoping to be loved by their readers.  Every once in a long while, one of these books connects with the readers in a way that few things can.  These books are heralded as classics and are immediately famous.  The book A Separate Peace, by John Knowles tells the story of a young adult’s procession into “the real world” on a prep school campus.  This book, though lacking some description, should be considered a classic of American literature.

The conflict in this book is principally man versus himself.  The author relies so heavily on this element of his story idea that he virtually obliterates the need for other characters.  The narration is so heavy compared to the dialog that the theme is almost thrown in one’s face.  All this falls into place when one recognizes that this is a story of the ever-present quest for manhood.  This process logically requires much introspective description.  Adding to this, Gene, the main character, must also deal with World War II, which is raging a mere three thousand miles to the east.  Gene’s best friend, Phineas, to whom he has an almost homosexual attachment, is convinced that there is no war, that the whole thing is a sham concocted by diplomats, mouths still dripping from World War I and hungry for another chance at lucrative panic investments.  Gene is balanced on the knife-edge between cold reality (Gene is a confirmed realist) and Finny’s easygoing interpretations.  Gene lives up to his devotion to Finny.  The book states, “And not believing him, not forgetting that troops were being shuttled toward battlefields all over the world, I went along, as I always did with any new invention of Finny’s”(109).  This shows Gene’s knowledge of the truth, as well as his willingness to forget these very truths temporarily in order to improve and cement his relationship with Finny.  A major difference between these two friends is that Finny is better than Gene at just about everything with the exception of academics.  Finny knows and accepts this, so the two are able to work out a deal wherein Finny helps Gene train for the nonexistent 1944 Olympics, while Gene tutors Finny in some of his more difficult courses.  Gene states, during an excursion to the beach, “You’re too good to be true”(36).  This refers to Finny’s excellation in sports and positive mindset, as well as Gene’s inevitable envy and incipient jealousy.  In chapter four, this jealousy turns to outright hatred and paranoia, which eventually leads to Gene knocking Finny out of a tree.  Finny breaks his leg as a result, barring him from sports for the rest of his life.  The rest of the book deals with Gene trying to handle the nearly overwhelming guilt that follows this incident and this interesting conflict makes for a superb plotline.

After the conflict, the next aspect of this novel that an analytical reader notices is the use of literary devices.  The author starts foreshadowing as early as chapter one, when an older Gene revisits the infamous tree and the ultimately fatal steps, the two places where Finny falls.  Also, when Gene is gazing over Devon on his revisitation, the sports fields and buildings are notably pointed out, as if Gene is thinking of Finny and his affinity for sports.  The author remarks that Gene drives “...past the solid gymnasium...past the Field House..the huge open sweep of ground known as the Playing Fields”(4).  Symbolism also plays a large part in A Separate Peace, but the reader must look deep within the heart of the book to clearly define it.  The characters can represent various aspects of society.  Gene represents the slightly depressed, introspective side of the average person.  He is the realist faction of our social milieu.  Finny stands for all of the idealists and optimists of society.  He personifies the “go-get-’em” spirit of this country.  Leper, on the other hand, depicts cold reality.  He is Gene’s dark side times ten.  Leper is the first character to enlist in the military and is eventually driven insane from the pressures of boot camp.  His attitude is dark and pessimistic.  Quackenbush, though a minor character, still plays a part.  He seems to personify  the bullies that all must face, be they human beings or otherwise.  The war, though not a character at all, symbolizes the looming threat of the dark end that awaits us all.  The symbolism in this story is well-represented, but the point-of-view could have been improved by having the story told through Phineas’ eyes instead of Gene’s.  The story needed more information about the main character, Gene, than he himself could reveal, such as annoying habits or day-to-day routines.  Finny, if put in the post of narrator, would be in a much better position to reveal such details.  Besides, nobody really needs to know all that much about Finny because his behavior is almost expected and predictable.  Everybody knows a Finny.  Despite these criticisms, however, the literary devices in this book form a fascinating foreground to the story.

The characters, which make up more of the book than the plot, takes the author into the same league of character description as Herman Melville and John Irving.  My favorite character is Leper Lepellier.  I chose Leper because I can identify closest with him.  He is a naturalist and outdoorsman.  Gene recommends, “Stick to your snails, Leper”(136).  He is somewhat alienated from the clique at Devon because of his depressing thoughts and ideas.  Very little is explained about Leper in the book, which raises many questions.  Where did he get those skis?  Is he as wealthy as the other boys at Devon?  What subjects is he taking?  In fact, not even an accurate description of his physical appearance was given.  Leper functions as Gene’s foil, even though there is very little interaction between the two.  Leper is the deciding force that causes Gene’s reconsideration of rapid enlistment, along with Finny’s return from his sick leave.  Gene is the one who visits Leper in New England because Leper states in his letter that Gene is his “best friend”.  These examples show Gene’s interaction with Leper, but also their opposing thoughts.  Leper seems like a person that this writer would like.

In conclusion, it should be stated that this book is of great significance as a story of growing up.  A Separate Peace has become a classic because of its unique conflict, superb literary utilization, and truly exquisite character description.  This novel satisfactorily illustrates the difficult transition between adolescence and manhood in a way to capture and suspend the reader’s heart and mind.

This was an essay written on February 19th, 1998 for my tenth grade English class.  The subject is A Separate Peace by John Knowles, which I vaguely remember as not too annoying of a book, as forced readings go.  Apparently we were asked to argue whether or not it was a "classic".  Notice the strict adherence to the government-mandated five-paragraph structure and the invented words like "excellation".




Many books are published every day by authors all over the world hoping to be loved by their readers.  Every once in a long while, one of these books connects with the readers in a way that few things can.  These books are heralded as classics and are immediately famous.  The book A Separate Peace by John Knowles tells the story of a young adult’s procession into “the real world” on a prep school campus.  This book, though lacking some description, should be considered a classic of American literature.

The conflict in this book is principally man versus himself.  The author relies so heavily on this element of his story idea that he virtually obliterates the need for other characters.  The narration is so heavy compared to the dialog that the theme is almost thrown in one’s face.  All this falls into place when one recognizes that this is a story of the ever-present quest for manhood.  This process logically requires much introspective description.  Adding to this, Gene, the main character, must also deal with World War II, which is raging a mere three thousand miles to the east.  Gene’s best friend, Phineas, to whom he has an almost homosexual attachment, is convinced that there is no war, that the whole thing is a sham concocted by diplomats, mouths still dripping from World War I and hungry for another chance at lucrative panic investments.  Gene is balanced on the knife-edge between cold reality (Gene is a confirmed realist) and Finny’s easygoing interpretations.  Gene lives up to his devotion to Finny.  The book states, “And not believing him, not forgetting that troops were being shuttled toward battlefields all over the world, I went along, as I always did with any new invention of Finny’s”(109).  This shows Gene’s knowledge of the truth, as well as his willingness to forget these very truths temporarily in order to improve and cement his relationship with Finny.  A major difference between these two friends is that Finny is better than Gene at just about everything with the exception of academics.  Finny knows and accepts this, so the two are able to work out a deal wherein Finny helps Gene train for the nonexistent 1944 Olympics, while Gene tutors Finny in some of his more difficult courses.  Gene states, during an excursion to the beach, “You’re too good to be true”(36).  This refers to Finny’s excellation in sports and positive mindset, as well as Gene’s inevitable envy and incipient jealousy.  In chapter four, this jealousy turns to outright hatred and paranoia, which eventually leads to Gene knocking Finny out of a tree.  Finny breaks his leg as a result, barring him from sports for the rest of his life.  The rest of the book deals with Gene trying to handle the nearly overwhelming guilt that follows this incident and this interesting conflict makes for a superb plotline.

After the conflict, the next aspect of this novel that an analytical reader notices is the use of literary devices.  The author starts foreshadowing as early as chapter one, when an older Gene revisits the infamous tree and the ultimately fatal steps, the two places where Finny falls.  Also, when Gene is gazing over Devon on his revisitation, the sports fields and buildings are notably pointed out, as if Gene is thinking of Finny and his affinity for sports.  The author remarks that Gene drives “...past the solid gymnasium...past the Field House..the huge open sweep of ground known as the Playing Fields”(4).  Symbolism also plays a large part in A Separate Peace, but the reader must look deep within the heart of the book to clearly define it.  The characters can represent various aspects of society.  Gene represents the slightly depressed, introspective side of the average person.  He is the realist faction of our social milieu.  Finny stands for all of the idealists and optimists of society.  He personifies the “go-get-’em” spirit of this country.  Leper, on the other hand, depicts cold reality.  He is Gene’s dark side times ten.  Leper is the first character to enlist in the military and is eventually driven insane from the pressures of boot camp.  His attitude is dark and pessimistic.  Quackenbush, though a minor character, still plays a part.  He seems to personify  the bullies that all must face, be they human beings or otherwise.  The war, though not a character at all, symbolizes the looming threat of the dark end that awaits us all.  The symbolism in this story is well-represented, but the point-of-view could have been improved by having the story told through Phineas’ eyes instead of Gene’s.  The story needed more information about the main character, Gene, than he himself could reveal, such as annoying habits or day-to-day routines.  Finny, if put in the post of narrator, would be in a much better position to reveal such details.  Besides, nobody really needs to know all that much about Finny because his behavior is almost expected and predictable.  Everybody knows a Finny.  Despite these criticisms, however, the literary devices in this book form a fascinating foreground to the story.

The characters, which make up more of the book than the plot, takes the author into the same league of character description as Herman Melville and John Irving.  My favorite character is Leper Lepellier.  I chose Leper because I can identify closest with him.  He is a naturalist and outdoorsman.  Gene recommends, “Stick to your snails, Leper”(136).  He is somewhat alienated from the clique at Devon because of his depressing thoughts and ideas.  Very little is explained about Leper in the book, which raises many questions.  Where did he get those skis?  Is he as wealthy as the other boys at Devon?  What subjects is he taking?  In fact, not even an accurate description of his physical appearance was given.  Leper functions as Gene’s foil, even though there is very little interaction between the two.  Leper is the deciding force that causes Gene’s reconsideration of rapid enlistment, along with Finny’s return from his sick leave.  Gene is the one who visits Leper in New England because Leper states in his letter that Gene is his “best friend”.  These examples show Gene’s interaction with Leper, but also their opposing thoughts.  Leper seems like a person that this writer would like.

In conclusion, it should be stated that this book is of great significance as a story of growing up.  A Separate Peace has become a classic because of its unique conflict, superb literary utilization, and truly exquisite character description.  This novel satisfactorily illustrates the difficult transition between adolescence and manhood in a way to capture and suspend the reader’s heart and mind.

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