Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 6, 2008

A Separate Peace, by John Knowles, read by Matthew Modine

separate-peaceA Separate Peace by John Knowles is a  coming-of-age novel well-known in the USA which I discovered through The Mooksie and the Gripes.  I wasn’t able to source a copy of the book, but the Casey-Cardinia Library had an audio-book so old that it was on cassette.  There is now only one cassette player in our house, so I had to listened to it in my library while I read my email, attended to the bills and wrapped Xmas presents, which was probably not the best way to enjoy this remarkable book.  I’ve now mooched a copy because I think it’s worthy of attentive reading.


Set in a boys’ school called Devon just as WW2 is belatedly beginning for Americans, it’s the story of the intense relationship between two boys, Phineas (Finny) a gifted athlete and Gene, the most gifted scholar in the school.   A natural leader, Finny forms a ‘Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session’ with an induction ritual that involves jumping from a huge tree into the Devon River.  He has an insouciant air, a cheerful contempt for school rules, and a complete lack of interest in academic achievement.  It is not until their activities impact on Gene’s school performance and he fails a maths test, that he begins to question their relationship and comes to believe that Finny’s demands are deliberately planned out of jealousy to sabotage his academic achievements.  Quite why Gene’s impulse for revenge comes after this suspicion is revealed and Finny tells him that his carelessness about the need to study is simply because he thinks that study comes as naturally to Gene as sporting accomplishment comes naturally to him, is no doubt the subject of many a high school essay, but it has disastrous results   Gene feels intense shame when he contrasts his suspicions with Finny’s frank and open-hearted character and tries to confess, but Finny won’t hear it of it. 

The war is both remote and ever-present.  The boys watch the news-reels, and they are subject to shortages, and yet the war seems unreal and far away.  Finny chooses to deny its existence because his injury makes him unable to fight, and instead trains Gene to be the athlete that he could no longer be, for the 1944 Winter Olympics that never eventuated.  The boys help out with harvesting and snow-clearning because of labour shortages, but things at school seem much the same until  ‘Leper’ Lepellier joins up, and then deserts, making his way back to his old school in an effort to escape his demons. 

Things fall apart when the innocence of the boys’ friendship is questioned by another boy, Brinker Hadley, in a sort of mock trial which inquires into how Finny came to fall from the tree. When ‘Leper’ Lepellier testifies as to what he saw, Gene’s treachery is revealed and Finny breaks his leg again as he runs from the room in distress.  The ‘separate peace’ he had so carelessly believed in is shattered, and not just by his death.

If I interpret Knowles correctly, his view of the causes of war is naive.  When Phineas says to Gene: “‘It was just some kind of blind impulse you had in the tree there . It wasn’t anything you really felt against me, it wasn’t some kind of hate you’ve felt all along. It wasn’t anything personal,”‘  Knowles implies that it is impersonal impulses which lead to violence, war, death, and conflict.   Gene reflects that “wars were not made by generations and their special stupidities, but that wars were made instead by something ignorant in the human heart,” but that is a child’s view of war (and Gene is supposedly narrating this tale when he is in his mid 30s).   The stupidity of the current Iraq War should not blind us to the reality that there are times, when the prosecution of war is a moral act, and the Second World War, fighting  Nazism, was one of these. 

Still, A Separate Peace is a powerful story, which deserves its place in the canon of American literature.


  1. Glad you liked it!

    By the way, I don’t think Knowles was a pacifist. I think he would say that some things are worth fighting for. The problem is that something silly caused that reason. For example, the holocaust was something that needed to be stopped. But what but ignorance or pettiness started the holocaust in the first place. We can go back to WWI for that, and many of the ridiculous land battles and identity theories that were going on. Those were the ignorant, petty reasons that made up something the world had to step in to stop. And who can say that Stalin was anything more than a big bully kid? Ah, the conflicts in the world. We cannot let the injustice prevail – so war is a necessity in several cases – but just imagine if the people who caused the injustice in the first place were more than just big power hungry little kids. There would be a lot less conflict in the world.


  2. Oh, I don’t know, Trevor…I agree that The Treaty of Versailles had a lot to do with German resentment, but I don’t think that the anti-Semitism given free rein by Hitler was caused by by WW1.
    Perhaps it depends on your view of human nature. Stalin and Hitler were monsters, but they were powerful because others agreed with them. The bully in the school yard has power because of the bystanders who do nothing…


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