Review: A Separate Peace

Warning: SPOILERS!

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2021: A Separate Peace

INTRODUCTION A Separate Peace is a classic from the 20th century, written by John Knowles and originally published in 1959. A movie adaptation has been made twice––once in 1972 (starring John Heyl and Parker Stevenson) and once more in 2004 (starring Toby Moore and J Barton). 

SUMMARY A Separate Peace details the tragic story of Gene Forrester and his best friend Phineas. It takes place at a boarding school in New England, known as the Devon School. The story begins in 1942, the thick of World War II, which Gene and Phineas and their friends are spending in summer school at Devon. They study, of course, and do homework and take examinations, but they also exploit their status as innocent, carefree youth. They frolic and romp and play games and take part in reckless dares, the most significant of which involves jumping out of the limbs of an old tree and into a river it overlooks. They have fun in its pure and unaltered form.

Of the two, Gene is by far the better student––one of the best students at Devon, in fact––but Phineas is just as considerably the better athlete––the best athlete in the school, though this is a little-known fact that Phineas does not spread liberally, humble and genuine and so full of childlike innocence as he is. Gene is indifferent to this arrangement; he doesn’t care, really, that his best friend is the better athlete––until he becomes wary. He begins to suspect that Phineas is attempting to sabotage his academic career, so as to best him as a student as well. So it transpires that, one day, when they’re jumping out of the tree, he makes Phineas lose balance––and fall down. 

Did Gene mean to hurt his best friend, or was it a subconscious act, his mind so consumed with hatred, so convinced that Phineas intends to see him bested in the academics, that it was driven to extremes? This is a question that Gene wrestles with himself over the course of the entire book. We do not ever find out what his intent truly was.

But, regardless of intent, Phineas ends up with a broken leg so severe in extent that it is highly probable that he will never be able to play sports again. Devastated, Gene goes to tell his best friend that he had been responsible for his injury––but Phineas refuses to hear him through, insisting that Gene has lost his head. No one made him lose balance, he claims angrily. That was all him. He makes Gene leave, and when they return to Devon for the school year, they both pretend that nothing has happened. But the damage has been done.

At this point, the war makes its way into the Devon School, encroaching upon the lives of its students and all that it symbolizes: innocence, and the youth and tranquility associated with it. The first to enlist is Leper Lepellier, a strange boy who harbors an obsession for nature, who makes up his mind after watching a documentary of troops who use skis to traverse mountainous landscape––he leaves almost bursting in anticipation of what beautiful landscapes he’ll see in his time in the army. Soon, others start to follow. 

Then, not too long after, Gene receives an urgent message from Leper, asking Gene to meet him at his house. When Gene arrives, he learns that Leper has deserted, and, worse, seems to have gone crazy in the short time he spent in the army. Gene asks him what had made him leave, and Leper rambles about bloody limbs and female faces on male bodies. Scared, Gene quickly escapes and returns to Devon.

Then, in the middle of the night, he and Phineas are roused out of bed and escorted to a meeting of a number of the student body, who question Gene about his involvement in Phineas’s accident. Gene attempts to defend himself, and Phineas repeats again and again that his friend had nothing to do with it. But a witness turns up, and the evidence makes things clear. Suddenly, Phineas shouts and begins to cry, and hobbles with his crutches out of the room––only to fall down a set of marble stairs and re-fracture his leg. 

That night, Gene makes his way to the infirmary on campus, and he apologizes to his friend. Phineas absorbs everything quietly, and then he forgives Gene.

The next day, he visits Phineas again, who was supposed to undergo surgery in the morning. But when he arrives, he finds the doctor in a daze: Phineas is dead. Bone marrow, the doctor says, leaked from the break and traveled to his heart. There is a funeral for Phineas. Gene does not cry.

REVIEW I would give this book a 9/10. It’s complicated, but once you reach the end everything falls into place and gives you a warm feeling, the kind you can only get after finishing a genuinely good book. The themes A Separate Peace deals with are quite morbid but most certainly relevant and true; namely, the inevitable loss of childlike innocence, whether it be to war or conflict or blind altruism and faith. It’s a great read; if you’re a fan of classics, you should give it a read, and even if you’re not, just go ahead anyway––it’s fairly short.

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