None of the books John Knowles has written since A Separate Peace has achieved nearly the critical or popular success of his first novel. The reason is not that Knowles has exhausted his knowledge of the world but that A Separate Peace has a rare unity of subject and style. Knowles is a graceful and lucid writer, but his ability to use language most effectively seems to require a specific focus to prevent style from becoming merely decorative, an end in itself. His task in A Separate Peace, to establish the authenticity of Gene’s sensibility-that is, his heightened sensitivity to the beauty of the natural world and his capacity for intense feeling about human nature-required the creation of a lyric voice to register the range of emotional response with poetic precision. Knowles’s vivid descriptions of the countryside through four seasons enable him to echo the psychic landscape of his narrator in powerful imagery, and the clarity of his descriptions of certain key locations-a marble staircase, the testing tree, the pure river-offers an anchor and a context for the novel’s most important events. Because Gene’s voice throughout the narrative is generally sober and reflective, when Knowles shifts into a different rhythm the effect is often striking by contrast.
Knowles also knows the atmosphere of the school very well, and his unobtrusive presentation of details gradually gives the reader a full sense of the school’s grounds. The other boys in Finny’s “circle” are not presented with much depth, but they are drawn from familiar types, and Knowles has invested each one with enough personality to make him distinct. Knowles masterfully recreates the conversation of young men in groups, complete with all of the self-conscious, artificial linguistic apparatus. His ear for the telling phrase or the right slang gives his depiction of life in the dorms a convincing authenticity. As Gene grows throughout the year, the other boys are also affected by the changing times; but their transformations are mostly background for Gene’s development. Still, the sense that they have grown, too, reinforces Gene’s progress.
The first-person narrative draws the reader very close to Gene, an identification crucial to a full involvement in his quest. Knowles’s skillful alternation between action and reflection, confrontation and relaxation, and seasons of ease and seasons of stress, prevents Gene’s story from becoming routine or too predictable. Against these changes of pace, Gene’s engaging desire to learn everything he can about all he encounters drives the narrative forward. Because Gene is such an open vessel, each setback has serious consequences, but because he has an essentially positive outlook, he can rebound quickly. The structure of the book follows this pattern of crisis and resolution until its conclusion, at which point it has been established that Gene will eventually become the man who can tell the story.