A Separate Peace was recognized immediately as an extremely sensitive account of a young man’s self-discovery through the process of maturation, and the passage of time has not lessened its universal appeal. John Knowles identifies and examines some of the crucial questions a young man might ask about himself and the world during his later teen-age years. Knowles’s evocation of the moods of developing manhood is deeply felt, precisely rendered, and exceptionally incisive. The novel captures a period of life in which everything seems intense and important, in which decisions must be made that may affect one’s entire life, in which action is seen with rare moral clarity, and in which an almost desperate sense of potential loss (of innocence, of uniqueness, of importance) underlies every act.
In addition, Knowles uses an extremely effective method for organizing this narrative of self-discovery. At the core of the story, the narrator undergoes an epiphany, a moment of irrevocable displacement that haunts the remainder of his life and reverberates throughout the book. Unsure of its meaning at the instant it occurs, the narrator finds that the incident symbolizes for him the awesome power of revelation, the moment of vision that shapes a life and defines existence, offering access to the secrets of the innermost self. The progress of the narration is controlled by a concentration on the full meaning of this incident and, by implication, on the universality of such events.
Beyond this, A Separate Peace may recall for older readers the special qualities of existence in those years when one is “green and dying,” in Dylan Thomas’s words. The novel reconnects the mature reader to that period in life when the demands and rewards of friendship and love were new and noble, and it helps to explain why idealism is so valuable a quality, and one so difficult to sustain. At the same time, the book articulates these feelings for all readers who may have been unable to express them.