The opening pages of A Separate Peace serve as a prologue in the “present” when the book is being written, fifteen years after 1942, the critical year in the life of the novel’s narrator, Gene Forrester. A mood of philosophical reflection develops as the narrator describes a visit back to his prep school. His memory soon takes him back to the days of his seventeenth year, at the convergence of youth and manhood in a timeless moment when “feeling was stronger than thought.” This return enables Knowles to place the action within an introspective frame so that both “feeling” and “thought” are employed in the service of understanding. In addition to the perspective provided by the passage of time, another kind of framework emerges as Gene, the central subject of his own narrative, also becomes the narrator of a hero’s life, the poetic story of the extraordinary Phineas.
Knowles has created a friendship that parallels that of Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby (1925). Gene, like Nick, records his friend’s exceptional qualities and singular style. The parallel is particularly appropriate since Knowles, like Fitzgerald, is writing about the American dream and the loss of idealism. Gene’s involvement with Phineas, however, is more intimate than Nick’s relationship with Gatsby, and his own actions are more intricately connected with Finny’s destiny. Gene’s participation in Finny’s fate irrevocably changes his own character.
This change in Gene’s character structures the narrative and gives it a sense of progression, but the central core around which it revolves is the character of Phineas, Gene’s roommate and best friend. In creating Phineas, Knowles builds a character upon an idea of excellence that a young man might aspire to, and he has succeeded in making Phineas a plausible person where he might easily have remained a wooden icon or symbol. Finny is the center of all social situations, the energy-giver who instigates and directs action. His wild imagination makes him a bold explorer of new possibility, and his sheer joy in existence contributes to his natural leadership. He is most at home in the world of sport-triumphing in traditional games with an almost casual competence, serving as the spirit of inspiration in games he creates to enchant his friends. Because he is so good at handling conventional social arrangements, he loves a challenge and often dares himself to go beyond the limits set by authorities. He is both a rebel and a faithful supporter. He loves Devon School “truly and deeply,” and he directs his rebellion against blind order that prohibits the establishment of the perfect order he envisions. Clever and audacious, he enjoys the effect of proclaiming the unsayable, yet he always remains within the bounds of genuine good taste as defined by the totally democratic (that is, not class-conscious) world he longs for.
The reader sees Phineas in the book through the eyes of his closest friend, Gene, who adores and, unfortunately, also envies him. Gene is Knowles’s projection of his own early artistic consciousness. While reconstructing the formation of this creative intelligence, Knowles concentrates on the contradictions and uncertainties of a young man gradually coming to terms with the imperfections of his character and of the world. Because of Gene’s doubts, he cannot fully and freely accept Finny’s gift of unrestricted friendship and unrestrained candor, hiding his own fear behind a shield of fashionable sarcasm. Because he is unable to express his own feelings, he distrusts Finny’s motives and ascribes to Finny his own competitive ambitions.
At the beginning of the narrative, Gene has a sense of himself as the center of the world. By the conclusion, he has been compelled to accept his own relatively insignificant position in a vast cosmos. Interestingly, this adjustment, essential to the process of maturity, enables him to understand Finny’s gift for empathy and sharing. This understanding is the beginning of a real strength in Gene’s character-a strength born of disappointment, pain, and loss, as well as insight.
While a confrontation with the dark dimensions of his own psyche is crucial for Gene’s growth, it is only one aspect of his life. To balance the psychic struggle, Knowles skillfully evokes the beauty of a New England summer for a young man temporarily transfixed by a perfect moment in time. Gene is the embodiment of the heightened emotion, instinct, and candor that make youth such a poignant, precious, and, of course, temporary state of existence. The fleeting nature of these qualities is underscored by Gene’s degree of change at the end of the book. At the end of the school year in June, Gene has prepared himself for the adult world-specifically the war-by consciously creating a gulf between his former pure joy in existence and his newly-formed guarded attitude as he faces the coming tumult.
But in a final reflection on Devon, the bruised, wary seventeen-year-old merges with the adult’s narrative consciousness to try to come to terms with the transforming power of his friendship with Finny. What remains with him is Finny’s wonderful and singular presence. The legacy of their shared moments is Gene’s sense of the best side of himself and his understanding that one does not have to give in to the worst ways of the world to survive. The “separate peace” that Gene arranges is with that part of himself that was corrupted by fear, and as he realizes on his return, he remains at least somewhat at peace because of this accommodation. And although he will always resent the world that drove him to compete with and not fully accept Finny, Gene has made peace with that enemy also, recognizing that resistance through hate is negative and self-destructive, an impediment to the preservation of Finny’s finest and most cherished gift, the life he bequeathed to his friend.