A Separate Peace explores the difficulties with understanding the self during adolescence. (When we say it like that, it sounds like buckets of fun, doesn't it?) Identity is complicated enough as the narrator enters adulthood in a time of war, but a difficult friendship with a fellow student and rival leads to a further confusion of identity. Attempting to alter identity serves any number of purposes, from escaping guilt to living through others to dealing with insanity, but these attempts ultimately fail; the characters are forced to deal with their selves, actions, and personal identities.
Questions About Identity
- Gene in many ways assimilates Finny's identity after the accident. Think about the differences between Gene's reasons for doing this, and Finny's reasons for encouraging it. (Yes, you're right, that wasn't a question. But it got you thinking, didn't it?)
- If these characters are always shifting – like Brinker's big transition from leader to rebel – how is the self defined in A Separate Peace? Is Leper a different person after his military experience, as Gene claims he is?
- Does narrator Gene have a different identity than sixteen-year-old Gene?
Chew on This
Gene and Phineas's friendship is threatened when Gene alters his own identity to be more like Finny.
Gene and Phineas develop a closer friendship when Gene alters his own identity to be more like Finny.
This book opens with Gene Forrester’s return to Devon school after World War II to revisit the place where he believes he fought his war. He remembers his last year at Devon, when he became friends with his roommate, Finny.
While Gene is thoughtful and unsure of himself, Finny is filled with confidence. This confidence is based on a physical prowess which makes him the best athlete in the school. While Gene is capable of earning the top grades in his class, Finny is the undisputed class leader. Finny’s constant invention of pranks and games and his insistence on fun and good fellowship remind the boys, who have many kinds of trouble on their minds, that the joy of living should be valued above all things.
Gene comes to feel that there is a secret rivalry between him and Finny, he even suspects that Finny’s midnight larks are part of a plot to prevent him from getting the best grades. When he realizes that he is mistaken and that he has projected his own insecurity onto Finny, he is unable to accept this fact. Suddenly presented with a chance to hurt Finny, he causes an “accident” which results in a crippling compound fracture for Finney.
Most of the novel deals with Gene’s attempts to come to terms with his act. Finny does not suspect Gene, so Gene must deal with himself in moral isolation. Though Gene tries to confess, Finny will not listen to him. Only when their classmates hold a mock trial, do Finny and Gene face what Gene has done. Perhaps as a result of the trial, Finny rebreaks his leg and dies in the resulting operation. Before the operation, in a secret visit to Finny’s hospital room, Gene learns how much he has hurt Finny and how truly innocent Finny has always been.
Though often discussed as a novel for young people, A SEPARATE PEACE is rich enough to interest adult readers. Gene’s discovery that the real enemy is not across the ocean but in his own soul is convincing and moving.
Bell, Hallman B. A Separate Peace. Boston: Twayne, 1990. A collection of critical essays that give an excellent overall view of Knowles’s novel. Includes a useful bibliography.
Flum, Hanoch, and Harriet Porton. “Relational Processes and Identity Formation in Adolescence: The Example of A Separate Peace.” Genetic, Social, and General Monographs 121 (November, 1995): 369-390. The authors view the process of identity formation through the lens of the story of an adolescent boy’s experiences during World War II at a boarding school in New Hampshire. Using the events of the book as examples of the necessary connections that are essential to the process of development, the authors explore male adolescent growth.