A Separate Peace

Author: John Knowles

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1959

I read it: August 2015


When my friend Jim gave us a painting of a shelf of coming-of-age novels for a wedding gift, this was one of the books I’d never heard of. I found an old copy at Eat My Words, the cover of which bills it as “The best since Catcher In The Rye.”

So it is that this book too is about young men in a New England prep school, coming to terms with the transition into adulthood. What distinguishes this novel is its 1942 setting, when the senior class at Devon is getting shipped off to World War II. The protagonist, Gene, and his unique friend, Phineas, are about to enter their last full year at school before they are old enough to enlist. Or, at the end of the year, get drafted.

I plucked this one off the shelf because it was short, though I was not particularly looking forward to it. But late summer was a good time to give it a go, because of the back-to-school feeling, and it turns out the book was more enjoyable (and funny) than I had expected. There’s something about the prep school that has an allure of the romantic, because for me it exists only in books. The campus setting and isolation of the boys always make these stories seem like college tales, despite the high school age of the characters.

Throughout, the young men try to orient themselves against the flow of the outside world and find it difficult:

Bombs in Central Europe were completely unreal to us here, not because we couldn’t imagine it—a thousand newspaper photographs and newsreels had given us a pretty accurate idea of such a sight—but because our place here was too fair for us to accept something like that. … The people of the world who could be selfish in the summer of 1942 were a small band, and I’m glad we took advantage of it.

This freedom was one aspect of their reality, but the pendulum also swings in the other direction and makes them constantly anxious and useless, until they “seemed to be nothing but children playing among heroic men.” This psychology creates cracks between the schoolyard friends, causing Gene to inflict harm and Phineas to dip into a delusion of his own making.

Time crushes down upon these unfortunate youth. The story is one of reminiscence, tinged with a wonder and regret. The narrator realizes that “there is no stage you comprehend better than the one you have just left” and finally philosophizes about the big picture: “It seemed clear that wars were not made by generations and their special stupidities, but that wars were made instead by something ignorant in the human heart.”

The meditation on a specific wartime psyche is what gives this book value. It’s how a lot of us learn about the great events: piecemeal, through stories that each tackle a certain angle. This is another effective WWII tale that helps fill in a gap for us non-history majors.


4 thoughts on “A Separate Peace

  1. Great review! I loved the way he used metaphors of war to describe the weather – in fact, I loved his use of language in all ways. I’ve added another of his books to my to be read list, but I get the impression that this was really his one standout book.

    • Hey, thanks for reading it! The language in this book was definitely fluid and attractive, causing me to read on even when it seemed relatively little was happening. I agree this might be the only book of his worth checking out in the end.

  2. Very nice review–I like that you focused on the message Knowles tries to communicate about war through the novel (which is, as you said, the main message–not so much the homoerotic subtext I attempted to focus on in mine). I think it is less time that cracks down upon their youth but the reality of war itself, and everything it tears apart–one of the things so striking about the novel is how rapidly the young characters fall from innocence, perhaps best exemplified by Leper. Leper is perhaps the most juvenile or fragile character, an incarnation of youthful innocence at its most extreme, and rather than being forced to grow up by time, he is broken by a sudden and harsh reality that forces continued dependence rather than independence. The commentary present in his character is one worth looking at that has puzzled me for a while, as if Knowles is trying to show that a sort of evolution from child to soldier is impossible without some sort of soul-death. It is almost Lord of the Flies-esque in that sense, in implying that innocence is inevitably corruptible no matter how pure it seems, though the catalyst in this case is certainly more specific (war) than it is in LotF (literally just existing).

    • Thanks for stopping by and commenting on mine. I think you may be right that “time crushes down” does not evoke the right imagery for this story. Usually that kind of phrase would bring to mind a long span of dismal decades. I think I was trying to get at the idea that there was a ticking clock, but a very short one that increased anxiety in a way that a lengthier march toward fate would not.

      The war in this book is an abstract yet still oppressive entity, and I agree that it crushes the youth/soul of all the young men swept up in it. I imagine it pushes people right through maturity and on into insanity. Scary! Innocence can probably survive a natural decay into adulthood, but when it gets so abruptly shattered you’re asking for damaged psyches both personally and nationally.

      Lord of the Flies is on my list to re-read. I don’t expect too many surprises because I feel pretty familiar with it, but I’ll try to be on the lookout for angles I may have missed (and perhaps some homoerotic subtext?).

      Happy reading.

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