An American Classic

A Separate Peace by John Knowles (1959) is regarded as an American Classic. The two main protagonists Phineas (Finny) and Gene Forrester are pupils at Devon, a New England Prep School. Gene is a quiet, introverted boy who, because he is from the South, finds it difficult to fit in at the school. He is chosen as a friend by the charming, athletic, good-looking, charismatic and good natured Finny who is from Boston. They are attending a Summer School in 1942 and Gene becomes caught up with Finny’s exuberant activities such as jumping from a high branch into the river. Gene realises that whilst Finny excels at sports and can seemingly talk himself out of any situation, he struggles with his written work. Being good at games and the superior (through hard work) scholar leads Gene to strive to be a top student.

However his innate lack of self- confidence leads Gene to believe that Finny is deliberately including him in activities to distract him from his studies. Gene’s ambiguity about his feelings towards Finny leads him to make a spur of the moment bad decision and he causes Finny to fall from the tree and badly break his leg. Finny’s core goodness enables the boys’ friendship to survive this tragedy because he comes to realise that Gene did not act maliciously.

separate peace

The action takes place against the background of the Second World War. At 16 Gene and Finny are still too young to enlist but the teachers at the school have begun to prepare the older boys for the realities of war. There is increased emphasis on physical fitness and recruiters frequently visit the school. The uncertain future adds to the usual pressures of being an adolescent.

We first meet Gene as an adult when he returns to Devon and his current feelings are entangled with his memories of his teenaged self. Because he is the sole narrator it is difficult to know if the character of Finny is an accurate one. This leads to intriguing questions which are never completely answered.  The reader must judge for themselves about the validity of  events as reported by Gene.

This was John Knowles (1926-2001) first and arguably best novel and is apparently based on his own experiences at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire.

The novels The Secret History by Donna Tartt, The Sixth Form by Tom Dolby, Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, Old School by Tobias Wolf and the DVDs The Emperor’s Club Mona Lisa Smile  and Dead Poets Society all have an American Prep School setting.

A Separate Peace was  added to the’ Education in Literature Collection’ on the recommendation of a former member of staff. Any suggestions for books or DVDs will be considered for inclusion.


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