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A Separate Peace: Essay for 9th Grade (honors) English


Notoman 20 / 419  
Sep 8, 2009   #1
First off, this isn't Notoman. I am his younger brother, Kevin. I don't see where to create a new identity on a shared IP address. This is my first essay using MLA in-text citations and I am not sure if I am doing it right. I am also not sure if I really understand (or explain well) what "separate peace" means. Thank you for all comments.

Here is the prompt: What kind of peace is the novel about? Who achieves the separate peace mentioned in the title?

And here is the essay:
The concept of peace plays an important role in John Knowles' novel A Separate Peace. As World War II rages in Europe and in the Pacific, the sixteen-year-old boys at the Devon school enjoy a sheltered existence knowing they are not yet subject to the call of duty. On the surface, "a separate peace" refers to this placid and protected life at a New England boarding school. The novel has darker psychological undertones, though, as it explores Gene's savage nature and his journey to reconcile his violent act against his best friend Finny. Gene revisits Devon and his past in an attempt to find his own separate peace.

Even though World War II is evident in the novel, the war barely touches the lives of the students at Devon. While the senior boys were "draft-bait, practically soldiers" (15), the younger students were allowed to be "careless and wild" (24) as a small group of "people who could be selfish in the summer of 1942" (30). The war's effect on Devon increases as the narrative progresses. At first, the boys know no one involved in the fighting and only seem to know that there is a war by newspaper headlines and the lack of maid service at the school. Finny even questions whether there is a war at all. World War II permeates the tranquility of the school as the students help to shovel snow from the railroad tracks so that the troop train carrying boys not much older than they are can pass. Leper's enlistment and subsequent mental breakdown, brings the war closer to the Devon students and breaks the separate peace. The boys enjoyed telling tales of valor with Leper as the hero and are greatly impacted by his affliction. "If a war can drive somebody crazy, then it's real," Finny laments (163).

Gene returns to the school as a grown man to face the demons of his adolescence. The school appears "as though a coat of varnish had been put over everything" (9), and even the tree that Finny fell from isn't the giant that Gene remembers but "absolutely smaller, shrunken by age" (14). It is Gene's thoughts on the marble staircase that are most telling. Gene stands before the stairs and it dawns on him that they are unusually hard. This realization takes him by surprise, "with all my thought about these stairs this exceptional hardness had not occurred to me" (11). In his mind, the tree is smaller and the stairs are harder. This juxtaposition of facts and perception shift the blame for Finny's death from the incident in the tree to the fall down the staircase. While at school, Gene saw Finny as both his best friend and his worst enemy. When Finny reaches out to prevent Gene from falling out of the tree, Gene says Finny "had practically saved my life" (32), but the next moment Gene doesn't "need to feel any tremendous rush of gratitude toward Phineas" because he sees his friend as trying to kill him. This feeling of enmity that "the deadly rivalry was on both sides after all" (54) provides Gene the justification in his mind to jounce Finny out of the tree.

Just as the war threatens the fragile peace experienced by the Devon students, the truth presses in on Gene threatening his personal peace. The eventual ceasefire prevents the students from ever knowing the true horrors of war and Finny's death prevents Gene from ever having to confront the true nature of the events surrounding his friend's death. No one "ever accused [Gene] of being responsible for ... what had happened to Phineas, either because they could not believe it or else because they could not understand it" (197). Gene is able to escape both battle and blame and maintain his separate peace.
EF_Sean 6 / 3,491  
Sep 8, 2009   #2
Hmmmm . . . if it is true that Gene has escaped blame and maintained a separate peace, why does he return to the school? And why does he tell us a story that he obviously feels horribly guilty about? And what does Gene ultimately conclude about the reasons for why he acted the way he did? And does that in any way tie in to the title of the novel?

So many questions . . .
OP Notoman 20 / 419  
Sep 8, 2009   #3
So many questions . . .

True! This is my first attempt at really analyzing literature. Middle school didn't require analysis. Does Gene feel horribly guilty about Finny? It seems he still oscillates between the old hatred and admiration. It is like he feels justified in hurting Finny because he thinks Finny is his enemy.

Here are two of the last lines in the book that confuse me. I am not sure what they mean. Gene seems at peace after his visit to Devon, but I have been wrong before.

"I never killed anybody and I never developed an intense level of hatred for the enemy. Because my war ended before I ever put on a uniform; I was on active duty all my time at school; I killed my enemy there. Only Phineas never was afraid, only Phineas never hated anyone."

"All of them, all except for Phineas, constructed at infinite cost to themselves these Maginot Lines against this enemy they thought they saw across the frontier, this enemy who never attacked that way-if he ever attacked at all; if he was indeed the enemy."

Thank you!
EF_Sean 6 / 3,491  
Sep 8, 2009   #4
Well, if he doesn't, then why is he going back to the school and writing a confession? Aren't those indications of regret?

"I never killed anybody and I never developed an intense level of hatred for the enemy. Because my war ended before I ever put on a uniform; I was on active duty all my time at school; I killed my enemy there. Only Phineas never was afraid, only Phineas never hated anyone."

"All of them, all except for Phineas, constructed at infinite cost to themselves these Maginot Lines against this enemy they thought they saw across the frontier, this enemy who never attacked that way-if he ever attacked at all; if he was indeed the enemy."

Those would be very important quotes. I noticed they weren't in your essay. Another question, then: what do you think they mean? Do you think, for instance, that "the enemy" in the first quotation is the same as "my enemy"? Why does the author say that only Phineas was never afraid, only he never hated anyone, as if he were repeating the same point. Being afraid isn't the same as hating someone. Or is it?

And more questions: what is a Maginot Line? In what way did the various characters construct them? Why does the enemy never attack that way? (Hint: This last question is especially interesting, because in WWII the enemy did attack the Maginot Line. In fact, they attacked it at its strongest point using a cunning strategy involving gliders. In further fact, it was the success of the attack that allowed Germany to successfully conquer all of Europe so quickly. If the Line had held a bit longer, France and her Allies might have rallied). Why would it be in doubt if the enemy would attack at all?
OP Notoman 20 / 419  
Sep 9, 2009   #5
I tried to rewrite the conclusion. You are right. Even though Gene seems at peace, he must not be. I changed that to read that he never found his separate peace. I know that those last two quotes are important, but I still don't fully understand them. I need a light-bulb moment. Is this better? Did I do the citations right?

Just as the war threatens the fragile peace experienced by the Devon students, the truth presses in on Gene threatening his personal peace. The eventual winding down of the war prevents the students from ever knowing the true horrors of war and Finny's death prevents Gene from ever having to confront the true nature of the events surrounding his friend's accident. No one "ever accused [Gene] of being responsible for ... what had happened to Phineas, either because they could not believe it or else because they could not understand it" (197). Gene serves in the military as the war is waning and is spared battle. He "never killed anybody and [he] never developed an intense level of hatred for the enemy" (204), at least not a foreign enemy. Gene's war was at Devon where he "was on active duty all [his] time at school" (204). "I killed my enemy there" (204), Gene says of Finny's death. Gene recalls how the Devon students took on personas and "constructed at infinite cost to themselves these Maginot Lines against this enemy they thought they saw across the frontier" (204), but like the Germans attacking the Maginot Line, Gene attacked Finny where he was strongest and in an unexpected way. Finny never saw it coming; he didn't even know that he had an enemy.

Gene realizes that "only Phineas never was afraid, only Phineas never hated anyone" (204) and that the enemy wasn't Finny after all, but something-jealousy, insecurity, mental unbalance-within himself. Gene is able to escape both the battles of World War II and blame from others for Finny's death, but his inner turmoil prevents him from finding his separate peace.
EF_Sean 6 / 3,491  
Sep 9, 2009   #6
Hmmmm . . . "I'm right?" I appreciate the sentiment, but all I did was ask a series of questions. I offered no opinions of my own.

You seem to be inching towards where you want to be, now.

the enemy wasn't Finny after all, but something-jealousy, insecurity, mental unbalance-within himself.

Perhaps you should be a bit more clear about what the something is, and elaborate a bit on the role it plays in the story. Also, does Gene's recognition of this mean that he does find his peace after all?


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