It is 1942, and while the great war of the 20th century is raging an ocean away, two friends fall in, fall out, and forgive each other in John Knowles’ A Separate Peace. Gene and Phineas are 16-year-olds attending Devon Academy, a boarding school in the Northeast U.S. The two form an unlikely friendship. Gene is introverted while Phineas – Finny – is extroverted. Gene excels at academics while Finny excels at sports. Gene is a rule-abider while Finny is a rule-shatterer. During the summer they make habit out of jumping from a tree into a river; this is an exercise that I gathered the military men-in-training practiced, although it seems rather dangerous for an organization that wants to keep all their men alive and with their limbs. As if this was prophecy enough, Gene eventually becomes jealous of his friend’s athletic ability and while jumping from the tree one day he shakes Finny’s branch from out under him and Finny falls to the bank, breaking his leg. Through the rest of the novel, Gene must cope with his egregious act, breaking not only bone but also the bonds of a flourishing relationship. He must succeed Finny’s legacy as an athlete, becoming adept not only as a scholar but as a sportsman as well. And when tragedy strikes, Gene must find out the true corners of his identity.
Male exclusion seemed to be a predominating theme throughout this book. There was almost no mention of women, and most of the love was shared between men. I am not saying this is a latently homosexual text, but it is interesting to regard it with a queer theory lens. Finny is the personification of man, with his perfect figure, his charismatic personality, and his excellence in sports. Yet, he often treats Gene like a live-in partner and is not afraid to wear gaudy pink clothes out to social events with him. The silence in the text is also fascinating. Gene and Finny live a peaceful life in the midst of war, but in order to keep the peace there is no talk of war, unless it is as an icebreaker at those same social events. When Gene breaks Finny’s leg, his silence is often more telling than his eventual confession.
The book was published in 1959, and it concerns an age far faded from our contemporary culture. Adolescents might have a hard time connecting with the context of A Separate Peace. I envision Timmy right now, calling the book “gay” or “boring.” In some parts I would agree with the latter statement, especially when Knowles goes on for five pages about Finny’s rippling musculature. I suppose this could be used as an argument for the former as well, but not as an unfair epithet for any of the characters. Does the lack of heterosexual gratification transform inclinations from what is not available to what is readily available? Is Knowles aware of this contradiction? Are these characters aware? Taught well, A Separate Peace can bring up important social questions as well as being a mildly enjoyable narrative.