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Barron's Booknotes-A Separate Peace by John Knowles

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THEMES

The themes in a novel are the main issues and ideas the author grapples with and addresses, the questions posed by the actions of the characters, the concerns raised in our minds as we read. Some themes are easily identified, perhaps even articulated by the characters themselves, so we can't miss them. Others are presented more subtly and may be open to a wider variety of interpretation. Still others may form themselves within you, regardless of the author's intent.

Here, then, are some of the themes we find in A Separate Peace. You may very well discover others.

1. FRIENDSHIP Friendship, in all its complexity, is certainly a major theme of the book. Friendship is often based on mutual need, on people seeking each other out to fill gaps they feel inside themselves. You often hear friends spoken of as much for how they differ as for how much they have in common. A Separate Peace explores the ins and outs of a relationship between two teenagers hovering between childhood and adulthood. Although the story is told from the perspective of fifteen years after the events, innocence and naivete figure deeply. Gene and Finny are victims of circumstance, and that makes their friendship all the more poignant. They are drawn to each other for reasons they don't entirely understand.

Throughout the story you'll notice that the balance of power of their friendship, so to speak, tips one way and then the other-and with each shift, their friendship is tested anew. It's sad when their affection for each other survives one final test, for then Finny is lost forever.



2. CONFORMITY Following close behind friendship in importance is the theme of conformity. The book poses important questions about the hard choices young people have to make between going along with the crowd (bowing to peer pressure) and pursuing their own paths (preserving a sense of individuality). Finny is a force of continuous pressure on the other boys, especially on Gene. He's a rebel to the core of his being, flamboyant and careless. But most schoolboys can't afford to compete the way Finny does. Can you imagine what Gene's life would have been like if he had never met Finny? We've all encountered at least one person who has changed our lives by showing us another possible road to take, one we would never otherwise have considered.

In his steadfast disbelief in the existence of "the War," Finny contradicts every value the Devon School represents. This skepticism, crazy as it sounds, serves to point out the importance of the test every boy must pass: how to face the question of enlisting. Gene's inclination is to go along with the crowd, represented here by Brinker, until he sees Finny again and his best laid plans are shattered. And Leper, the person everybody least expects to make the plunge, enlists first and finds his concept of conformity sorely tried within hours of arriving at basic training. Certainly the whole issue of who will and will not jump from the infamous tree is a primary example of this theme. Can you find others?

3. TRUTH AND FALSEHOOD Truth and falsehood may sound a touch abstract and lofty, but it's a theme that permeates the story insofar as it relates to the way we perceive ourselves, the way others see us, and our frustrating inability to get to know another person completely. Because we are always subjected to what is going on inside Gene's head (we'll explore this issue more carefully when we take up Point of View), we're often left short of the mark when we want to find out more about Finny from Finny. Imagine all the instances where we'd be so much better served if we could know what Finny was truly thinking, say at the headmaster's tea party, or when lying on the beach with Gene saying his prayers, or while distracting Gene from his studies. The only justifications we hear for Gene's turnabout from friendship to entirety are his own, based on what he sees as Finny's duplicity. We all know when we're presenting to someone else a self-a persona, or mask-that's truly us, and when we're playing a part in order to get our way or to be manipulative.

The ultimate test of this theme is the episode on which the whole story turns, that moment when Gene jounces the branch of the tree. Why does he do it? Many pages later he confesses, the last time he sees Finny, "to some crazy thing" inside himself, and Finny "believes" him. Are we satisfied? Will we ever know the truth of that moment, or for that matter (the author may be asking), of any moment?

4. GROWING UP Growing up is a broad theme that encompasses many subthemes in the book. No story focusing on adolescence could avoid this issue and still be effective. A Separate Peace poses many questions about the nature and extent of maturity, what it means to be responsible for yourself and your actions, to what extent this responsibility can be delegated, and to what extent can be delegated, and to what extent it falls upon you whether you seek it or not. How mature are you, when one day you're being chastised for coming late to dinner and the next you're watching a film about training for the army ski patrol? One set of superiors (teachers) subjects you to the rule of punctuality; another (army recruiters) implies you can make a choice about your destiny because you're approaching the magical age of eighteen. What does chronological age signify, and why has it taken on such intensified meaning in our society?

The senior boys at Devon cannot continue to have the best of both worlds. They want to preserve freedom, to run free and compete with each other until graduation day; but as that day approaches they sense a new and even more obvious destiny that is too large to stave off. The touchstone of their maturity resides in how they cope with the threat of war. Meanwhile, we all know that a high school diploma doesn't automatically make you an adult. Boys may yearn for that certification and their liberation from school, but the fact that they're going straight into the army tempers their enthusiasm. We see this in Brinker's early resolution, his wavering, and then his compromise in front of his father.

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Barron's Booknotes-A Separate Peace by John Knowles
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