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Barron's Booknotes-A Separate Peace by John Knowles

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FORM AND STRUCTURE

The form of A Separate Peace can best be described as cyclical. The book begins with the narrator's revisiting the scene of the story after 15 years, retracing his steps for us, preparing us for the sequence of events to follow.

From the words "The tree was tremendous" (middle of Chapter 1), we are back in high school days during the summer between Gene's junior and senior years. Each succeeding chapter is chronologically arranged, moving through the fall term, winter vacation, spring term, graduation, and summer again-12 months, from mid-1942 to mid-1943, recounted in 13 chapters. There are no tricks here, no attempts to put the reader off guard, as you might find in more experimental novels.



The transitions from the end of one chapter to the beginning of the next are smooth and expected, each new chapter picking up the narrative thread from the old one. The shift from the end of Chapter 2 to the beginning of Chapter 3 is a good example. Gene has almost fallen from the tree, Finny grabbing him at the last moment. The last sentence of Chapter 2 is, "Finny had practically saved my life." And the first sentence of Chapter 3 is, "Yes, he had practically saved my life." We are reassured by the narrator's constant efforts at giving unity and coherence to the story.

Look at the end of Chapter 10, where Gene runs out on Leper. Gene tells us, "I didn't care because it had nothing to do with me. And I didn't want to hear any more of it. Ever." He's trying so hard to deny the effect on himself of seeing Leper in decline, and he beats a hasty retreat to the school's protective environment. Filled with turmoil, we turn the page to the beginning of Chapter 11 and read, "I wanted to see Phineas, and Phineas only. With him there was no conflict except between athletes." Gene's switch from trying vehemently to shut out an image of Leper to seeking desperately the comfort of Phineas and his "separate peace" tells us a lot about the relationship between the boys.

We talked about how the reassuring tone of Gene's narrative voice draws us into the story. The straightforward structure of the book, A leading to B leading to C without interruption, also serves to draw us in because we never have to stop to try to figure out where the author is taking us. He wants us to stay with the plot, the course of events, because sheer, unelaborate depictiondeceptively simple when you read it, but quite difficult to accomplish-finally packs quite a wallop.

Remember, the structure of the book is also conditioned by the fact that the point of view is through the eyes of one person. We have to be everywhere Gene is. As he moves and thinks, so must we, as readers, move and think.

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Barron's Booknotes-A Separate Peace by John Knowles
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