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A Separate Peace is a novel that reveals an adolescent's attempt to understand his world and himself. The transition of an adolescent to maturity and the complexities involved in it are clearly portrayed in the novel through the narration of Gene Forrester. The Second World War functions as the background of the novel and is a contrast to the "separate peace" that exists on the Devon campus; however, the internal conflict going on in the mind of the narrator is compared to the greater conflict of the world war.
Besides the personal battle raging inside him, the narrator finds it very difficult to decide whether to live in the safety and security of the school campus or enter the adult world full of the complexities and confusions of war. In the end, Gene enlists in the navy to join the war effort, but his heart is never in it. He is still trying to grow up and resolve his personal conflicts caused by the injury and death of Finny. The main theme of the novel becomes the pain experienced by a youth as he travels the road to adulthood.
Closely related to the major theme is the theme of envy and the pain it causes. Gene is totally jealous of Finny, his roommate and good friend. To Gene, it seems that everything in life comes easily to him. He is a gifted athlete blessed with a keen wit and a sharp mind. Finny is also a natural leader, who dares to take chances and defy authority. The quiet, studious, and conventional Gene longs to be more like Finny and tries to imitate him, but never really succeeds. As a result, his jealousy grows into brutality.
To get even with Finny and bring him down to his level, he bounces his friend out of the tree, causing him to injure his leg and become a cripple. The jealousy then turns to guilt and shame, which rules a large portion of Gene's young adult life. It is clear that Knowles is cautioning the reader to be himself/herself rather than jealously trying to become someone else who appears to be superior.