most novels, it is best to begin a discussion of thematics by examining the title. The
phrase, "a separate peace," is mentioned once in the novel when, speaking of the
Winter Carnival, Gene writes: "it was this liberation we had torn from the gray
encroachments of 1943, the escape we had concocted, this afternoon of momentary, illusory,
special and separate peace" (128). The Devon of 1942 and 1943 is, at times, a haven
of peace and forgetfulness for Gene and his classmates. And it is significant that it is
termed a "separate peace" because it indicates that the peace achieved is not
part of the surrounding reality, which, for Gene, is a world of conflict, a world at war.
The joy that the older Gene remembers upon re-visiting Devon is due to such momentary
periods of complete freedom achieved during the summer of 1942 and the following
schoolyear, moments when a sixteen year-old could live without conflict or rules, and
forget about the encroaching reality of a world war.
The novel is about a young man's struggle to achieve and maintain such a separate peace.
And although the setting is in an America in the midst of war, the focus of the novel is
internal. For the majority of the plot, the distant war is an illusion for the students in
Gene's class, and for the reader, the war becomes the biggest metaphor of the novel: a
metaphor for the internal conflict of a sixteen-year old boy. Gene's soul becomes a
battleground where jealousy, fear, love, and hatred combat for control of his actions. And
amidst the turmoil of adolescence, it is the victory of the dark forces of human nature
that make Gene realize that each person is alone with his enemy, that the only significant
wars are not made by external causes, but "by something ignorant in the human
heart" (193). Thus, Finny's fantastic assertion that World War II is an illusion
maintains a certain truth in light the real war that occurs in the story.
The novel's conflict arises out of Gene's refusal to recognize his own feelings of
jealousy and insecurity as the real enemy. Instead, his fears are projected onto his
closest companion, Phineas, whom Gene suspects of possessing his own feelings of envy and
self-loathing. With Finny as the enemy, Gene is plunged into a world of competition and
hatred, where the only crucial elements worth preserving are his own survival and
superiority. Ultimately, this act of self-deception drives Gene to malicious thoughts and
behavior, destroying any feelings of affection and friendship he might have once had for
Finny. Upon realizing his mistake and discovering that Phineas does not share Gene's envy
and hatred, Gene's isolation and self-loathing deepen and he intentionally cripples the
one person who wants to be his friend. As Gene writes, World War II is not the real scene
of battle: "I was on active duty all my time at school: I killed my enemy there"
Knowles documents what happens when adolescence confronts manhood and the fears that
develop when change becomes a reality. Gene, Brinker, and Leper all become casualties of
this change by convincing themselves that the enemy, the cause of their fears, lies
outside of themselves. Phineas is the one shining example to contrast the self-deception
of his classmates, for Finny does not see the enemy in the people around him. Indeed,
Finny does not see the enemy at all. He embodies the peace that Gene tries to achieve, his
physical grace a reflection of the harmony within himself. Gene perceives in Phineas the
harmony that he yearns for but cannot attain. Because of Gene's own insecurity, a
reciprocal and non-competitive friendship becomes impossible. For though the two need each
other and are often described by Gene as extensions of each other, the balance is unequal:
Finny needs Gene as a companion and a friend, someone with whom to share in the challenges
of growing up and facing the reality of adulthood; but Gene's need is a born out of
jealousy, he covets Phineas for the harmony and confidence that he himself does not have.
And so rather than share in the friendship that Finny offers, Gene destroys the peace that
he was unable to find in himself.
Phineas is the novel's greatest casualty. He becomes a metaphor for the peace that is lost
when Gene is too afraid to identify the enemy within himself. For indeed, Finny's harmony
is damaged after his fall from the tree. He is forced to confront the overwhelming
challenge of being crippled for life, and, most importantly, the horrifying realization
that the person he thought was his friend is responsible for his injury. The task, it
seems, is too great even for Phineas, who dies because of the hatred and insecurity around
him. The peace and friendship that Gene lost, the peace that is Finny, becomes for Gene so
internalized that he no longer perceives Finny as separate from himself, evidenced by his
feeling that Finny's funeral is his own.