Reality of Fighting With Fear In 'A Separate Peace'

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Everyone experiences the reality of internal and external conflicts at one time or another (and often create their own psychological enemies). Internal conflicts refer to one’s inner struggles, feelings like doubt, guilt or shame become the source of someone’s actions. Whereas external conflicts are created from outside forces. For example, the main character in a story or the protagonist struggles with the antagonist. Usually, the protagonist then finds a way to overcome the antagonist and defeat them. But what if they are one and the same?

This reality of fighting one’s fear and establishing their identity are constant themes in John Knowles’ novel, A Separate Peace which takes place during World War II. The main character Gene is fighting this perpetual war and describes it to the readers as a mutual fight in his unbalanced friendship with Phineas. But his fight isn’t against his friend Finny as he makes us believe, but rather it is against himself. His own emotions and trying to understand and overcoming them was Gene’s war even before stepping onto the battlefield.

While being with Finny, the feelings of love and hate became intertwined emotions in Gene’s mind. For this reason, Gene was both worshipping and resenting his roommate’s athletic and moral superiority. Finny was just one of those guys who everyone adored, he was so pure and care-free and everyone looked forward to that during the war. Gene even describes Phineas as “the essence of this careless peace” this is to say that he portrays all that is innocent, especially with all the destruction around them (17, Knowles). Gene adds that “[he] couldn’t help envying him that a little, which was perfectly normal”, but Finny represented everything that Gene wasn’t and so Gene’s once “normal” jealousy, grew immensely (18, Knowles). This feeling toward his best friend corrupts their relationship and soon would lead to Finny’s death.

Envy is first shown when the students attend the annual term tea. Phineas made a bold move wearing a pink shirt as an emblem to the gathering along with wearing the Devon School tie as a belt. But Finny knew the extent of his mesmerizing speech, and he knew exactly how to get himself out of this awkward mess. Gene even articulates that “it was hypnotism” just to watch Finny talk (18, Knowles). However, Gene is also so resentful when seeing Finny escape punishment every time. So when Mrs. Patch-Withers and her husband comment on Finny’s attire, Gene feels a jolt of eagerness, knowing that not even Phineas could get away with this, and remarks that “[he] could feel [himself] becoming unexpectedly excited at that.”(20, Knowles). He hopes that Finny finally gets caught in one of his outrageous lies, but Finny conquered even this and disappointment befell Gene.

With Gene’s disconcerting hope in mind, it is apparent that Gene has a rooted jealousy for Finny, another example is when Finny broke the school swimming record (just to see if he could). Phineas claimed he had a feeling that he could beat the record of A. Hopkins Parker, and so they set up the stopwatch and watched as he broke the previous record by 0.7 seconds, just on his first try. To Gene’s surprise, Phineas made him promise not to tell anyone about it. He says, “we aren’t going to talk about this. It’s just between you and me. Don’t say anything about it”, this promise causes Gene to spiral, questioning why Phineas decided not to share such a great accomplishment with the world (36, Knowles). Gene’s shock is deepened when he understands that “[Phineas is] too unusual for rivalry” because of his innate goodness and his way of living life just to live, not for anyone else (37, Knowles). Gene often seeks approvement from others (we can see this from his desire to become valedictorian/ the best) however Phineas has no need to be accepted by others. Again he grew jealous of Phineas for his seemingly easy achievement and his ability to brush it off so easily. “His accomplishment took root in my mind” Gene described “ and grew rapidly in the darkness where I was forced to hide it” (36, Knowles). Put simply, Gene built up all these feelings that grew with every accomplishment of Finny’s, and soon jealousy would evolve into resentment.

At the end of chapter 3, Finny says something so rare at Devon, showing his honest inner self to his best friend. Finny announces “you can’t come to the shore with just anybody…the proper person is your best pal” he clarifies, “which is what you are” (40, Knowles). Keep in mind, this confession is the equivalent of saying the three most important words in a romantic relationship. So in the hopes that Gene would reciprocate his feelings of friendship, Finny professes how he really feels about their close relationship. Regardless “[Gene] was stopped by the level of feeling… which contains the truth”, perhaps it was the fact that his true feelings, full of envy and enmity held him back from requiting that innocent friendship (40, Knowles).

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In the midst of their complicated relationship, Gene’s mind planted a seed of what he called a “normal” jealousy between friends, it stemmed from his envy of Finny’s goodness. And it was cultivated until it grew into an unrecognizable and perverse hatred.

Gene becomes excessively paranoid of Finny’s true intentions. He fears that Finny feels morally superior and is conspiring against Gene to keep himself at the top. Of course we, as readers, cannot always trust Gene as the narrator when showing his thoughts because Gene always had a way of spinning the story. Especially the story of himself and his best friend.

Gene wanted so much for his hatred to not just be one-sided. He wanted to believe that his friendship with Phineas was based on the sole idea of rivalry and competition. There had to be some kind of interior motive behind Finny’s wholesome act, so he made one up. We quickly realize that Gene found comfort in. That both Phineas and Gene were even in enmity, he even admitted that he hated Phineas for breaking the school record but instantly reassured himself that Phineas also hated Gene for all of his academic success. He forced the idea that Phineas had “deliberately set out to wreck [his] studies” to make sure Gene got grades as low as his own because Phineas wanted to see him fail (45, Knowles).

In reality, Gene comes to find out that his so-called battle with Finny to be the best, did not exist because “[Phineas] had never been jealous of [him]”(51, Knowles). Finny supports Gene’s academics for once and as a result, Gene’s understanding of Finny had changed. Gene knew now that Finny was a special kind of human, not driven by evil because he was of a different quality than Gene. There never was a rivalry and this hurt Gene, he couldn’t stand it. (WAS NOT OF THE SAME QUALITY COULDN’T STAND THIS) With this in mind, Gene was desperate enough to ___ this and found a way to bring Phineas down to his level. He jounced the limb of the Suicide Tree, leading Finny down a terrible fall. “[Finny] hit the bank with a sickening unnatural thud. It was the first clumsy physical action [Gene] had ever seen him make” (52, Knowles). Phineas shattered his leg, smashing all that Gene had admired about him along with it. When Gene finally comes to terms with Phineas’s goodness, he quickly acts out to diminish all that is great about Phineas.

In essence, Gene was so paranoid about their relationship, that he concocted this whole rivalry up in his head to compensate for all his hate. Gene assumed that Finny thinks and feels as he does, however, the two boys are nothing alike and Gene misreads everything about Finny. Gene genuinely believed that all people have an innate evil about them but upon meeting Phineas he learns to understand that he was wrong.

Although Finny was indeed the object of all Gene’s outbursts, Gene’s real enemy was himself. It wasn’t until Gene destroyed everything that he glorified about Phineas, that Gene’s emotions finally subside. Gene finally overcomes his internal conflict. As the story comes to an end, Gene again speaks as his older self and reflects on how he fought his war at Devon, where he killed his enemy and there his identity was finally completed. He sees the school differently, Gene finally matured in his sense of self. Everything he saw when he was younger was corrupted by his emotions, but now he finally conquered his feelings. It is apparent that Gene defeats his internal enemy by his descriptions of conquering the tree at the beginning of the book, which was the symbol of maturity for the boys of the Devon Academy. ADD QUOTE!!
Knowles was born in Fremont, West Virginia in 1926. He attended a well-known boarding school, Phillips Exter Academy, which was the basis of the Devon School Academy, for the boys in A Separate Peace. He graduated from the Academy in 1945 but did not immediately proceed to college. Instead, he joined the war effort as part of the U.S. Army Air Force’s Aviation Cadet Program. Knowles is trying to convey to us that the war represents man’s need for an enemy. By having the World War greatly influence the story, one can see that Knowles wants to show that part of growing up involves finding this enemy and often losing the childish illusion that the world is a friendly place. War, to John Knowles, symbolizes the loss of good to evil and its triumph over us. This can be exhibited when Knowles decides to kill off the representation of goodness and innocence in A Separate Peace, Phineas who represented the happiness and the ability to live life freely against the harsh world. But as he dies, the last bit of harmony and innocence leaves along with him.

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