A Separate Peace Critical Lens Essay Literary

A Separate Peace Literary Criticism

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Competition in A Separate Peace In John Knowles’s novel A Separate Peace, Knowles describes a life-changing sequence of events, as seen by Gene Forrester, which takes place at Devon Boarding School. Gene constantly finds himself struggling to find the truth about his relationship with Finny. Peter Wolfe states that the novel, “cries to be read in the context of original sin,” and Novels for Students references that, “the real struggle is fought in the hearts of the characters, not on the battlefield. Both the sin and struggle come together when Gene places himself in a competition with Finny, which can only end with one definite winner. Many different factors contribute to the theme of competition including: the physical abilities of each boy, the internal characteristics of each boy, and Gene’s jealousy and envy of Finny. Gene sees his competition with Finny as merely physical, between academics and sports. It is made clear that each character excels in one particular field, Finny in sports and Gene in academics.

All sports seem to come naturally to Finny, and Wolfe describes his ability in sports in that, “His [Finny’s] athletic prowess stems not from brawn but his superb coordination and vitality. ” (Wolfe 138). Although Gene still did well in sports, he was nowhere near Finny’s athletic level. Gene was, however, far more advanced in academics, and was far more applied academically than Finny. He had set his goals high, ultimately aiming to be the class valedictorian- a goal that seemed easily achievable, with his only distraction being Finny.

Finny was not at all proficient in academics, maintaining a “D” average at best, never feeling the need to try. Gene sensed a competition developing between Finny and he, and felt the need to be even with Finny. In a way, Gene had achieved- he was competent in academics and decent in sports while Finny was spectacular in athletics and ineffectual in school. Gene believed that Finny not only wanted to be even but be better, and Gene describes this belief by saying, “He minded, despised the possibility that I might be head of the school. ” (Knowles 52).

As Novels for Students puts it, “Throughout the novel, Gene compares and contrasts himself with his best friend, Finny, and often falls short in his own estimation. ” (Novels 244). Gene and Finny may be even on a physical level, but the reason he falls short is because there is more to the competition than meets the eye. The competition goes deeper into the defining characteristics of the pure and unadulterated Finny and the far less innocent Gene. Finny is a loyal friend who is confident in himself but somewhat naive towards the rest of the world, always believing the best about people.

Finny’s loyalty is represented when he says, “Naturally I don’t believe books and I don’t believe teachers, but I do believe- it’s important after all for me to believe you. ” (Knowles 163). Even after his accident, Finny fully trusted his friend Gene, even though it seemed obvious that Gene had stabbed him in the back. Gene however is quite the opposite- he is extremely self-conscious and he will do anything to be the best, even turn against his best friend. Leper described Gene quite accurately; he is a “savage”. Gene is also over-analytical of everything, especially Finny, and that causes him to make false assumptions.

Gene’s self-consciousness, over-analyzing, and savagery lead him to creating a version of Finny in his mind, in which they would be on the same level of morality. So, Gene believes that Finny’s every move is an attempt to get even, and where their entire friendship was a lie. As Ronald Weber puts it, “It is Phineas’s innocence that gene cannot endure. As long as he can believe Phineas shares his enmity, he can find relief, but with this assurance gone, he stands condemned before himself and must strike out against his tormentor” (Weber 244).

Gene had to get even with Finny- both physically and morally. He would do anything to win the competition. As Peter Wolfe says, “The first movers of our consciousnesses are ‘ignorant’ in that they override reason and order. But unless we give them full rein we can never unroll our energies full force. ” (Wolfe 136). Gene’s jealousy of Finny’s athletic ability and social skills is the basis for the competition in Gene’s mind. Finny is a natural at sports, and like any other teenage boy, Gene was jealous.

Unlike most teenage boys, Gene takes his jealousy to the next level towards hate for Finny, simply because he is better. Gene flatly expressed his hate for Finny when he said, “You [referring to himself] did hate him for breaking that swimming record, but so what? ” (Knowles 53). Not only was Finny a natural a sports, but he also had a knack for talking his way out of troubling situations. Gene admired Finny’s ability at first, but soon grew into jealousy of it. Gene explains his envy of Finny’s persuasive abilities when he says, “I was beginning to see that Phineas could get away with anything.

I couldn’t help envying him that a little” (Knowles 25) and later adds, “This time he wasn’t going to get away with it. I could feel myself becoming unexpectedly excited at that. ” Gene became increasingly jealous, until he can’t stand it anymore and hopes for Finny’s punishment. Another fact that spikes Gene’s jealousy is that Finny does not reciprocate his feelings of envy, and explains that, “Now I knew there never was and never could have been any rivalry between us. I was not the same quality as he.

I could not stand this. ” (Knowles 59). This was the straw that broke that Gene’s back. His jealousy had risen to a new height completely overriding any reasonable thinking, and allowed him to purposely jounce Finny out of the tree, bringing his competition to a tragic end. In the end, Gene was no match for Finny- he was nowhere near as good of a person, barely matched him in physical abilities, and his jealousy drove him further down. In the competition of sports v. athletics Gene won with terrible consequences.

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In the competition of moral character, Finny was a sure win; his innocence remained, while Gene had to experience the death of his best friend in order to become wise. Through the course of the book, Knowles showed how competition can bring out the worst in people, and how it can divide the innocent from the guilty. Some good must come from any competition, and even though this may have resulted in death, Gene matured greatly- getting rid of his traits that lead to this competition in the beginning.

Author: Brandon Johnson

in A Separate Peace

A Separate Peace Literary Criticism

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Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

A Separate Peace spends a lot of time talking about the war, and as much time talking about sports. At first these seem like completely different things. Sport is, as Finny sees it, "purely good,"...


Generally, any book dealing with a bunch of teenagers is going to be a coming-of-age story. More directly, A Separate Peace deals with much of the angst that goes with, well, being sixteen. All tho...

What's Up With the Title?

The phrase "separate peace" is a military term, and it's a bit complicated. If one nation has an alliance with another nation, it can refuse to fight that other nation's enemy by forming a separate...

What's Up With the Ending?

At the end of the novel, Gene concludes that what made Phineas different was his lack of resentment, lack of fear. Everyone, he claims, identifies an enemy in the world and pits themselves against...

Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis:

Narrator Gene's return to Devon This is where we first become aware of the monster – or monsters, as the case has it here. We're talking the war (World War II), wars in general, personal wars,...


Knowles claimed to have based the character of Finny on a real-live guy he went to prep school with, named David Hackett, who, as far as we know, never had a broken leg."Can I jounce your limb?" is...


Virgil (1.27)Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1.48, 4.35), Far from the Maddening Crowd (1.48)Lazarus (4.2)Voltaire, Candide (4.35)Molière (4.35), Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (12.63)Homer...

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