A Separate Peace: Nature of Man
The greatest battles of humanity are often not merely a clash of arms, but a quiet, vast conflict in the human heart. Similarly, actions in the world are thoughts made into reality, and feelings turned into motion. It is terrible to realize that war in all its evils is often a pure expression of something sinister within. A Separate Peace by John Knowles intimately explores the depths within humanity to uncover the essence of human nature. The novel is focuses on the solitary and intelligent narrator Gene Forester and his best friend, the athletic Phineas, or Finny. Their experiences over the course of a semester have many parallels with author John Knowles' actual life. He based the Devon School setting on his own time at the prestigious Philips Exeter Academy during the end of World War II (Jones). The author uses introspection to exhume the mind and soul of Gene, and to explore what shapes him. In his novel A Separate Peace, John Knowles expresses that one can only mature through self-awareness, in order to counter the indoctrination of youth into World War II.
Fittingly, the single greatest expression of such knowledge is in the characterization of the protagonist Gene, and later his development. He is the premier student of Devon Academy, intelligent and studious, but a social outcast, trying to stay afloat in a school of piranhas for classmates. He is commonly described as the "cautious Protestant" with a "germ of wildness" ("A Separate Peace"), describing his innate savagery beneath the veneer of civilization. In the beginning of the story, he held great enmity for Phineas despite their friendship. Gene saw Finny first as a competing rival, neurotic and jealous like himself, seeking to sabotage Gene's studies. Later, Gene learns that Finny believed Gene’s academic success was as natural as Finny's athleticism. In a pivotal moment of the novel, Gene deliberately shakes Finny from a tree while they played, breaking his leg and his dreams of sports forever. Eventually, Gene would seek self-awareness to learn why he lashed out at Phineas' kindness, and discover by doing so the true nature of man.
Unfortunately, Gene would find that his own nature was inherently hostile, mistrusting, and begrudging. Maturity comes at the price of innocence, even from the price of one's own nature. The impulse to mindless destruction that Gene attempted to restrain was always with him, buried. Elwin Lepellier comments that "[Gene] always were (sic) a savage underneath" (Knowles 137). This is rather accurate, as Gene then attacks Lepellier for accusing him rightfully of shaking Finny from the tree. "In the end, Gene realizes that his real enemy is himself and his impulse towards mindless destruction—and he believes he overcame this enemy only after causing Phineas' death." (Alton) When Gene reflects on himself, he can finally acknowledge the evil demolishing impulse that ruled the last years of his life....