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A Separate Peace | Themes

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War

World War II is the background for all that happens at Devon School in A Separate Peace. Most boys know about the war or know someone who is fighting or has fought in it. The war is present even—or especially—when its reality is denied. Finny refuses to believe there's a war going on. He asserts that it's a "conspiracy" of the powerful to rob the young of happiness and freedom. Finny's denial of the war makes it a distant but constantly looming presence. In some ways Finny's perpetual pursuit of adventure and fun may be his reaction against the war that, in his heart and mind, he knows is out there threatening to undermine his youth.

War imagery occurs in many places in the book. At the Winter Carnival a "forged draft card" is one of the prizes. Leper Lepellier enlists in the military, which unhinges his mind. At the end of the book troops actually move into a Devon School building to make war materiel. Through many parts of the book the boys discuss the various branches of the military and whether or not to enlist or wait to be drafted.

The war demarcates the boys' childhood from their adulthood. Once they become seniors or graduate from Devon School they are subject to the draft. Some may become officers in the military but others may be drafted into the infantry as "cannon fodder" for the war. Early in the book the boys are innocents who seem to be (or are determinedly) oblivious to the war and what it will mean for them. Later there's a lot of talk about enlisting in the armed forces and fighting overseas.

The war is key to the boys' transition from the happy innocence of childhood to the harsh reality of real-world experience.

Freedom versus Conformity

When they are younger and ignore the war, the Devon School boys act as if they are free to do whatever they want. Led by the fearless and inventive Finny, the boys live an idyllic life of fun and fantasy-fueled games. Finny is the embodiment of creative freedom and spontaneity. He is a boy who can be counted on to flout the school rules to conjure up new and exciting adventures that dazzle (and sometimes frighten) the other boys, especially those in his inner circle. For Finny, fantasy and freedom define his life at Devon School, and they are the delight of the boys who are lucky enough to call themselves his friends.

Finny's devil-may-care pursuit of fun and excitement sometimes rankles Gene. Although in many ways Gene adores Finny, he also envies and resents him. Gene is more of a rule-follower and conformist—something Finny is definitely not. Gene is also more anchored in reality. When Gene tries to do homework or study for a test, Finny almost always draws him away to engage in some bit of rule-breaking adventure. Finny will not let school impinge on his fantasies of fun. Gene admires this in Finny but resents it as well because it compromises what Gene sees as his path to success in school—conforming to its rules and doing what is expected of him.

Identity and Maturity

A Separate Peace is a coming-of-age novel in which the teenage characters discover and form their own identities as individuals. The road to individuality can be rocky and underlain by feelings and impulses the young men in the story scarcely understand. It is in working through these deep-seated feelings that maturity and some type of wisdom through experience arise.

As Upper Middle boys at Devon School, both Finny and Gene almost share a single identity. Because Gene is the narrator of the story, the reader learns that there are times when he wishes he was not quite so closely identified with Finny. For example, when Finny challenges Gene to jump out of the tree into the river, Gene wonders why he lets Finny make him do risky things he really doesn't want to do. But the two boys are so close, and Gene is so happy in Finny's company, they seem happy and at ease when their identities seem to merge.

As Gene matures a bit (when he is a Senior at the school) he chafes at identifying himself through Finny. Whether consciously or not, Gene becomes envious of Finny and develops a sense of resentment toward him. The manner in which Gene acts out his resentment and rebellion against the overwhelming pull of Finny's personality is Gene's way of separating himself from Finny. Gene is maturing and feels the need in himself to become his own person, separate from Finny. The threat of war and military service also makes it imperative that each boy, Gene in particular, comes to know himself as an individual in order to shape his future.

Friendship and Rivalry

Gene and Finny are best friends. They are so close they seem to share an identity, to be two parts of a single person. Although Gene sometimes has reservations about being subservient to Finny's forceful, charming personality the boys have a warm and fulfilling friendship. They room together in the school dorm and spend nearly all their free time together. In the summer term their friendship blooms as Finny's free-wheeling imagination and fearless sense of fun gather Gene and other boys in their group together to have glorious adventures. For most of this period there seems to be nothing the two boys will not do for each other. They are the closest of friends, even as Gene begins having doubts about being such a slavish follower of Finny.

As Finny concocts increasingly adventurous—or dangerous—pastimes for Gene and the other boys, Gene begins to resent feeling compelled to follow him. Gene starts to wish he had the guts to refuse to do the "fun" things Finny organizes for the boys. When Finny challenges Gene to jump from the high tree branch into the river, Gene's resentment of him grows into a nasty rivalry.

Gene becomes rather paranoid that Finny is determined to undermine his academic achievements to ensure that Gene is never "even" with Finny. Finny is the school's top athlete, so Gene imagines a rivalry that prompts Finny to prevent Gene from becoming the school's top scholar. Other rivalries pervade the book. From the first, the sports and games the boys play pit the boys against each other as rivals, even "enemies." Yet the rivalry between Gene and Finny is almost an existential one. In some ways Gene cannot become his own person until he does something to vanquish his rival, Finny, and separate himself from Finny's overwhelming presence and influence.

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