A Separate Peace | Study Guide

John Knowles

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A Separate Peace | 10 Things You Didn't Know


John Knowles's A Separate Peace, published in 1959, is a classic tale of youthful mischief, boarding school life, and the troubles that come with growing up. Regarded as one of the greatest coming-of-age stories of the 20th century, A Separate Peace is, at its core, a meditation on development into adulthood and regret regarding the mistakes of adolescence. Knowles's protagonist, Gene Forrester, recollects his time at the prep school Devon (symbolic of Knowles's own alma mater, Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire), and his relationship with his best friend, Phineas. After a tragic fall leaves Phineas irreparably injured, Gene must face the reality of violence and pain that comes with growing up—along with the bitter guilt of his own role in his friend's injury. Knowles paints this single violent incident against the larger backdrop of World War II (1939–45), which rages on at the time of the novel, to provide a deep analysis of the relationship between violence and maturity.

1. A Separate Peace caused controversy with its perceived homoerotic undertones—which Knowles denied.

A Separate Peace features no prominent female characters and instead focuses on the relationships between the adolescent boys at the Devon School. This has led many critics to claim that the novel features many homoerotic undertones, particularly regarding the relationship between Gene and Phineas, although nothing relating to homosexuality is explicitly stated. Knowles was well aware of these criticisms, but he persistently denied the possibility of homoerotic desire between the two characters. Knowles explained:

Freud said any strong relationship between two men contains a homoerotic element. If so in this case, both characters are totally unaware of it. It would have changed everything, it wouldn't have been the same story. In that time and place, my characters would have behaved totally differently ... If there had been homoeroticism between Phineas and Gene, I would have put it in the book, I assure you. It simply wasn't there.

2. A Separate Peace was featured in an advertisement for a gay nightclub in New York City.

Despite Knowles's denial of homoerotic content in A Separate Peace, the novel is often read through the lens of queer theory. This frequent categorization—which Knowles would no doubt consider a misreading—led to the novel's being featured on a poster advertising a gay night club in New York City. The advertisement "depicts a number of sexual situations involving men at a library," with A Separate Peace featured among other literary works that are often perceived to have homoerotic undertones, such as American writer Herman Melville's Moby Dick (1851) and American poet Walt Whitman's poetry collection Leaves of Grass (1855). Although this advertisement may have been an extreme example, A Separate Peace is often featured in the "queer classics" section of gay bookstores.

3. One school district challenged A Separate Peace, calling it "filthy."

In 1980 A Separate Peace was challenged by the Vernon-Verona-Sherrill School District in New York, with parents concerned that it was not suitable for the curriculum. The novel was described as a "filthy, trashy sex novel," likely due to its perceived homoerotic content, although no sexual encounters are actually ever described. The novel also became the focus of several other challenges around the country during the 1980s and 1990s due to explicit language.

4. All four main characters are based on Knowles.

A Separate Peace is a highly autobiographical work. In addition to Devon being heavily based on Knowles's alma mater, Phillips Exeter Academy, the author incorporated aspects of his personality in each of his main characters. Knowles noted that, although he'd used other people he'd known throughout his youth as inspiration for some characters, they each contain aspects of his adolescent personality, as well. He explained:

It is true that I put part of myself into all four main characters in A Separate Peace: Phineas, Gene, Leper, and Brinker. In addition to using someone for Brinker, and myself for Gene, I had to, as most novelists do, draw from myself for everyone in the book.

5. An iconic scene from the 1972 film adaptation of A Separate Peace was entirely unscripted.

One of the most memorable scenes from the 1972 film adaptation of A Separate Peace never appeared in the script—and could've easily ended up cut from the film. The story, set during World War II, features a chorus of the boys singing "Hitler has only got one ball" as they voice their hostility against the German Nazi leader and the climate of war he produced. This song never appears in the script, and the director, Larry Peerce, simply continued filming while the actors sang it, interested in "how it would play out."

6. One of Knowles's characters is based on another famous author who attended school with him.

Although Knowles includes an autobiographical element in all his main characters, Brinker is heavily based on a good friend of his from school. American writer Gore Vidal, who would later become famous for his novels including The City and the Pillar (1948), attended Phillips Exeter Academy a few years ahead of Knowles. The two were friends at school, although Vidal never imagined Knowles would remember him well enough to model a character on him. Vidal recalled his surprise upon reading A Separate Peace and hearing from Knowles, explaining:

I have no memory of him when we were in school together. The next thing I know is he has published A Separate Peace, in which I play a cameo part as sort of a snoop ... Then I got to know him, because I thought A Separate Peace was a marvelous book.

7. While in school, Knowles was a member of a real "Super Suicide Society."

The "Super Suicide Society" from A Separate Peace wasn't entirely fabricated for the novel. In the novel, the Society is responsible for a number of reckless dares—one of which leads to Phineas's terrible injury. Knowles has admitted that, while at Phillips Exeter Academy, he was part of a real "Super Suicide Society"—albeit with less traumatic results. He recalled:

In fact, I was the one that got a serious cut on my foot and it was I who was hobbling around all summer on crutches. As a writer, you have to alter the facts to get at the truths.

8. Knowles was mentored and encouraged to write by Pulitzer Prize–winning author Thornton Wilder.

Knowles had a long and fruitful relationship with Pulitzer Prize-winning author and playwright Thornton Wilder, famous for his play The Skin of Our Teeth (1942). Before writing A Separate Peace, Knowles edited various periodicals, including the Yale Alumni Magazine and the Hartford Courant. After traveling abroad and writing a novel tentatively titled Descent into Proselito, Knowles was met with harsh criticism from Wilder, who was not at all pleased with the final product. This first novel was never published, and Wilder instead advised Knowles to draw from his deepest, most vivid memories to write a novel that had autobiographical elements. This inspired Knowles to begin writing A Separate Peace.

9. Knowles always refused to answer readers' questions about whether or not Gene willingly let Phineas fall.

One of the greatest mysteries in A Separate Peace is the extent to which Gene is guilty of Phineas's terrible fall. Fittingly, this is one of the questions Knowles was most frequently asked by fans. However, throughout his life, Knowles took care to preserve the ambiguity of the incident, and he never gave a concrete answer as to whether or not Gene intentionally causes his friend to plummet to the ground. After Knowles's death in 2001, his brother-in-law commented:

John used to say he would never answer that question. He took that one with him.

10. A Separate Peace is often compared to J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.

A Separate Peace is frequently mentioned in the same breath—and even taught alongside—another 20th-century novel with themes of adolescent angst and the pressures of growing up: American writer J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951). Both novels feature 16-year-old protagonists, attending private schools, and muddling through the daunting idea of maturity. Critics have noted that the main aspect that sets A Separate Peace apart from Salinger's novel is the backdrop of World War II, which adds an element of fear as well as a broader worldview beyond the introspective protagonist. At the time of A Separate Peace's publication, however, one reviewer famously asked about Knowles, "Is he the successor to Salinger for whom we have been waiting for so long?"

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