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Here's the dirty little secret about A Separate Peace (no, it has nothing to do with the sublimated sexuality angle), the secret is this: we all knew people just like Phineas when we were growing up, and we all wanted to shake them off of the tree branch too.  The Finnys of the world are characterized by an easy physical grace which provides them with a spooky kind of preternatural self-assurance that sets them apart and makes them seem superior, particularly during the awkward teen years, when most of us are/were completely devoid of such confidence in ourselves.  This gift tends to be mistaken, as Gene mistakes it, for a moral quality.  In fact, it is anything but.

The fearlessness that Phineas displays is precisely that; he feels no fear and, therefore, demonstrates no courage by his actions.  It is the boys who feel fear, but conquer it and jump anyway who demonstrate true courage.  However, they are also demonstrating stupidity and a disturbing sheeplike quality in following Finny's example.  And this is the other thing about the Finnys of the world, they lead others into situations which are bound to end in disaster.  Because their grace has always given them a special form of protection, they assume that nothing bad can happen to them and they simply don't understand or care what might happen to others less gifted.  This utter carelessness even redounds to their favor.  Suppose that earlier in the story, when Gene lost his balance, that Finny had not been able to grab him and prevent his fall, would anyone have blamed Finny?  No.  Would Finny have genuinely blamed himself?  Oh sure, he would have accepted blame and folks would have been proud of how nobly he behaved, but would he have truly accepted the fact that he had caused the fall and the injury or would he, and others, have actually believed that the fault lay in Gene, that he was simply unequal to the task and had even shown himself to be inferior to Finny?

Knowles tiptoes right up to this point when Gene realizes:

    It was only after dinner, when I was on my way alone to the library, that the full danger I had
    brushed on the limb shook me again.  If Finny hadn't come up right behind me...if he hadn't been
    there... I could have fallen on the bank and broken my back!  if I had fallen awkwardly enough I
    could have been killed.  Finny had practically saved my life.

    Yes, he had practically saved my life.  He had also practically lost it for me.  I wouldn't have turned
    around, and so lost my balance, if he hadn't been there.  I didn't need to feel any tremendous rush
    of gratitude toward Phineas.

But of course Gene is at heart a follower, one of the enablers so overawed by Phineas that he can not see through to the logical implications of this intuition.

Nor does he understand the manner in which Phineas warps situations to his own benefit.  The Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session naturally rewards Finny's own lack of fear.  The game he invents, blitzball, is likewise uniquely crafted to suit his own skills:

    Blitzball was the surprise of the summer.  Everybody played it; I believe a form of it is still popular
    at Devon.  But nobody can be playing it as it was played by Phineas.  He had unconsciously
    invented a game which brought his own athletic gifts to their highest pitch.  ...

    Right from the start, it was clear that no one had ever been better adapted to a sport than Finny was
    to blitzball.  I saw that right away.  Why not?  he had made it up, hadn't he?  It needn't be
    surprising that he was sensationally good at it, and that the rest of us were more or less bumblers in
    our different ways.

So when he controls situations and plays to his own strengths, he excels.  But what of situations he can't control?  Is he an indifferent student?--then academics must not matter.  And this is what finally prods Gene to his precipitous action; when he realizes that Finny discounts the thing that Gene excels at and is therefore not jealous of his academic achievement in the way that Gene envies Finny's physical prowess, it is too much for him to stand and he shakes Finny off of the branch.

When Phineas returns to school, the boys enter a realm of unreality where his specialness remains unthreatened.  They pretend that the injury is temporary and he will be back in action soon.  Finny even refuses to acknowledge the reality of WWII; obviously if he can't participate in this ultimate physical test, it's very existence must be denied.   It is at this exact point in the story that Knowles uses the phrase "separate peace", during the Winter Carnival which Finny organizes.  And in fact this is a separate moment, the last moment when Finny is a significant person in the lives of these boys.  As the carnival is winding down, Gene receives the telegram from Leper and suddenly the War is undeniable.  Since Phineas can not go to War, he is destined to become a minor figure instead of the center of attention that has been previously.  At this point he becomes a real figure of pity because we perceive, though he and Gene do not, that he has nothing to fall back on.  Here we see the fundamental shallowness of his prior status, based as it was solely on natural physical attributes and not upon anything for which he was personally responsible.  Sure he was able to excel when he chose the games and set the rules.  What is left of the Golden Boy when he faces a game & rules that are beyond his control?  Remarkably little.  Because everything has come easy to him, Phineas has never developed character.  He is a hollow man.

One of the great movie scenes of all time occurs in Ordinary People (read Orrin's review), when Timothy Hutton finally has his epiphany and realizes that he survived the boating accident because he was simply a stronger person than his Phineas-like brother.  I vividly recall how cathartic this moment was, but I had never fully realized that one of the subliminal reasons is that in some sense we are glad that Buck drowns, that when push comes to shove it's enormously satisfying to see the hard working kid win and the kid who's always had it easy fold in the face of adversity.

I don't think that, in A Separate Peace, Gene is much better than Phineas.  The kids who follow along and judge themselves against the Phineas/Buck standard are little better than the Golden Boys themselves.  I much prefer the loners who simply reject those standards to begin with and thereby fail to fit in, but preserve their own set of core values, which is why I react to the Phineas character with such visceral loathing.  I would never have done, nor do I condone, what Gene did, but I feel a sense of cosmic justice at work, that this is just Phineas reaping what he has sown.

Finally, a question occurs.  Do parents who send their kids away to private school ever read any of the fiction those schools have produced?  Winston Churchill's memoir My Early Life, Robert Musil's Young Torless, The Power of One, this book--the literature of the private school is one long litany of brutality, sodomy, homoeroticism, homosexuality, etc., etc., etc., ad nauseum.  The more you read, the more convinced you become that most young men simply do not have sufficiently armored personalities at their tender ages to withstand the hothouse atmosphere that these places engender.  I saw somewhere that after the book came out Knowles' Mom said to him that she was sorry she didn't realize how unhappy he was at Philips Exeter (upon which the story is based) and that he said he wasn't unhappy.  Boy, it sure seems like a cry for help to me.

This could be an invaluable book for teaching kids, to help them understand the universality of their own insecurities and to perceive their peers more clearly.  One doubts that is how it is taught, which instead makes it a somewhat dangerous book.  God help us if kids come away from this book idolizing Phineas.


Grade: (C+)


See also:

Young Adults
Book-related and General Links:
    -John Knowles (Jenean Vogt)
    -AITLC Guide to John Knowles (The ACCESS INDIANA Teaching & Learning Center)
    -AuthorSheet on John Knowles
    -Phillips Exeter Academy
    -REVIEW: of ELENA By Thomas H. Cook (John Knowles, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE BUMBLEBEE FLIES ANYWAY By Robert Cormier (John Knowles, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: A Separate Peace - Gene's Journey (Essay Depot)
    -ESSAY: A Process Essay on The Rites of Passage in John Knowles? A Separate Peace (Sairalyn Ansano, Fahid Khawaja, and Taquonya Washington, Sophomores)
    -ARTICLE: Students may need a "literary license" to read some books (GEORGE HUTCHENS, Gainsville Sun)
    -John Knowles  A Separate Peace  Website Evaluators (Masterpiece Theater American Collection)
    -A Separate Peace Home Page (Exeter)
    -ONLINE STUDY GUIDE: A Separate Peace  by John Knowles (SparkNote by Brian Gatten)
    -ANALYSIS: A Separate Peace (NovelGuide)
    -A Separate Peace Study Guide (The Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District and the English Department of Calhoun High School)
    -Study Guide (redsuspenders)
    -Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute: Some Strategies for Teaching About Adolescent Friendships in Literature (Maureen Howard)
    -DISCUSSION: A Separate Peace by John Knowles (
    -Webquest: A Separate Peace
    -LAWSUIT: UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT DISTRICT OF NEW HAMPSHIRE: Richard W. Walker  vs. Merrimack School District, Defendant
    -REVIEW: of A Separate Peace (Bethany, 15, Smart Girl)
    -REVIEW: of THE PRIVATE LIFE OF AXIE REED. By John Knowles (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of  THE PRIVATE LIFE OF AXIE REED By John Knowles (Webster Schott, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of PEACE BREAKS OUT By John Knowles (Julian Moynahan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of A STOLEN PAST By John Knowles (EDEN ROSS LIPSON, NY Times Book Review)


I'd love to know your last name, because this is absolutely perfect for and English project I'm doing, and to give you proper credit, I need your last name....please?

- Brittany

- Jan-01-2007, 05:34


This is the worst book I've ever read. To hell with the morality of the story; it's simply an awful read, a mopey story about a wuss who hurts his best friend and mopes on that fact for most of the remainder of the book. Phineas is barely a person so much as a shiningly remembered example of a Golden Boy; he's far too fictional for me to care about what happens to the little turd either way. And while I have nothing against gays the homoeroticism in this story is barely disguised.

The book is apparently assigned to the wee ones in much of the case because of how easy it is for kids to take it apart and put it back together. I wish they'd assign something far less mopey. One wonders if the "emo" generation would fall for it since its hero is a predecessor of their navel gazing type.

- This book stinks

- Dec-07-2006, 16:41


I am so glad you wrote this article. I'm a freshman in high school and I was required to write a paper about whether Finny and Gene were allegorical or symbolical or if either of them represents the presence of evil or good. Thanks to you, I used your article as a springboard and wrote an awesome paper. I got an A. Thanks a bunch!

- Alyssa

- Jan-16-2006, 10:33


Dear orrin, I think you are exactly right in how you think that phinny only chooses things that he is good at but, you have to realize that finny is different from other people and gene is a terrible person for being jealous AND he also thought that finny was trying to keep him from getting good grades when in fact finny loved how gene was smart and could get good grades so easily it was just Gene who was jealous and phsyco and finny who was loving and carefree and there is nothing wrong with that.

- Kelsey hulce, sophmore at high school

- Jan-08-2006, 23:28


Dear Orrin, I have read the book A Seperate Peace with my Sophmore English II class. We are doing a debate on whether or not Phineas fell on accident or Gene pushed him. To tell you the truth I believe that he fell on an accident. Phineas was Gene's best friend. The word"friend" mean: one attached to another by affection or esteem. So I don't think that a true friend would do that even if they were jealous or seemed to be envious of there friend. Well please write me bac to tell me what you think.

- Deborah

- Nov-04-2004, 13:37


Dear Orrin~

How interesting... You are the first person (well, second, in all honesty) I know who has considered Phineas to be something less than "the perfect boy." My college professor, in fact, accents how spectacular Finny is because of his honesty and the way that he looks only at the good in people. That opinion has never set well with me. I always considered Finny to be selfish, semi-foolish, and a slacker. Thanks for the new insight, it'll give my research paper a little controversy. :)

Sincerely, Wateo (it's a Dutch thing)

- Wateo

- Nov-29-2003, 01:52