I could see through that. I was more and more certainly becoming the best person in the school; Phineas was without a question the best athlete, so in a way we were even. But while he was a very poor student I was a pretty good athlete, and when everything was thrown into the scales they would in the end definitely tilt towards me. The new attacks of studying were his emergency measures to save himself. I doubled my effort.”
A Separate Peace Pg. 55
This quote is essential to the theme of competition in the book because as Finny continuously points out Gene’s imperfections in sports, Gene becomes irritated with Finny’s perfection. Before Gene shakes the tree, causing Finny to lose his balance and fall, he comes to the realization that Finny never wanted to compete with him because he “was not of the same quality as Finny.” Gene wanted to bring Finny down to his level so that they would be equals. Once he had this idea planted in his mind, there was no getting rid of it. Gene also believed that Finny was a superior to him, which explains why he jolted the tree. He wanted to show himself as well as others that Finny was no longer invincible and was like everyone else. Previous to his fall Finny was on a pedestal, he was undefeated in sports and could talk his way out of any predicament involving teachers. After causing Finny’s fall, Gene soon discovers that it comes with consequences of severe guilt.
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Gene always seemed to compete with Finny, when in reality there is no competition between the two friends. Gene even goes as far as comparing their height and weight. Something as simple as a wrestling match between the two causes Gene to be angry because Finny still wins everything, including the wrestling match. He even ponders why Finny is successful in everything because he isn’t built for sports any better than Gene. What Gene just can’t get through his mind is that Finny is only being himself. He is not trying to hold Gene back from doing his best in school. Finny takes their competition constructively, while Gene takes it as destructive competition.
Gene becomes so obsessed with this competition between himself and Finny that he puts Finny’s clothes on and compares himself to Finny. All of these things eventually led to Gene “jouncing the limb” and causing Finny’s fall because he couldn’t handle his superiority in sports and disputes involving teachers. Gene felt that by jolting the tree he had broke Finny’s winning streak. When Gene jumps from the tree after causing Finny to fall it is as if he is marking a new start, where Finny doesn’t win everything.
“So the war swept over like a wave at the seashore gathering power and size as it bore on us, overwhelming in its rush, seemingly inescapable, and then at the last moment eluded by a word from Phineas; I had simply ducked, that was all, and the wave’s concentrated power had hurtled harmlessly overhead, no doubt throwing others roughly up on the beach, but leaving me peaceably treading water as before. I did not stop to think that one wave is inevitably followed by another even larger and more powerful, when the tide is coming in.”
A Separate Peace Pg. 109
Throughout the novel A Separate Peace by John Knowles the title is illustrated on several occasions. The title is actually a reflection of the theme peace and war. For example, when Gene, Finny, Leper and their acquaintances are playing blitzball, this represents their ignorance as to what is taking place around them. They are having fun without a care in the world that soon they will be face to face with World War II. I believe that deep within themselves the kids know there’s a war and that soon and that they will be experiencing it. However, they don’t know the extent of destruction and warfare that the walls outside their school hold, which in a way stuns them. When Leper tells Gene of his troubles in the war we see how much of a shock the real world is to the kids after graduating Devon.
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When Leper tells Gene his memories of the war, the title A Separate Peace is supported in the reasoning that Devon is almost like a separate country because the school keeps them from knowing how gruesome it will be when they are deported to war. There are several ways the theme of peace and war can be distinguished. The most apparent way to notice when the peace begins to fade away is summer and fall. During summer the students are still being sheltered and are still children. Then, when fall comes around the students are beginning adulthood. This is also when the recruiters come to Devon in order to recruit the boys into the war. Since these boys have been protected from the real world all their life, adulthood in the real word hits them hard and causes them to lose their mind.
It’s similar to a mother bird pushing its newborn bird out of the nest and expecting it to fly. The bird will fall and probably die because it hasn’t obtained the opportunity to watch its mother and learn from her. It’s the same thing with the students at Devon. You can’t expect them to immediately adjust from being sheltered to fighting in a war. Especially if they’ve never been involved in any outside-world terror, and you release them straight into a full fledged war.
Out of all the themes in A Separate Peace I believe that rebellion and conformity is utilized most frequently throughout the novel. Phineas is the character that is consistently rebellious, while Gene is compliant. Phineas repeatedly defies the rules during his stay at Devon. For instance, Finny wore a pink shirt to school instead of his uniform. Gene would have never attempted or even thought to do something like that because he is one that will obey the rules before he breaks them. Finny also talks Gene into jumping out of the tree, which is “more forbidden than missing a meal”. As you can clearly see, Finny is very rebellious and follows his own rules.
Conformity was valued both in the novel and in the real world during World War II. Everyone in the United States would put forth effort towards the war, similar to what took place at Devon. The people that usually shoveled snow on the railroad were deported to fight in the war, so the students at Devon assisted by shoveling the snow in order for the train to easily pass. The students also picked apples and sacrificed maids during their war effort. When Mr. Prud’homme questioned Finny as to why he and Gene were nowhere to be found at dinner, Finny responded by saying that they had to jump out of the tree so that they would be ready for war. The reason Finny told Mr. Prud’homme this is because he was trying to make Mr. Prud’homme believe that they were following the American idea that at the time which was to help with the war. Rebellion and conformity is repeated numerous times throughout the book and is one of the many main themes.
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