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The persistent theme of A Separate Peace is the deterioration of a complex friendship. The bond between two boys (Finny and Gene) becomes tested and attacked, as the reader observes a seemingly utopian relationship fall into decadence. Gene becomes challenged with various inner hostilities, while Finny, his proclivity for athletics revoked, has been forced to find acceptability and provocation elsewhere. Furthermore, the book commences during mid-to-late 1942, during the height of the Axis powers' success. The effect of stress and tension on the camaraderie of the boys becomes elevated. The intensities of war, envy, and intricate personalities synthesize to provide an interesting look into the subconscious mind and sanity of war-time youth.
Phineas and Gene form the illusion of great companionship, combining superior athletic ability with a powerful intellect. However, a silent rivalry develops between them. At the beginning of the story Gene seems to accept Finny's premium physical agility, but he resents what he feels is flaunting (of his aptitudes) by Phineas. As the book progresses, Gene continues to look deeper into their fellowship and quickly becomes wildly jealous of Finny. Eventually, Gene impairs Finny by jouncing the limb where Finny stood. Phineas, meanwhile, seems unaware of Gene's evil thoughts. He continues to remain optimistic and promising.
Amidst this rivalry, World War II persists and the faculty at Devon School are preparing the students for entrance into the military. Propaganda and the war effort enthrall the youth. From the forming of the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session, to the shoveling of snow at the railroad yard, everyone is absorbed by the aura of warfare. Gene's realization, while shoveling snow, that "we [he and his schoolmates] seemed to be nothing but children playing among heroic men" (89) demonstrated his generation are merely pawns in a global conflict. Gene sustains his inclination towards pessimism and exposes the evil within him.
The disharmony betwixt Gene and Finny constitutes a separate, full-scale war when Phineas fractures his leg once again. With Phineas' inner evil now exposed and his superficial personality shattered, Gene quickly becomes the object of his animosity. With the death of Phineas, the relationship has exhaustively deteriorated. When he fails to weep, Gene reveals that it is not just Finny's funeral, but his own.
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