A Separate Peace

A Separate Peace

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Sitting in my third grade classroom we chattered anxiously, waiting for the spelling quizzes to be passed back. My teacher placed them all facing down on our desks, a rather pointless effort when she was already aware that at any moment the room would burst into havoc with yells of "what did you get?", shouting numbers back and forth, and of course superior comments from the students proud of their marks. I quickly flipped mine over and grinned at the 8/10 scrawled in red marker near the top of the page.

"What did you get?" sure enough my friend Jenny thrust me her paper. As I stared down at her 100% sitting aside a bright yellow smiley sticker I felt a familiar twinge of jealousy. From that day on I had a secret goal to achieve higher marks than my friend. I can not remember when this rivalry ended, but I do know that it is normal behavior.

Each person feels rivalry or competition to other humans, for the majority of their lifetime. This rivalry greatly affects our ability to understand others, and this eventually results in war, discrimination, and enmity. Children are definitely culprits for acting inhumane to each other with teasing, competition, and often hurtful remarks. Although this is the way children often act, it is in the teenage years realization, along with careful thought and consideration, brings each individual to understand wider prospects of human nature; that people coldly drive ahead for themselves alone. Man’s inhumanity1 to man is a way for people to protect themselves from having pain inflicted on them by fellow humans, and achieving their goals and desires free from interference of others.

The concept of man’s inhumanity to man is developed in John Knowles’ novel, A Separate Peace. The primary conflict in this novel centers on the main character, Gene, and his battling of jealousy, paranoia, and inability to understand his relationship with his best friend Phineas. Yet the larger battle of man’s inhumanity to man is portrayed by the backdrop of World War II.

Gene Forrester is an average, studious, young man attending Devon school in New Hampshire during the second World War. His roommate at Devon, Phineas (otherwise known as Finny) sends Gene on an unexpected journey of self discovery. Finny represents man in his innocence, a kind of edenic2 Adam. He is very athletic, honest and trusting.

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Finny is one who enjoys life to the fullest, and pressures other people to enjoy themselves as well. He is a natural born leader, enthusiastic, and filled with endless energy. The two rivers surrounding Devon school, correspond with the measure of Finny’s innocence. The Devon river, that the Gene and Finny frequently jump into from a tall tree at Finny’s request, is clean and pure, "a refreshing shower" much like Phineas and his faulty innocence. The Nagumsett river, on the other hand, not only represents Gene, but the majority of the human race. It is muddy, sticky with salt, and leads into the ocean. The Nagumsett symbolizes reality and deceit, while the Devon river seems an element of human personality, that which is unadulterated, that does not survive in the real world.

In the early pages of A Separate Peace, Finny confesses that Gene is his best friend. It is considered a courageous act for the students at Devon to expose emotion. And rather than Gene venturing back with similar affection, he holds back and says nothing. Gene can not handle the fact that Finny is so compassionate, so perfect. In order to protect himself from accepting Finny’s compassion and risking emotional pain, Gene creates a silent rivalry with Finny, convincing himself that Finny is deliberately attempting to ruin his studies. Gene decides that the two are jealous of each other, and reduces their friendship to cold trickery and enmity.

Gene becomes disgusted with himself after weeks of the silent rivalry. He finally discovers the truth, that Finny only wants the best for Gene, and had no unfavorable intentions. This creates a huge conflict for Gene; not being able to deal with Finny’s purity and his own dark core. On this very day Finny wants to jump off of the tree branch into the Devon river at the same time as Gene, a "double jump", he says, as a way of bonding. It was this decision, caused by Finny’s affection for Gene and outgoing ways that resulted in drastic change for the rest of his life. Once up on the limb, without warning, Gene’s misunderstanding of his own identity and confusion towards Finny’s behavior explodes. He jounces the limb, sending Finny flailing to the bank below. At this point Gene feels extreme freedom from the web of rivalry that he has been living in. Gene also learns that he is capable of greater evil than he has ever imagined.

The act of Gene causing Finny to fall from the tree, shattering one of his leg bones, was one of brutal betrayal, inhumanity, and selfishness. Yet it was one of nature as well. Something that each human will experience in their lifetime; the ability to let their barbaric nature reign over their own personality. Later in the novel, Finny shows his understanding for Gene’s crime in this paragraph:
"I’ve gotten awfully mad sometimes and almost forgotten what I was doing. Something just seized you. it wasn’t anything you really felt against me, it wasn’t some kind of hate you felt all along. it wasn’t anything personal." In this quote Finny expresses understanding for the idea of man’s natural inhumanity to man. Each human has the ability to feel a multitude of emotions at any given time, with or without understandable reason. Sometime what one needs to feel, whether they are aware of it or not, can take control of their actions. This may be the way that one’s subconscious seizes the individual in order for them to learn what they need to learn to satisfy their mind, emotional state, or encourage spiritual growth.

Leper Leppelier, another boy attending Devon school is also treated inhumanely by Gene Forrester. From the time that Leper is introduced, it is shown that other students think him to be strange because of his idiosyncrasies. Instead of trying to understand Leper, other students distance themselves from him and underestimate his abilities and need to feel recognition. Leper spends time with Gene and Finny in the Devon river and playing sports. However, Leper does not enjoy sports. He is a quiet and thoughtful individual, shy and in love with nature. None of Leper’s peers ever expected him to do anything daring or unusual, Finny couldn’t even get him to jump from the tree into the river, so it shocks everyone when Leper is the first student to enlist in the army. After all, even Phineas could not convince Leper to jump from the tree into the river. Leper has decided to go to war to face his fears head on, but he does not expect war to be as barbarous as it is. Leper can not handle the reality of humans inflicting such immense pain on one another, and the war takes a huge emotional toll on him. He becomes delusional and manic. Leper was almost given a "section 8" discharge from the army, one for those who become psychotic. Leper sends Gene word that he has "escaped" from the army, and Gene goes to visit him at his home in Vermont.

It is at this meeting in Vermont, that Gene witnesses a side of Leper that he has never encountered before. Leper is angry, rash, and shows hate that Gene never knew existed. Gene also discovers that his dark core is not as well hidden as he had imagined. Leper points this out, "You always were a savage underneath. Like the time you knocked Finny out of the tree. Like that time you crippled him for life." The two boys find that neither is as human as they pretend to be. Leper is speaking honestly about his feelings, by telling Gene that he is a savage underneath. However, he slyly suggests that Gene was the cause of Finny’s accident as an attempt to provoke Gene to lose control. This daring gesture makes Leper feel more secure in his own insanity. He has used loss of reality as a form of escape, such that in the world he lives in now, nothing can hurt him anymore.

Gene and Leper take a walk, Gene sees what a delicate state hiss friend has fallen into as Leper describes his insane hallucinations. Leper tells Gene of his days in the army, the way he sees men turn into women, and brooms turning into human legs. As Leper continues to talk Gene becomes desperate and has no idea what to say to him. He tells Leper to shut up, and at last Gene’s facade slips away. "Do you think I want to want to hear every gory detail! Shut up! I don’t care! I don’t care what happened to you Leper. I don’t give a damn!" Gene runs off, trying to protect himself from becoming involved another’s problems. He is selfish and has shown Leper the true lack of compassion that Gene feels to everyone.

In A Separate Peace, Gene is not the only character to treat others with abuse or enmity. Brinker Hadley, another student at Devon provides an excellent example of man’s inhumanity to man. Brinker, a friend of Gene and Phineas, is an intelligent, obedient young man. He is the only individual, other than Leper, to imply that Gene was responsible for Finny’s fall from the tree. Late one night, Brinker and some friends take Finny and Gene to a mock court trial. In Devon school’s Assembly Room Brinker torments both Finny and Gene by inquiring about the accident. At this time Finny truly believes that Gene had nothing to do with his broken leg. But as the trial continues and more facts are presented by the other students, Finny becomes confused and suspicious. Leper, who had been spotted hiding in some bushes at Devon is brought to the trial as a witness. This of course, brings Gene tremendous panic, as Leper was previously introduced to Gene’s dark core in Vermont. Leper explains that he saw one boy on the tree limb move first, shaking the other boy’s balance. Leper is guileful, and wants to feel superior to the other boys, so when Brinker asks him if Phineas moved first, causing his own fall, or if Gene moved first, Leper is indignant and stubborn. He accuses Brinker of taking him for a fool. "I’m important. You’ve never realized it, but I’m important too. You be the fool, you do what ever anyone wants whenever they want it. You be the fool now. Bastard." And Leper provides no more information, although it is obvious that he is aware of Gene’s guilt. Phineas comes to the realization that Gene has betrayed him. He flees from the Assembly room, crying, and screams that he does not want to hear any more facts. Finny’s innocence, his beliefs about friendship, and his heart have been torn by Brinker’s need to inflict grief and panic on others.

Brinker is not at all interested in who caused Finny’s accident, or the well being of Finny or Gene in any way. Brinker, is a natural leader, and likes to assume control. It is possible that he was feeling a loss of control over the students of Devon since Finny’s return from Boston. This caused him to agitate the situation between Gene and Finny, proving how much change he could cause, and how much power over a situation he could assume.

In A Separate Peace the students at Devon are fighting a war, a microcosm to World War II. Each character, with the exception of Phineas is driving coldly ahead for himself alone. Phineas, on the other hand, possessed an extra vigor, heightened confidence, and innocence like no other. The boys survive by hurting each other, as do soldiers. It is the vulnerable, innocent ones who do not survive. Phineas was dropped from this race, and Leper made his own escape. Life’s race of Man’s inhumanity to man, as each centers on only himself, and people protect themselves to great lengths from getting hurt by others. Although this may be a natural way of life, nothing endures, not a tree, not love, not even a death by violence.
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