Symbols In A Separate Peace Essay

This essay has a total of 1630 words and 6 pages.

Symbols In A Separate Peace

In John Knowle's A Separate Peace, symbols are used to develop and advance the themes of
the novel. One theme is the lack of an awareness of the real world among the students who
attend the Devon Academy. The war is a symbol of the "real world", from which the boys
exclude themselves. It is as if the boys are in their own little world or bubble secluded
from the outside world and everyone else. Along with their friends, Gene and Finny play
games and joke about the war instead of taking it seriously and preparing for it. Finny
organizes the Winter Carnival, invents the game of Blitz Ball, and encourages his friends
to have a snowball fight. When Gene looks back on that day of the Winter Carnival, he
says, "---it was this liberation we had torn from the gray encroachments of 1943, the
escape we had concocted, this afternoon of momentary, illusory, special and separate
peace" (Knowles, 832). As he watches the snowball fight, Gene thinks to himself, "There
they all were now, the cream of the school, the lights and leaders of the senior class,
with their high IQs and expensive shoes, as Brinker had said, pasting each other with
snowballs"(843).


Another of the principal themes in this novel is the theme of maturity. The two rivers
that are part of the Devon School property symbolize how Gene and Finny grow up through
the course of the novel. The Devon River is preferred by the students because it is above
the dam and contains clean water. It is a symbol of childhood and innocence because it is
safe and simple. It is preferred which shows how the boys choose to hold onto their youth
instead of growing up. The Naguamsett is the disgustingly dirty river which symbolizes
adulthood because of its complexity. The two rivers intermingle showing the boys' changes
from immature individuals to slightly older and wiser men.


Sooner or later, Gene and Phineas, who at the beginning of the novel are extremely
immature, have to face reality. Signs of their maturity appear when the boys have a
serious conversation about Finny's accident. Finny realizes that Gene did shake the tree
limb purposely so that he would fall. However, he knows that this action was spontaneous,
and that Gene never meant to cause him life-long grief. Finny sympathetically says to his
best friend, "Something just seized you. It wasn't anything you really felt against me, it
wasn't some kind of hate you've felt all along. It wasn't anything personal" (865). Gene
admits to Finny that he feels incredibly guilty and replies, "It was some ignorance inside
me, some crazy thing inside me, something blind, that's all it was" (865).


Phineas' death is the end of Gene's childhood. He is forced to grow up when he realizes
that he is living in a world of hate, crime, and disappointment. He is getting older and
closer to his eighteenth birthday when he will be drafted into the war, and he finally
begins to prepare. At the conclusion of the novel, after Phineas is gone, Gene says, "I
was ready for the war, now that I no longer had any hatred to contribute to it. My fury
was gone, I felt it gone, dried up at the source, withered and lifeless. Phineas had
absorbed it and taken it with him and I was rid of it forever" (871). This is another
example of how the war furthers Gene's advance into adulthood.


The war is a symbol of how things aren't always what they seem. Recruiting posters and
propaganda advertising the army convince many boys into thinking the war is an exciting
adventure in which young men interact. Leper enlists in the army after being impressed by
a film shown by a recruiter from the U.S. ski troops. "The ski movie had decided him. 'I
always thought the war would come for me when it wanted me...I never thought I'd be going
to it. I'm really glad I saw that movie in time, you bet I am'" (826) Leper is amazed by
these men and how they, with their recognizable and friendly faces, give a clean response
to war. However, he has a breakdown of emotions after joining the troops. He becomes
psychotic, goes AWOL, and is given a Section Eight. The war proves too much for such an
innocent, isolated boy. He is unprepared for the gory, gruesome things he sees when he
arrives for training, and the change is unbearable for Leper who is used to the traditions
at home and at Devon. Gene knows that Leper went through more than he could handle, and
comments "For if Leper was psycho it was the army which had done it to him, and I and all
of us were on the brink of the army...A Section Eight discharge is for the nuts in the
service, the psychos, the Funny Farm candidates" (837). Leper sends Gene a telegram as his
call for help. This symbolizes how everyone needs a friend to assist them when they are in
trouble. Gene does not even realize how important he is to Leper until this point.

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