The Story of War

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The concept of peace plays an important role in John Knowles' novel A Separate Peace. As World War II rages in Europe and in the Pacific, the sixteen-year-old boys at the Devon school enjoy a sheltered existence knowing they are not yet subject to the call of duty. On the surface, "a separate peace" refers to this placid and protected life at a New England boarding school. The novel has darker psychological undertones, though, as it explores Gene's savage nature and his journey to reconcile his violent act against his best friend Finny. Gene revisits Devon and his past in an attempt to find his own separate peace.

Even though World War II is evident in the novel, the war barely touches the lives of the students at Devon. While the senior boys were "draft-bait, practically soldiers" (15), the younger students were allowed to be "careless and wild" (24) as a small group of "people who could be selfish in the summer of 1942" (30). The war's effect on Devon increases as the narrative progresses. At first, the boys know no one involved in the fighting and only seem to know that there is a war by newspaper headlines and the lack of maid service at the school. Finny even questions whether there is a war at all. World War II permeates the tranquility of the school as the students help to shovel snow from the railroad tracks so that the troop train carrying boys not much older than they are can pass. Leper's enlistment and subsequent mental breakdown, brings the war closer to the Devon students and breaks the separate peace. The boys enjoyed telling tales of valor with Leper as the hero and are greatly impacted by his affliction. "If a war can drive somebody crazy, then it's real," Finny laments (163).

Gene returns to the school as a grown man to face the demons of his adolescence. The school appears "as though a coat of varnish had been put over everything" (9), and even the tree that Finny fell from isn't the giant that Gene remembers but...
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