A Separate Peace Literary Criticism

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Competition in A Separate Peace

In John Knowles’s novel A Separate Peace, Knowles describes a life-changing sequence of events, as seen by Gene Forrester, which takes place at Devon Boarding School. Gene constantly finds himself struggling to find the truth about his relationship with Finny. Peter Wolfe states that the novel, “cries to be read in the context of original sin,” and Novels for Students references that, “the real struggle is fought in the hearts of the characters, not on the battlefield.” Both the sin and struggle come together when Gene places himself in a competition with Finny, which can only end with one definite winner. Many different factors contribute to the theme of competition including: the physical abilities of each boy, the internal characteristics of each boy, and Gene’s jealousy and envy of Finny. Gene sees his competition with Finny as merely physical, between academics and sports. It is made clear that each character excels in one particular field, Finny in sports and Gene in academics. All sports seem to come naturally to Finny, and Wolfe describes his ability in sports in that, “His [Finny’s] athletic prowess stems not from brawn but his superb coordination and vitality.” (Wolfe 138). Although Gene still did well in sports, he was nowhere near Finny’s athletic level. Gene was, however, far more advanced in academics, and was far more applied academically than Finny. He had set his goals high, ultimately aiming to be the class valedictorian- a goal that seemed easily achievable, with his only distraction being Finny. Finny was not at all proficient in academics, maintaining a “D” average at best, never feeling the need to try. Gene sensed a competition developing between Finny and he, and felt the need to be even with Finny. In a way, Gene had achieved- he was competent in academics and decent in sports while Finny was spectacular in athletics and ineffectual in school. Gene believed that Finny not only wanted to be even but be better, and Gene describes this belief by saying, “He minded, despised the possibility that I might be head of the school.” (Knowles 52). As Novels for Students puts it, “Throughout the novel, Gene compares and contrasts himself with his best friend, Finny, and often falls short in his own estimation.” (Novels 244). Gene and Finny may be even on a physical level, but the reason he falls short is because there is more to the competition than meets the eye. The competition goes deeper into the defining characteristics of the pure and unadulterated Finny and the far less innocent Gene. Finny is a loyal friend who is confident in himself but somewhat naïve towards the rest of the world, always believing the best about people. Finny’s loyalty is represented when he says, “Naturally I don’t believe books and I don’t believe teachers, but I do believe- it’s important after all for me to believe you.” (Knowles 163). Even after his accident, Finny fully trusted his friend Gene, even though it seemed obvious that Gene had stabbed him in the back. Gene however is quite the opposite- he is extremely self-conscious and he will do anything to be the best, even turn against his best friend. Leper described Gene quite accurately; he is a “savage”. Gene is also over-analytical of everything, especially Finny, and that causes him to make false assumptions. Gene’s self-consciousness, over-analyzing, and savagery lead him to creating a version of Finny in his mind, in which they would be on the same level of morality. So, Gene believes that Finny’s every move is an attempt to get even, and where their entire friendship was a lie. As Ronald Weber puts it, “It is Phineas’s innocence that gene cannot endure. As long as he can believe Phineas shares his enmity, he can find relief, but with this assurance gone, he stands condemned before himself and must strike out against his tormentor” (Weber 244). Gene had to get even with Finny- both physically and morally. He would do...
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