No analysis would be complete without a look at the narrator.
Gene Forrester is the novel’s narrator, sharing his memories of events at Devon school more than a decade earlier. Everything we know about the school, about Finny, his best friend, and about other characters in the novel comes from Gene’s less than reliable narration. Gene is insecure and jealous, commenting frequently on the competitive nature of the school and holding the same grudges, insecurities, and shortcomings he displays during high school. Much like the narrator in The Catcher in the Rye, Huckleberry Finn, and To Kill a Mockingbird, Gene unfolds events without truly understanding their significance.
The central focus of the narrative is the relationship between himself and Finny, his best friend. Because Gene sees everything as a rivalry, he falsely assumes that Finney is purposely damaging Gene’s attempt at graduating first in his class. When he discovers the truth, he becomes even more insecure and bounces Finny off the suicide tree, crippling him for life. Although it is unclear whether Gene purposely plans to hurt Finny or whether it’s a subconscious action, it is only by bringing Finny down to his level that Gene believes he can be equal.
Gene focuses most of his energy on his best friend, Finny. Finny is athletic, handsome, and charismatic, everything Gene wishes he were. He always searches for the good in people and assumes others do the same. This leads to his fall. He cannot comprehend that his “accident” on the suicide tree was deliberately caused by his best friend. It’s when Finny learns the truth that he soon dies.
Finny’s unwillingness to act harshly toward others and his ability to work with and show kindness to everyone at Devon provides a dramatic foil to the novel’s broad setting of World War II. His death becomes a symbolic triumph of evil over good, much in the same way the evil of war has triumphed and invaded the school.
Gene, after his surprising discovery that Finny wants to be in the war, recognizes the absurdity: “They’d get you someplace at the front and there’d be a lull in the fighting, and the next thing anyone knew you’d be over with the Germans or the Japs, asking if they’d like to field a baseball team against our side” (190). What Gene fails to recognize is that Finny needs to go to war because he would provide the exact thing the war needs, but could never sustain–compassion and friendship.
Leper Lepellier - What we know about Leper is done through indirect characterization in A Separate Peace. Leper is peaceful and loves nature. Most students make fun of him. Ironically, he is the first to enlist in the army after seeing a video on the ski patrol. After receiving a section 8 and getting kicked out of the military, he shows up as a witness against Gene at his mock trial. The fact that the insane person is the only one who sees things clearly when Finny falls from the suicide tree symbolizes a world gone insane with war.
Brinker Hadley - Brinker is your stereotypical prep school jackass. Brinker is an efficient politician and a ruthless administrator of justice, the opposite of Finny. It is Brinker’s late night trial of Gene that forces the narrative to its climax and prompts the immediate events of Finny’s death. Brinker combines the responsibility of adulthood with the cynicism of adolescence, at first exhorting his schoolmates to enlist and then backing off. The confrontation with his father toward the end of the novel highlights his bitterness toward the war and what it’s done.
Cliff Quackenbush - Gene, after becoming the assistant crew manager, gets in a fight with Cliff on the first day of crew practice. Quackenbush is unliked by most and uses any opportunity to treat those inferior to him with disdain.
Chet Douglass - Finny’s friend and main rival to become class valedictorian.
Dr. Stanpole - The campus doctor who operates on Finny–Dr. Stanpole sympathizes with Devon’s youth forced to go to war.
Mr. Patch-Withers - Withers runs the school during the lenient summer session.
Mr. Ludsbury - Mr. Ludsbury is headmaster over Gene and Finny’s dorm. He expects unwavering obedience from the boys.
Knowles, John. A Separate Peace. New York: Scribner, 1959.
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