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Athletics In A Separate Peace English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1250 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Gene Forrester’s many experiences at Devon are given deeper meaning through the use of motifs. John Knowles’ novel A Separate Peace tells a story about Gene and how he changes during the years he attends Devon, a boarding school located in New Hampshire. Throughout the novel, Knowles uses recurring events, or motifs, to add greater meaning to the story. In particular, athletics play a big role in showing how Gene and his best friend, Phineas, change and mature throughout the duration of the story. Although many themes are incorporated into A Separate Peace, competition and enmity prevail as more predominant themes relating to athletics. Recurring at various points in the novel, athletics symbolically enhance the bond between Gene and Phineas, and at times augment Gene’s envy. Athletics in the novel A Separate Peace are used to represent Gene and Phineas’ states of mind, to reflect their emotions, and to strengthen the story’s theme.

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Athletics are frequently present in A Separate Peace, making them a motif that represents both Gene and Phineas’ states of mind. Knowles introduces athletics first as Gene enters the flashback at the beginning of the novel. Gene and Phineas go to the tree and jump off to prepare for the war. Gene describes the tree as “impossible to walk out on” and “slenderer than it looked from the ground and much higher” (Knowles 17). This implies that to climb and jump out of the tree successfully, athleticism has to be involved. Phineas climbs and jumps out of the tree with almost no effort, while Gene has trouble and is scared. This will add to Gene’s envy, because it is one more thing that Phineas can do and he can’t. Many points such as this allow Gene to feel his jealousy is justified, but in essence, it is not. Later in the story, Phineas invents Blitzball, a sport where “the odds were tremendously against the ball carrier, so that Phineas was driven to exceed himself […] when he carried the ball” (Knowles 39). Here, Phineas shows athleticism while Gene is not as enthusiastic to play. Soon after Phineas’ accident, he starts training Gene for the ’44 Olympics. In this situation, Gene is the athletic child rather than Phineas. In this way, athletic events in the book are structured so that when a character excels at athletics, his state of mind in the novel is also satisfactory. For example, when Phineas excels at athletics, he is at a good state in the novel. When Phineas cannot perform due to his broken leg, he is at a bad state. When Gene is not very good at sports in the beginning of the novel, he develops envy and jealousy. When he starts to excel at athletics (after Phineas’ accident), he is, in his eyes, better off. In each of these situations, the athleticism of each of the boys is set up symbolically to represent their state of mind in the novel.

Along with every characters’ state in the book, athletics also symbolize every characters’ emotions. As Gene and Phineas climb the tree, Phineas is enthusiastic while Gene is scared and apathetic. This relates to Gene’s feelings because he is jealous and envious of Phineas. This jealousy develops corruption in his mind, and it twists his thoughts. Gene soon begins to think that he has to “be even” with Phineas (Knowles 52). This reflects on his thoughts and emotions. After Phineas’ accident, Phineas can no longer play sports. Gene is now the athletic one. As Gene improves his athleticism, his emotions, in his eyes, tend to improve. Gene’s guilt that he caused the accident starts to lessen and he accepts the circumstances he is in. Additionally, Gene’s emotions also improve because he is doing what Phineas wants; at the same time he is taking Phineas’ place in athletics. Phineas’ situation gets worse as his athletic ability diminishes; he builds suspicion, and then goes downhill eventually leading to death. Thus, both Gene and Phineas do well as they perform athletically well. In this way, athletic events are set up in the novel so they reflect on Gene and Phineas’ emotions.

Athletics in their own way add greater meaning to the theme and the story as a whole. Recurring various times in the story, athletics also add competition to the story; the athletic competition in the story mirrors the competition between Gene and Phineas in Gene’s mind. Athletic events such as “The Devon Winter Carnival” bring opportunities for Gene or Phineas to beat one another (Knowles 129). Knowles was trying to portray the attitude of Phineas as a theme in itself. Phineas broke a school swimming record, but he did not want to announce it or have it written down in the record book, as shown when he says “No, I just wanted to see if I could do it. […] Don’t say anything about it, to … anyone” (Knowles 44). Here Phineas is indirectly saying that competition ruins people. Theoretically, if Phineas, who is not a swimmer, came in one day and beat the school swimming record, people would be suspicious rather than believe he is just a good athlete because of the competition present in people. One can infer that this competition would then stimulate the swim team to dramatically try harder, because someone who does not even swim broke a record while any swimmers could not. This competition would affect everyone because everyone is trying to be the best. This then leads to enmity, and ruins numerous people’s homes and goals, not to mention lives. In Phineas’ scenario, one can conclude that the swim team would start to shun Phineas, creating enmity. Taking this thought and applying it to Gene provides a reason why Gene’s mind corrupted and drove him to jouncing the limb. Gene envied Phineas for excelling at athletics while he was not as good. This envy made him try harder, but he could not match Phineas. Then this envy created enmity, enough to cause Gene to jounce the limb. Looking at this idea as a whole, athletics provided a foundation for two themes of the story; competition and enmity. Athletics also added to the story by providing a framework to base other events off of. Finally, athletics added greater meaning to the theme and the story, by supplementing and enhancing Knowles’ main points in the plot.

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Because Knowles has persistently included athletics in A Separate Peace, it is important to understand the meaning behind his inclusion. Athletics, a motif, represent various elements of each character, such as their emotions and state of mind, throughout the course of the novel. In essence, athletics characterize an entire character, depicting how one may act based on his/her athletic performance. Athleticism also affects themes in the novel, mainly competition and enmity. Knowles used athleticism to show that it can draw people together, as well as separate them. Different points in the story showed that athleticism can bring out the best and worst in people, as in the case of Phineas and Gene. Athleticism could be a factor in obtaining a separate peace, as hinted to in the story. Gene referred to Devon having a peace at many points in the novel. Wrapped up all together, athletic performance of the characters in the novel affected the outcome of the novel. In conclusion, athleticism in A Separate Peace linked many aspects of characterization together.


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