While there are a plethora of themes in John Knowles’ novel, A Separate Peace, one of the most significant themes is friendship. The World English Dictionary defines a friend as “a person known well to another and regarded with liking, affection, and loyalty.” A Separate Peace explores conflicts between two close friends, Gene Forrester and Phineas. Gene is a studious, hardworking boy, while Phineas, or Finny, is an adept, natural athlete. They are well acquainted at the beginning of the story, but the connection between them becomes questionable as Gene’s starts to have mixed feelings about Phineas. Gene grows envious of Phineas’ athletic ability, and believes that Phineas is jealous of Gene’s academic skill. He suspects that Phineas is trying to stop him from succeeding academically, and his envy of Phineas soon grows into blatant hatred. However, Phineas does not have unfriendly feelings toward Gene, and constantly reassures Gene that they are good friends. Nevertheless, Gene proceeds to cause Phineas to fall off the limb of a tree and break his leg. By doing this, Gene was not showing the “liking, affection, and loyalty” that should be present in a true friendship. As the story progresses, the reader observes how a seemingly perfect friendship is slowly falling into decadence, to the point where Phineas dies. The theme of friendship is the most important theme in A Separate Peace because it significantly impacted the plot, helped develop the characters, and defined the protagonists and antagonists present in the novel.
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Friendship heavily influenced the plot of the novel, and also created both internal and external conflicts. When Gene fails a test after a secret trip to the beach with Phineas, he starts to think that Phineas is trying to stop him from succeeding academically. While this was a misconstrued assumption, this created a massive internal conflict within Gene. Gene no longer could trust Phineas, and began to foster hostile thoughts toward him. For example, after Phineas accuses Gene of trying to be class Valedictorian, Gene thinks, “It was all cold trickery, it was all calculated, it was all enmity” (Knowles, 46). This marks one of the darkest moments in the relationship between Gene and Phineas, and Gene’s hostile feelings culminate in the climax, when he causes Phineas to lose his balance and break his leg. Had Gene stayed a true, loyal friend, Phineas may not have injured himself. Also, it can be seen that Phineas was deeply affected by Gene’s betrayal. For example, he was fairly positive that Gene had jostled the limb, but he could not bring himself to admit it. He felt that, if he admitted that Gene had ultimately broken his leg, he would be putting the friendship between him and Gene in jeopardy. After Gene tells Phineas that he jostled the limb, Phineas angrily replies, “I’ll kill you if you don’t shut up.” (62) This shows how much Phineas values his friendship with Gene, as he is willing to go to extreme extents to preserve it. However, Phineas’ inability to admit the truth ultimately brought his own death. Near the end of the story, Brinker held a trial to determine exactly what happened between Gene and Phineas on the tree limb. Phineas refused to reveal the truth and endanger the relationship between him and Gene, and instead ran out of the courtroom in tears. He slipped down the stairs and broke his leg again. The next day, a surgical procedure killed him. Had Phineas not valued the relationship so dearly, he could’ve told the truth, Gene would’ve been prosecuted, and Phineas could’ve safely walked back to his dormitory that night. The theme of friendship did not only influence the plot, but it allowed the reader to learn more about the characters.
Through situations involving friendship, the reader can infer more about the personalities of the characters in A Separate Peace. For example, in the beginning, the seemingly utopian relationship between Gene and Phineas showed how they are both good characters at heart. There was little to no conflict between the two, and there were no unfriendly feelings between them. However, as the story progresses, the reader sees how this relationship falls into decline, as Gene goes from being amiable to unstable and paranoid, while Finny is unfalteringly friendly. For example, as Gene and Phineas are getting ready to sleep at the beach, Phineas says to Gene, “You are [my best pal].” (41) Gene thinks about returning the compliment, but he does not. At this point, Gene is starting to lose trust in Phineas, and the reader sees that the friendship between him and Phineas is becoming strained. However, after Phineas breaks his leg, Gene feels genuinely guilty, and he realizes that Phineas never had any ill-disposed intentions. From then on, Gene constantly sought to visit Finny and apologize to him, and he tries to work together with Finny. He also starts trusting Finny a lot more, which is evident when Finny lies to him that “[Fat old men] cooked up this war fake” (106) and Gene believes him. This situation shows how Gene is becoming much more agreeable with Finny. Later on, when Gene enters Phineas’ room after sustains a second injury, Finny exclaims, “You want to break something else in me! Is that why you’re here?” (175) Finny has lost trust in Gene, and is highly disturbed. This starkly contrasts with the smooth, unctuous personality that Finny had before he was injured. Another situation involving friendship is when Gene goes to Leper’s house. At his house, Leper tells Gene of the grotesque visions he had while in the army. Most of his visions involve a transformation of some kind, such as furniture turning into body parts and men turning into women. In a sense, these visions represent the fear and anxiety associated with other transformations, such as the transformation of boys into men, and boys into soldiers. When Gene runs away from Leper in fear, Gene tells Leper that his visions have “nothing to do with [him]” and that he “[doesn’t] want to hear any more of it” (142). Indeed, Gene is not only scared about the transformation of boy into soldier in times of war, but also of adolescent into adult. In this instance, a friendship was lost, but it was revealed that Leper is insane and that Gene is also becoming unstable. The theme of friendship also helps define protagonists and antagonists.
While there is not a clear line between protagonists and antagonists in A Separate Peace, the way in which a character dealt with friendship ultimately defined whether that character was a protagonist or an antagonist. For example, one can view Finny as the protagonist and Gene as the antagonist in the story because Finny wanted to preserve the friendship between him and Gene while Gene had other intentions. Finny was always reassuring Gene that they are good friends, and he cannot bring himself to admit that Gene caused him to fall off the branch. Gene, on the other hand, was jealous of Phineas’ athletic ability and suspected that he was trying to hold him back in his studies. However, Telgen writes, “In the end, Gene realizes that his real enemy is himself and his impulse towards mindless destruction-and he believes he overcame this enemy only after causing Phineas’s death” (Telgen). Telgen considers that Gene’s conscience was the protagonist, while Gene’s impulsiveness was the antagonist because in several occasions, Gene’s impulsive actions cause him to unintentionally hurt others. By jouncing the tree limb and causing Phineas to hurt himself, Gene involuntarily caused a chain of events that resulted in his friend’s death.
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Without the theme of friendship in A Separate Peace, many important parts of the novel would be missing. For example, the theme of friendship helped constitute the plot because it heavily influenced how Gene and Phineas acted. Since Phineas thought very highly of the friendship and he wanted to keep it, he did not acknowledge that Gene caused him to fall. After Phineas breaks his leg, Gene feels remorseful and is much more affable. Also, the theme of friendship showed the reader more about the characters, as each character reacted differently when presented with challenges associated with friendship. Gene betrayed Phineas, but Phineas’ naivety and failure to face the truth ultimately brought his downfall. Furthermore, friendship helped determine the protagonists and antagonists. The theme of friendship is important in A Separate Peace because it applies to almost every aspect of the story, ranging from the plot to the characters’ behavior.
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