“Innocence and Ignorance in A Separate Peace”
By Benjamin J. Chase – Guest Contributor
John Knowles’s A Separate Peace reads like a modernized, land-locked Billy Budd for its depiction of vulnerable innocence. Two friends, Gene and Finny, rise and fall at the New England Devon School against the distant backdrop of World War II. The continual interplay between their tragic story and World War II events creates a message that reads on both a personal and global level: ignorance often vilifies innocence.
At first, Gene and Finny are “best pals,” a “sincere emotion” that Finny admits during their adventure at the beach. Nevertheless, Gene’s ignorance soon creates a deep rift. As he mistakenly identifies Finny’s ideas for adventures as a way to ruin his academics, Gene begins to view Finny as an enemy. When Finny finally dismantles these misconceptions by encouraging Gene to skip an adventure in order to pursue excellence in his academics, Gene’s sense of rivalry morphs into envy of Finny’s purity: “Now I knew that there never was and never could have been any rivalry between us. I was not of the same quality as he.”
In the next scene, the boys are jumping out of trees into the Devon River. In an episode echoing Cain and Abel, which Brinker later labels “practically fratricide,” Gene deliberately “jounces” a tree branch and sends Finny hurtling to the riverbank. Finny falls from the tree, but does not know for certain what caused his fall. Gene’s motive is not directly stated at this point because Gene himself does not fully understand his act until the end of the novel.
After learning that Finny has a shattered leg and will never play sports again, Gene, racked with guilt, visits Finny in the infirmary. Ironically, Finny is not completely demoralized about the accident, although he notes that Gene looks “worse” and “personally shocked.” At this point, the injury has poisoned Gene internally, but only affected Finny externally.
Over the summer, Gene goes to visit Finny in Boston because he feels compelled to confess his terrible secret. As he tries to confess, he is interrupted by Finny’s purity of heart: “Of course you didn’t do it. You fool.” Gene stops his confession, believing that it might actually do more damage to Gene than the accident itself: “It struck me then that I was injuring him again. It occurred to me that this might be an even deeper injury than what I had done before.”
As the months go on, Finny continues to evade the reality of World War II and comes to represent “a separate peace” of youth and innocence.
Noticing that Gene continues to pity Finny in some guilt-ridden fashion, Brinker decides to investigate Finny’s accident. He calls a mock trial in the First Building of Devon, which bears a symbolical crest above the door: “Here Boys Come to Be Made Men.” In an Edenic sense, this scene will contaminate Finny with the knowledge of good and evil—or at least the knowledge of Gene’s evil side.
As a part of the mock trial, Brinker examines two witnesses—Finny and Leper. Finny reveals that he harbors suspicions about the branch being shaken, but adds nothing conclusive to the case. Leper, however, adds the missing piece of information—there was in fact another figure on the branch with Finny. Although he refuses to name the other figure, Finny finally realizes that Gene has betrayed him. Leper’s special insight was also alluded to earlier when he pointedly says to Gene, “You always were a savage underneath…like that time you knocked Finny out of the tree.” For the first time in the novel, Finny begins to cry, and he tries to end the trial.
As he suddenly leaves the trial, Finny falls down the marble staircase in a passage that carefully parallels his first fall. The descriptions make this connection clear: he turns around as if he has been “attacked from behind,” “plunges” out the door, and then falls “clumsily” down the marble steps. Couched in the same language as the original fall, this is the fulfillment of Gene’s greatest fear—this is the fall of recognition.
This time when Gene visits Finny in the infirmary, Finny is hostile and reveals that he has understood the betrayal. When he presses Gene for the motive, all Gene can tell him is that it was an “ignorant…crazy thing.” If Gene is to be believed, than this ignorance depicts the way that he first misunderstood Finny as a rival, and then envied his purity of heart.
In another passage that parallels Finny’s first accident, Gene finds Dr. Stanpole and asks him about Finny. Dr. Stanpole says here that Finny has died, and he describes the cause of death as the result of some “marrow” that had escaped during the resetting of his broken bone “into his blood stream and gone directly to his heart and stopped it.” The symbolism could not be more apparent—this accident has killed Finny because the recognition of Gene’s betrayal has finally traveled from Finny’s broken leg to his heart. True to Gene’s own concern, the recognition has done more damage than the accident itself. This truth is only compounded by the ironic differences of severity between the accidents: Finny survives the shattered leg and even manages to have a good attitude, but he later dies of a simpler broken leg when it interferes with his heart.
The intermittent comparisons between Finny’s accident and the war further advance this point. In both the original accident and Finny’s death, the staff at Devon mention how tragically ironic it is that a boy would be so maimed in the freedom of his youth, before his military service. Similarly, after Finny has died, Dr. Stanpole notes that the risks are the same on “an operating table and a war.” The tree is also symbolically associated with war when Gene notes that “in 1942…jumping out of trees stood for abandoning a torpedoed ship.” These cross-references keep associating Gene’s act with war, thus fusing the two scenarios into a common form of human failure.
Because Gene’s life has been so symbiotically connected to Finny’s, he does not even cry at Finny’s funeral because it feels more like his own funeral, and “you do not cry in that case.” In his so-called “killing” of Finny, Gene notes that he has “killed his enemy” long before he ever joined the army. Because of this, Gene adds that he did not kill anyone during his time in the army or need some clear sense of another enemy. Nevertheless, Gene’s acknowledged loss is that in killing Finny, he has also killed a vital part of himself.
At the very end of the novel, Gene makes an observation that serves as a linchpin for the whole novel: Gene says that he believes wars are not the result of “generations and their special stupidities,” but the product of “something ignorant in the human heart.” Because this motive parrots his expressed reason for hurting Finny, this passage creates the conclusive link between Gene’s crime of “fratricide” and war at large. Both are motivated by some sort of ignorance, or misunderstanding of others.
Gene also notes that everyone except Finny needed to attack something external to themselves as “the enemy.” For example, Mr. Ludsbury developed a sense of superiority; Quackenbush developed something to attack; Brinker developed a sense of general resentment; and Leper developed a paralyzing fear of the war. In this way, everyone lost their innocence.
Gene found his enemy in Finny because he was envious and threatened by Finny’s purity. Gene uses the World War II image of “Maginot Lines” here as a symbol of the “us-them” mentality that people feel they must construct in order to feel a sense of confidence in their own identity and place. He ends the novel claiming that people instinctively attack constructed enemies, even if they are not really the enemy: “All of them, all except Phineas, constructed…these Maginot Lines against this enemy they thought they saw across the frontier, this enemy who never attacked that way—if he ever attacked at all; if he was indeed the enemy.” Finny himself was the only character who did not harbor this kind of malice, but his innocence led to his death.
Clearly, Finny was not Gene’s enemy, but only the threatening reminder of a purity Gene himself did not possess. By extension, the ending of A Separate Peace suggests that humans draw hard-and-fast lines between friends and foes, almost out of some depraved necessity, but often mistake the two. This conflict is primarily an interpersonal problem between Gene and Finny in the novel, but because it is so carefully linked to war throughout the whole novel, it is also applicable to international conflicts. In this sense, the novel’s closing statement suggests that people are their own worst enemies when they vilify their friends.