Friday, June 10, 2016

A Separate Peace - Back to the Classics 2016

I first read A Separate Peace as a high school freshman. I can see why this book would be placed on a high school reading list: it is short, the language isn’t too complicated and there are some obvious themes of guilt and redemption to be mined for essays.  This book screams loss of innocence/coming of age.
I didn’t remember too much from back when I first read it, over 30 years ago. On the second read I was reminded of The Lord of the Flies, just with the savagery buried much, much deeper under the surface.  

A Separate Peace is rather dark story of adolescent male friendship.   The narration is given in flashback from the perspective of Gene Forrester, who attended an all-male boarding school located in New England in the mid 1940’s, just on the cusp of the United States entering the war.  Gene is from the south and it is only just barely referenced that his background is less grand, less old-south aristocratic, than he projects to his classmates. To me, this hints at Gene having the tiniest of a chip on his shoulder.
Gene’s roommate and best friend is Phineas (Finny), who is a natural leader, charismatic and popular at the school. Again, it isn’t explicit, but I think it is suggested that Finny is from the right kind of New England Brahman family.  So in short, Gene doesn’t really belong and Phineas does, or at least this is Gene’s perception.

Gene admires Finny, but also wants to set himself apart from him and be recognized for his own merits at school. Gene suspects that Finny is trying to bring him down and sabotage him academically.  Personally, I think the book is ambiguous on whether or not there is any truth in Gene’s paranoia and since the reader doesn’t get any direct insight into Phineas’ headspace, it is hard to say if he is genuine or not.  In any case, Gene’s perceived competition with Finney over their last summer term leads to tragic results.
I re-read this title for the category “Re-Read a Classic from School” in the 2016 Back to the Classic Challenge hosted by Karen on the blog Books and Chocolate.


  1. I reread this book a few years ago, wondering how I would respond to it as an adult. I remember loving the first part when I read it in high school, but skimming the second part. As an adult, I enjoyed it and was glad it was on high school reading lists when I was young--my kids never read it in school, so not sure if it is still required reading.

    I see Phineas as a Mephistopheles character--one who tempts Gene into damning himself. I know Finny dies but there is an immortality to him nonetheless.

    I like the fact that the book is ambiguous because I think it is really all about Gene's self-doubt about everything.

    Yes, I cannot read this book without thinking of Lord of the Flies, which I read as a teenager in the same year, I believe.

    1. Thanks for the comment Jane! I like the idea of Phineas as Mephistopheles which feeds into Gene's pre-existing insecurities. I am also glad you see the ambiguity too, because I feel that most people come down on the side of Phineas after reading this he has charmed the reader too.

  2. I also read this for Back to the Classics. I wanted to reread a book I disliked from my middle school days - and I found it much more interesting this time around. Phinny annoyed me terribly though. I thought he got away with too much, and then he is crippled and DIES so we can't even enjoy hating him. Interesting idea about Mephistopheles -- he does play that role.

    1. Thank you for commenting Lory. I agree that this is a richer read as an adult and that Jane’s interpretation of Phineas as a Mephistopheles type character is fascinating (there is a term paper subject right there!)