In John Knowles’ most famous novel, Gene Forrester returns to his boyhood school, the Devon School, and recalls events that occurred there 15 years ago. In the summer of 1942, he forms a competitive friendship with his roommate, Phineas (Finny), the school’s best athlete. Competition eventually lends itself to jealousy and envy, which in turn leads the two young boys down a dangerous path from which they cannot come back. Knowles explores the evil that resides within the troubled world of adolescence, all the awhile presenting a truly moving narrative about love, friendship, and war—both external and internal.
A Separate Peace is not only an interesting and engaging read, but is perfect to explore in a high school classroom. Knowles’ writes with an easy-going style, yet does not disappoint readers in providing a unique, insightful, and powerfully poignant story. Gene and Phineas are characters who anyone can relate to and learn from. The high school setting is an obviously relevant location for a high school student’s reading. The themes of friendship, betrayal, jealousy, adolescent angst, war (both internal and external), and the quest to find our individual identities all offer so much to the typical high school student. Warren Miller, in his critical essay on the novel, declares, “Mr. Knowles has something to say about youth and war that few contemporary novelists have attempted to say and none has said better. He deals with youth’s special friendships with great delicacy and understanding; what is more, he writes with wit and style” (Miller, 6). Not only is the novel an excellent starter novel for high school students, but it also offers so much in terms of real-life application. Therefore, designing a lesson around Knowles’ novel could be both a wonderful opportunity for close reading practice and an opportunity for students to see fiction’s insatiable power to communicate the truths of our lives better than any other medium.