John Knowles' best-known work, A Separate Peace, remains one of the most popular post-war novels about adolescence. Although set in World War II, the novel explores a crucial cultural theme of the '50s, the motivations of a young man making a troubled transition from childhood to adulthood. Like the novels Lord of the Flies and Catcher in the Rye, as well as the film Rebel Without a Cause, A Separate Peace dramatizes the challenge of growing up to be a truly individual adult in a conformist world.
World War II provides the novel's historical backdrop, a time when young men anticipated the enforced conformity and danger of war service. Fifteen million American men joined the military during World War II, with universal service accepting virtually all young men 18 and older who stood taller than five feet and weighed more than 105 pounds.
About two-thirds (about ten million) of the men serving were drafted, and most of them were sent to the infantry, where they saw the worst of the war, and endured the highest casualty rate. The smaller group — still, about five million — enlisted, and so could choose the branch of service they would join. In Knowles' novel, the boys of the Devon School, educated, with families that are comfortable, if not wealthy, choose enlistment in relatively prestigious (and safer) training programs in preference to the draft.
But, drafted or enlisted, the recruit had to look forward to the same period of basic training, when individual differences were supposed to be discarded to make way for the new group identity and goals. In Knowles' novel, this transition from a small prep school to military service looms as a big adjustment, one that proves too much for one Devon student.
After the war was won, forms of military life seemed to continue in American culture. The commander of the troops in Europe, General Eisenhower, became president. American industries designed their corporate structures along military lines. Dress codes flourished, and army regulation haircuts for men were popular even with younger people. Social conformity was the rule, and individuality raised suspicion.
In the fiction of the '50s, adolescents emerged as the ultimate individuals — people who constantly tested the rules or sought to live without them. Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of Catcher in the Rye, aimlessly wanders New York after being expelled (again) from prep school. The British boys of Lord of the Flies, shipwrecked on an island, create their own unique combination of anarchy and tyranny when the structure of their conventional world collapses.
In contrast, the characters of A Separate Peace remain within the defining and confining world of their prep school, where wealth and privilege enforce high expectations for conventional behavior. The main characters, Gene and Finny, carve out their own world within the school, taking advantage of a relatively casual summer semester, when the masters loosen their grip on the boys. The world of Devon's Summer Session becomes their personal paradise, which, like the biblical Eden, comes to an end with a tree and a fall.
Finny's fall from the tree and Gene's fall from innocence can be traced to unresolved tensions in Gene over conformity and individuality, created by the mixed feeling of envy and admiration he feels for Finny. A true individual, Finny enjoys pure freedom, an inspired, natural flow of energy that expresses itself in his athletic strength and grace. Gene, in contrast, feels the constraints of conformity, obedience, and responsibility. As a hard-working, serious student, Gene resents Finny's effortless life and especially his good nature.
Motivated, then, by envy and resentment, Gene causes Finny to fall from a high limb and break his leg, ending his friend's sports career and, ultimately, his life. After the fall, Gene's unacknowledged guilt haunts him, then moves him to painful self-knowledge, and at last to a peace that lights his way into adulthood.