A Separate Peace by John Knowles is a novel about a boy named Gene Forrester and his trials and tribulations while attending Devon School for Boys in New Hampshire. It is set in the time period of World War 2; therefore the book is reminiscent of the war. There are many symbols in the novel that represents aspects of the war and of mankind itself. The three connected symbols in A Separate Peace reinforce the innocence and evil of the main characters, Finny and Gene.
Beside the Devon School flow two rivers on opposite sides of the school, the Naguamsett and the Devon. The Devon provides entertainment and happiness for Gene and Finny as they jump from the tree into the river and hold initiations for the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session. Finny, Gene, and their friends use the Devon's warm water to play in during the carefree summer session. The Devon brings out Finny's carefree character and personality when he jumps from the limbs of the tree. Not one Upper Middle in Devon has ever jumped from the tree; Finny becomes the first. After surfacing, Finny says that jumping from the tree causes the most fun he has had in weeks (16).
However, the Naguamsett and the Devon completely contrast. When Gene and Finny emerge from the Devon, they feel clean and refreshed. However, Gene describes the Naguamsett as "ugly, saline, fringed with marsh, mud and seaweed" (76). When Gene starts a fight with Quackenbush and falls into the Naguamsett because Quackenbush calls Gene "a maimed son-of-a-bitch," Gene surfaces from the Naguamsett feeling grimy, dirty and in desperate need of a bath (80, 86). Much like the clean, refreshing water of the Devon and the ugly saline water of the Naguamsett, Gene's carefree attitude of the summer session vastly differs from the angry, confused attitude of the winter session. Likewise, the two sessions, the summer and winter, give a different sense of feeling toward school and life at Devon School.
The summer session allows Finny to use his creativity. Finny invents Blitzball and founds the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session. The students let their carefree attitudes flow during the summer. Finny and Gene willingly break the rules to have fun during the summer by skipping class and going to the beach. Finny also wears the school tie as a belt to the traditional term tea. Gene feels that Finny finally won't get away with it, but Finny manages to talk his way out of it easily (27-28).
However, the winter session causes a sense of strictness. The sermons now exhort the thought of "what we owe Devon," but in the summer the students think of "what Devon owes us" (73). The masters and class leaders try to enforce continuity, but Gene realizes that resurrecting the summer session becomes impossible. Finny is not in school, no longer shall the students have their carefree attitudes, and the class officials and masters now enforce the rules at Devon. Gene becomes like the winter session by saving a cold blast for the enemy. The winter lives to destroy the warmth of the summer and does so by unleashing an unpredictable frigid blizzard.
Likewise, Gene destroys Finny by releasing an uncontrolled jouncing of the tree limb. Nevertheless, the peaceful time and the wartime clearly display the innocence of Finny and the evil of Gene. During the peaceful time, not one student thinks about a war. Like the summer session, the rules do not exist, and the student's minds run wild with carelessness. Finny's imagination and creativity explode during the peaceful time with inventions like Blitzball and the founding of the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session.
However, the war, like the winter session, brings about confusion and hostility. Students like Leper and Quackenbush begin thinking about enrolling in the army. Even Gene considers enlisting until he realizes that Finny needs him. Finny cannot handle the changes during the winter session. When Gene explains to Finny that a war is occurring, Finny wonders, "Is there?" (104).
Finny refuses to believe in the war when Gene explains that the war comes before sports. Finny comes to the conclusion that old fat men in Washington, D. C. "make up" the war to trick the people, and only the fat men understand the trick. Although there are many more symbols in the novel, these three were heavily brought out.
They show that mankind has two sides, good and evil. They also show that sometimes mankind cannot control the evil side, and rivalry between friends mostly leads to destruction. The two rivers, the two sessions, and the two settings reinforce and clearly display the innocence of Finny and the evil of Gene.