As with most novels, it is best to begin a discussion of thematics by examining the title. The phrase, “a separate peace,” is mentioned once in the novel when, speaking of the Winter Carnival, Gene writes: “it was this liberation we had torn from the gray encroachments of 1943, the escape we had concocted, this afternoon of momentary, illusory, special and separate peace” (128). The Devon of 1942 and 1943 is, at times, a haven of peace and forgetfulness for Gene and his classmates. And it is significant that it is termed a “separate peace” because it indicates that the peace achieved is not part of the surrounding reality, which, for Gene, is a world of conflict, a world at war. The joy that the older Gene remembers upon re-visiting Devon is due to such momentary periods of complete freedom achieved during the summer of 1942 and the following schoolyear, moments when a sixteen year-old could live without conflict or rules, and forget about the encroaching reality of a world war.
The novel is about a young man’s struggle to achieve and maintain such a separate peace. And although the setting is in an America in the midst of war, the focus of the novel is internal. For the majority of the plot, the distant war is an illusion for the students in Gene’s class, and for the reader, the war becomes the biggest metaphor of the novel: a metaphor for the internal conflict of a sixteen-year old boy. Gene’s soul becomes a battleground where jealousy, fear, love, and hatred combat for control of his actions. And amidst the turmoil of adolescence, it is the victory of the dark forces of human nature that make Gene realize that each person is alone with his enemy, that the only significant wars are not made by external causes, but “by something ignorant in the human heart” (193). Thus, Finny’s fantastic assertion that World War II is an illusion maintains a certain truth in light the real war that occurs in the story.
The novel’s conflict arises out of Gene’s refusal to recognize his own feelings of jealousy and insecurity as the real enemy. Instead, his fears are projected onto his closest companion, Phineas, whom Gene suspects of possessing his own feelings of envy and self-loathing. With Finny as the enemy, Gene is plunged into a world of competition and hatred, where the only crucial elements worth preserving are his own survival and superiority. Ultimately, this act of self-deception drives Gene to malicious thoughts and behavior, destroying any feelings of affection and friendship he might have once had for Finny. Upon realizing his mistake and discovering that Phineas does not share Gene’s envy and hatred, Gene’s isolation and self-loathing deepen and he intentionally cripples the one person who wants to be his friend. As Gene writes, World War II is not the real scene of battle: “I was on active duty all my time at school: I killed my enemy there” (196).
Knowles documents what happens when adolescence confronts manhood and the fears that develop when change becomes a reality. Gene, Brinker, and Leper all become casualties of this change by convincing themselves that the enemy, the cause of their fears, lies outside of themselves. Phineas is the one shining example to contrast the self-deception of his classmates, for Finny does not see the enemy in the people around him. Indeed, Finny does not see the enemy at all. He embodies the peace that Gene tries to achieve, his physical grace a reflection of the harmony within himself. Gene perceives in Phineas the harmony that he yearns for but cannot attain. Because of Gene’s own insecurity, a reciprocal and non-competitive friendship becomes impossible. For though the two need each other and are often described by Gene as extensions of each other, the balance is unequal: Finny needs Gene as a companion and a friend, someone with whom to share in the challenges of growing up and facing the reality of adulthood; but Gene’s need is a born out of jealousy, he covets Phineas for the harmony and confidence that he himself does not have. And so rather than share in the friendship that Finny offers, Gene destroys the peace that he was unable to find in himself.
Phineas is the novel’s greatest casualty. He becomes a metaphor for the peace that is lost when Gene is too afraid to identify the enemy within himself. For indeed, Finny’s harmony is damaged after his fall from the tree. He is forced to confront the overwhelming challenge of being crippled for life, and, most importantly, the horrifying realization that the person he thought was his friend is responsible for his injury. The task, it seems, is too great even for Phineas, who dies because of the hatred and insecurity around him. The peace and friendship that Gene lost, the peace that is Finny, becomes for Gene so internalized that he no longer perceives Finny as separate from himself, evidenced by his feeling that Finny’s funeral is his own.