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John Knowles


At age 15, attended the Phillips Exeter Academy, New Hampshire, and graduated in ... Gene tells of how they were children of 'careless peace,' set apart from adults ... – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: John Knowles

John Knowles
  • Author of A Separate Peace
  • Born in Fairmont, West Virginia
  • At age 15, attended the Phillips Exeter Academy,
    New Hampshire, and graduated in 1945
  • Joined the war effort as a part of the U.S. Army
    Air Force's Aviation Cadet Program

What to know about Knowles
  • With encouragement from novelist Thornton Wilder,
    who took interest in Knowles' writing, he started
    working on A Separate Peace, which became his
    first published novel.
  • The author John Knowles, like his narrator Gene,
    was from the south (West Virginia, to be exact),
    and sent off to an uppercrust boarding school in
    New England for polish before university.
    However, unlike Gene, Knowles was no academic
    whiz at boarding school he came close to
    flunking out of school, and was never the genius
    student that Gene is portrayed as being.

More to Knowles
  • The novel A Separate Peace is a largely
    autobiographical work, drawing on Knowles'
    experience at Exeter to create the Devon school.
    Like Gene, Knowles attended a summer session at
    school to make up some classes however, the year
    was 1943, not 1942, as it is in his novel.
  • Other than that, the summer session that Knowles
    describes in the book was very much akin to the
    summer session that he attended at Exeter. "We
    really did have a club whose members jumped from
    the branch of a very high tree into the river as
    initiation," Knowles has said of his book "the
    only elements in A Separate Peace which were not
    in that summer were anger, envy, violence, and
    hatred." (ClassicNotes)

Major Characters
  • Gene The narrator of the book, a student at
    Devon during World War II. His best friend at
    school was Phineas, a superior athlete, while
    Gene was better known for his academic skills.
    Gene has a definite dark side lurking beneath the
    surface, though he appears to be a good, honest
    person in his everyday life. The book is spawned
    by a later visit to Devon, and of his strong
    memories and lingering feelings about what
    happened in 1942 at Devon.

Major Characters
  • Phineas Gene's best friend and roommate, a
    remarkable athlete with a disregard for the rules
    and an innate ability to win people over. He gets
    Gene in quite a bit of trouble via his impulsive
    nature and instinctive disobedience, but he is
    very good at heart, and thinks the world of his
    best friend.

Major Characters
  • Brinker Hadley One of Gene's friends, Brinker is
    rather strange he makes long-running jokes with
    rather sinister undertones, seems very
    independent and determined, and seems like he's
    his own person. He's a bit of a paradoxical
    character, and a kind of foil to the rebellious,
    free-spirited Finny.

Major Characters
  • Leper Lepellier One of Gene and Finny's friends
    he is a soft-spoken, nature-loving boy, with an
    old soul and ways that are quite idiosyncratic
    compared with the other boys. He is an avid skier
    and naturalist, but, rather uncharacteristically,
    he decides to enlist, and is the first boy from
    Devon to do so. He becomes, for a short while,
    the symbol of American victories abroad.

Major Themes
  • Reflection is central to the novel the novel is
    spawned by a visit back to Gene's old school, and
    the work hinges upon a dialogue between the past
    and the present, and the relation of a man to his
    much younger self. Gene confesses that he is
    still stuck in the time of World War II his
    memory still has a tremendous hold on him, as
    evidenced by his ability to recall the goings on
    of fifteen years' past with such detail. The
    presence of memory, and its role over time, is a
    major theme of this book when Gene reiterates
    his thoughts on the past and on the lasting
    impact of the events he is describing, he only
    increases the importance of this theme within the

Major Themes
  • Reality vs. memory Gene often shows how memory
    can be tinged by feelings that change how reality
    is perceived and recalled. This is especially
    evident when he looks for a tree by the river
    that has a special meaning to him. "It had loomed
    in my memory as a huge lone spike dominating the
    riverbank, forbidding as an artillery piece, high
    as a beanstalk," he says, his similes
    characterizing the tree as a great, forbidding
    mass (Knowles). Yet, when he sees it, he finds it
    "absolutely smaller, shrunken with age," and
    nothing like the great giant he had remembered.
    Perhaps the tree had actually shrunk since Gene's
    time but this is a more apt example how things
    can be obscured or emphasized in the memory via
    emotional factors, and a good introduction of the
    theme of memory versus reality. Gene remembers
    his old campus in one way, yet when he visits, he
    finds it quite different this happens often, as
    things can seem less imposing or important when
    revisited, yet be so huge in one's memory.

Major Themes
  • Rebellion vs. conformity Gene and Finny are a
    great example of this theme in action Gene is
    naturally a rule-abiding person, and Finny has an
    absolute disregard for rules. This difference is
    also represented in the differences between the
    summer session and the fall session. Finny
    himself embodies both of those, as he is able to
    fit in well enough at school, yet hold his own
    very eccentric opinions.

Major Themes
  • Innocence vs. age Gene tells of how they were
    children of "careless peace," set apart from
    adults by their lack of knowledge of the war, and
    their utter abandon to their own small, happy
    worlds. Lackadaisical activities of the happy,
    peace-enveloped juniors are juxtaposed with the
    semi-military drills that the seniors have to
    endure. Just as the war encroaches upon the boys
    at school, their adulthood also looms before
    them Gene feels this especially, and this is one
    of the things that traumatizes Leper, being
    suddenly thrown into the world of adulthood.
    Throughout the novel, Gene notes the difference
    between his state 15 years after Devon, and his
    state while at the school he notices differences
    between the way he is and the way he was, and how
    age has changed him all in all.

Major Themes
  • Denial Both Gene and Finny experience a great
    deal of denial in the novel, but of different
    types. Gene tries his best to deny that he hurt
    Finny, and that he has a dark streak in his
    nature that causes him to lash out at innocent
    people. Gene is a "savage underneath," as Leper
    tells him, and he never is able, not even 15
    years later, to come to terms with this. Finny's
    denial is of his best friend causing his
    accident he doesn't want it to be true, so he
    ignores it until Brinker's trial makes sure he
    cannot deny it anymore. Finny also denies the
    existence of the war as long as he can, and tries
    his best to use denial to construct his own kind
    of fantasy-world.

Major Themes
  • Conscience and guilt These two haunt Gene
    especially he feels a great deal of sorrow for
    what he did to Finny, yet he cannot face down his
    sense of responsibility and get rid of his guilt.
    Gene is not a bad person he does have a
    conscience, and does feel remorse, but he cannot
    face the part of himself that is guilty of the

Major Themes
  • Gene and Finny as foils Gene and Finny, however
    close they are, are very different and in many
    ways, complementary beings. Gene is academic,
    Finny is athletic Gene is a hard worker, Finny
    is not Gene follows the rules, and Finny breaks
    them Gene heeds authority figures, Finny does
    his best to ignore them. The pair get along very
    well, but they seem to have little in common
    aside from their differences. The differences in
    their natures and in their reactions to Finny's
    accident and to the war show them as foils, as
    their differences, taken together, make a vivid
    portrait of two very different people.

Major Themes
  • War and peace Throughout Gene's schooling, war
    threatens to break in and destroy the fragile
    peace of the school. The summer session
    represents the height of peace, as nothing,
    except for Finny's accident, was able to
    interrupt the carefree joy of those days. But, as
    the fall session begins, war slowly begins to
    encroach on the boys they start their "physical
    hardening" at the school, recruitment officers
    start to come around, and the boys begin to talk
    about enlistment and the draft. The divide
    between peace and war is also representative of
    the gap between childhood and adulthood while
    peace holds out, the boys are free to be
    oblivious of the outside world, and are weighed
    down by nothing. But, when they are finally
    confronted by the war, they have to grow up the
    strain changes them from children into adults,
    and obliterates the peace of their youth.

Major Themes
  • Appearance vs. reality
  • This book is made up of "Gene's" recollections,
    meaning that the content, events, and characters
    are all filtered through his individual point of
  • This theme is especially notable in Gene's
    characterizations of himself, and of Finny. Gene
    tries to present himself as a rule-abiding, nice
    kind of person however, as we see from the
    events in the book, he is sometimes spiteful,
    jealous, and has quite a temper when he is
    stirred up. Gene is not a totally good person, as
    no one who intentionally injures his best friend
    and then tries to cover up the truth would be.
    However, Gene would be hard pressed to admit
    this, and tries to avoid the subject of his
    "savage" underpinning. Gene also represents Finny
    as a happy-go-lucky sort who has been through few
    problems and has no inner struggles. Even after
    Finny's accident, Gene insists that Finny has
    never been conflictedafter Finny has tried so
    hard to avoid implicating his friend despite his
    anger and bitterness. Finny is far more complex,
    as we find out at the end, than Gene would like
    to believe him to be and as Gene finds out, what
    is on the surface sometimes does not denote what
    is hidden underneath.

Major Themes
  • Change under crisis Many of the boys in the
    bookincluding Leper, Gene, and Finnyare forced
    to change when they come upon some sort of crisis
    situation, or some test of their characters.
    Under the duress of having entered the military,
    Leper loses his quiet innocence and becomes
    confused and angry. Finny's happiness and peace
    are shattered by Gene's hurtful actions against
    him, and Gene becomes a better, more forgiving
    person because of his friend's injuries. As Gene
    says, all of the boys at the school will change
    when they discover some oppressive, overwhelming
    force in the world change is inevitable, as the
    boys in the book discover for themselves.

Works Cited
  • (images)