An American classic and great bestseller for over thirty years, A Separate Peace is timeless in its description of adolescence during a period when the entire country was losing its innocence to World War II.
Set at a boys' boarding school in New England during the early years of World War II, A Separate Peace is a harrowing and luminous parable of the dark side of adolescence. Gene is a lonely, introverted intellectual. Phineas is a handsome, taunting, daredevil athlete. What happens between the two friends one summer, like the war itself, banishes the innocence of these boys and their world.
This reading group guide for A Separate Peace includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Set at a boys’ boarding school in New England during the early years of World War II, A Separate Peace follows the friendship of the serious, intellectual Gene and the athletic, charismatic Phineas and the tragic turn their relationship takes when a moment’s impulse has terrible consequences. A Separate Peace is timeless in its description of adolescence during a period when the entire country was losing its innocence; it is an American classic, published more than fifty years ago and a bestseller for decades, striking in its depiction of coming-of-age and the struggle to understand human nature.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Gene says, “I was subject to the dictates of my mind, which gave me the maneuverability of a strait jacket” (page 34). Where do Gene’s rules for himself come from? Why are they so strict?
2. Why does Phineas choose the pink shirt for a school flag, his emblem? And why does Gene so envy his ability to “get away” with this (page 25)?
3. Gene thinks Finny’s secret swim record is “too unusual for—not friendship, but too unusual for rivalry” (page 45). Why does this shock Gene? Why is rivalry so essential at Devon? What does it say about the dynamics of Gene and Finny’s friendship?
4. How do the school’s rivers, the Devon and the Naguamsett, represent innocence and experience in the boys’ lives?
5. How is it that Gene “becomes” Finny alone in their room after Finny’s fall (page 62) and the next day he’s “pretty sure I didn’t know Finny at all” (page 63)? What is the truth?
6. When Gene tells Finny he won’t start living by the rules, why is that “the most false thing, the biggest lie of all” (page 71)?
7. Why can’t Finny let Gene tell him what actually happened in the tree? Why does Finny call Gene to apologize for even suspecting him for a “second” (page 83)?
8. Finny says the winter loves him, while Gene calls the winter “treacherous” for Finny and his crutches. Finny further explains that “when you really love something, then it loves you back, in whatever way it has to love” (page 111). Why does Gene assert this is false, but should be true?
9. Though Leper does not play a large role in life at Devon, Gene has a lot of sympathy for him. Why is this? Why are the boys so affected by Leper’s joining the war? And were you surprised that Leper witnessed Finny’s fall?
10. Why does Brinker force Gene and Finny into the trial (page 165)? How do Brinker’s changing views of the war influence his behavior at Devon and with Gene?
11. What does Gene mean when he says “wars were made instead by something ignorant in the human heart” (page 201)? Do you believe he has “made [his] escape” from fear (page 10) by the time he revisits Devon as an adult?
12. Do you agree with David Levithan in the afterword that “human nature doesn’t change very much over time” (page 205)? How does A Separate Peace illustrate this?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. In 1972, A Separate Peace was adapted for film. Watch the movie and discuss the director’s interpretation of the novel.
2. Choose another coming-of-age classic to read, such as Lord of the Flies or Catcher in the Rye. Discuss the books’ depictions of adolescence and rivalry or the differences and similarities in their main characters in comparison to A Separate Peace.
John Knowles, who died in 2001, was a graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy and Yale University, as well as a recipient of the William Faulkner Award and the Rosenthal Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
Aubrey Menen I think it is the best-written, best-designed, and most moving novel I have read in many years. Beginning with a tiny incident among ordinary boys, it ends by being as deep and as big as evil itself.
National Review A masterpiece.
The Observer A model of restraint, deeply felt and beautifully written.
Warren Miller Mr. Knowles has something to say about youth and war that few contemporary novelists have attempted to say and none has said better.