I have a confession. Somehow I made it through most of my adult life without reading John Knowles’s A Separate Peace. In my defense, it was an unintentional oversight. This book that almost every high school student has read never appeared on any of my summer reading lists or class syllabi, and I went through most of my academic life unaware of this hole in my education. I was exposed for the true English major imposter that I am by a coworker—she brought it up in passing, and I admitted I had never read it. Shock (on her part) and embarrassment (on mine) ensued, and so I decided to assign it to myself. Instead of tucking into the corner of a library or a dorm room, I read it standing up on the F train (and, I’ll admit, walking home from the F train). I started the book, as is usually the case with assigned reading, with skepticism. I finished, as is usually the case with assigned reading, with admiration. Every day I looked forward to pulling the slim novel out of my purse and reading for seven blissful subway stops. I even avoided switching trains when the express screeched in across the track—I couldn’t sacrifice two stops with A Separate Peace!
The novel is set at Devon, a sprawling, bucolic boarding school nestled in New England (based off Knowles’s own alma mater, Phillips Exeter) in the midst of World War II. The war rages on, but life at Devon remains relatively unchanged: Latin classes and assemblies and stifling boredom. The protagonists, Gene and Finny, are attending the summer session and have invented the “Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session” in order to make life a little bit more interesting. Gene is intellectual, quiet, and brooding, while Finny is outgoing, lighthearted, and naturally athletic. The two have an intense, almost romantic bond, but Gene harbors feelings of jealousy and inferiority toward Finny. This tension explodes in the famous tree scene, when a small, cruel gesture by Gene sets in motion a series of tragic events.
Perhaps I was taking my self-imposed coursework a little too seriously, but I couldn’t help but search for themes, symbols, and motifs as I read this novel. I considered taking notes in the margins. I was, despite my very best intentions, reading critically. Even now, I am actively fighting the urge to construct a thesis statement. This is unusual for me. Though I loved assigned reading and got a very lame and nerdy sense of satisfaction from “reading ahead,” I never looked forward to the aftermath: constructing an argument about the book and finding proof for it. It always felt like backtracking. My strategy for those papers was to make up a thesis and then mine the book for something, anything, that I could manipulate to support it. I never really believed that Holden Caulfield’s red hunting hat was a symbol of anger or love or blood. I just thought it was a hunting hat that happened to be red.
So imagine my surprise when I started to notice the amazing ways in which Knowles explores the concept of opposite pairs. Throughout the novel, Knowles plays with this duality: young boys, on the verge of adulthood, full of innocence but capable of depravity; a sleepy campus smoldering with inactivity while a world war plays out across the sea; an athlete reduced to an invalid. Gene himself embodies this yin and yang: He wants to be good and loyal, but struggles with feelings of jealousy and ill-will toward his perfect best friend. Though I despised him at times, I identified with him and recognized my own shortcomings and deepest fears. Knowles knows that this duality exists inside all of us—it crackles and simmers and sometimes explodes.
I was sad when I finished A Separate Peace—mostly because the ending was painful and heartbreaking and lovely. But I was also sad because it was over, and it’s always hard when a book you loved has ended. I was even a little tiny bit sad that I didn’t get to write a paper on it. Though to be honest, as I stay up late writing this, I’m not that upset. I read an inspiring piece of literature and, thanks to this post, I am able to talk about how much it moved me. And the best part of self-assigned homework? No grade.