[(essay date December 1965) In the following essay, Witherington discusses the ambiguous nature of appearances in A Separate Peace and contends that what seems simple in the novel often exists within a more complicated dual nature framework.]
The development and resolution of tensions between Gene and Finny provide the well-balanced structure of A Separate Peace, as several critics have noted. What has not been appreciated, however, is the ambiguity of the boys' conflict in its several phases, an ambiguity expressed in both character and symbol. The story is not a simple allegory of man's fortunate or unfortunate fall from innocence, or even an extension of that theological debate to the process of growing up, though both of these arguments are in the novel. Rather, Knowles is investigating patterns of society as a whole, patterns consisting of ambiguous tensions between rigidity and flexibility, involvement and isolation, and magic and art. To understand the necessity of a broader interpretation of the novel than has been generally given, one must see that for Knowles opposite emotions and forces often only seem to face or move in contrary directions.
The relationship between Finny and Gene is said to be one of primitive innocence confronted with and eventually destroyed by the necessities of civilization. Natural, noble Finny, another of the durable procession of American Adams, is maimed and hounded out of Eden by the hatred he is finally forced to see in his best friend, Gene. On the other hand, Gene's emerging recognition of his guilt in Finny's fall from the tree signals his passage from childhood's innocent play to the responsible ethical concerns of adulthood. Phrased socially rather than theologically, there is a movement toward acceptance of the outside world--that of World War II--and corresponding acceptance of the fact that wars occur not only between nations but between individuals, sometimes even friends, and that the blame in either case can be traced to lack of understanding, an ignorance in the human heart.1
One difficulty in such interpretations is that Knowles resists defining innocence and evil and their interaction in simplified, allegorical terms. If there are parallels to Eden, they must surely be ironic, for Finny falls physically without sin whereas Gene falls spiritually without any recognizable physical discomfort. Finny's fall (he falls twice, actually, once from the tree and once on the steps at Devon) seems to represent an awareness of evil that is incompatible with his basic assumptions about unity and goodness; his gradual acceptance of Gene's hostility is accompanied by a physical decline which is strongest at the moments of greatest disillusion. But this awareness of evil remains merely physical in Finny. When asked how he knows that World War II is not real, he says, "Because I've suffered."2 It appears that nothing is learned after all, that Finny never really understands the world around him; his fall is sad, but nothing more. Gene, on the other hand, seems to endure and even to thrive on his knowledge of...