A Separate Peace: Meaning and Myth

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Editor: Diane Telgen
Date: 1998
From: Novels for Students(Vol. 2)
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay; Excerpt
Length: 2,306 words

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[In the following excerpt, Mengeling examines allusions to classical myth, particularly Greek mythology, in A Separate Peace.]

There is an obvious pattern of Greek allusions in A Separate Peace. At one important point Phineas is described as “Greek inspired and Olympian.” He is athletic and beautiful, blazing with “sunburned health.” He walks before Gene in a “continuous flowing balance” that acknowledges an “unemphatic unity of strength.” Though Gene, as any boy his age, is often given to imaginative hyperbole (as we all are when our Gods are involved), there is no doubt that to him and the other boys Phineas is “unique.” Behind his “controlled ease” there rests the “strength of five people.” And even if he cannot carry a tune as well as he carries other people, Phineas loves all music, for in it, as in the sea and all nature, he seems to sense the basic beat of life, health, and regeneration. His voice carries a musical undertone. It is as naked and sincere as his emotions. Only Phineas has what to Gene is a “shocking self-acceptance.” Only Phineas never really lies.

At the beginning of the book Phineas sets the stage for his own special function. On forcing Gene out of the tree for the first time, he says, “I'm good for you that way. You tend to back away otherwise.” Phineas knows that Gene must jump from the tree, because in some cryptic fashion which only he seems to understand, they are “getting ready for the war.” Among the Devon boys only Phineas knows that they must be conforming in every possible way to what is happening and what is going to happen in the general warfare of life. The first necessary step toward successful confrontation of what is going to happen rests in self-knowledge.

One cold winter morning, after Finny's “accident,” Gene is running a large circle around Phineas, being trained, as Phineas puts it, for the 1944 Olympic Games. With his broken leg Phineas knows that the Games are closed to himself; he will have to participate through Gene, who was always as disinterested in sports as Phineas seemed to be in his studies. Gene is huffing, his body and lungs wracked with tiring pains that hit like knife thrusts. “Then,” he says, “for no reason at all, I felt magnificent. It was as though my body until that instant had simply been lazy, as though the aches and exhaustion were all imagined, created from nothing in order to keep me from truly exerting myself. Now my body seemed at last, to say, `Well, if you must have it, here!' and an accession of strength came flooding through me. Buoyed up, I forgot my usual feeling of routine self-pity when working out, I lost myself, oppressed mind along with aching body; all entanglements were shed, I broke into the clear.” After finishing the grueling run Gene and his Olympian coach have the following significant and two-leveled conversation:

Phineas: You found your rhythm, didn't...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420015433