[(essay date May 1964) In the following essay, Ellis describes how A Separate Peace demonstrates Gene's emotional, physical, and moral evolution from adolescence to adulthood.]
To read A Separate Peace is to discover a novel which is completely satisfactory and yet so provocative that the reader wishes immediately to return to it. John Knowles' achievement is due, I believe, to his having successfully imbued his characters and setting with a symbolism that while informative is never oppressive. Because of this the characters and the setting retain both the vitality of verisimilitude and the psychological tension of symbolism.
What happens in the novel is that Gene Forrester and Phineas, denying the existence of the Second World War as they enjoy the summer peace of Devon School, move gradually to a realization of an uglier adult world--mirrored in the winter and the Naguamsett River--whose central fact is the war. This moving from innocence to adulthood is contained within three sets of interconnected symbols. These three--summer and winter; the Devon River and the Naguamsett River; and peace and war--serve as a backdrop against which the novel is developed, the first of each pair dominating the early novel and giving way to the second only after Gene has discovered the evil of his own heart.
The reader is introduced to the novel by a Gene Forrester who has returned to Devon after an absence of fifteen years, his intention being to visit the two sites which have influenced his life--the tree, from which he shook Finny to the earth, and the First Academy Building, in which Finny was made to realize Gene's act. After viewing these two scenes, a "changed" Gene Forrester walks through the rain, aware now that his victory over his internal ignorance is secure. With this realization Gene tells his story of a Devon summer session and its consequences.
Described as "... tremendous, an irate, steely black steeple,"1 the tree is a part of the senior class obstacle course in their preparation for war and is the focal center of the first part of the novel. As the Biblical tree of knowledge it is the means by which Gene will renounce the Eden-like summer peace of Devon and, in so doing, both fall from innocence and at the same time prepare himself for the second world war. As in the fall of Genesis, there is concerning this tree a temptation.
Taunted by Phineas to jump from the tree, Gene says: "I was damned if I'd climb it. The hell with it." (p. 6). Aside from its obvious school boy appropriateness, his remark foreshadows his later fall. Standing high in the tree after surrendering to Finny's dare, Gene hears Finny, who had characterized his initial jump as his contribution to the war effort, reintroduce the war motif, saying: "When they torpedo the troopship, you can't stand around admiring the view. Jump!" (p. 8). As Gene hears these words, he wonders: "What was I doing up here anyway? Why did I...