[(essay date March 1986) In the following essay, Bryant attempts to find symbolic meaning in the names of Gene and Phineas, the two main characters of A Separate Peace.]
John Knowles's popular novel, A Separate Peace, has a New England boys' school as the unlikely backdrop for a book whose themes are the loss of innocence and original sin. American writers have treated the subject of the fall of man from the very beginning of our literature, and thus Knowles follows a long tradition, but neither this fact nor the larger allegorical structure of the novel is my concern here.
The point I wish to make concerns Knowles's use of descriptive names in A Separate Peace, which seems so obvious that I wonder why, so far as I know, no one has yet made it. The two main characters in the novel are two teenaged school boys named Gene and Phineas, and it is the significance of their names that I want to explicate.
In the case of Gene (whose surname is Forrester), his given name is obviously a shortening of Eugene, from the Greek meaning "well-born," implying that the bearer of the name is genetically clean and noble, or at least fortunate in health and antecedents. The idea behind the name ultimately derives from the word eugenes from which comes "eugenics," the science that deals with the improvement of the hereditary qualities of individuals and races. The implications of Gene's name are apparent in light of his role in the book. He is the narrator as well as the protagonist. His growth and development vis-a-vis his relationship with Phineas provide the basic theme. Gene is the ambitious scion of a Southern family whose home is not precisely located but seems to be in Georgia. The Forresters we presume are well off or at least able to afford an expensive eastern prep school for Gene. Thus Gene's surname fits very well with his given name because he does indeed appear to be a well-born Southern aristocrat. Forrester is an English surname that can be traced back to the early Middle Ages, c. 1200's. It derives from the occupation or office of forester, the warden whose duty it was to protect the woods of a lord. The officer was an enforcer, keeper, and custodian. Thus, even Gene's last name suits his role in the novel because he literally becomes a "keeper," first of the dark secret of his guilty act, which crippled Finny; then he keeps up Finny's athletic feats by participating in his stead, and finally he keeps the faith in life that Finny has instilled in him.
It is not only in a social sense that Gene is well born; he is also bright and good at sports, though not so good an athlete as his friend Finny; he appears to embody the Greek ideal of a sound mind in a healthy body, mens sana in corpore sano. Gene's appellation also has an ironic aspect because he lacked much...