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A Separate Peace - Loss Of Innocence Essay

Gene and Finny’s Loss of Innocence In “A Separate Peace” By John Knowles

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In “A Separate Peace” by John Knowles, it is evident that Finny and Leper undergo the most traumatic experiences from the Class of 1943. Through these experiences, both characters lose much of their innocence and naivety. Finny, upon learning of the existence of the war and Gene’s moment of hatred, learns to accept realities and perceive the world as it is, not as the perfect childlike image he wants it to be. However, when Leper enlists in the army, he quickly begins to have hallucinations because the reality is too much for him to handle.

Nevertheless, he eventually overcomes his insanity and seems to be fairly mentally stable by the end of the novel. Although Finny and Leper’s traumas are the source of a major loss of purity and childhood, they are also the cause of post-tramautic growth and a necessary increase in maturity. Finny goes through several perception-changing events during the course of the novel, but the event that cements his departure from childhood is the acceptance that Gene deliberately shook Finny off the tree. This shock was caused by his own inability to accept the truth in the first place.

Despite the ease of denying unwanted information and living in a dream world, it is mentally unhealthy for Finny because of the shock caused upon finally believing the truth. Immediately after Gene’s confession of jouncing the limb, Gene remarks that Finny looked “older than I had ever seen him” (62). Finny, however, does not yet comprehend feelings of jealousy and betrayal, as he has hardly had any himself and finds it difficult to think of another’s point of view; the information registers on his face, but before he has time to process it and mature he rejects the idea entirely.

Gene states “it occurred to me that this could be an even deeper injury than what I had done before” (62). The reality of adult themes such as jealousy, betrayal, and hate is what hurts Finny most, not the crippling injury itself. Another reality that takes away from Finny’s nescience is the war (when he finally believes in its existence). The most dramatic and stunning war in recent history, World War II had a huge impact on millions of lives worldwide.

Yet Phineas refused to believe in the war, and instead created a fantasy in which he was the one of the only people who knew that it was all a hoax. When Gene, in disbelief from Finny’s opinion, questions Finny on why he is the only person who is aware of the “stuffed shirts'” (107) plot to suppress happiness, Finny emotionally bursts out it is because he has “suffered” (108). Apparently, Finny has visualized this hoax to shield himself from the disadvantages of his disability, such as enlisting.

Nevertheless, Finny quickly accepts the truth of the war after seeing Leper in a mentally disturbed state of mind. The image of what the war did to someone who used to be close to him shook him out of his dream world and spurred his emotional growth. When Finny, at the end of the novel, learned to accept the realities and avoid using denial to cope with shock, he lost the last of his childhood innocence. Leper is easily one of the most naive and innocent characters during the Summer Session.

His good-naturedness and passive fascination with nature is such an ideal image of innocence that it seems almost depressing to see him in the traumatized state of mind after enlisting. Even while everyone is volunteering to shovel snow to aid the war effort and discussing their plans for which division to enlist in, Leper is only concerned with the beauty of nature and skis to a beaver dam to watch the beavers develop and build their dam. He is moved to join the army not for vain images of glory and glamor like the other students, but rather for the beauty of skiing down a mountain.

Obviously, he soon finds that the army is too much for him, and while absent from the ongoings at Devon he loses every shred of innocence and guilelessness that previously surrounded his character. When Gene meets him, his psyche is obviously changed to such a point that he has hallucinations and other symptoms of schizophrenia, caused by his rapid ascension into adult matters. He does not accept reality nearly as well as Finny does because his character was far more innocuous at the start of the novel.

So many of his images of the world are shattered that it can be seen that he feels like he has little familiarity to hold onto. He grasps to every gleam of regularity and unchangeable function, which explains his preference for spending time in the dining room of his house simply because he knows that three daily meals will be served there on a consistent basis. However, his time at home seems to have given him time to cope with the images of adulthood. Upon his return to Devon, he seems mentally well and a much more decisive authority than ever before.

He accurately and forcefully convicts Gene of jouncing the limb in “his new, confident… voice” (166). Gene describes Leper during the trial as “all energy” (165). Evidently, Leper has dealt with the loss of innocence caused by his abrupt initiation into adulthood and has become a more confident, self-assured person in spite of it. Knowles makes it apparent throughout A Separate Peace that while the loss of innocence may often seem to be a sad or tragic event, it is necessary to pave the way for maturation and a transition into adulthood.

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Had Finny never accepted the truth of the tragedy that occurred to him, he would have never matured beyond his carefree summer days. And had Leper kept living in his own world of vivid imaginations, he would have never developed into the sanguine individual he becomes at the end of the novel. While the loss of innocence is partly a lugubrious experience, John Knowles portrays it as a necessity – a part of maturation and growth that leads to adulthood and self-fulfillment.

Author: Brandon Johnson

in A Separate Peace

Gene and Finny’s Loss of Innocence In “A Separate Peace” By John Knowles

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An untitled paper about John Knowles' A Separate Peace

Written for Honors English II (Tenth Grade)
by Laura Melton
Fall 1995

    In the human nature, naive ignorance of the world's imperfections eventually yields to the recognition that the world does contain hatred and violence.  John Knowles places his novel A Separate Peace in situations which necessitate this emotional transformation.  The characters become increasingly aware of the nature of the world.  In addition, symbols help show the interrelation of ideas and events as they appear in Gene's subconscious mind.  In this novel, setting, character, and symbols develop the theme of loss of innocence.

    Setting expatiates the theme of loss of innocence.  For example, the four major characters in this story are sixteen and seventeen years old, which is the age when teenagers prepare to end their childhood and become adults.  Also, the Devon school, where the story takes place, is a place where boys make the transition to full adulthood, and so this setting shows more clearly the boys' own growth.  Finally, World War II, which in 1942 is raging in Europe, forces these teenage boys to grow up fast; during their seventeenth year they must evaluate everything that the war means to them and decide whether to take an active role in their future and enlist or passively let the draft come to them.  Thus, the war dramatically forces young men to grow up.  Setting certainly develops the theme of loss of innocence, but other elements contribute also.

    Character portrays the theme of loss of innocence.  For example, sixteen-year-old Gene Forrester, the main character, is truly a child at the beginning of the novel.  However, gradually he outgrows his childish jealously of his best friend Finny, who is very athletic and confident and to Gene seems unbearably perfect, doing flawlessly and getting away with absolutely everything.  Gene also transforms his beliefs from the unconscious one that the world is created anew each morning to the realization that in actuality the morning actually changes nothing but the time of day, and no problem which exists by the light of the setting sun will have vanished in the sunrise.  Furthermore, Gene gains enough confidence in himself that he no longer feels the need to present an illusion of a rich heritage; this transition shows his immense emotional growth from an immature child to a confident adult.  Gene also realizes the meaning Finny's friendship actually holds for him and in doing so recognizes in himself the subliminal need to become a part of Finny.  This identification shows Gene's growth in that he becomes more aware of himself and his own emotions.  Perhaps most of all, however, Gene becomes increasingly aware of the fear under which he lives during that time at Devon and the ways he and other characters deal with fear.  As stated in the novel,

 . . . people experienced this fearful shock somewhere,
 this sighting of the enemy, and so began an obsessive
 labor of defense, began to parry the menace they saw
 facing them by developing a particular frame of
 mind . . . .  All of them . . . constructed at infinite
 cost to themselves these Maginot Lines against this
 enemy they thought they saw . . . (196)
This passage, narrated by Gene, shows his individual maturation.  The fact that he can drop away from personal contact with the story he tells and objectively analyze himself and his friends shows how much he has grown.  Character certainly shows the theme of loss of innocence, but one more element also contributes.

    Symbols show the theme of loss of innocence.  For example, Finny's pink shirt represents his individuality and innate Finnyness, and Gene's wearing that shirt shows his desire to become Finny.  Also, Leper's two windows, the star and Leper himself, show Gene's final perception of the reality of the war.  As the adult Gene recounts this story, the windows stand out in his memory as foils of each other, showing the intense contrast between Gene's previous misconception of the war's glory and his newfound realization of its true nature.  Finally, the tree off which Finny and Gene jump represents the Tree of Knowledge; jumping from the tree is against the rules, and in doing so the boys symbolically accept the loss of their innocence as Adam and Eve did by eating of the forbidden fruit.  Symbols certainly convey the theme of loss of innocence.

    In John Knowles' novel A Separate Peace, the theme of loss of innocence is skillfully developed through setting, character, and symbols.  This story simply details a young man's entering the adult world as all children do.  Everyone suffers loss of innocence.

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This page last updated December 19, 1999.

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