Monday, April 3, 2017

A Separate Peace Literary Analysis - Symbolism

John Knowles effectively incorporates many varied examples of figurative language in his novel, A Separate Peace, one of which being symbolism. Knowles lays this symbolism in intricate patterns, sometimes making the use of the symbols obvious; and at other times, quite unapparent. His expressions of symbolism are found throughout the novel. His symbolism is revealed in different manners – sometimes through the use of nature, and at other times through the actions and dialogue of the characters. In Knowles’ A Separate Peace, there are many evident accounts of symbolism, including that of the tree, Phineas’ pink shirt and similarity to ancient Greeks, Leper’s name, the Devon and Naguamsett Rivers, and the peace brought upon by the Devon School and its students.

One of the primary pieces of symbolism revealed regards the tree from which Phineas and Gene jump from. Biblically, the tree refers to the Tree of Knowledge. This tree “is the means by which Gene will renounce the Eden-like summer peace of Devon and, in so doing, both fall from innocence at the same time prepare himself for the second world war” (James Ellis 34). Both the tree at the Devon School and the Tree of Knowledge can refer to recollection of implied judgment: Adam ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, even though God directly forbade him to do so and Gene climbs and jumps from the tree, ignoring his conscience and judgment, ultimately due to his ego and Finny’s mocking. In addition, the tree can be thought of as a parental figure for Gene. Gene’s description of the tree was: The tree was tremendous, an irate, steely black steeple beside the river (Knowles 14). When Gene visited the school as a thirty year-old man, his perception of the tree was: “It seemed to me standing there to resemble those men, the giants of your childhood, whom you encounter years later and find that they are absolutely smaller, shrunken by age. In this double demotion the old giants have become pigmies while you were looking the other way” (Knowles 14). Likewise, as a child, parents seem to be “giants of your childhood,” however, as the child gets older, the parents seem to have less significance. For instance, teenagers may spend less time with their parents and will not rely on them as much as they had in the past. Gene was scared of the tree because he didn’t want to jump off of it. This can be compared to how many children are scared of their parents in the sense that they will obey what they say and be afraid of punishment a parent may give. Furthermore, the tree taught Gene a lesson, as a parent teaches his child(ren) lessons: “The more things remain the same, the more they change after all” (Knowles 14).


Another example of symbolism displayed in A Separate Peace pertains to Phineas’ pink shirt. The shirt symbolizes Phineas’ personality. During the time at which the novel was published, 1959, colored dress shirts were rarely worn, let alone prink dress shirts (H.B. Bryant 140). It symbolizes Finny’s fearlessness, especially due to the impacts of the setting, Devon School. At the Devon School “suspicion of masculinity was something to guard against” (H.B. Bryant 140). This was because of the time period and the whole prospect of the Devon School preparing students for war. The act of wearing this shirt shows how unique Finny is and his high self-esteem; he didn’t care about what others would think about his appearance. Moreover, wearing this shirt shows Phineas’ cleverness. He states, ‘”Well we’ve got to do something to celebrate. We haven’t got a flag, we can’t float Old Glory proudly at the window. So I’m going to wear this, as an emblem'” (Knowles 24). Not only does Phineas display cleverness, individualism, and self-esteem in this act, he also shows his resourcefulness. Because he didn’t have a flag to use to celebrate, he chose the next best thing available, a pink dress shirt.


Not only are Phineas’ actions symbolic, the creation of his character and his traits have a deeper, symbolic meaning as well: Phineas shows several semblances and references to the ancient Greeks (Marvin E. Mengeling 84). For instance, “Phineas is described as Greek inspired and Olympian” (Marvin E. Mengeling 84). Primarily, his name refers to the Greek god Phoebus Apollo – “god of light and youth, represented in art as handsome, young, and athletic” (Marvin E. Mengeling 84). Phineas displays all of these characteristics. In addition, Phoebus Apollo helped the ancient Greeks get rid of their fear; Phineas is the force that helps Gene jump off of the tree. Furthermore, Phineas wished to participate in the Greek-created Olympics: “Did I ever tell you that I used to be aiming for the Olympics?” (Knowles 117) Moreover, Phineas was quite athletic, as were the ancient Greeks, and had won several sport awards: “He had won and been proud to win the Galbriath Football Trophy and the Contact Sport Award, and there were two or three other athletic prizes he was sure to get this year or next” (Knowles 51). Additionally, he created Blitzball, just like the ancient Greeks created and popularized many sports, such as boxing.


Another character whose name was derived from another word is Leper. The name Leper comes from the word “leprosy.” Leper is considered an outcast and is teased by his peers. His behavior can be deemed odd and unusual in relativity to the other students’ behaviors. Correspondingly, many people with diseases, such as leprosy, or other defects/deficiencies are unfortunately teased and not included in activities.


One of the more evident pieces of symbolism in the novel concerns the two rivers, the Devon and Naguamsett. “Gene remembers the freshwater Devon River fondly, for this was the body of water that he and Finny had leaped into many times from the tree. Ironically, after Finny’s accident, Gene does not remember the Devon River with fear or disgust; the river to him symbolizes the care free summer days, a peaceful time” (Telgen 249). The Nagamsett, on the other hand, was nearly the exact opposite:


We had never used this lower river, the Naguamsett, during the summer. It was ugly, saline, fringed with marsh, mud, and seaweed. A few miles away it was joined to the ocean, so that its movements were governed by unimaginable factors like the Gulf Stream, the Polar Ice Cap, and the moon. It was nothing like the fresh-water Devon above the dam where we’d had so much fun, all the summer (Knowles 76).


Gene seems to associate the Naguamsett River with war (Telgen 249). Gene falls into the Naguamsett after a fight with quarrelsome Cliff Quackenbush. The war is always a fear in his mind. Geographically, the Naguamsett is opposite the Devon River, the Devon School in between. If the Devon represents the summer session, the school can be thought of as representing the winter session, and the Naguamsett as the war – Gene’s final destination.


The summer session is a period of escape for Devon’s students, and can thus symbolize Devon as a separate peace. There is a big “contrast between the war being fought abroad and the relative tranquility of the Devon School, particularly in its summer session.” Gene and Finny’s summer at the Devon School “denotes illusion” (Telgen 250). As a whole, the summer session symbolizes how the Devon School is a separate peace. It is apart from the war, although it trains for it. Whilst in Devon, the students are safe and taken care of. For example, by completing his final year at the Devon School, Gene is avoiding military service. Still, he and his classmates realize they will be enlisted or drafted in only a matter of time. The war is “a harsh reality that schoolboys, like Gene, must eventually confront.” (Telgen 250) In this way, the Devon holds the last few years of peace for the upper-middlers and upper-seniors. In Devon’s only summer session in history, the students “defy many rules, still maintain the faculty’s good will, create new games such as ‘Blitzball’ and begin unheard-of clubs such as the ‘Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session'” (Telgen 250). During the summer session, the Masters were much more lenient as compared to the winter session.


“They seemed to be modifying their usual attitude of floating, chronic disapproval. During the winter most of them regarded anything unexpected in a student with suspicion, seeming to feel that anything we said or did was potentially illegal. Now on these clear June days in New Hampshire, they appeared to uncoil, they seemed to believe that we were with them about half the time, and only spent the other half trying to make fools of them. A streak of tolerance was detectable” (Knowles 23).


In this separate peace, Phineas seems to be the leading power of this source of peace.


“The Devon faculty had never before experienced a student who combined a calm ignorance of the rules with a winning urge to be good, who seemed to love the school truly and deeply, and never more than when he was breaking the regulations, a model boy who was most comfortable in the truant’s corner. The faculty threw up its hands over Phineas, and so loosened its grip on all of us.” (Knowles 23)


Although Phineas is the prime example of peace, the whole class, and generation as a whole, for that matter, reminds adults of peace. “I think we reminded them of what peace was like, we boys of sixteen. We were registered with no draft board, we had taken no physical examinations… we were careless and wild, and I supposed we could be thought of as a sign of the life the war was being fought to preserve… We reminded them of what peace was like, of lives which were not bound up with destruction” (Knowles 23-24). As war veterans, the parent generation was “bound up with destruction” and could at times forget the meaning of peace, its importance, or even simply what it was like to be at peace with oneself. Sixteen year-olds were not yet in the war and were free. They were cheerful and “careless and wild.”


Ergo, A Separate Peace by John Knowles is chock-full of symbolism, including the tree, Phineas’s pink shirt and Greek background/references, Leper’s name’s derivative, the Devon and Naguamsett Rivers, and the peace of the Devon School and its students, especially during the summer session. Knowles introduces these pieces of symbolism in a variety of ways, such as the landscape and the characters’ actions. A Separate Peace is overflowing with symbolism, among other figurative language, and Knowles has efficiently integrated it to bring his novel to its highest possible extent.


Works Cited


H.B. Bryant. “Phineas’s Pink Shirt.” The English Record Vol. 18 (1968): pp 5-6. Rpt. In Bloom’s Guides. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2008. Pp 140-142. Print.


James Ellis. “Interconnected Symbols.” English Journal Vol. 53: pp 313-318. Rpt. In Readings on A Separate Peace. Ed. Jill Karson. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1999 pp 33-41. Print.


Knowles, John. A Separate Peace. New York: Scribner, 1987. Print.


Marvin E. Mengeling. “A Separate Peace: Meaning and Myth.” The English Journal Vol. 58 (1969): pp 1322-1329. Rpt. In Bloom’s Guides. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2008. Pp. 84-91. Print.


“A Separate Peace.” Novels for Students. Ed. Diane Telgen. Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale, 1997. 249-250. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 13 Apr. 2010.


Sister M. Nora. “Symbolic Landscape.” Discourse Vol. 11 (1968): Rpt. In Readings on A Separate Peace. Ed. Jill Karson. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1999 pp. 30-32. Print.


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