Loss Of Innocence In A Separate Peace
A Separate Peace by John Knowles has many themes that are expressed throughout the book. Loss of innocence is one of the most strongly expressed. As A Separate Peace progresses, the characters get to a point in which they can no longer continue living with an innocent outlook. Little by little, the characters mature and lose the childlike innocence they had when they first arrived at Devon school. This is demonstrated by characters such as Phineas, Gene, and Leper. Through these characters, John Knowles portrays a loss of innocence when growing up.
As the story begins, Phineas seems to be the most childlike and innocent out of all the boys but even he has his moment of loss. His innocence is what allows him to keep a positive outlook on the world and the people in it. When Phineas falls off the tree, he believes that it was an accident even going as far as feeling guilty about being suspicious of Gene. When Gene decides to come clean with Phineas, he states “Of course you didn’t do it. You damn fool. Sit down you damn fool.” (62). Phineas’s innocent mindset won’t allow him to believe that a person, let alone his very best friend, is capable of ever hurting him. In his mind, no one is aware of what they are really doing and as a result, it is nothing but an accident he wants to forget. This mindset even causes him to ignore the war saying “The fat old men who don’t want us crowding them out of their jobs. They’ve made it all up. There isn’t any real food shortage, for instance” (106). At first glance, it seems as if Phineas is simply playing around but this is his actual belief about the war. He is choosing to ignore the war because it isn’t the ideal situation in any world, perhaps even doing it as a coping mechanism. When Gene constantly brings up the fact that the war is real and that they must prepare for it Phineas ignores it. He keeps his innocent belief about the war until the very end of the book in which he states “I’ll hate it everywhere if I’m not in this war! Why do you think I kept saying that there wasn’t any war all winter?” (180). At this point, Phineas, the most childlike, pure-hearted character, must abandon his belief that maybe someone would let him in the war, his leg and all. These events are what essentially force Phineas to let go of his pure mindset on life.
The least obvious loss of innocence can be seen in none other than Gene. Gene begins losing his innocence the moment he stops seeing Phineas as a friend, but a rival. Gene makes himself believe that Phineas is “after” his academics. He believes that Phineas is trying to sabotage him: “Finny had deliberately set out to wreck my studies.” (46). Though it may not seem clear, at this moment, Gene decides that he must be better than Phineas in any way he can, thus throwing away the pure relationship they once had in the beginning and his good intentions. Gene himself is not realizing it, but his emotions towards Phineas are starting to lean towards a more sinister side. This is shown by the way he jounced the limb of the tree, causing Phineas to fall to the ground: “…I took a step toward him, and then my knees bent and I jounced the limb.”(52). Gene may say that his actions were simply blind and ignorant, nothing against Phineas, but nothing is ever done without any emotion, especially in an accident as big as Phineas’s. This isn’t to say that Gene’s feelings towards Phineas are pure hatred, but it does show how that small shift in his perspective of Phineas had a large effect on his whole mentality. It made him lose a bit of the innocent feelings he had for Phineas in the beginning and he progressively loses it until he is finally ready to enlist in the war alongside his other high school friends.
Leper’s entire mental state, in the story, goes bad very quickly. He is naive when going into the war believing that it would be fun, nothing too hard: “‘I’m going to enlist in these ski troops,’ he went on mildly, so emphatically that my mind went back to half-listening.” (116). After watching the military’s film, Leper believes that the war is going to be fun, similar to a game. He does not expect his experience to be horrible or traumatizing in any way but to be an experience full of enjoyable memories, the complete opposite of what it actually is. His perspective on the war does not stay as he breaks under the pressure of the war soon after he enters: “‘They were going to give me,’ he was almost laughing, everywhere but in his eyes which continued to oppose all he said, ‘they were going to give me a discharge, a Section Eight discharge.’” (135). Leper had a complete change in his character from naive and innocent to psychotic in the small portion of the time he was in the war. He does not get the opportunity to naturally grow out of his innocent younger self and instead is pushed to the brink of losing his sanity. Once Leper decides to enter the war, believing that it would be full of excitement, he is cruelly stripped from his wholesome character from the beginning of the story.
One of the strongly expressed themes in the story is the loss of innocence. As seen in the three boys, Phineas, Gene, and Leper, it is lost as they grow and mature. Regardless of how much Phineas may deny the truth about his fall and the war, there is a point at which he must come to terms with it. Gene is quick on losing that childlike innocence because of his growing feelings of dislike towards Phineas from the start to the end of the story. Leper is the most tragic of the three, as he naively throws himself headfirst into the war only to be broken by it. Through these three boys, John Knowles expresses how everyone, even the most pure-hearted, loses their innocence to the world.
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