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As the puzzle pieces slowly merge together, we discover the immense difference between loyalty and betrayal. We discover that the will to win may lead to a loss of fortune that will never be regained. We discover that one war can remain forever, despite the fact that the uniform may be removed from any soldier’s body. As the puzzle pieces slowly merge together, so does the brutal truth of reality.









In every battle, he craves to win. All Competitive wants to do is drive beyond his friend’s potential, thinking, “There is no harm in taking aim, even if the target was a dream.” When Competitive ignores his friendship with Finny, one incident naturally shatters the bond between the two. He presumes that the victory of the battles will bring him happiness, but in the end the loss of friends only leaves him with misery. Page by page, it becomes clear that it is unrealistic to conquer every task by simply winning; the most challenging task is to overcome the absence of peace. John Knowles, the author of A Separate Peace, reveals theme through the main character’s inner-thoughts, subtle character change, and powerful symbolism.

One strategy John Knowles uses in A Separate Peace to illustrate theme is by projecting the main character’s essential inner-thoughts and realizations. “Finny never permitted himself to believe that when you won, they lost. That would have destroyed the perfect beauty which was sport. Nothing bad ever happened in sports; they were absolute good” (p. 35). Gene, who inconspicuously shows through this comment that he realizes Finny (Phineas) only strides for the triumphant glory of winning, also admits that the present conditions of World War II mirror an on going inner war. Then, he states that the brightest student at Devon should naturally be his “magnet.” Also, Gene reveals his haunting thoughts of being intimidated by his competitors, as if there is no peace in anything through his comment: “It was as though football players were really bent on crushing the life out of each other, as though boxers were in combat to the death, and as though even a tennis ball might turn into a bullet” (p. 84). Additionally, Gene, who is supposed to be best friends with Finny, mentally accused Finny of trying to wreck his studies by using the friendship to purposefully distracting him, which proves that competition interfered their with friendship. Throughout the course of the story, Gene gave hints about how, in truth, friendship was a crucial factor of life.


Another way John Knowles portrays theme is through character symbolism. In the intriguing novel A Separate Peace, each symbol — such as a broken leg, a tree, sunlight, and the war — are pieces of the puzzle that helps bring theme together, but the most powerful piece is the representation of Leper’s character. When everyone in the story is fighting to be the best, Leper is a shadow hiding in the background that shies away from the idea of war, for he symbolizes peace itself. More specifically, Leper refuses to jump from the challenging tree into the river, he was the only one who was not interested in Bliztball, and he rejected the expectation that he must volunteer for the war. Towards the beginning of the novel, Leper enjoyed beaver dams and snails. However, as the war intensified, Leper’s innocent mindset changed. “Now I see what racing skiing is all about. It’s all right to miss seeing the trees and the countryside and all the other things when you’ve got to be in a hurry. And when you’re in a war, you’ve got to be in a hurry” (p. 125). This quote sparked a change in Leper’s character. When Gene tries to help Leper escape from the war, all Leper can do is shriek. Towards the end of the book, when everyone wanted proof that Gene was guilty, Leper was the one to confirm every unknown part of the incident. This proves that Leper made peace between Gene and his “enemies” by simply revealing the truth. Lastly, the author used Leper’s name symbolically, for “leper” means outcast, untouchable, and anathema. If Leper is hated, it means peace is essentially hated during times of war. Therefore, when Leper, the symbol of peace is dragged into the war, hope for peace is over.

As the war continues and changes arise at Devon, the final way John Knowles reveals theme is through slight character transformation. Throughout the story, Gene is portrayed as an exceedingly competitive person, for he trained vigorously for the Olympics, he wanted to enlist in the war, he threw a fight with Quackenbush to be the best crewmate, and most importantly, he jounced the tree limb, causing Phineas to fall and break his leg, intending to prevent Phineas from competing with him. In early sections of the book, Gene would say, “only through a continuous use of imagination could I hold out against Finny’s driving offensive in favor of peace” (p. 118). This proves that Gene could not mentally accept the concept of peace. A minor turning point of Gene’s character was when he felt determined to save Phineas, who was on the verge of death. The effort to save his rival shows a contradiction to his previous competitive drive. Another essential line was when Gene eloquently admitted: “My war ended before I even put on my uniform; I was on active duty all my time at school; I killed my enemy there” (p. 204). Gene says that he felt as if he died with Phineas. Truly, when his competition dies, Gene has no reason to keep the war going any longer. John Knowles shows a hint of character change to show that Gene overcame his challenge; he finally realized that winning the internal war was not as satisfying as he thought; friendship has more value than the victory of any war.


All in all, winning does not always bring happiness; without peace, sorrow will haunt you forever. Competitive no longer feels the need to kill; he now skis down the hill slowly, carefully enjoying the trees and the beautiful, peaceful view. “Looking back now across fifteen years, I could see with great clarity the fear I had lived in, which must mean that in the interval I had succeeded in a very important undertaking: I must have made my escape from it.” Competitive finally set his sharp sword down. Without his weapon encouraging the easy defeat, he sees the world from a new perspective. He now holds the most powerful wisdom known to mankind; wisdom no war can reward.












The completion of the puzzle shows a vivid picture of many lost, lonely soldiers who have friends and family that died in the war. The puzzle also shows one soldier, the soldier who fought the hardest, who now shook hands with enemies from the past. From him alone, we learn that winning the war may not bring much happiness after all, for only a dense cloud of guilt now hangs over his head throughout the days. We learn that friendship has more power than any soldier alone, for this particular soldier only stands on a field of absence. We also learn that only peace can completely end a war, for without peace, the war marches on.



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