Old School Sundays: John Knowles’s “A Separate Peace”

I fell in love with this book my freshman year in high school. As far as I’m concerned, this novel is as close to perfect as any piece of literature will ever be. Why? Many reasons. Plot-wise, it’s flawlessly structured. The setting lives and breaths. The dialogue is precise and engaging. The narration, in a word, is superb. As a reader, you’ll go so deep inside the main character, Gene Forrester’s, mind that you’ll likely feel trapped. You’ll try to claw and scratch your way out, but you won’t be able to. At least not until the novel ends. And even then…well, good luck.

Merelize → in Plants & trees The “tree” is a very important symbol in “A Separate Peace”

I’ve used A Separate Peace on this blog many times over as an exemplary literary example of the topic I was discussing. This proves how far in-grained this story is in my mind.

The basic premise centers on two boys, Gene and Finny. They are complete opposites (Gene is studious, introverted, paranoid, and insecure while Finny is free-spirited, extroverted, dynamic, and charismatic), yet they are best friends. They balance each other out. They attend the Devon School–a prep school in New England during the early forties. All the Devon boys know that their time to serve in World War II is looming, and they are aching to live out their last days of freedom–or “peace”–accordingly.

Then Gene does something to his friend Finny that sets them both  back twofold, and thus begins Gene’s inner odyssey where he questions, mistrusts, and doubts his own motives for years to come.

As in most of my worn copies of literature, A Separate Peace is perpetually marked up. I’ll share this one line in particular that has always confused, yet intrigued me, because in essence, I was never sure whether or not I agreed with it.

During the early part of the novel, Gene has a “smart-ass” comeback to nearly everything the optimistic Finny has to say. Gene writes of himself:

“As I said, this was my sarcastic summer. It was only long after that I recognized sarcasm as the protest of people who are weak” (Knowles, 17).

It’s an interesting notion isn’t it? Personally, I’m rather sarcastic myself, which is why this line always stood out to me. Am I weak? I’d ask myself nearly every time I re-read the story.

My favorite television characters were always the sarcastic ones. I get a huge kick out of Eric Forman from That 70s Show and Chandler Bing from Friends. And I’m probably the only person ever to say that Jerry himself was my favorite character on Seinfeld.

What is it then, that suggests sarcasm is equivalent to weakness? Is it because sarcasm is essentially derision? Can sarcasm be used as a defense mechanism by someone who is say, pessimistic and cynical? Do the “weak” hide behind irony? Is sarcasm a disguise for anxiety, inferiority, and apprehension?

Throughout the novel, Gene proves himself to be suspicious and easily offended. His jealousy towards the exuberant Finny runs rampant. Is this what Knowles means? Was Gene simply covering his own insecurities by feigning humorous superiority? Is that the fundamental concept behind sarcasm?

See, I still don’t know! Gets me every time. Got to love literature.

From MemeCreator.org



Filed under Books and Literature, Old School Sundays

10 responses to “Old School Sundays: John Knowles’s “A Separate Peace”

  1. I read that book long ago in high school. I wish I had more time. If I did, I’d go back and reread the books I read in high school to see how I feel about them now that I’m older. But I can barely get through my reading queue as it is. Sigh.

  2. This story sounds like something that is right up my alley, cynic that I’ve become. Was I always that way? It’s something I would love to explore!
    Avoiding confrontation of the truth directly with sarcasm does seem a weak trait, not only to the one using it, but also for the recipient of it–who might be unwilling to face the truth themselves. IMO.
    Hmm…you’ve got me scratching my head again! That’s a good thing. 🙂

    • Hmm…never thought about the person on the receiving end of the sarcasm? Now that’s taking it a step further. I agree though…the quote was always so ambiguous to me. I love it though, mostly because I can’t decide whether I agree!

  3. A great post. It’s been so long since I read “Peace,” makes me want to reread it. But mostly I like the way you end with such a provocative question. I don’t think I’d agree with the character that sarcasm is necessarily “the protest of people who are weak.” I think humor, satire, mockery, irony and sarcasm can all be used to expose hypocrisy and other human foibles (now there’s a word!) that we are all too prone to. If it is used only as dirision, then it may well be mean-spirited rather than humorous, a way to knock down those we feel are better than ourselves. But if it is used to cut through our our own or others’ pretenses, or to expose the ways we decieve ourselves or others, then I think it’s not only useful, but helpful. Determining the intent of the sarcasm is key, I think. Anyway, I love the way your posts always get me thinking . . . .

    • Wow…great comment, Deborah. I love this, “…humor, satire, mockery, irony and sarcasm can all be used to expose hypocrisy and other human foibles…” Absolutely! Like the sarcastic cop or teacher! (Foibles IS a great word 🙂 )

      So glad you liked the post. I don’t know if I agree with the correlation between weakness and sarcasm either. I never quite got that line, yet I always found it provocative.

  4. Ooh I love this. Really got me thinking. I am not a sarcastic person, myself, but very interesting….I don’t think I have ever read this book? I don’t recall? Maybe one to pick up! 😉

  5. It’s been interesting as a parent to see my children develop sarcasm and to observe it as a developmental milestone.

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