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.
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.