“In the deep, tacit way in which feeling becomes stronger than thought, I had always felt that the Devon School came into existence the day I entered it, was vibrantly real while I was a student there, and then blinked out like a candle the day I left.” (John Knowles)
This is my favorite quote from my favorite book, A Separate Peace. I first read the book when I was a senior in high school. I have read it four other times, at least once a decade. It’s about time for me to read it again.
The book is described as a “coming of age book.” It is about Gene and Phineas, best friends at a boarding high school during the second World War. It is told through the eyes of Gene. Gene was definitely the book’s protagonist. If you aren’t familiar with that term, or have forgotten the meaning since you learned it in school a long time ago, it means “the leading character or one of the major characters in a drama, movie, novel, or other fictional text.” Finny is the book’s other main character, although there are group of several boys that run around together at the Devon School.
I suppose there are many reasons why I love the book so much. First, I initially read it while coming of age, once in high school and the second time in my 20’s. Second, I have always enjoyed books about boarding school experiences. I longed for the days when I would live in a dormitory, and enjoyed it very much when I eventually did live in a private college dormitory. Third, I identify so closely with Gene when he describes his feelings that the Devon School only existed during the short time that he went there. In a way, he felt like it was created for him, then ceased to exist when he was done with it. But, during the time he was there it was the center of the universe. I think I feel that way about high school, and undergraduate college. Fourth, I am like Gene in many ways, especially in that I feel things so overwhelmingly. And fifth, the book is about deep, abiding friendship.
I am not going to tell the story of the book here. It is worth reading on your own. The language is beautiful. One reason I never want to hear “books on tape” is because I appreciate looking at the words that were chosen by the author and how he or she puts them together. I like to see what they look like on paper. It is my favorite part of reading something well written. But, I will tell you some of what the book means to me.
Gene is a deep thinker. He feels things intensely. When he returned to the school many years after graduation he walked to see a tree that has great meaning in the story. He stands in the cold rain for quite a while, then turns away to visit another place that was central to the happenings while he was in school. He narrates,
“The tree was not only stripped by the cold season, it seemed weary from age, enfeebled, dry. I was thankful, very thankful that I had seen it. So the more things remain the same, the more they change after all—plus c’est la même chose, plus ça change. Nothing endures, not a tree, not love, not even a death by violence.
Changed, I headed back through the mud. I was drenched; anybody could see it was time to come in out of the rain.”
His friend Phineas had been much more outward. He loves life, lives it, and doesn’t give great thought to everything he does. He just does it, and lives with the consequences. When the head master stopped by their room one evening to question why the boys had missed 9 evening meals in a row, Finny explained,
“The real reason, sir, was that we just had to jump out of that tree. You know that tree …” I knew, Mr. Prud’homme must have known, Finny knew, if he stopped to think, that jumping out of the tree was even more forbidden than missing a meal. “We had to do that, naturally,” he went on, “because we’re all getting ready for the war. What if they lower the draft age to seventeen? Gene and I are both going to be seventeen at the end of the summer, which is a very convenient time since it’s the start of the academic year and there’s never any doubt about which class you should be in…. But we’re all right, Gene and I are perfectly all right. There isn’t any question that we are conforming in every possible way to everything that’s happening and everything that’s going to happen. It’s all a question of birthdays, unless you want to be more specific and look at it from the sexual point of view, which I have never cared to do myself, since it’s a question of my mother and my father, and I have never felt I wanted to think about their sexual lives too much.” Everything he said was true and sincere; Finny always said what he happened to be thinking, and if this stunned people then he was surprised.
Mr. Prud’homme released his breath with a sort of amazed laugh, stared at Finny for a while, and that was all there was to it.
The teachers and administrators at the school really got a kick out of Finny. He seemed to sense it and exploited it. Gene was more of a rule follower, and not one to rock the boat. I am so much like Gene, and was especially in my younger years. I guess I’ve always known I was like Gene, but wish I was more like Finny. He was fun, and brave, and bold. He made Gene a better person in the end. I have had friends like Finny, and they have definitely make me a better person. And for them I am forever grateful.
My words have gone on longer than I like them to. Read A Separate Peace. You will be glad you did. Do you have a favorite book? What is its title? What makes it meaningful to you?