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Abundance of Symbolism in A Separate Peace by John Knowles

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A Separate Peace, written by John Knowles, is a novel that explores the mind of a boy, Gene Forrester, during World War II. Gene has a friend, Finny, whom Gene has a very complicated relationship with. They both attend the prestigious Devon School, which is a boarding school in New Hampshire. This essay will explore the relationship between the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the biblical Garden of Eden and the tree by the ricer at the Devon School in A Separate Peace and the plethora of symbolism that can be found throughout the novel.

The tree by the river at the Devon School is very symbolic in reference to the biblical Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The prestigious Devon School represents The Garden of Eden, which implies that Finny and Gene are somewhat in a state of grace. When they see the tree by the river, they are tempted to jump off it, such as Adam and Eve were tempted by Satan to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Gene and Finny fall from innocence, or a state of grace, and “renounce the Eden-like summer peace of Devon” when they jump off the tree at the Devon School (Wolfe 34). Gene has the “sensation that [he] was throwing [his] life away” (Knowles 17). Adam and Eve threw away their eternal life with Yahweh when they ate off the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and fell from grace. Jumping off the tree by the river initiates the preparation for the “hell” of World War II for Gene and Finny—even though Finny is not able to participate in the war—just as Adam and Eve’s falling from grace initiates their preparation for the hellish sinful world outside of the immaculate Garden of Eden. This connection between Gene and Finny’s jump from the tree and Adam and Eve’s falling from grace implies that A Separate Peace is not a novel of sin instead of redemption.

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In A Separate Peace, John Knowles, the author, uses symbolism throughout all places of the novel. Knowles uses symbolism in the names of his main characters: Gene Forrester and Finny. The name Gene can be a shortened version of Eugene, which implies “that the bearer of the name is genetically clean and noble, or at least fortunate in health and antecedents” (Bryant 42). Gene is a proud symbol of his name as he is an intelligent, healthy, athletic, and caring adolescent boy. Gene’s last name Forrester can be traced back to the Middle Ages, and his last name is “from the occupation or office of a forester, the warden whose duty it was to protect the woods of a lord. The officer was an enforcer, keeper, and custodian” (Bryant 43). Just as a forester keeps the woods, Gene “keeps” the secrets of his jouncing of the limb and of Finny’s record-breaking swim. Finny also contains elements of symbolism in his name, such as Gene contained symbolism. Finny’s real name Phineas also contains symbolism because it can be referred to the biblical Phinehas, who was “the youngest son of Eli, a rebellious youth who was a rule breaker” (Bryant 45). Throughout the novel, Phineas is constantly committing mischievous acts although he is not always disciplined for the acts. These mischievous acts include wearing his school tie as a belt, forming “The Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session”, and sneaking out to the beach (Knowles 31). Phineas is a clear symbol of Phinehas, the son of

This essay has touched only the surface of the abundance of symbolism that is found throughout the novel. This essay explored the relationship between the biblical Garden of Eden and the tree by the river at the Devon School. The essay has also analyzed the symbolism in the names of the two most important characters in the novel.

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Abundance of Symbolism in A Separate Peace by John Knowles. (2022, March 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 1, 2023, from
“Abundance of Symbolism in A Separate Peace by John Knowles.” Edubirdie, 17 Mar. 2022,
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