In John Knowle’s A Separate Peace, symbols are used to develop and advance the themes of the novel. One theme is the lack of an awareness of the real world among the students who attend the Devon Academy. The war is a symbol of the “real world”, from which the boys exclude themselves. It is as if the boys are in their own little world or bubble secluded from the outside world and everyone else. Along with their friends, Gene and Finny play games and joke about the war instead of taking it seriously and preparing for it.
Finny organizes the Winter Carnival, invents the game of Blitz Ball, and encourages his friends to have a snowball fight. When Gene looks back on that day of the Winter Carnival, he says, “—it was this liberation we had torn from the gray encroachments of 1943, the escape we had concocted, this afternoon of momentary, illusory, special and separate peace” (Knowles, 832). As he watches the snowball fight, Gene thinks to himself, “There they all were now, the cream of the school, the lights and leaders of the senior class, with their high IQs and expensive shoes, as Brinker had said, pasting each other with snowballs”(843).
Another of the principal themes in this novel is the theme of maturity. The two rivers that are part of the Devon School property symbolize how Gene and Finny grow up through the course of the novel. The Devon River is preferred by the students because it is above the dam and contains clean water. It is a symbol of childhood and innocence because it is safe and simple. It is preferred which shows how the boys choose to hold onto their youth instead of growing up. The Naguamsett is the disgustingly dirty river which symbolizes adulthood because of its complexity.
The two rivers intermingle showing the boys’ changes from immature individuals to slightly older and wiser men. Sooner or later, Gene and Phineas, who at the beginning of the novel are extremely immature, have to face reality. Signs of their maturity appear when the boys have a serious conversation about Finny’s accident. Finny realizes that Gene did shake the tree limb purposely so that he would fall. However, he knows that this action was spontaneous, and that Gene never meant to cause him life-long grief.
Finny sympathetically says to his best friend, “Something just seized you. It wasn’t anything you really felt against me, it wasn’t some kind of hate you’ve felt all along. It wasn’t anything personal” (865). Gene admits to Finny that he feels incredibly guilty and replies, “It was some ignorance inside me, some crazy thing inside me, something blind, that’s all it was” (865). Phineas’ death is the end of Gene’s childhood. He is forced to grow up when he realizes that he is living in a world of hate, crime, and disappointment.
He is getting older and closer to his eighteenth birthday when he will be drafted into the war, and he finally begins to prepare. At the conclusion of the novel, after Phineas is gone, Gene says, “I was ready for the war, now that I no longer had any hatred to contribute to it. My fury was gone, I felt it gone, dried up at the source, withered and lifeless. Phineas had absorbed it and taken it with him and I was rid of it forever” (871). This is another example of how the war furthers Gene’s advance into adulthood. The war is a symbol of how things aren’t always what they seem.
Recruiting posters and propaganda advertising the army convince many boys into thinking the war is an exciting adventure in which young men interact. Leper enlists in the army after being impressed by a film shown by a recruiter from the U. S. ski troops. “The ski movie had decided him. ‘I always thought the war would come for me when it wanted me… I never thought I’d be going to it. I’m really glad I saw that movie in time, you bet I am'” (826) Leper is amazed by these men and how they, with their recognizable and friendly faces, give a clean response to war.