Set in a New England boarding school for boys in 1942, A Separate Peace banishes the distant war to an illusion. The novel begins with a tiny incident among ordinary teenage boys that runs a seditious course and ends by being as deep and as irretrievable as evil itself. In the refuge of Devon School from war finds two friends whose completely opposite personalities make the best of a friendship. Gene is a lonely, introverted, flat-chested intellectual who strives to wound up the top of the class. Phineas is a handsome, taunting athlete who has a streak of the unruly in his nature and a serene capacity to affection.
Encroaching the reality of the war might be, the focus of this novel is internal. That Gene refuses to face his own jealousy and insecurity makes him declare war within his own soul, which becomes the battleground of his fear, hatred, love. All these heart elements combat for control of his actions, and amidst the turmoil of adolescence, it is the victory of such dark forces human nature that makes the 16-years-old introvert boy realize each person is alone with his enemy–something that is within the human heart–and not influenced by external circumstances.
Gene’s refusal to admit feelings of jealousy and insecurity is his real enemy projects his fear upon his best friend Phineas, whom he suspects of having envy and jealousy. This self-deception plunges him into a competitive spirit that transmutes his malicious thoughts into detrimental actions. The crucial elements worth preserving are his own survival and superiority. The desire to outsmart everyone else destroys any feeling of affection and friendship he might have had for his friend. When he realizes all Phineas offered him friendship and pure friendship only, he could only resort into self-loathing, which forever ingrains in his being.
“It would have been comfortable [to fight without knowing the cause or to dismiss the war as a mere joke], but I could not believe it. Because it seemed clear that wars were not made by generations and their special stupidities, but that wars were made instead by something ignorant in the human heart.”