Allusions & Personification in A Separate Peace

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

In 'A Separate Peace,' John Knowles uses a variety of literary devices to engage readers in this beautifully told coming-of-age story. In this lesson, we will look at the use of allusions and personification in this novel.

Bringing Life to Text

How is Lazarus from the Bible like Phineas? Making these types of comparisons is one way that authors give life to the text. John Knowles novel, A Separate Peace is rich in language and filled with literary devices that help the reader feel like part of the action. We will look at two of those literary devices from the novel. Allusions are references to art, literature, or historical events that give depth to the plot points. Since this story takes place at a New England boarding school during World War II, many of the allusions are related to events or people from the war or from their studies. Personification is giving human qualities to non-human things. The author uses personification to make the setting come to life. Let's find out more.

Literary References

Lazarus was a bishop who was raised from the dead by Jesus, according to the New Testament of the Bible, four days after his death. As Gene watches Finny sleeping on the beach, he seems so quiet and peaceful that it reminds Gene of Lazarus. Referencing the Bible in these sentences is an example of allusion. '…it was totally white and stainless, as pure as the shores of Eden. Phineas, still asleep on his dune, made me think of Lazarus, brought back to life by the touch of God.' Gene has questioned Finny's loyalty and friendship, but this day on the beach seems to resurrect Gene's trust.

Julius Caesar is another piece of literature that the author uses as an allusion. Finny, who randomly decides what he believes and doesn't believe from history, makes the decision that Caesar never existed. 'Lost two thousand years in the past, master of a dead language and a dead empire, the bane and bore of schoolboys, Caesar he believed to be more of a tyrant at Devon than he had ever been in Rome. Phineas felt a personal and sincere grudge against Caesar, and he was outraged most by his conviction that Caesar and Rome and Latin had never been alive at all … ' Finny has a difficult time understanding his class assignment involving Caesar, so he simply decides that the entire existence of the Roman Empire is fiction. This allusion gives us a lot of insight into Finny's character, who also decides that the war is fake as soon as he becomes hurt and is unable to participate in it.

Historical References

After Gene knocks Finny out of the tree, destroying his chances to play sports or participate in the war, Gene feels compelled to confess what he has done. As he adopts a serious tone and prepares himself to deliver the difficult news, Finny says, 'My God, what energy,…You sound like General MacArthur.' General MacArthur was a Five Star General in the Army who served as the U.S. Chief of Staff and won a Congressional Medal of Honor during his service in World War II. Comparing Gene to MacArthur indicates that he looks like he has something serious and important to say. They are interrupted, and Gene never gets his chance.

MacArthur is referenced again just as Gene and Brinker are about to enlist, but Finny returns to school and is depending on Gene to help him function. To lighten the mood and give Brinker the hint that Finny's arrival has changed everything, the boys begin to banter. 'I wouldn't enlist with you if you were General MacArthur's eldest son.' 'I wouldn't enlist with you if you were Elliott Roosevelt.' Elliott Roosevelt is the U.S. President's son. The joking concludes with Gene conceding that Brinker is actually Madame Chiang Kai-shek. Madame Chiang Kai-shek was the First Lady of China during World War II. Beautiful and well-spoken, she was easily able to garnish American support, but her ethics and treatment of her people was questionable.

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