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Conflict in A Separate Peace

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  • 0:01 Conflict & A Separate Peace
  • 0:34 Conflict of War
  • 1:45 Conflict Between Gene…
  • 2:39 Conflict Between Finny…
  • 3:36 Conflict Within Gene
  • 4:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
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' by John Knowles, the main characters, Gene and Finny, fight their own internal battles while external battles between them and in their world rage. In this lesson, we will learn more about the conflicts in this novel.

Conflict and A Separate Peace

Think about the last great story you couldn't wait to tell. What were the opposing forces? Every good story contains some type of conflict. Conflict in literature drives the plot because of a character's need to resolve the internal or external battle that is taking place.

In A Separate Peace by John Knowles, the World War II setting is an obvious external conflict occurring in the background, but the main conflict is the internal battle that the protagonist, Gene, is fighting with himself. Let's look at some of the conflicts from this novel.

Conflict of War

The context of this story is life in America during World War II. The major world leaders are Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Josef Stalin. The economy is terrible because all of the workers are deployed overseas, which halts production. The war seems far away, but its daily effect on the American people is a constant revolving door of friends and neighbors who are leaving, some of which will never return, accompanied by tears from their loved ones left at home.

People are obsessed with the news, which is filled with horrors of war. Americans at home feel that it is their patriotic duty to live frugally and not enjoy life too much. Gene remembers, 'The prevailing color of life in America is a dull, dark green called olive drab. . . Most other colors risk being unpatriotic.'

The only people who escape the dreariness of life are 16-year old boys who have one last year of childhood before they will be drafted into military service. The characters in this story take advantage of the freedom and playfulness that comes with being this magic age, but the stress of what is coming hangs over them like a cloud, intensifying every other conflict. As much as the anticipation of fighting influences them, in the end, none of the main characters ever make it to the front lines.

Conflict Between Gene and Finny

When Gene first meets Finny, he is mesmerized by Finny's athleticism, popularity, and level of comfort in his own skin. Gene is flattered with Finny becomes his best friend. However, it doesn't take long before Gene begins feeling jealous of how easily things come to Finny.

Gene begins to imagine that Finny is just as jealous of him and that Finny is purposely sabotaging his studies. Gene's secret resentment of Finny continues to grow until Gene does the unthinkable when they are playing in the branches of a tree: 'Holding firmly to the trunk, I took a step toward him, and then my knees bent and I jounced the limb. Finny, his balance gone, swung his head around to look at me for an instant with extreme interest, and then he tumbled sideways, broke through the little branches below and hit the bank with a sickening, unnatural thud.'

As a result of Gene's actions, Finny's leg is permanently maimed. Finny is no longer able to participate in sports and is not eligible for enlistment.

Conflict Between Finny and Reality

After Finny's injury, Gene tries to confess what he has done, but Finny refuses to accept it. When Gene realizes that his betrayal hurts Finny more than the injury itself, Gene decides to keep his actions a secret. However, their friend, Brinker, refuses to let it die. Brinker and some other students kidnap Finny and Gene and bring them to a student court to try to get to the bottom of it.

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