In whole, A Separate Peace is a coming-of-age novel driven by the war that is going on beyond the walls of Devon School, beyond "the fringe of the last and greatest wilderness." It's the summer of 1942 and the boys of Gene and Phineas' year are the last of the innocent:
"The people in the world who could be selfish in the summer of 1942 were a small band, and I'm glad we took advantage of it."
Aware that they will most likely be drafted when they turn eighteen, the war is on the forefront of the boys' minds, yet it's also in the background, underneath. It doesn't wholly feel real yet or affect them in their safe little world. At the moment, they are still "nothing but children playing among heroic men."
"So the war swept over like a wave at the seashore, gathering power and size as it bore on us, overwhelming in its rush, seemingly inescapable, and then at the last moment eluded by a word from Phineas; I had simply ducked, that was all, and the wave's concentrated power had hurtled harmlessly overhead, no doubt throwing others roughly up on the beach, but leaving me peaceably treading water as before. I did not stop to think that one wave is inevitably followed by another even larger and more powerful, when the tide is coming in."
Yet, little by little the real world encroaches, the war seeps in, destroying their innocence and shattering their lives in little ways.
To me, the intrusion of the war stands out much more than Gene's action against Phineas. I understand that it's the main part of the book, the shocking incident that propels the story onward. But I felt the tree was only the beginning of the great war looming around them. Gene was perhaps its first victim, leading him to act against his one true, good friend in an understandable moment of jealousy. Then it took Leper, clouding his mind and his decency. And then it took the other boys who put Gene on trial. They all knew. They all suspected. They all came to the realization that innocence was no longer and they acted out, wanting Gene and Phineas to confess what had really happened as it slowly dawned on them that such a thing really could happen.
The war altered them, made them men and took them away from their "afternoon of momentary, illusory, special and separate peace."
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