In the novel Separate Peace, John Knowles uses both positive and negative scenes throughout the novel. John Knowles does this to show how the setting can affect the characters and the events that are being taken throughout the novel. Knowles introduces right away that there are two big scenes, the summer session and the winter session, both playing big roles in the story’s plot and theme.
The summer session would represent peace and the winter session would represent the distress brought on by World War II, the shift between them clearly confirms that Knowles intended to show how completely and abruptly the war overtook the peace at the summer session. Knowles uses the summer session setting to symbolize peace.
Knowles uses the positive setting described in this quote to reveal the importance of the setting: “They (elms) too seemed permanent and never changing, an untouched, unreachable world high in space, like the ornamental towers and spires of a great church, too high to be enjoyed, too high for anything, great and remote and never useful”. Knowles describes the setting like this to create a peaceful image representing the summer session as a time of peace.
This also brings a vividly peaceful image to mind further connecting the concepts of summer and peace together which is later conquered by the war elements of winter. Knowles uses the winter session setting to symbolize the distress of the war. Knowles uses this as the negative setting in the novel. In this quote, he describes the importance of the setting: “Not long afterward, early even for New Hampshire, snow came…They gathered there, thicker by the minute, like noiseless invaders conquering because they took possession so gently.
I watched them whirl by my window-don’t take this seriously, the playful way they fell seemed to imply, this little show, this harmless trick”. Knowles uses words such as invaders and conquering to connect this image to the war zone. This shows Knowles’ elements of the war and how it overtook the peace present and the Devon School. Knowles also writes that these elements of winter conquered the life of nature which had previously been a symbol of summer.
This strengthens his intent of highlighting how the war element of winter took over the peace of summer. The change between the previous positive setting of summer and the negative setting of winter represents the effect the war had on the peace at the Devon School. The time that Finny and Gene spend at the beach represents the peak of the summer. However, overnight it is followed by this description of the ocean: “The Ocean looked dead too, dead waves hissing mordantly along the beach, which was gray and dead looking itself”.
Here Knowles uses words such as “dead”, “hissing”, and “grey”, which have a negative meaning, to create a powerful negative setting scene in the novel. This causes an unexpected contrast between negative and positive settings. This piercing contrast between the beach and a “dead” ocean, which meets the beach at the shore with the hissing of dead waves, foreshadows the sharp contrast between the peace of summer and the distress of winter that meets the summer of Finny’s fall.
This event is the symbolic fall of peace to the distress of war. Knowles cements this fact with stating the setting of the situation just before his fall, claiming that “From behind us the last long rays of light played across the campus, accenting every slight undulation of the land, emphasizing the separateness of each bush”. The last long rays of light show the end of summer because the end of the long days marks the beginning of autumn season due to daylight savings time.
Since the summer session represents peace and the winter session represents distress, this shows that Finny’s fall from the tree marks the fall of peace to distress. John Knowles use of setting scenes strengthens his idea in the novel of the peace at Devon school being overtaken by the elements of World War II. This is done by the addition of positive settings of summer which represent the peace at the school; and winter, which represents the invasion of the war and the piercing contrast between these two types of settings at certain scenes throughout the novel.
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