You are on page 1of 3

Horsley 1

Evolutionary Requirements
John Knowles A Separate Peace tells the story of teenage boys attending a New
England boarding school during World War II. In the story Leper has to accept the war
ahead of him, Gene must face the guilt of his injuring Finny, while Finny must accept the
treachery of Gene. In this manner, some evolve while others perish; with the text
positioning evolution as a confrontation of the problems of the future combined with
acceptance of the events in the past. The text further defines perishing as physical death
as well as mental deterioration. At the close of the novel, Finny dies so that Gene may
symbolically evolve into an adult, so in this context Lepers statement that everything
has to evolve or else it perishes (125) implies not only that refusal to change may lead to
death; but rather that death, be it actual or symbolic, may also lead to change.
In the novel, only Gene evolves as Lepers quote dictates. Of the boys, Leper
perishes first because of his childlike nature, seen through his trays of snails (75) and
"sketches of [nature]" (93). So Leper shocks everyone when he enlists before the rest of
the boys. He justifies his transition by saying, everything has to evolve or else it
perishes (125). However, because he perceives war as skiers in white shrouds, []
silent as angels (124), he never grasps wars true nature. When at training camp he starts
to see things like [his corporal change] into a woman (150) and a broom change into a
mans leg which had been cut off (150), he goes psycho (144) and the army [caused]
him [to] (144). Leper perishes mentally because his mind could not confront what war;
a symbol of his future, held for him. Knowles uses Lepers mental degradation to define
the first part of evolution; an individual only matures when they confront the challenges
of the future.

Horsley 2
Gene permanently injures Finny by intentionally jounc[ing] the limb [of the
tree] (60) from which Finny and he were jumping. Gene forces Finny from the tree
because of a hatred for Finny. His hatred arose when Finny [broke the] school
swimming record (53) and kept his talent to himself, unintentionally causing Gene to
feel like a lesser person than Finny. Eventually, Gene matures and realizes and accepts his
error, but Finny can not. Although Finny think[s he] can believe (191) that Gene acted
on some kind of blind impulse (191) instead of on pure malice, his repetition of
believe[ing] (191) shows he never truly accepts Genes actions, and the overall truth
that people can commit evil acts. By not accepting this absolute, [his] marrow [went]
directly to his heart and stopped it (193), symbolically showing that his non-acceptance
of past events poisoned his pure heart. Knowles uses Finnys death to define the second
part of evolution; an individual only matures when they accept the events of the past.
Gene, unlike Leper and Finny, does evolve. Towards the end of the novel, Gene
finally accepts the war after Finny brought [all his doubts] to a close (158). Gene
partially evolves by accepting the war as truth, unlike Leper who perished mentally
because he couldnt accept it. At the end of chronological events, Gene makes peace
with his guilt from forcing Finny from the tree by accepting that nothing endures (14).
By accepting the fault of his actions, Gene finally change[s] (14). By meeting both
requirements Knowles established with Leper and Finny, Gene does evolve, and Knowles
fully shows that an individual only undergoes evolution when the individual both
confronts the challenges of the future and accepts the events of the past.
Along with this textual interpretation, Knowles also uses the symbolism of war
and Genes relationship with Finny combined with the original interpretation to complete

Horsley 3
his definition of evolution. The boys view war as completely unreal (30) because [the
war is] inaccessible except to servicemen (41), and so war only exists for adults, and
symbolizes adult life. This symbolism relates to both Leper and Gene, showing Gene
partially evolves by accepting he must grow up while Leper perishes mentally because he
couldnt accept that he must grow up. Knowles therefore defines the problems of the
future as an individuals own transformation from child to adult.
Knowles defines the second part of evolution, accepting the events of the past,
using Genes relationship with Finny. Gene perceives "[Finnys funeral as his] own
funeral (194) and therefore he, did not cry(194). Gene feels this way because he
views Finny as a symbol for his own childhood, and therefore Finnys funeral symbolizes
the funeral of Genes childhood; by accepting the funeral as inevitable because nothing
endures (14), Gene can finally change (14) into an adult. Knowles therefore defines
the events of the past as the individuals loss of childhood. And with this completed
definition, Knowles finishes his message on evolve or perish; refusal to evolve leads to
perishing, but one things perishing may lead to the evolution of something else.
In A Separate Peace, John Knowles explains the transition of childhood to
adulthood using Genes evolution and Leper and Finnys perishing. Knowles defines
Lepers statement that everything has to evolve or else it perishes (125) with a mixture
of both text and symbolism. He defines that for the evolution of children, a child only
grows into an adult when the child confronts adulthood ahead of them and accepts the
death of their own childhood; therefore, childhood has to die to allow them to evolve.