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The characters in a novel must be believable to the point where we are allowed insights into the reasons why they do the things they do (their motivations). Characters must also be able to carry ideas and themes without appearing unnatural. You don't want to find yourself saying, "Oh, so-andso represents such-and-such an idea" or "John Knowles created so-and-so to stand for such-and-such a concept." Rather, the ideas and themes should become apparent to you bit by bit, as you begin to understand the characters as people interacting with each other. The more you find yourself asking what you would do in a given situation, the more successfully the characters are playing their parts.
Interacting is the key concept in this book because it's about a group of boys in a confined place, where they eat together, share rooms, play and study together, and are always open to the same overriding threat of war. None of the boys, no matter how individualistic he may be, is living in an isolated world. The Devon School is like a theater in which each boy is both an actor and a member of the audience.
In some ways A Separate Peace may be easier to relate to than other books you've read, because the characters are close to you in age. You might want to think about whether that assumption proves true as you're reading.
We don't want to tell you too much about the characters at the outset because the sheer pleasure of seeing them develop so effortlessly as the story unfolds is one you can't afford to miss. John Knowles introduces detail after detail about each person so that you receive a building up of character-in much the same way it would happen if you were actually getting to know someone over time. And, as you will see, it's often dangerous to trust first impressions and hasty judgments.
• GENE FORRESTER Gene is the narrator of the story. He tells us what is going on; we see everything through his eyes. But because he is telling us what is happening, step by step, he must be the kind of person who has the ability to get involved in situations and then to step back from them and view them impartially. Gene is observer as well as participant, and that dual role can create problems for him. Occasionally, as when his friend Finny is in trouble, Gene comes across as confused and unable to act.
When we meet him, Gene is a thoughtful young man, innocent, soft-spoken, a follower rather than a leader-the perfect foil for Finny, his best friend. Gene's the kind of boy you wouldn't notice immediately in a crowd; he's usually around the fringes rather than at the center. He isn't much of a self-starter either, and he lacks initiative. You wonder sometimes if he has any ideas of his own, and then he surprises you by coming out with sharp pronouncements and judgments. Following the progression of his friendship with Finny, we begin to notice Gene emerge from his shell, drawn forth by the magnetism of another.
Is it being too harsh on Gene to say that he's a goody-goody? You know the type: someone who'd never take a chance by breaking the rules or doing anything outrageous. No, there's a glimmer of the adventurer inside Gene Forrester, waiting for someone like Finny to set the spark going. Gene is like a butterfly emerging from his cocoon, gradually unfolding and spreading his wings.
Gene is an empathetic boy. That means he's strongly in touch with other people's feelings. Because he's sensitive, he possesses the rare ability to feel along with others. Sometimes this capacity gets him into hot water. It's always dangerous to empathize too deeply; you're bound to get swept away.
No doubt you'll notice a touch of envy breaking to the surface now and again. Close friendships like Gene and Finny's often suffer from one person's comparing himself to the other. This is inevitable when two people do so many things together. Gene is often looking to see how Finny is getting along-better, usually, despite his injury.
Like so many young people in a group, Gene has the easily recognizable problem of not being able to decide whether to go along with the crowd or to follow his own instincts. He doesn't want to lose the respect of his peers, but also he doesn't want to sacrifice his values just for a little more popularity.
Gene is torn in many ways. That's probably why we like him so much. He is unsparing in admitting to confusion: whether to laugh or cry in harsh situations; to jump from a tree or not; to go into the army or not; to study for a test or not. He's only human. We wouldn't want to follow the path of an overly self-confident narrator because we wouldn't be able to identify with him. Gene characterizes many fears and hopes we all possess.
Finally, the most appealing part of Gene's character is his idealism. Right to the end, despite the trials and tribulations he's subjected to, including the most painful of all, the loss of his dearest friend, Gene maintains a deeper faith. We know he's going to turn out all right because, if nothing else, he's a survivor.