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“All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”(Romans 3:23)
The fall of man- it’s a common topic all throughout the Bible. Many allusions to this familiar Biblical theme are made in the war-time novel, A Separate Peace, by American author John Knowles. In this work, Knowles relates many of his experiences as a teenage boy attending boarding school during World War Two. He uses Biblical allusions to reveal much about human nature.
In Genesis 4:3-5 the Bible says, “In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. But Able brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry and his face was downcast.”
Much like Cain’s jealousy toward his brother Abel in Genesis, the protagonist Gene is often placing himself in competition with his best friend and worst enemy, Phineas. Phineas, affectionately known as Finny is much like Able. He is innocent and pure in his views on life and others. Knowles says he “,Did abide by certain rules which he seemed to cast in the form of Commandments. (Pg 26)”
Able was honest and wise by choosing to follow God’s orders. Thus, God was pleased with Able’s offering. Cain, on the other hand was quite the opposite. He is presented as being rather depraved and corrupted. In this way, Gene is similar to Cain. In the book Gene realizes the grip that sin has on his soul and claims, “It was just some ignorance inside me, some crazy thing inside me, something blind, that’s all it was. (Pg 183) ”
Unfortunately, Gene, like Cain, becomes consumed with jealousy of Phineas, due to the realization that he can never be as good as Finny— morally or athletically. The reader sees this when Gene states that, “there never was and never could have been any rivalry between us. I was not of the same quality as he.”
The pain of this knowledge cause Gene to be irrational. He allows envy and resentment to build within him. In one moment, he allows his subconscious to pilot his body and doing so makes the regret of his lifetime. Here, he relates this horrible sin: “Holding firmly to the trunk, I took a step forward 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 thud. (Pg 52)”
The story of Cain and Able goes much the same way. “Now Cain said to his brother Able, ‘Let’s go out to the field.’ And while they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Able and killed him (Genesis 4:8)”
These parallel incidents reveal much about human nature. When Gene is faced with the truth that he will never measure up to Phineas, his subconscious takes hold of him and he destroys the better man because he cannot cope with Finny’s unmatchable perfection. This act promulgates the truth concerning man’s will to survive.
The fall of Adam and Eve is also quite concurrent with Gene’s fall in A Separate Peace. In Genesis, the Bible relates the story of Adam and Eve and their life in the garden of Eden. Eden was a beautiful place in which there was no sin or suffering and every need was met. God’s only stipulation was that the pair abstain form eating the fruit of a certain tree. Yet it seems, even this was too much to ask. Genesis 3:6 says: “When the woman saw the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he also ate it.”
Yet, Adam and Eve’s sin was not without consequence. The Bible tells us that, “Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they realized they were naked; So they sewed fig-leaves together and made coverings for themselves.”
Gene’s sin had comparable results. After he shook Finny from the tree, his life changes dramatically. Gene is “..confronted with himself and what [he] had done to Finny (pg 54).” The impact of his transgressions hit him hard and he grows very ashamed. Due to this shame, he attempts to conceal his iniquities, just as Adam and Eve hid their nakedness. He demonstrates this by the lie told in the following passage: “ ‘Were you- near the tree?’
Finny turned toward me. ‘You were down at the bottom weren’t you?’ he asked, not in the official courtroom tone he had used before, but in friend’s voice.
I had been studying very carefully the way my hands wrinkled when tightly clenched, but I was able to bring my head up and return his inquiring look. ‘Down at the bottom, yes.’ (pg 162)”
Gene’s shame due to his sin is similar to not only to Adam and Eve, but also to the human race as a whole. Human nature tells an individual to bury his/her transgressions behind a facade. One would rather live a lie than bear his guilty conscience to the world for scrutinization.
Gene does attempt to tell the truth a few times hoping to lessen his misery, but as seen in the following quote, he is unable to-the pain is simply too much: “I only had to add, ‘I pushed him out of the tree.’ and the chain of implausibility would be complete, ‘then I.....’just those few words and perhaps this dungeon nightmare would end.
But I could feel my throat closing on them; I could never say them, never. (Pg 82)”
Another way in which the novel and the Bible are in agreement, is found in Genesis 3:11-13 which says: “And he said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?’
The man said, ‘The woman you put here for me—she gave me some fruit from the tree and I ate it.’
Then the Lord said to the woman, ‘What is this you have done?’
The woman said, ‘The serpent deceived me, and I ate.’ ”
Although Adam and Eve are remorseful about their sin, they do not wish to confess their transgression and take the weight of it upon themselves. Instead they rationalize, and try to transfer the blame by pointing fingers. Gene also demonstrates this passing of fault. In an incident Prior to Phineas’ fall, Gene and Finny were jumping from the same tree into the waters of the Devon river below. Only on this occasion, Gene had lost his balance and Finny was there to help him recover.
“Yes, he had practically saved my life. He had also practically lost it for me. I wouldn’t have been on that damn limb except for him. I wouldn’t have turned around, an so lost my balance, if he hadn’t been there. I didn’t need to feel any tremendous rush of gratitude toward Phineas. (Pg 25)”
Immediately after the recognition that Gene could have been killed had Finny not been there, Gene begins to rationalize, thinking that it was Finny’s fault in the first place. Gene , like Adam and Eve, is confirming the fact that human nature does not wish to find itself guilty. By, placing the guilt on someone else, it relieves the burden from that person and thus the task of coping with the pain. No one wishes to be responsible for his/her own actions.
Another character in the novel, Leper Lepellier, is persuaded, by a cogent film, to enlist in the army. Gene claim that the film is, “the cleanest image of war I had ever seen; (pg 116)”
Convinced by an unrealistic depiction of the war, Leper enlists. After a few months in training, Leper discovers the truth about war and is given a Section Eight discharge, indicating insanity. Leper’s deception is identical to Eve’s deception by the serpent in the Garden Of Eden: “Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God really say, “You must not eat from any tree in the garden?”?’
The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, “You must not eat fruit from the trees in the garden,” but God did say, “You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must touch it or you will die.” ’
‘You will not surely die,’ the serpent said to the woman. ‘For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’(Genesis 3:1-5) ”
The beguilement of Eve and Leper, points to the fact that human nature tends not to want to believe reality. Individuals are drawn by the aesthetic, choosing to live for the moment rather than consider the consequences. Sadly, in Eve and Leper’s case, the consequences were rather hard to swallow. Eve’s poor decision affected every human who would tread the earth; Leper’s scarred the rest of his life.
By connecting much of A Separate Peace with stories from the Bible, Knowles has brought to light many aspects of human nature. The knowledge of these truths not only furthers the theme of the book, but also serves to allow the reader to empathize with the characters. Most importantly is the point that one can be redeemed.
In the ending, Phineas dies during an operation to correct a second fall. Gene claims that he feels it was his “own funeral. (Pg 186)”
Phineas’ death, although grievous, brings a sort of freedom for Gene. He shows this in the following quote: “My fury was gone, dried up at the source, withered and lifeless. Phineas had absorbed it and taken it with him, and I was rid of it forever. (Pg 195).
Just as Finny’s death brought healing for Gene, so does the Bible’s story of Christ’s death for sinners bring healing to those who accept it. The Bible tells of Christ’s love and sacrifice in the following passage: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds were are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)”
Despite the pain and suffering that human nature causes, there is forgiveness.