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Critique please: A Separate Peace Essay

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This is my tenth grade daughter's essay. I can easily spot the grammar and spelling mistakes, but I'd like some feedback for the actual content of the paper. Thanks!


     A best friend can be one of the greatest things a person can have; however, a close friendship may also lead to jealousy and rivalry. In the novel A Separate Peace by John Knowles, we see the painful reality of a damaged friendship in the characters of Gene and Finny. They begin as best friends, but as the novel progresses, the friendship dies. Gene’s admiration of Finny turns into resentment, which leads to tragedy.


    Gene admires many aspects of Finny’s character. We see Gene’s admiration for Finny’s athletic abilities after the blitzball game when he states that “Phineas always had a steady and formidable flow of usable energy.†(40) Phineas even won awards like the Devon School Contact Sport Award and the Winslow Galbraith Memorial Football Trophy. Gene has immense admiration for Finny’s humble nature, we see this when Finny beats a swimming record held by a former Devon student. Gene times him and Finny ends up beating the record by 0.7 seconds. Gene tells Finny that he should beat it again and be officially timed so he can hold the new record. Finny replies “we aren’t going to talk about this. It’s just between you and me. Don’t say anything about it, to . . . anyone.†Gene says Finny is “to good to be true.†(44) This shows us just how much Gene admires Finny’s humbleness. Gene has admiration for Finny’s bravery. While most of the Devon boys were to afraid to jump from the tree, Finny was filled with excitement and was the first to jump. Gene also admires the charming characteristics of Finny that draws everyone to him and continually claims how happy he is to have Finny as a “best friend.†He says “I laughed along with Finny, my best friend, and also unique, able to get away with anything at all. And not because he was a conniver either; I was sure of that. He got away with everything because of the extraordinary person he was. It was quite a compliment to me, as a matter of fact, to have such a person choose me for his best friend.†(28-29) Gene later on also states, “Finny could shine with everyone, he attracted everyone he met. I was glad of that too. Naturally. He was my roommate and my best friend.†(40) Gene feels a vast amount of admiration and appreciation for Finny, so much that it almost seems unbreakable.


     As the story develops, Gene’s admiration for Finny grows into jealousy and resentment. Gene begins to wish he had the characteristics and abilities Finny possess. Gene was very book smart, which didn’t seem as rewarding to Gene. Gene begins feeling that Finny is purposefully attempting to distract him from studying, which in turn would cause him to make bad grades. His grades were where he felt superior. Finny convinces him to take a beach trip with him. He willingly goes, despite it being against school rules. Everything seemed alright until the next morning. Gene knew he needed to get back to Devon in order to study for a test. Finny insisted they swim again, which takes time away from Gene’s studying. When the boys finally reach Devon, Gene begins studying but is then interrupted by Finny asking him if he wants to go to the tree. Even though he feels he needs to study, he exclaims “Never mind my studying.†(59) As the boys walked to the tree, Gene’s mind filled with jealous thoughts such as “he had never been jealous of me for a second,†and “I was not of the same quality as he.†(59) Gene’s envious thoughts were about to blind his judgment and cause him to hurt his “best friendâ€


     The boys finally reach the tree, the tree which will soon symbolize death and treachery in their friendship. Finny proceeds to climb it first. Finny tells Gene “We’ll go together, a double jump! Neat, eh?†(59) Gene didn’t like the idea, but he hesitantly climbed up behind Finny. When he reached the top of the limb with Finny, something in Gene snapped. All the silent envy and resentment that built up caused Gene to have a moment of blind ignorance. Gene grabbed the trunk, bent his knees, and jounced the limb. This caused Finny to lose his balance, and he fell onto the bank. Gene heard a “sickening, and unnatural thud.†(60) Gene then jumped into the river forgetting any trace of fear he once had. Gene’s “best friend†had become his greatest rival, in his mind at least. Gene’s growing anger caused him to make a rash and harmful decision that crippled both Finny and his friendship with him. Just like Finny, their friendship could never be fully healed.


     Later on in the book, Brinker decides to hold a trial to discover the truth behind Finny’s injury. He gathers Finny, Gene, and a few other Devon boys into the Assembly Room for the trial. Upon entering, Gene is struck with fear. He knows what he did, he knows why he did it, and knowing that he could be exposed made him terrified of the trial. Finny had always denied the possibility the incident happened because of Gene. It was hard for Finny to accept that Gene had intentionally caused him to fall off of the limb. When the trial commences, Brinker begins by asking Finny what he remembers of the incident. He claims he lost his balance, and said “I’ve had a feeling that the tree did it by itself. It’s an impression I’ve had. Almost as though the tree shook me out by itself.†(169) He also says he doesn’t remember anyone being in the tree with him around the time he fell. Finny wants to deny any scenario that could bring to light the fact that the fall was of Gene’s fault. As the trial continues, Brinker continues asking Finny who all was in the tree. After claiming he thought he was the only one, he finally quits denying what he knows to be the truth. Finny says he remembers telling Gene “Let’s make a double jump,†(171) and then adds “I said that to you on the ground, and then the two of us started to climb...†Finny slowly and painfully realizes that he can no longer deny the facts about the situation. Gene stands in silent desperation as he has no defense against the truth. The trial gets worse for both Gene and Finny when Brinker brings forth a witness who remembers everything about the incident in crucial detail. Finny for so long had tried to block that day from his memory, but now had to face the ugly truth. Before the trial could come to an official end, Finny breaks. He runs out of the room in tears and exclaims “I just don’t care. Never mind. You get all your facts.†(177) Moments after storming out, Finny falls down the white marble stairs. The fall causes Finny to re-break his leg, just like the trial re-opens old wounds. Finny is sent back to stay in the infirmary. Gene at first is afraid to go see Finny. Gene knows he’s to blame for both of Finny’s trips to the infirmary. Gene is now also aware that Finny knows exactly what happened that day at the tree. Despite this, Gene decides to pay Finny a visit. He walks into the dark infirmary where he put his best friend, and when he makes his presence known, Finny yells “You want to break something else in me! Is that why you’re here.†It was in this very moment Gene realized the permanent damage he caused his friendship. It was the death of their friendship, and also the death of Phineas himself. Gene finds out from Dr. Stanpole, a few days after their last encounter, that Finny passed away.


      There is an encounter earlier in the book that I feel brings an immense amount of symbolism. This encounter also happens at the tree. This encounter took place not long before the encounter that crippled Finny. Gene and Finny both climbed the tree together. Once they reached the limb, Gene turned to say something to Finny. In doing this, Gene began loosing his balance and started to fall backwards. Without any hesitation Finny extended his arm and grabbed Gene so he could restore his balance. If Finny had not done so, Gene would have fallen out of the tree. Later that night Gene realizes that “if he(Finny) hadn’t been there. . . I could have fallen on the bank and broken my back! If I had fallen awkwardly enough I could have been killed. Finny had practically saved my life.†(32) It’s ironic that while Finny saved Gene, Gene “killed†Finny. The tree can be seen as both life and death, innocence and guilt, loyalty and betrayal. In this novel John Knowles writes about the dark places that can exist in a friendship.    







Edited by freeindeed
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What was the assignment, exactly? Was it simply to write an essay about the book? I always think it can be hard to offer good feedback without knowing the target the student is going for.


I will also say that if you find any of these comments helpful, I wouldn't necessarily try to apply them to this paper, I would use them for future papers. It can be very demoralizing to work hard on something and then have to go back and re-work it when you really feel done. But maybe there are some ideas that can be developed more when she writes about her next book?


I think that she does a lot of plot summarizing. I would be looking for less long passages summarizing the plot and more time spent presenting points that support her thesis, and then using quotes from or references to the book to support those specific points. There is a thesis: friendship can be good, but can have a dark side - but it doesn't have a lot of tension or make much of an argument.  What if she rewrote the thesis to have a bit more tension. Something like, "Although best friends can be a gift, friendship can also have a dark side: when we begin to compare ourselves to and measure ourselves against a friend, competition and resentment can develop. A Separate Peace traces such a friendship, one that begins as a source of support and camaraderie but that ends in tragedy."


That's just off the top of my head. But it sets up a contrast, which then could be developed in the paper - the first part of the paper could show the benefits of the friendship to both boys, the middle paragraph show how and why the friendship goes bad, and then finally a paragraph describing how it ends. I'd reduce the amount of plot summary, and just use very select quotations or references that support my main points.  I'd outline those points, and spend most of my time discussing them, using references to the book to support them - rather than summarizing everything that happens in the plot.


If she wants to use the tree symbol as the "trunk" of her argument, I'd move the discussion of that up, and use it to show the initial closeness of the boys' friendship - Gene admires Finney, Finney doesn't hesitate to rescue Gene - and then discuss the friendship's devolution, and then have them end up back at the tree.  As it is, the paragraph about the tree symbol feels tacked on to the end.  It could be a unifying theme running throughout her discussion, which would be a good use of that symbol.


No idea if this helps or if this is the kind of feedback that you wanted, but just sharing a few thoughts. Good luck!

Edited by Chrysalis Academy
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Thank you. That does help. I also felt that there was too much plot summary. The assignment was to write an interpretive essay about her understanding of something in the novel. More detailed instructions were given in the book -  this is Oak Meadow Lit & Comp II. 

Edited by freeindeed
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