Notes For A Separate Peace Essay, Research Paper
The novel A Separate Peace is set against the background of the
Second World War. The book depicts a peaceful New England’s
boy’s school by the name of Devon. There is a pastoral quality
about the school, for it is surrounded by enormous playing fields,
is filled with sunshine, and has a peaceful river flowing through
campus. During World War II, the novelist John Knowles attended
Phillips Exeter Academy on which Devon was based.
LIST OF CHARACTERS
Gene Forrester – the protagonist and narrator of the novel who
tells of his experiences at Devon when he was sixteen and
seventeen years old. He is portrayed as a person who normally
conformed to the rules and regulations of the school and society in
general; however, when he is with his roommate, Finny, he
behaves very differently. In Finny’s presence, Gene always wants
to act like him and be a free man, unaffected by the dictates of
others; but he never really succeeds. As a result, he becomes
insanely jealous of Finny, and his jealousy turn into brutality. To
humiliate Finny and bring him down to his level, he bounces his
friend out of the tree, causing his leg to break. Because of the
accident Finny becomes a cripple, which causes Gene much guilt
Phineas (Finny) – the roommate and close friend of Gene, the
narrator. He is admired by both his teachers and his classmates. He
is considered the best athlete in school, moving with perfect
physical grace, harmony, and coordination. He is also known as
the boy who never makes a mistake, even though he is always
spontaneously saying and doing the unexpected. Never desiring
consistency, Finny enjoys things that are new and different. Gene
Edwin Lepellier (Leper) – another student at Devon. Portrayed as
a contrast to Gene and Finny, he is always immersed in the natural
world, sketching birds and looking for beaver dams. He becomes
the first person from Devon to enlist in the armed service and fight
in the war. When he has to face the life of conformity and
regulations demanded by the army, he becomes a psychotic
Brinker Hadley – one of the students at Devon who is considered
a leader of his class. He instigates the trial against Gene, for he
suspects that something is strange about Finny’s accident.
Mr. Prud’homme, Mr. Patch-Withers, and Mr. Ludsbury –
teachers at Devon.
Dr. Stanpole – the doctor who treats Finny’s leg.
Chet Douglass, Bobby Zane and Quackenbush – other students
Gene Forrester, the narrator, is also the protagonist of the novel.
Idolizing Finny and striving to be like him, Gene becomes
extremely jealous of his friend’s abilities and spontaneous ways.
His jealousy makes him cause Finny to fall from a tree; in turn,
Finny becomes a cripple, destroying his bright and promising
future. When Finny learns that Gene, his supposed best friend, has
caused his accident, he is shocked and hurt. Feeling that his trust
and faith have been violated, he falls down the stairs and breaks his
leg again. In turn, Gene is more ravaged with guilt than ever.
Gene’s antagonist is really himself. Although he pretends to be his
friend, he has a deep jealousy for Finny, his roommate. Since
Finny is admired by the teachers and the students for his athletic
ability and his carefree, spontaneous ways, Gene longs to be like
him and tries to imitate him. When he is unsuccessful, he takes his
failure out on Finny, causing him to fall from the tree and become
a cripple. Then Gene must wrestle with his guilt.
The climax of the novel is reached during the student trial scene
toward the end of the novel. Several times in the book, Gene has
tried to admit his guilt to Finny, but Finny will not believe him, for
he wants to have total faith in his best friend. At the trial, Finny is
forced to face the fact that Gene has caused his accident. He is so
upset by the realization that he rushes from the room, falls down
the stairs, and re-breaks his leg. Now Gene must deal honestly with
the accident, for everyone suspects the truth.
The story is a tragic comedy. Although Finny dies, Gene does
mature. Driven by guilt, Gene realizes that he is his own enemy
and accepts that a person cannot measure oneself by the abilities of
another person. He accepts that he can only be himself and act
accordingly. It is obvious that he will never totally forgive himself,
as evidenced by the fact that he returns to Devon many years later
to revisit the tree (the scene of the accident) and the First Building
(the scene of the trial and Finny’s second fall); however, he has
come to grips with who he is and what he has done. He also has
refused to let the memories of Finny fade, which is why he has
narrated the story.
A Separate Peace is told as a flashback by Gene Forrester. He
returns to Devon, a private preparatory school that he had attended
during World War II. He visits his old alma mater to specifically
visit two spots on and near campus: the First Building and a tree
beside the Devon River. His visit triggers a flashback to his
experiences during the summer session when he was sixteen years
old and an Upper Middler. The flashback is his coming of age
story and his attempt to come to grips with his experiences at
Devon and the world at large. Throughout the flashback, Gene,
serving as the first person narrator, fights a war within himself.
Gene remembers how he and Finny, his best friend and roommate,
had gone near a large tree by the river one afternoon. Finny, who
was by nature daring and spontaneous, suggested that the two of
them jump from the tree. None of the younger boys had ever dared
to do this feat before. Although Gene is frightened, he follows his
friend’s lead; he jumps because he does not want to be ridiculed by
Finny. After the jumping incident, Finny organizes the Summer
Suicide Society; all of the members of this society must jump from
the tree into the river.
Although friends, Gene and Finny are very different. While Gene
is a good student, Finny is a good athlete, probably the best at
Devon. Where Gene tends to be quiet and studious, Finny has a
vibrant, outgoing, and daring personality. Finny is also very clever,
always managing to get himself through any situation. It is not
surprising that Finny is very well liked by both teachers and
student. Gene absolutely idolizes him, considering him a hero; but
Gene also is jealous and resentful of him. Gene’s grades are
suffering because he spends too much time with Finny. He is
convinced that Finny is intentionally trying to make him a bad
As the novel progresses, Gene’s jealousy intensifies. In fact, his
internal conflict develops to such a degree that it becomes an
insanely destructive power that wants to destroy this “perfect”
friend. On one occasion when he is in the tree with Finny, Gene
purposely bounces the limb to make his friend fall out of the tree.
Finny is seriously injured and must be taken to the hospital. The
doctor announces that Finny’s leg has been so badly broken that he
will be partially crippled. Although he will be able to walk, he will
never be able to play sports again.
Gene’s jealousy turns to fear and then to guilt. At first he worries
that Finny suspects that he has caused the accident and will report
that Gene has caused him to fall off the limb. To allay his fear, he
goes to talk with Finny and finds that his friend trusts him
completely and has no suspicion about what has happened to him.
Gene then becomes riddled with guilt. He is relieved when the
summer session is over, and he can go home for a break. On his
way back to Devon after summer vacation, Gene stops to see the
crippled Finny at his home. In order to relieve his conscience, he
confesses to his friend that he was responsible for the accident.
Finny, however, refuses to believe the confession.
Back at Devon, school life is very different for Gene without Finny
around. Brinker, the leader of the class, becomes suspicious about
Finny’s accident. He playfully accuses Gene of doing away with
Finny so that he can have a room all to himself. Gene is very much
embarrassed and uncomfortable over the joke. Continually haunted
by the memory of the accident, Gene tries to bury himself in his
studies. Then Finny shows up again. He is determined to make
Gene into a good athlete; they strike an agreement where Gene will
coach Finny in his studies, and Finny will coach Gene in sports.
Gene’s guilt intensifies as he sees Finny struggling with his
crutches and with life. His mood then worsens because of World
War II, which is raging across the ocean. Because many of the
regular workers at Devon are off fighting in the war, the students
have the extra burden of doing manual labor around the campus.
Additionally, many students are beginning to leave school to enlist.
Gene thinks about the war constantly. Then the war begins to
invade the peaceful environs of Devon. Leper, a fellow student
who devotes himself to butterflies, birds, and beavers, enlists in the
army. Unable to take the pressures of army life and fighting, Leper
becomes psychotic. When Gene goes to visit him, he grows fearful
that his own personal war will cause his own insanity.
Finny admits that he refuses to think about the war since he cannot
participate in it because he is crippled. Gene is a bit envious of
Finny, for he has no decision to make about enlisting in the army.
He will be able to retain his own separate peace. But then Brinker
shatters the peace for both Finny and Gene. Suspecting foul play in
Finny’s accident, he organizes a student trial to investigate what
has really happened. Gene and Finny are led to the assembly room
in the First Building. The assembled students begin to question
Finny about what happened in the tree. Gene quickly realizes that
he is being accused of causing the accident. Finny, finally
understanding the truth, leaves the room in a confused state of
mind. He falls on the slippery stairs and breaks his crippled leg
When Gene goes to visit Finny, he finds that his friend has
changed, seeming totally indifferent to life. He then, however,
begins to question Gene about why he caused the accident. He asks
whether it was an act of blind impulse or of personal hatred. Gene,
tongue-tied with guilt, has trouble responding, but tries to convince
him he has no personal hatred. Later in the day Finny dies of
complications from the new break in the leg. The doctor says that
some of the marrow had migrated into his blood stream.
Amazingly, Gene does not cry over Finny’s death; he knows that
he is too numb for tears. He also feels that he has died with Finny,
and one does not cry over one’s own death.
The novel is a coming of age story; it describes an adolescent’s
growth into maturity as he tries to come to grips with the world in
general and his own life in particular. The main theme revolves
around the pain of growing into manhood.
Closely related to the main theme of the novel is the secondary
theme related to the danger of jealousy. Although openly a friend
to Finny, Gene was really extremely jealous of this well-liked and
talented student. His jealousy was so intense that it led him to
bounce Finny out of the tree, causing him to become a cripple and
indirectly causing his death.
A second minor theme is the pain of war. The backdrop for the
entire novel is World War II, which is in sharp contrast to the
peaceful and removed environs of Devon; but as students begin to
leave the school to join the military, the separate peace of Devon is
Since the novel is set against a background of the Second World
War and the narrator’s mind is riddled with jealousy and then guilt,
the mood is primarily one of confusion. At points in the novel, it
seems that Gene is totally unstable.
John Knowles was born on September 16, 1926, in Fairmont, West
Virginia. He entered Phillips Exeter Academy, a prestigious
boarding school in New Hampshire, when he was fifteen years old;
he studied there during all of World War II. The setting of Devon
in his first novel was based on Exeter. After completing Exeter in
1945, Knowles spent eight months in the Air Force Aviation Cadet
Program; but he decided to continue his studies. He entered Yale
University, graduating in 1949 with a Bachelor of Arts degree. It
was during his years at Yale that he began his literary career,
contributing stories to the undergraduate literary magazine and
editing the school newspaper.
After leaving Yale, Knowles worked as a journalist and free-lance
writer. He also traveled in Europe and began writing and
publishing his short stories. In 1957, he became an associate editor
for Holiday Magazine and continued to write his fiction. He
published his first novel, A Separate Peace, in 1959. It became so
popular that he was able to resign his position at the magazine in
order to travel and write full time. The novel also won both the
Rosenthal Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and
the William Faulkner Foundation Award.
After A Separate Peace, Knowles published eight other novels,
including Morning in Antibes (1962), Indian Summer (1966), The
Paragon (1971), and Peace Breaks Out (1981); none of them
received as much critical or popular acclaim as did his first novel.
He has also published a travel book entitled Double Vision and a
collection of short stories entitled Phineas. In addition to writing,
Knowles has lectured widely and served as writer-in-residence at
Although World War II serves as the background for the entire
novel, it is painted in vague terms. Few specific details are given,
other than Finny’s references to the American bombing of Central
Europe, the passing of the troop trains near Devon, the presence of
the military recruiters on campus, and Leper’s Section 8 discharge.
Instead of giving details, Knowles uses the war as a depressing
backdrop for Gene’s personal battles and as a contrast to the
normally peaceful environment at Devon. What goes on in the war
is not so important as the fact that there is a war going on to disturb
the peace of the students.
John Knowles has clearly indicated that the Devon in his book was
patterned after Exeter, the exclusive private boarding school that
he attended during World War II. He said of Exeter, “It was more
crucial in my life than in the lives of . . . almost anyone else who
ever attended the school. It picked me up out of the hills of West
Virginia, forced me to learn to study, tossed me into Yale, and a
few years later inspired me to write . . . A Separate Peace.
Physically, Devon and Exeter are very similar. Both had expansive
playing fields, a winding river, great trees, and pure air. Like Gene
and Finny, Knowles attended the summer session in 1943. During
that summer, the author met David Hackett, on whom he modeled
Phineas. He also belonged to a club whose members jumped from
the branch of a tree into the river as an initiation feat. In the fall of
1943, Knowles felt a change in the school. Many of the familiar
teachers had left to fight in the war. The students at Exeter, like
those at Devon in 1943, were expected to help with the apple
harvest and the clearing of the railroad tracks.
Even though much of the novel is written out of personal
experience, Knowles claims that he is not any one of the characters
in the book. He says he was not a good enough athlete to be Finny
and not a good enough student to be Gene. Instead, he has invested
small parts of himself in several of the different characters.
Knowles incorporates many vivid images into his novel. The first
part of the book contains abundant pastoral images and descriptive
passages. The school is described in almost Eden-like terms with
its enormous playing fields, healthy green turf, gently flowing
river, and calling birds. This peaceful environment serves as a
sharp contrast to the world war that rages in Europe and the
personal conflict that rages in Gene’s mind. Throughout the novel,
the images of water take on symbolic significance. Gene gets a
baptism in to his Finny-like life in the clean, delightful waters of
the Devon River. In contrast, he gets muddied by the dirty, nasty
Naguamsett River during the time that he is in turmoil over Finny’s
accident. Gene also sees Finny’s leg cast like a sea anchor,
weighing both of them down.
The tree that hangs over the river is an important and symbolic
image throughout the book. It offers Gene the first opportunity to
become more like Finny; he jumps from its branches into the
Devon River below, a daring feat that scares him to death. It is also
the tree that causes the creation of the Super Suicide Society,
formed by Finny to celebrate freedom and disregard of authority.
Most importantly, the tree allows Gene to punish Finny for his
superiority; he pushes his friend from the tree, causing him to
become a cripple.
Indirectly, the tree leads to Gene’s self-examination and acceptance
of who he is and his relationship to Finny. During Finny’s absence
from school, Gene, for the first, time starts acting on his own. In
the past, he had always done things the way that Finny had wanted
him to do. When Finny returns to school, Gene realizes that Finny
is not a super hero; as a cripple, he is just another human being
struggling with existence. Now Finny needs Gene, just as Gene
had needed Finny. The tree, therefore, leads Gene to pain, and out
of the pain comes an emerging knowledge and acceptance of self.
When Gene leaves Devon to join the Navy, he is still in the process
of maturing and accepting what has happened to him at school.
As an adult, Gene comes back to Devon to come to grips with the
power that the tree has held over him during his life. When he
finally locates the tree by the river, it is not so fearful as he
imagined. He notices that it has changed a great deal; like the
narrator himself, the tree has aged and matured, seeming almost