Notes For A Separate Peace Essay Research

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.



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

and shame.

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

idolizes him.


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

at Devon.



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.

PLOT (Synopsis)

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.


Author Information

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

Princeton University.


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.

Literary Information

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



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