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A Separate Peace by John Knowles: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Katherine Garner

Katie teaches middle school English/Language Arts and has a master's degree in Secondary English Education

John Knowles' 1959 novel ''A Separate Peace'' is a classic coming-of-age story, primarily concerning the friendship of two young men growing up during World War II. In this lesson, you will find a summary of the novel, an analysis of its major themes, and a short quiz at the end.

Novel Synopsis

A Separate Peace is set at Devon, a boarding school for boys in New Hampshire. The novel uses a framing device, in that the major plot of the story takes place within a larger context, so there is a story within a story. The novel begins with one of the main characters, Gene Forrester, returning to Devon as an adult. He walks around campus to find significant landmarks and reflects on events that had happened fifteen years earlier. There is foreshadowing, or giving hints about what will happen later in the book, as he stops to look at a tree and a flight of marble stairs. He begins to reminisce and the majority of the novel takes place during the flashback from fifteen years earlier. In this way, Gene's visit to Devon as an adult is a frame for the rest of the novel, setting the stage for the plot.

Gene's flashback begins with the summer of 1942 when he stayed at Devon for summer school when he was sixteen. This was a significant time for him for several reasons. Because a lot of the school's rules relaxed during the summer, he and his friends had a lot of freedom with little consequence. Gene's roommate, Phineas, or 'Finny,' was an extremely charismatic and energetic person; he led the boys in most of their adventures that summer and became Gene's best friend. Finally, Gene realized that the freedom they felt that summer was doubly significant because of the onset of America's involvement in World War II; his cohort, though still too young to be drafted, was the oldest at his school.

Phineas' energy was a driving force for all the boys, especially Gene, that summer. He invented games, instigated trips, and even started a secret society called the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session. The initiation requirement was that new members had to climb a particular tree near one of the rivers on campus, crawl out on a limb, and jump far enough away from the tree to land in deep water. Gene made the jump many times throughout the summer at Finny's command, though the fear never wore off.

Though Gene and Phineas were close friends, Gene had a strong sense of rivalry with Finny. Gene was quieter and more studious, while Phineas was more extroverted and athletic; he was lucky to make a C in any of his classes. There is a strong undercurrent of competition and resentment, especially on Gene's side, as he thinks that Finny is always trying to outdo him. He begins to work even harder at school, but Finny constantly comes up with activities that he demands he participate in; as a result, Gene feels he is trying to sabotage his efforts.

One evening, Gene and Finny are walking on campus when Finny decides they should jump from the tree. Gene reluctantly follows and climbs behind him. As Finny crawls out onto the tree, Gene bounces on the branch. Finny loses his balance and falls, shattering one of his legs. This is a major turning point in the book, as Gene is burdened by guilt; meanwhile, Finny has lost the graceful athleticism that was such an important part of his identity. Finny returns to his family's home near Boston for several months while his leg heals.

When students return to Devon for the fall semester, the tone has changed from the carefree summer to more somber and anxious, especially as more students are thinking about enlisting or being drafted. Finny returns a couple months later and is Gene's roommate again. Gene tries to confront him several times about his role in Finny's accident, but Finny does not want to acknowledge that Gene may be to blame. He is also protective of Gene against other students who think that Gene knocked Finny out of the tree on purpose. Gene himself is not sure how consciously or purposely he jounced the branch causing Finny to fall, but he feels guilty about it because he had such strong feelings of resentment toward Finny before it happened.

As Gene and Finny's classmates grow more and more anxious about the war, Finny decides that he doesn't think the war really exists; it is just something that fat old men have made up to control people. Gene later learns that Finny decided to believe this because he was so angry that he couldn't be part of it.

Gene would like to believe Finny but can't completely. One of their classmates, a mild-mannered, nature-loving boy named Elwin 'Leper' Lepellier, is one of the first to enlist. He is sent home, however, from having a nervous breakdown from the stress of the war. It is difficult for Gene and Finny to maintain their delusion about the nonexistence of the war after they see how Leper has changed.

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