Foreshadowing in A Separate Peace

Instructor: Lauren Boivin

Lauren has taught English at the university level and has a master's degree in literature.

This lesson looks at the uses of foreshadowing in the novel A Separate Peace, by John Knowles. In this novel, foreshadowing sets up and connects each of the novel's main events.

Framed by Foreshadowing

Have you ever reached a point in a novel where something happens and you think, 'Ah! I should have known!' You can look back and see that the author has left you a trail of hints, leading you precisely to this moment. That trail of hints is called foreshadowing, and John Knowleds uses a lot of it in A Separate Peace.

The story really begins when the novel's main character, Gene Forrester is an adult and is visiting the boarding school he attended as a youth. The events which comprise the story we have yet to read have already happened for adult Gene, and he is returning now to reconsider them. We learn that this is more than the usual nostalgia when he tells us he has come to see two places in particular, both of which are 'fearful sites' to him.

The Tree

One of the two 'fearful sites' Gene visits at the novel's opening is a certain tree by the river. At this point, the reader might think it odd that Gene wants to find one tree in particular. He tells us that the tree has 'loomed in my memory as a huge lone spike' and he is now surprised to find that this tree--so poignant in his memory--is really just one among 'several trees bleakly reaching into the fog.' Why would an ordinary and unremarkable tree have 'loomed' in Gene's memory in such a foreboding way for so long?

A Fearful Site

The Stairs

The other of the 'fearful sites' Gene visits is a flight of marble stairs. He stands observing them for some time, noting various details about them. He especially notices that, even though the stairs are quite old, they are not very worn despite the many feet which have tramped up and down them.

'The marble must be unusually hard,' he concludes, and then he wonders, 'with all my thought about these stairs, this exceptional hardness had not occurred to me.' The hardness, he asserts, is 'a crucial fact.' Just as with the tree, the reader is made to wonder about these stairs. Why is their hardness so important?

The Marble Must be Unusually Hard
Marble Staircase

Impending Death

The significance of both the tree and the stairs is foreshadowed in the statement, 'Nothing endures, not a tree, not love, not even a death by violence.' The tree's significance is further hinted at when we learn Gene and his friend Phineas (also called Finny) used to jump out of it into the river below.

The tree was high and dangerous and one day Gene nearly falls. He realizes afterward that 'I could have fallen on the bank and broken my back! ... I could have been killed.' This very thing does happen to Finny not long afterward. He and Gene are preparing to jump off the limb together at the same time when Gene inexplicably jostles the limb. Gene watches as Finny falls to the ground. He does not reach out to save him, but instead blithely jumps into the river as though nothing has happened.

Finny's Fragility

Phineas recovers--more or less--from his fall out of the tree, but this foreshadowing of death remains in the reader's mind. Finny remains weak despite his apparent recovery. Gene realizes that Finny's show of strength is really just an 'illusion' which Phineas uses to 'deceive his doctor and his family' into thinking he is well enough to return to school.

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