The Tree in A Separate Peace

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

In the novel 'A Separate Peace' by John Knowles, the tree haunts Gene for fifteen years after leaving Devon School. In this lesson, we will learn more about the significance of the tree.

Fifteen Years Later - Coming in out of the Rain

Have you ever gone back to visit someone or someplace years later and found that it is not what you remembered? The Suicide Tree in 'A Separate Peace' is one of those places for Gene.

The Suicide tree plays such a significant role in Gene's life at Devon School that years later it is one of only two places that Gene feels like he needs to visit so that he can finally 'come in out of the rain'. But when he finally does return to the school fifteen years after graduation to attempt to make peace with his past, he's surprised to find that the tree is not as intimidating as it used to be. In fact, he's almost is unable to identify it because there are so many others that are similar.

'This was the tree, and it seemed to me standing there to resemble those men, the giants of your childhood, whom you encounter years later and find that they are not merely smaller in relation to your growth, but that they are absolutely smaller, shrunken by age. In this double demotion the old giants have become pigmies while you were looking the other way.'

After reflecting on how this tree has haunted him, Gene thinks, 'Nothing endures, not a tree, not love, not even a death by violence.'

The Suicide Tree draws Gene back to Devon

Suicide Tree

The tree is significant to all students at Devon because it is used as part of the training regimen of students in their senior year in their preparations for enlistment in World War II.

Gene remembers how in his junior year, they were just playing at war; however, this was not the case for his upperclassmen. 'The class above, seniors, draft-bait, practically soldiers, rushed ahead of us toward the war. They were caught up in accelerated courses and first-aid programs and a physical hardening regimen, which included jumping from this tree,'

Finny and Gene become best friends in their junior year of high school when Finny persuades Gene to jump from the tree into the river in order to do their part in the war effort. Together, they create the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session. Anyone who wants to become a full-fledged member must jump out of the tree. There are several trainees, but Gene and Finny are the only members.

Gene secretly resents Finny for shaming him into jumping and finds the nightly meetings are interfering with his studies. Jealous over Finny's popularity and imagining evils that don't really exist, Gene 'jounces' the limb of the tree while they are standing on it and sends Finny crashing onto the bank below.

Finny's Recovery

Finny's dreams of being an Olympic athlete and fighting in the war are over as his leg is shattered, and he is lucky that he will be able to walk again. Finny cannot comprehend that his best friend would purposely hurt him, so he blocks it from his memory.

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