Study Guide

A Separate Peace

by John Knowles

A Separate Peace Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

With its publication in the United States in 1960 (it was first published in England), John Knowles’s short novel A Separate Peace became an instant success with young readers. Within that year, the book was granted three awards: the first William Faulkner Foundation Award, the Rosenthal Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and the National Association of Independent Schools Award.

The novel has a simple story line presented initially in the first-person voice, but it quickly modifies to a dual view of events as experienced in a flashback view of incidents that occurred fifteen years before the opening scene, coupled with a mature assessment of those incidents. This combination of narrative voices gives the tale the immediacy of an eyewitness account while providing the author wide-ranging possibilities for omniscient commentary on the larger meaning of events.

The main setting of the novel is the Devon School in the hills of New Hampshire during the summer session of 1942 and the academic year that follows. The action focuses on a small group of boys completing their junior year by taking accelerated summer courses to allow them the extra time they will need as seniors to participate in training activities readying them to join the armed forces at war in Europe and Asia. The war and their proximity to participation in it are sustained factors in the minds of the boys, though they feign a youthful indifference to its threat. Fear is their constant unacknowledged companion, fear of the unknown horrors that lie ahead and fear of their inability to conduct themselves well in battle.

Though they would not likely consider it as such, these boys are already engaged in a battle in the quiet halls of Devon. This is their battle with some of the many fears that teenagers must face while growing to maturity: fear of not belonging or being displaced in the affections of one’s friends; the proud fear of loss of status, of not performing up to others’ expectations; even fear of surrendering to irrational hatreds caused by jealousy and to the latent violence that each boy senses within himself and others. Knowles leads the reader through skirmishes of this battle by detailing the experiences of two boys in this group, Gene Forrester and Phineas.

Gene is an intelligent, cautious boy raised by a supportive southern family. He has enjoyed three academically successful years at Devon and is respected by his professors and classmates as a scholar and athlete. In contrast to Gene’s moderation in all things, Phineas, his Bostonian roommate, known to all as Finny, is possessed of a uniquely free spirit. Finny, who lives always for the exhilaration of the moment, is a peerless athlete of perfect physical coordination. He views life as a great playing field on which all are engaged in a romping game of friendly competition and everyone is a winner. With these two characters, Knowles presents the dichotomous aspects of the mythic American male—half conservative intellectual, half noble savage. A major premise of this novel is the necessity for the reconciliation of these two aspects as one.

Finny’s charming manner and facile tongue make it possible for him to escape with ease the usual disciplinary consequences of every wild scheme his unfettered imagination can propose. One such scheme is the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session. Members of this elite club are initiated by a single perilous jump from the limb of a great tree into the Devon River, which runs through the school grounds. Gene and Finny, however, as the club’s only charter members, must make the leap every night.

As the summer moves toward its close, Gene becomes concerned about his grades and begins to resent Finny’s continual demands on his time through this and other impromptu interruptions of his study hours. He begins at first to feel that Finny is deliberately trying to make him fail in his bid for top student of the class, while Finny himself will continue to be lauded as the best athlete. Gene lacks self-awareness of the growing anger he feels toward his roommate and of his jealousy of Finny’s ability to get by with outrageous behavior. At first he is able to cloak these feelings with the self-lie that Finny is also envious of him. When he at last realizes that this is not so, he sees himself as inferior to Finny even in this, and his anger cannot be contained. At a nightly meeting of the suicide club, in an unreasoned, unplanned act that Gene later blames on “some ignorance inside me, some crazy thing . . . something blind,” he bounces the limb, causing Finny to fall awkwardly onto the bank below, splintering the bones of one leg so severely that the doctor predicts he will never play sports again.

At the opening of the fall term, Gene visits Finny at his home in Boston, where he is still recuperating, and there makes an awkward attempt to confess his guilt for the supposed accident. Finny brusquely refuses to accept Gene’s admission; he is unable, in his total truthfulness, to believe that his closest friend could betray him. As the term goes forward, Gene sets himself to atone for his action against Finny by staying out of sports. He occasionally even wears some of Finny’s clothes in a vain attempt to put on the mind and spirit of the friend he has maimed through unreasoned jealousy. It is a period of moral agony and doubt for Gene as he feels the war within his heart increase in intensity parallel to that of the war raging across the world outside the haven of the Devon school.

Gene’s confession, blurted out clumsily in Finny’s home, is not enough to cleanse his guilt and fear. Reconciliation is vital for both boys; neither can escape the necessity of forgiving and being forgiven. Though they are able to avoid the pain of that action for several months after Finny returns to Devon, in the final week of their last term, the moment of reconciliation comes. A mock investigation is proposed as a jest by a few boys, purporting to uncover the facts of Finny’s accident. The truth of Gene’s action is finally forced upon Finny, and in dashing from the scene in angry confusion, Finny falls once again, injuring himself fatally. In their few moments together on the morning before his death, Gene and Finny at last find peace: Gene in the humbling self-acceptance of the potential for savagery within everyone, and Finny in an understanding and acceptance of such human frailty possible even within a closest friend.

Much allegorical and symbolic material is woven throughout this short novel, which opens it to multiple interpretations of its rich layers of meaning. It can be viewed, for example, as a tale of Original Sin, with the Devon School as an Eden enclosing the great Tree of Knowledge through which humankind falls from innocence but is redeemed by the suffering of a totally innocent one. It may also be approached as a reworking of the classic tale of the need to accept the potential evil within everyone and thus make peace with one’s true self.

A Separate Peace Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The entire story of A Separate Peace is narrated by the main character, Gene Forrester. Every action in the novel is presented through his eyes, as Forrester looks back upon the summer and fall of 1942 from the perspective of 1957. Gene Forrester, therefore, is a thirty-one-year-old man looking back at the year 1942, when he was sixteen years old at the Devon School.

Gene Forrester has come to Devon from the South, although Knowles never specifically identifies Forrester’s home state. At Devon, Forrester is exposed to a distinctly New England environment as personified by three characters at the school: Brinker Hadley, Elwin “Leper” Lepellier, and Phineas (called “Finny,” with no last name given). There is not much action in A Separate Peace, as the novel primarily explores the highly complex psychological bond that is established between Forrester and Finny. Whereas Forrester is an exemplary student, Finny is indifferent to his classroom activities and does not envy Forrester’s superiority in his studies. Finny is, however, a superior athlete, and Forrester is clearly envious of, yet attracted to, his friend’s physical prowess.

The first four chapters of A Separate Peace are perhaps the most important in the novel. While he is drawn to Finny, especially as Finny possesses a carefree attitude toward everything around him, Forrester feels compelled to compete with his friend: Finny wins the Galbraith Football Trophy and the Contact Sports Award, so Forrester aims at becoming the head of his class on graduation day, winning the Ne Plus Ultra Scholastic Achievement Citation. Vying with Finny in this way, and in many others, Forrester is still not content. He wishes to be Finny’s athletic equal, which leads him to abandon his studies (the day before a critical examination) for an unexcused trip to the beach. This kind of competition also takes Forrester up into a tree, out of which he jumps into a river, at Finny’s dare.

The tree is at the center of the novel’s action. At the end of chapter 4, while Finny is preparing for his own jump into the river, Forrester deliberately jostles the limb on which Finny is standing (in an earlier part of the novel, Forrester slipped on this same limb and almost fell; he was saved, however, by Finny). Finny falls and severely breaks his leg; his athletic career is over, and while he convalesces at home, Forrester tries to account for his actions. At one point during the summer he visits Finny’s home and tries to tell Finny that he made him fall on purpose, but Finny refuses to believe that Forrester intentionally harmed him.

When school resumes at Devon, Finny is still recuperating, so Forrester must find other allegiances at the school; at the same time, a new development begins to dominate the atmosphere of Devon: Enlistments are beginning for World War II. All the boys are eager to enlist; all do enlist before the novel ends, but Forrester is last because, on the day he intends to join, Phineas returns to the Devon School. Thinking that Finny needs him for an effective recovery, Forrester temporarily abandons his enlistment plans. This allows Knowles to introduce two key episodes. First, the eccentric Lepellier sneaks out of Devon to enlist immediately for the war; quickly, however, he suffers an emotional breakdown in boot camp and is discharged in a state of shock. This is the first indication that the reality awaiting the Devon School boys is not an attractive one. A second and more important event occurs when Brinker Hadley initiates a mock trial of Forrester, to enquire if Forrester maliciously caused Finny’s accident. Although Hadley is not truly serious, Finny reacts violently to the episode: He runs away from the trial, falls a second time, and, again, breaks his leg. This injury leads to a second confrontation between Forrester and Finny, in which Finny admits that he knows Forrester deliberately caused his fall. During the second operation, Finny dies.

At the novel’s end, something also dies inside Gene Forrester; some evil or uncontrollable part of his nature disappears with Finny’s death. Forrester finds that he is finally at peace with himself (thus the novel’s title), but he is not a happy individual. As he describes it, his life after the war is a monotonous routine.

A Separate Peace Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In 1958, Gene Forrester returns to his preparatory school, the Devon School, and reflects on the events that occurred there fifteen years prior. His memories start with the summer session of 1942 and end after a tragic event during the 1943 school year. Central to Gene’s reflections is his relationship with his roommate and best friend Phineas, who most people affectionately call “Finny.”

As a student, Gene is a far more dedicated and successful than Finny, but he feels threatened by Finny’s athleticism. Gene also envies his friend for several reasons, including his honesty and his ability to get away with almost anything: School administrators rarely punish Finny since they are quelled by his sincere charm. Gene also proves subject to Finny’s charisma. The two often flout rules together, and in one instance they bike to the ocean. While there, Finny tells Gene that he considers Gene his best friend; Gene says nothing in return.

The summer of 1942 appears peaceful, and the students seem somehow apart from the rest of the world, which is plagued by the effects of World War II. On Finny’s initiative, some students form the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session. The society’s members engage in daring actions, such as jumping from an enormous tree into the river below. Gene and Finny jump together, and Finny considers this jump symbolic of the solidarity of their friendship. Meanwhile, Gene’s feelings of jealousy toward Finny grow; Gene feels irritated by Finny dragging him to Suicide Society meetings every night, especially when Gene wants to spend the evenings studying. Gene suspects that Finny, who is already more athletically gifted than he is, wants to sabotage Gene’s academic studies so Gene will no longer best Finny in any way.

One night, Gene tells Finny he does not want to attend the society’s meeting and expects a poor reaction from Finny. Instead, Finny simply tells Gene not to come along; he assumes Gene’s scholastic abilities are natural and apologizes for preventing him from studying. Confident that Finny’s intentions are pure, Gene decides to attend the meeting after all. At the meeting, Gene and Finny again climb the tree and prepare to jump. Gene’s knees bend, the limb they are standing on trembles, and Finny plummets to the ground. The impact completely shatters the star athlete’s leg.

Finny returns to his hometown, and Gene visits him there. He tells Finny that he shook the tree limb purposefully, but Finny refuses to believe him. Now in their final year, the students feel the pressure of the war. One day after Gene and Brinker Hadley (an influential classmate) shovel out some train tracks buried in snow, they watch recruits pass by and are inspired by the young men, who are not much older than themselves. During their return trip to Devon, they run into Elwin “Leper” Lepellier, a shy boy with a love for nature and skiing. Leper has spent the day skiing; this disgusts Brinker, who feels his fellow students are not sufficiently concerned about the war. Brinker suddenly decides to enlist, and Gene decides to do the same. Gene changes his mind, however, when he notices that Finny has returned, confined to crutches.

Brinker also does not enlist but instead resigns from most of his extracurricular activities since, in the light of the war, they seem frivolous. Finny encourages Gene to improve his physical abilities, and Gene does, viewing the commitment as an obligation to Finny because he destroyed Finny’s physical prowess, even if unintentionally. The two roommates refuse to let Finny’s accident and whatever caused it affect their friendship.

After watching a film showing troops on skis, Leper enlists. His shocked classmates imagine shy Leper committing amazing feats for the allies. Instead, Leper begins hallucinating and sees human limbs in arbitrary places. He deserts the Army before he can be discharged and sneaks back to Devon.

Brinker tries to convince Gene that, for Finny’s own good, people must stop pitying him and make him confront the reality that he is crippled. Gene dislikes this suggestion. That evening, some of Brinker’s friends force Finny and Gene into a building where students dressed in robes begin questioning Finny and Gene. They stage a trial to divine how Finny fell from the tree. The two friends clearly do not want to discuss the matter, but the other students press them. They even call Leper as a witness. Finny yells suddenly that he does not care about the outcome of the trial and hobbles off on his crutches. A loud crash follows. Finny has fallen down a large staircase, breaking his leg for a second time.

Staff members take Finny to the infirmary, and Gene follows. Once Finny is alone, Gene attempts to talk to him. Outraged, Finny asks Gene what else of his Gene plans to break. Gene returns the next day, and Finny apologizes for the way he treated Gene, explaining that the catalyst for his anger was his rejection from all military branches. Finny has spent the last few months trying to enlist, but, because of his leg, no organization will allow him entrance. Crying, Finny asks Gene if it was just an impulse to shake the tree branch, and Gene says it was an accident. Finny believes him.

After class, Gene returns to the infirmary. The doctor informs him that while he was setting the broken bone some marrow made its way into Finny’s heart. As a result, Finny died. Gene does not cry for his friend. Instead, he reflects on how people and countries create their own enemies, as Gene once did with Finny. Gene remembers Finny for his sincerity and realizes the only enemy Gene had at school was himself.

A Separate Peace Overview

A Separate Peace was recognized immediately as an extremely sensitive account of a young man's self-discovery through the process of...

(The entire section is 328 words.)

A Separate Peace Summary

In John Knowles's A Separate Peace, Gene Forrester returns to visit New Hampshire's Devon School after a fifteen-year absence. He...

(The entire section is 1472 words.)

A Separate Peace Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1 Summary

Gene Forrester returns to the Devon School fifteen years after his matriculation. He is surprised that the school seems more "sedate" and "shiny" than he remembers it. He attributes this observation to the fact that when he was a student at Devon, there had been a war going on. It is a dreary November day, and Gene feels "fear's echo," a remembrance of the mood that overshadowed everything in those days. He is surprised to discover that, somewhere along the way, the fear has left him, without his even noticing. There are two places Gene particularly wants to see again; the first of these is the foyer of the First Academy Building. Gene notes the hardness of the marble floor in the foyer and the staircase leading down to it. It is...

(The entire section is 561 words.)

Chapter 2 Summary

As a consequence of having missed dinner, Gene and Finny are visited the next morning by Mr. Prud'homme, a substitute teacher for the summer. When questioned about their whereabouts the night before, Finny blithely explains, with "scatterbrained eloquence," that he and Gene had been swimming in the river, had engaged in a wrestling match, and had stopped to watch the sunset. His manner is so earnest and his excuses so preposterous that Mr. Prud'homme is won over despite himself. Even Finny's confession that they also "just had to jump out of that tree," an act which is more condemning than missing a meal, does not bring down upon the boys the punishment which they probably deserve. Gene is amazed at Finny's uncanny capability...

(The entire section is 640 words.)

Chapter 3 Summary

Finny had practically saved Gene's life by keeping him from falling from the tree, but he had practically lost it for him too, because Gene would never have been up in the tree in the first place but for Finny's influence. The Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session is an instant success, with friends of Gene and Finny signing up to be "trainees." Finny decrees that the Society should meet every night, and that he and Gene should open each meeting by jumping from the tree. Gene, though he abhors the ritual, never considers not jumping, because he does not want to lose face with Phineas.

Finny, who loves sports, is quite disgusted with the athletic program in the summer, which consists of "a little...

(The entire section is 619 words.)

Chapter 4 Summary

When Gene awakens on the beach the next morning, he realizes that his trigonometry test is going to begin in just a few hours. Finny, however, calculates that there is time for a short swim before leaving, so the boys arrive back at Devon just in time for Gene's test, which he fails. In the afternoon, Finny arranges for the group to play a game of blitzball, and right after dinner, there is a meeting of the Super Suicide Society. That night, as Gene tries desperately to catch up on the work in which he has been falling behind, Finny asks him why he always works so hard, commenting that he must be vying to graduate at the head of the class so that he will be able to make a speech on Graduation Day. Finny's words bring Gene to the...

(The entire section is 528 words.)

Chapter 5 Summary

There is no news about Finny from the infirmary during the following few days, other than the information that one of his legs has been "shattered." Finny's injury has a significant effect on the masters, who seem to feel that it is somehow unfair that a sixteen-year-old, one of the few boys who do not yet have to suffer because of the war, should be struck down in such a manner. Burdened with the knowledge that he had caused the accident, Gene is overcome with guilt, but surprisingly, no one appears to suspect his role in what had happened. One morning, Dr. Stanpole accosts Gene, telling him that Finny is better and "could stand a visitor or two." Dr. Stanpole says that although Finny has endured a "messy break" and will hereafter...

(The entire section is 614 words.)

Chapter 6 Summary

With the beginning of the Winter Session, peace officially deserts Devon. Formality and order replace the easygoing aura of summer, and at the first chapel service, the masters sit in their stalls in front of and at right angles to the student body, as if "they (have) never been away." Continuity is the keynote of the ceremony, although five of the regular teachers are missing because they have gone to war, and it is announced that maids will be unavailable "for the Duration." Gene reflects that the assertion that the traditions of Devon have never been broken is a fallacy; during the summer, "all rules (had been) forgotten." Still, that halcyon time had ended with Phineas's accident, and Gene recognizes that perhaps that tragedy...

(The entire section is 634 words.)

Chapter 7 Summary

After Gene has showered to wash away the sticky residue of the Naguamsett River, Brinker Hadley comes across the hall to visit him. Brinker is nattily dressed, looking like "the standard preparatory school article" in his gray gabardine suit, conservative tie, and cordovan shoes. Making himself at home, Brinker comments jokingly that Gene must wield quite a bit of influence to have a room all to himself, and he facetiously suggests that Gene must have plotted his roommate's demise to achieve this end. Brinker's playful accusations strike too close to the truth, making Gene very uncomfortable. Gene tries to change the subject, suggesting that they go down to the Butt Room for a smoke. The Butt Room, a drab, unpleasant place in...

(The entire section is 546 words.)

Chapter 8 Summary

When Gene enters the room, Phineas comments immediately on his grungy attire, and Gene tells him that he has been shoveling snow on the railroad. Reaching for a pair of crutches, Finny "vault(s)" across the room to his cot and complains when he sees it is not made up. Gene, a little irritated at his roommate's attitude, reminds him that there are no maids because there is a war on. Gene makes the bed up for Finny and falls asleep while Finny, as is his habit, is still talking. In the morning, Finny demands to hear once again why there are no maids. Brinker Hadley bounds into the room, enthusiastically asking Gene if he is ready to sign up before he notices that Finny is back. After greeting Finny, Brinker "curl(s) his lip" at...

(The entire section is 792 words.)

Chapter 9 Summary

Although Gene does not ever believe Finny's assertion that "the whole production of World War II (is) a trick of the eye manipulated by a bunch of calculating fat old men," he is drawn into Finny's "vision of peace" nonetheless. The happiness he derives from the delusion is so great that he is not even shaken when Leper Lepellier, an unlikely candidate, becomes the first to enlist among his classmates. Early in January, a recruiter from the United States ski troops had come to Devon and shown a film depicting "the cleanest image of war (Gene) had ever seen." Leper, who will shortly turn eighteen and lose his chance to choose the branch of the military in which he will serve, is enchanted by the images of "skiers in white shrouds"...

(The entire section is 645 words.)

Chapter 10 Summary

By the time Gene was to have become a soldier, the war would be in its closing stages, and his "chief war memory" would be traveling back and forth "through unknown parts of America" in an endless "nighttime ricochet." The first of these excursions is his trip to Leper's home in the austere, frozen landscape of upstate Vermont. The Lepellier home is not far from the nearest town, but as there are no taxis or other means of transportation there, Gene must walk the last leg of his journey. When he arrives at his destination, he finds that Leper is waiting for him, standing in one of the "long and narrow windows" that adorn the front of the house. When Gene enters the doorway, Leper beckons him to the dining room which he says,...

(The entire section is 677 words.)

Chapter 11 Summary

After his disturbing encounter with Leper, Gene wants only to see Phineas, who has managed to create for himself a world without conflict. When he gets back to Devon, he finds Finny in the midst of a raucous snowball fight, frolicking in the farthest northern reaches of the campus with a group of classmates, "the cream of the school, the lights and leaders of the senior class." Gene, not wanting to be questioned about Leper, tries to escape discreetly, but he is quickly initiated into the game by a snowball thrown at his head by Phineas. The fight deteriorates into hilarious confusion as, following Finny's lead, all loyalties are abandoned. As the teams disintegrate, the fight ends "in the only way possible": everyone gangs up on...

(The entire section is 975 words.)

Chapter 12 Summary

Everyone reacts with complete presence of mind in the wake of Phineas's fall. Gene wants desperately to be among those ministering to Finny, but discreetly hangs back, knowing that he was the cause of his friend's precipitous reaction. Dr. Stanpole is summoned and, after examining Finny, arranges to have him transported to the infirmary. Before he leaves, the doctor tells Gene that Finny's leg is broken again, but that it is a simple fracture this time.

Gene makes his way across the darkened campus to the infirmary and crouches in the grass beneath the window of Finny's room, listening to the murmur of voices coming from within. As the minutes pass, Gene thinks about the people inside, recalling each of their...

(The entire section is 738 words.)

Chapter 13 Summary

In June, the war comes to Devon in a concrete way when the Far Common is donated to the war effort. The campus will host a Parachute Riggers' school, and troops arrive in jeeps and heavy trucks, all painted in olive drab. No one has ever accused Gene for being responsible for what had happened to Phineas; in fact, no one talks about Phineas at all. As he watches the Headmaster welcome the assembled troops, Gene takes note of the beautiful New England day that surrounds them. Despite the trappings of war which have encroached upon the school, in Gene's mind peace still "lays on Devon like a blessing, the summer's peace," carried over from the year before.

Brinker's dad arrives at the school and asks to meet Brinker...

(The entire section is 662 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear