What does the tree symbolize in A Separate Peace?
The tree from which Finny is pushed symbolizes a loss of innocence, and reflects the Biblical fall of man. As Gene returns to Devon in the first chapter, he seeks out the tree, almost as though he wants to face an old enemy. He describes as though it is a monster that tormented him as a child, but upon returning, he realizes it is nothing of which to be afraid. He calls it a shrunken old man, showing he has overcome his fear of it throughout his life. Finny's fall parallels the Biblical fall of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. In that story, the tree of knowledge becomes a hiding place for evil. In the novel, the tree is the hiding place for Gene's evil. When Gene pushes Finny, not only does he lose his innocence by committing an act of violence, but he causes Finny to lose his by shattering his ideal world. That one act changes everything for the boys, and their relationship is never the same.
Trees are often symbols of life as they are planted on Arbor Day to symbolize new life and beginnings. For Gene, jumping on the limbs becomes an issue of jealousy and envy in his life to the point of competition. By jostling the limb, Gene sends Phineas crashing downward and the jealousy ends as Gene and Phineas become codependent. No longer does Finny cast a shadow over Gene's life; the tree "is weary from age."
While at Devon, Gene feels the shadow of Finny and realizes that the enemy has been himself. Blaming Finny for his problems, Gene has cast a shadow from the tree of competition, over himself. By knocking Finny from the tree, Gene has tried to liberate himself from the competition of Finny. By returning to Devon, Gene has essayed to lift the shadow of guilt from himself.
The tree symbolizes the seminal event of the story A Separate Peace.
It splits the novel into two distinct parts: life at Devon before and after the incident at the tree. Phineas is determined, per his adventurous and daring nature, to climb higher and go farther out on a branch than anyone at Devon has ever tried. He badgers Gene into joining him, Gene "jounces the limb," and the tragic events resulting in Phineas's death are set in motion.
The tree also symbolizes the divide in the relationship between the two boys. Phineas was friendly, attractive, and the best athlete in the school. Gene was studious but a collaborator with his roommate on bending many of Devon's rules. Gene, although his "best pal," is jealous of Phineas, but he keeps this feeling bottled up inside. Out on the limb, he finally gives in to this envy, and by jouncing the limb causes Gene to both figuratively and literally topple from his position as Devon's most admired student.
Gene carries the betrayal and deception of this act for the next fifteen years, until he returns to Devon for a visit. The tree is one of the first places he goes to revisit the shame and betrayal he remembers.