Based upon Phillips Exeter School in New Hampshire, which the author himself attended, Devon School is what was known as an elite boys' preparatory school, a private school that stresses athletics and has a stringent educational program that prepares high school students for college.
Interestingly, the author John Knowles includes several characteristics of the school he attended in Devon School: the white marble flight of stairs on which Finny falls and a tree that is similar to the one from which many boys at Exeter jumped (the jumping was something that was done at Exeter, too). In the 1942 setting of Devon School, the enrollment is homogeneous, which is what Exeter was in Knowles's time. The school has an aura of privilege about it which is based upon social class and affluence. Over the doorway of the First Academy Building, engraved in Latin is "Here Boys Come to Be Made Men."
Gene Forrester returns to Devon in order to learn how far his “convalescence has gone”; that is, to discover if he possesses a realistic assessment of his behavior while he was living there, and learn if he has made some self-improvement since then. Almost eerily, Gene finds the school much the same as when he was a student. It is a beautiful school:
It is the beauty of small areas of order--a large yard, a group of trees, three similar dormitories, a circle of old houses--living together in contentious harmony.....Everything at Devon slowly changed and slowly harmonized with what had gone before.
Like Exeter, Devon is both scholarly and athletic with playing fields that are constantly in use, except in the winter. The tree is still there: "tremendous, an irate steely black steeple beside the river."