A Separate Peace is a coming-of-age story, presenting the struggle Gene fights within himself to determine his relationship with Finny and, in a larger sense, with himself in the world. Gene wavers between enjoying the friendship and sharing the joy in living on which Finny thrives, and striving to isolate himself and achieve individual goals as an independent and self-reliant person. The book can be related to the search for self-awareness and achieving acceptance of personal identity that all healthy individuals must confront.
Early in the story, Gene and Finny leave Devon School and spend the night on the beach at the ocean. Just before they go to sleep in the sand dunes, Finny says that Gene is his "best pal." Gene is both touched and threatened by the comment.
I should have told him then that he was my best friend also and rounded off what he had said. I started to; I nearly did. But something held me back. Perhaps I was stopped by that level of feeling, deeper than thought, which contains the truth.
When Gene visits Leper after Leper runs away from the military, Leper's explanation of what he experienced is overwhelming. Gene realizes that, as with all of his able classmates, they will be headed for some branch of the military and involvement with World War II very shortly after they graduate. However, he could not face the implications of that prospect at that time, even when it meant abandoning his friend in need.
I left Leper telling his story into the wind. He might tell it forever, I didn't care...I didn't want to hear any more of it. Not now or ever. I didn't care because it had nothing to do with me. And I didn't want to hear any more of it. Ever.