One theme of John Knowles's A Separate Peace is that of Guilt and Innocence. As Knowles himself wrote, after Finny's crippling accident, everything that follows is
one long abject confession, a mea culpa, a tale of crime--if a tale has been committed--and of no punishment. It is a story of growth through tragedy.
That Gene is ridden with guilt about Finny's condition is evidenced in Chapter 8 in which Gene observes,
Until now, in spite of everything, I had welcomed each new day as though it were a new life, where all past failures and problems were erased, and all future possibilities and joys open and available, to be achieved probably before night fell again. Now, in this winter of snow and crutches with Phineas, I began to know that each morning reasserted the problems of the night before night fell again.
In Chapter 12 as Gene walks down an aimless road after a confrontation with Phineas, he tries to cope with his "double vision." He sees the gym in the light, but it alters and its significance is grows deeper and the
old trees surrounding it all were intensely meaning...I felt that I was not, never had been and never would be a living apart of this overpoweringly solid and deeply meaningful world around me.
Then Gene returns to Finny and begins his mea culpa to Finny:
"Tell me how to show you. It was just some ignorance inside me, some crazy thing inside me, something blind, that's all it was."
Recognizing his feelings and actions as much like a war inside him, Gene extrapolates his ideas and states that
it seemed clear that wars were not made by generations and their special stupidities, but that wars were made instead by something ignorant in the human heart.
In the "something ignorant" in his heart, Gene confesses that he never killed anyone in the war, but he "killed his enemy before he put on a uniform."
By returning to the Eden of Devon School where he lost his innocence in the war of the hearts in which he was engaged, Gene reconciles his guilty conscience through gaining self-knowledge. In the first chapter, he states that there were two places that he wanted to visit: "Both were fearful sites, and that was why I wanted to see them." Yet, as he notices that things have slowly changed at Devon
and slowly harmonized with what had gone beofre. So it was logical to hope that since the buildings and the Deans and the curriculum could achieve this, I could achieve, perhaps unknowingly already had achieved, this growth and harmony myself.
Gene looks up at the inscription over the door that reads, "Here Boys Come to be Made Men" and through his tragic remembrance of the events at Devon School, Gene does reach growth and atonement.