Illustration of two pairs of legs standing on the branch of a large tree

A Separate Peace

by John Knowles

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Chapter 1 Summary

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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 unchanged, but he himself is "taller, bigger," successful now, and secure. Everything about the environment seems to have achieved a sense of harmony with the past, and Gene hopes that perhaps he too has reached that level of growth and reconciliation within himself.

Gene exits the First Academy Building and walks past the Field House and across the Playing Fields. He comes to the second place he had wanted to visit—the river, and a particularly tall and forbidding tree that grows on its bank. Gene is surprised to find that the tree he is searching for no longer stands out, and when he finally identifies it, it looks "weary from age, enfeebled, dry." Gene is thankful to have seen it and to realize that it no longer instills fear within him. He heads back, "changed;" it is time to let the fear go.

The tree had once been "tremendous, an irate, steely black steeple beside the river." Wooden pegs had been set on its trunk to allow for easy climbing, and from one particularly substantial limb, one could, "by a prodigious effort," jump out far enough to land safely in the water. Only Phineas, brash and charismatic, would have thought to suggest jumping from the tree that long ago summer of 1942. Gene and three others had been present when Finny boldly scrambled up the wooden pegs, stepped out on the branch, and leaped into the river. Goaded by Finny, Gene, wondering why he so easily fell prey to his friend's suggestions, climbed up next, and, filled with trepidation, jumped into the river as well. Finny subsequently challenged the others—Leper Lepellier, Chet Douglass, and Bobby Zane—to follow his and Gene's daring example, but none of them would do it. The six o'clock bell rang, and the boys hurried to make it in time for dinner, but on the way, Finny began roughhousing with Gene, playfully blocking his stride and knocking him into the grass. Gene, who had been trying to hasten to the dining room in a timely manner, was suddenly overcome with a feeling of resentment at having to follow the rules, and, to Finny's delight, returned the favor, knocking him down and wrestling with him on the ground. When it was clear that they had missed dinner altogether, Gene and Finny headed back to their room. Only two hundred students graced Devon that summer, and much of the campus was dark and silent. The two roommates worked on their English assignments until it was time for bed, bringing to an end an idyllic summer day.

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Chapter 2 Summary