A Separate Peace Questions and Answers

John Knowles

Read real teacher answers to our most interesting A Separate Peace questions.

What is Leper's Social Status?

It is important to understand that Elwin Lepellier’s nickname—Leper—is indicative of his status at Devon. A shy loner and a social misfit, Leper is unable to relate to his classmates and finds satisfaction only in the beauty and serenity of the natural world. Gentle and sensitive, Leper accepts derision without complaint, and he sometimes tags along with the other boys, present but not participating in their activities. Leper’s only relationship at Devon seems to be with Gene, who accepts Leper and his eccentricities. Leper’s life takes a dramatic and tragic turn when he enlists in the army, innocently believing he has found a way to serve in the war that speaks to the “naturalist” he is. His romantic illusions are destroyed soon after enlisting. Because Leper cannot function in the military, he suffers a mental breakdown that leaves him angry, bitter, paranoid, and delusional.

What is Brinker Hadley's Role?

Brinker Hadley is “the hub of the class,” a student politician who busies himself with official duties as a class officer and a member of most school clubs and committees. An arrogant, self-appointed authority, Brinker places himself at the center of every discussion with his peers and consistently interjects himself into their affairs. Brinker projects a careless, ironic disregard for the war that belies his struggle to deal with his fear of combat. He grows increasingly bitter throughout the novel.

How is WWII Significant?

In the summer of 1942, the beginning of the novel’s flashback, the United States is fighting World War II, but the war has affected the boys at Devon very little and only indirectly. A substitute headmaster is in charge of the Summer Session, and some of the regular teachers have gone to war, but life at Devon goes on, with traditions like the Headmaster’s Tea observed as usual. The upperclassmen participate in fitness training to prepare for military service, but the younger students spend the summer free of such obligations.

When the Winter Session gets underway, the boys make their own beds since there are no maids. During the fall, the boys are called upon to harvest the local apple crop since the men who would have done it are serving in the military or away doing work in support of the war effort. Photographs in the newspapers and newsreels at the movies acquaint the boys with scenes of the war’s destruction, but the war itself seems unreal to them, far away from the peace of Devon.

As the school year continues, however, World War II becomes a reality as it seems to move closer and closer to Devon. The boys’ first personal encounter with the war occurs during the winter when they shovel snow blocking the train tracks in a railroad yard south of Devon. When the main line is cleared, they watch a troop train pass by. Looking at the soldiers going off to war, the boys see young men “not much older” than themselves.

The war becomes an even greater reality when recruiters come to the campus, Leper enlists, and he leaves school almost immediately. Leper’s subsequent psychological breakdown is shocking, and his condition is frightening, to Gene in particular. After spending an afternoon with Leper in Vermont, Gene realizes that Leper is deranged and brings the news of his disturbing behavior back to Devon. Although Finny has actively denied that World War II is taking place, he acknowledges the reality of the war after hearing about Leper’s pitiful state. “Leper’s gone crazy,” Finny says. “When I heard about Leper, then I knew that the war was real …. If a war can drive somebody crazy, then it’s real all right.” Leper’s destruction, like the boys’ encounter with the troops on the train, brings the war closer to Devon.

In June, 1943, Gene watched from a window in his room at Devon as a military convoy approached the Far Commons. He understood the significance of the moment and remembers it clearly as the novel’s narrator:

The advance guard which came down the street from the railroad station consisted of a number of Jeeps …. Following them there were some heavy trucks painted olive drab, and behind them came the troops.

An Army Parachute Riggers’ school would be headquartered at Devon. The war, so far away the summer before, had finally arrived. 

What is the Significance of the Summer Session?

Written in the retrospective point of view with Gene Forrester narrating the events of his final year at Devon School, the novel is structured primarily as a flashback that develops chronologically from the summer of 1942 through the spring of 1943. Throughout the novel, Devon and the atmosphere at the school are often described in relation to the changing seasons. The motif enhances the setting and establishes the passage of time, but more significantly, it contributes to thematic development. The changing seasons parallel Gene and Finny’s emotional states and the encroachment of World War II into their lives and the lives of their classmates. In drawing these literary parallels, John Knowles unifies the novel and enhances the drama and the poignancy of its primary theme: the destruction of innocence. In the novel’s chronology of seasons, summer is the season of innocence, the brief, transitory time at Devon that precedes the unrelenting loss of illusion.

In the summer of 1942, World War II is raging in Europe and the Pacific, but under the “open New Hampshire sky,” Devon is a refuge of peace and natural beauty. Gene describes summer at Devon in vivid detail, recalling the “healthy green turf” of the playing fields “brushed with dew” and the “faint green haze hanging above the grass, shot through with the twilight sun.” He remembers hearing “the cricket noises and the bird cries of dusk.” The woods beyond the playing fields and Devon’s two rivers underscore the presence of nature at the school and serve to emphasize Devon’s tranquil separation from the war and from the world at large.

The atmosphere at Devon during the Summer Session is careless and undisciplined; with most of the students and the regular faculty away, the pace is slower, and the rules are rarely enforced. Summer is a time for swimming in the pristine Devon River and playing games. Leper collects snails, and Gene and Finny make an illicit overnight bicycle trip to the beach. Gene recalls, “We spent that summer in complete selfishness, I’m happy to say. The people in the world who could be selfish in the summer of 1942 were a small band, and I’m glad we took advantage of it.” Central Europe is being bombed, but the devastation of war seems unreal to the boys at Devon. “Our place here was too fair for us to accept something like that,” Gene remembers. Throughout the summer, the reality of war is pushed aside, and the illusion of peace prevails. 

Although Gene and Finny generally ignore World War II as the Summer Session continues, they think of the war from time to time as they go about their daily activities. They play “blitzball,” a game Finny invents that is named for the German “blitzkrieg,” and Finny acknowledges the bombing of Central Europe in a conversation with Mr. Patch-Withers. Finny’s discussion of the war, however, is offered only as a nonsensical explanation for his having worn a pink shirt to the Headmaster’s Tea. The war does not become real to Gene and Finny until the following spring when they realize how completely it has destroyed Leper Lepellier’s mind and spirit.

During the summer of 1942, Gene and Finny could not have imagined Leper’s ultimate destruction, nor could they have imagined Gene’s betrayal and Finny’s death. The innocence of youth was yet to be shattered by the reality of war and by the knowledge of the human impulse to strike out blindly in ignorance, fear, and hatred. As the season draws to a close, Finny is irreparably damaged, and Gene has begun his painful psychological struggle with shame, guilt, fear, and remorse. Summer and all that it suggests about youth and innocence ends “in the last long rays of daylight at the tree, when Phineas fell.” Remembering Gene, Finny, and their “gypsy band” as they had been in Devon's beautiful summer of 1942 makes their loss of innocence tragic.