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

A Separate Peace

by John Knowles

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How does Gene from A Separate Peace feel about seeing the tree, and why?

Quick answer:

Gene feels relief and gratitude for having seen the tree because this symbolizes how the effects of his personal tragedy have changed over time.

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In the opening scene of A Separate Peace by John Knowles, Gene, the protagonist and narrator, visits the infamous tree from his high school fifteen years after the death of his friend Phineas. Because the tree is the location for the tragedy that occurred in the summer of 1942, Gene visits the scene to find closure for his part in it. Gene describes the tree as follows: 

"This was the tree, and it seemed to me standing there to resemble those men, the giants of your childhood, whom you encounter years later and find that they are not merely smaller in relation to your growth, but that they are absolutely smaller, shrunken by age" (14).

In the above passage, Gene realizes that the tree seems physically smaller than how he remembers it. Gene's impressions of how the tree looks fifteen years later symbolize how the effects of his personal trauma have also diminished. The next passage explains how Gene feels having seen the tree:

"The tree was not only stripped by the cold season, it seemed weary from age, enfeebled, dry. I was thankful, very thankful that I had seen it. So the more things remain the same, the more they change after all. . . Nothing endures, not a tree, not love, not even a death by violence" (14).

In this passage, Gene expresses gratitude for having taken the time to visit the scene of the accident because his feelings about it seem to have changed "after all." He's relieved to discover that he can find peace in his lifetime after carrying around the devastating effects of the loss of his friend's life because of his responsibility for the first broken leg. This moment of viewing the tree after fifteen years leaves Gene "changed" because he also says "it was time to come in out of the rain" (14). When Gene refers to coming in out of the rain, he is also saying that it is time for him to let go of the past, accept the tragedy for what it is, and move on with life without any more guilt.

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