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

A Separate Peace

by John Knowles

Start Free Trial

Student Question

In A Separate Peace, what does the dramatic setting symbolize?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The marble staircase is significant because of several things.  First of all, the marble itself is old, but not overly worn in; this symbolizes the age of the school and the traditions, but also the way it seems like it's all new when you are a student there.  The most significant part of the staircase is Finny's fall after the trial. 

In the beginning of the novel, Gene goes back to the school and sees the staircase, noting that the marble is extremely hard.  In an episode of foreshadowing, he says that "it was surprising that [he] had overlooked that, that crucial fact" about the hardness of the marble (p. 11).  Later, we see how that staircase caused Finny to break his leg a second time, and the hardness of the marble would have played a role in that incident.

Later in the book, but before Finny's accident, Gene realizes the danger of the campus for someone on crutches or using a cane.  He says that "everywhere, except in the dormitories, the floors and stairs were of smooth, slick marble, more treacherous even than the icy walks" (p. 111).  Again, we have a moment of foreshadowing to clue us in that Finny's injuries are not over yet.

Finny falls down that staircase after the trial, after learning of Gene's treachery.  It is as if he has lost the best part of himself - his vigor and athleticism - when he finds out the truth about his best friend.  His fall seems to symbolize that loss, and his devastation upon learning the truth.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial