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A Separate Peace

by John Knowles

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Symbolism of the Tree and the First Academy Building in A Separate Peace

Summary:

In A Separate Peace, the tree symbolizes the loss of innocence and the transition from youth to adulthood, representing a pivotal moment in Gene and Finny's friendship. The First Academy Building stands for tradition, order, and the rigid structure of the boys' lives at Devon School, contrasting with the freedom and chaos symbolized by the tree.

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In A Separate Peace, what does the tree represent?

The tree is the central symbol in the novel. It represents the enormous fear in which Gene lived at school, from the summer of 1942 until the spring of 1943. When he was a student at Devon, the tree seemed "tremendous" to Gene, "an irate, steely black steeple beside the river." When Gene does climb the tree, he enters into "a mild state of shock." He jumps from the tree "[w]ith the sensation that I was throwing my life away . . . ."

When Gene returns to Devon after fifteen years, the tree is the main focus of his visit. Going to the river, Gene has trouble even distinguishing it from the other trees. When he does identify it, the tree seems smaller to Gene, "shrunken by age." It seems "weary from age, enfeebled, dry." The tree no longer looms over Gene as some kind of lethal threat. The tree has not changed; Gene has changed. As an adult who has survived Devon and its traumas, he no longer lives in fear.

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In A Separate Peace, what does the tree represent?

One possibility for the tree's symbolism is that of falling -- that is, ascending to one's own individual zenith, then failing desperately, descending into a personal abyss.

The reason for this parallel is due to Finny's accident, where he climbed to a great height, then fell after the limb wobbled. After that point in the story, the tree is seen with an air of both superstition and discontent. 

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In A Separate Peace, what does the tree represent?

The tree could symbolize many things.  One of the first things I can think of is that it symbolizes discipline.  While some of the older students utilize the tree for military training exercises, Gene, Finny and their friends use it to jump into the river in a friendly sort of adventure game.  It represents discipline for the older students in that they are practicing the courage required to jump from a torpedoed naval vessel, but it also represents discipline for the younger boys in that they must muster the courage to leap from a height that is beyond their comfort level.  Additionally, they must master their sense of balance and prepare to make a safe leap as well.  Gene almost falls once, but Finny catches him and steadies him by the arm.  Gene later fails to provide Finny with the same sort of support, allowing him to fall awkwardly and injur himself. 

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In A Separate Peace, what does the tree represent?

The two rivers, the Devon with its clear, clean water and the Naguamsett with its ugly, marshy waters are symbolic of the relationship of Gene and Phineas at different points in the narrative.  Having committed his act of envy, Gene finds himself at the borders of the Naguamsett shortly thereafter.

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In A Separate Peace, what does the tree represent?

Gene repeats his vision of the forest that borders Devon, saying that he believed that the forest went on for thousands of miles, unbroken, until it finally ended in an untouched, pristine stand of pine trees in northern Canada. This vision of nature seems to symbolize an idea of youth and innocence and it is one that Gene comes to realize was false, just a youthful fancy, but he repeats the idea anyway and seems to treasure it despite its romantic sentimentality. 

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In A Separate Peace, what does the tree represent?

Nature is a peaceful place. It is a place where the boys can go to relax and talk. It's a sanctuary. I agree with the above that the sanctuary is violated, and that is when the truth is revealed. Nature is not just about peace, it's peace hiding savagery.
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In A Separate Peace, what does the tree represent?

The central symbol of nature in the novel is the tree, which provides a place for the boys to come together and enjoy fellowship. This is one of the reasons that the injury that occurs during one of these outings is so disturbing. The symbol of fellowship suddenly becomes associated with a violation of that fellowship.

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In A Separate Peace, what does the tree represent?

Trees are often symbols of life as they are planted on Arbor Day to symbolize new life and beginnings.  For Gene, jumping on the limbs becomes an issue of jealousy and envy in his life to the point of competition.  By jostling the limb, Gene sends Phineas crashing downward and the jealousy ends as Gene and Phineas become codependent.  No longer does Finny cast a shadow over Gene's life; the tree "is weary from age."

While at Devon, Gene feels the shadow of Finny and realizes that the enemy has been himself.  Blaming Finny for his problems, Gene has cast a shadow from the tree of competition, over himself.  By knocking Finny from the tree, Gene has tried to liberate himself from the competition of Finny.  By returning to Devon, Gene has essayed to lift the shadow of guilt from himself.

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In A Separate Peace, what does the tree represent?

The tree from which Finny is pushed symbolizes a loss of innocence, and reflects the Biblical fall of man. As Gene returns to Devon in the first chapter, he seeks out the tree, almost as though he wants to face an old enemy. He describes as though it is a monster that tormented him as a child, but upon returning, he realizes it is nothing of which to be afraid. He calls it a shrunken old man, showing he has overcome his fear of it throughout his life. Finny's fall parallels the Biblical fall of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. In that story, the tree of knowledge becomes a hiding place for evil. In the novel, the tree is the hiding place for Gene's evil. When Gene pushes Finny, not only does he lose his innocence by committing an act of violence, but he causes Finny to lose his by shattering his ideal world. That one act changes everything for the boys, and their relationship is never the same.

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How do the tree and First Academy Building symbolize in A Separate Peace?

Each are symbols of education. One, the First Academy Building, is where the boys formal education takes place. Everything from academic classes to decorum is learned in this building. Throughout this story, Gene's reliance on having superior expertise in this type of education is threatened.

The tree, for example, teaches Gene truths about life. This is the place where friendship was kindled and threatened. This is also a place where young men went to learn how to really exhibit their bravery and become men as they jumped off the branch. Many were too scared. Gene learned significant lessons here about his choices and the consequences these had on other people.

Another way that these symbols relate has to do with the story's two main characters. The First Academy Building represented all Gene aspired towards: success, intellect and social appropriateness. The tree represented the life that Finny longed for and never received. Finny had hoped to fight in the war. Jumping off the branch as the boys did simulated jumping out of planes. This tree also did not require superior grades or man-made expectations. It simply longed for nature to take its course. Sometimes nature is not so kind and it certainly took its course with Finny.

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What does the First Academy Building symbolize in A Separate Peace?

At the beginning of A Separate Peace by John Knowles, Gene returns to Devon 15 years after he graduated high school. When he visits the First Academy Building, he narrates,

In through the swinging doors I reached a marble foyer, and stopped at the foot of a long white marble flight of stairs. . . The marble must be unusually hard. . . It was surprising that I had overlooked that, that crucial fact. I had more money and success and "security" than in the days when specters seemed to go up and down them with me (11-12).

Not only do these hard marble stairs represent Gene's many days at school and his youth, but they are part of the reason his friend Phineas died in high school. It is in the First Academy Building that Brinker holds a mock trial to accuse Gene of breaking Finny's leg the first time. Phineas becomes angry because of the trial and storms out, slips on the marble, and breaks his leg a second time on the stairs. The fact that Gene notices how hard the marble stairs truly are 15 years later helps him realize part of the reason behind Finny's leg breaking a second time. At the time, however, Gene says the following about the marble and the building:

The excellent exterior acoustics recorded his rushing steps and the quick rapping of his cane along the corridor and on the first steps of the marble stairway. Then these separate sounds collided into the general tumult of his body falling clumsily down the white marble stairs (177).

The above passage describes how Phineas breaks his leg months after the first break. Gene harbors some guilt because he caused the first break by jouncing Finny out of the tree near the river the previous summer. Phineas would never have been able to go to the war after his first break; after the second break, complications after surgery take his life. Therefore, the marble stairs in the First Academy Building partially represent Gene's past; but for the most part, the stairs represent the end of his friendship with Phineas. Fortunately, Gene has some time to talk about their friendship and clear the air before Finny dies. Visiting the First Academy Building years after this life-changing event is meaningful for Gene because it is in this building that Finny's end is fatally decided. It's as though Gene pays homage to his friend by visiting the location of Finny's second accident. Again, noticing the hardness of the stairs reaffirms to Gene that Finny's death wasn't his fault. This brings him some peace, but he certainly views the First Academy Building as a sacred place where a good friend's accident eventually took his life. 

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What does the First Academy Building symbolize in A Separate Peace?

The First Academy building, sometimes just called the First building, is the central and most important building of the Devon school. It is different from the other buildings, Gene says, because it has a large cupola and a bell on top "and a clock and Latin over the doorway." It contains old portraits of founders and benefactors, crystal chandeliers, and a classroom called the assembly hall, as well as a marble staircase that Gene emphasizes is "especially hard."

It symbolizes authority, tradition, history, and the law. It symbolizes the hard realities of life and is a contrast to the world of nature on the campus, which symbolizes freedom and the escape from authority. The Latin motto over the First building's door says, translated into English, "Here Boys Come to Be Made Men."

Most importantly, it is the place where Gene faces his reckoning in a mock "trial" about what happened the day Phineas fell out of the tree. It is the place where Finny tries to escape dealing with what happened by running away. In this building, however, he can't. He falls down the "hard" marble stair and re-breaks his leg. All of this leads to Gene finally confessing to Finny what really happened the day they were in a tree together. The First Academy building forces Gene to live up to its motto and become a man.

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What does the First Academy Building symbolize in A Separate Peace?

The First Academy Building in A Separate Peace contains the marble stairs that Gene revisits at the beginning of the novel and the stairs that Finny fell down at the end of the novel.  The building suggests the conservative, New England nature of Devgon School.  It also is a place of significance for Gene, as his life (and Finny's) were forever changed in this building.

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