A Separate Peace Summary

John Knowles

A Separate Peace

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A Separate Peace Summary

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As a boy of fifteen, author John Knowles left his home in West Virginia to attend the exclusive Phillips Exeter Academy boarding school in New Hampshire. This experience clearly inspired the setting of his 1959 novel, A Separate Peace, a coming of age tale set in the fictional New England prep school Devon. There, a southern boy named Gene Forrester returns and looks back at his boarding school experience fifteen years after his graduation. Like Knowles, Gene attended school during the World War II era. Knowles first explored his prep school experience in his earlier short story, “Phineas.” While Knowles has said that his time at Exeter did indeed inspire some of the ideas in A Separate Peace, he always stressed that the themes of violence and conflict were purely fictional, that his boarding school experience was a positive time, and that he wanted to capture his feelings of thanks for his years in high school. At the same time, he wanted to delve into the darker side of human nature. In his novel, characters’ problems stem from their inner selves, not from the environment in which they are being educated.

As the story opens, the narrator, an adult Gene Forrester, returns to Devon and reflects upon the events, feelings, and choices of his youth and of the others he knew there. He is seeking a separate peace amid the conflicted memories of his past. In particular, he is there to visit two places he thinks of as “fearful sites.” One is a flight of marble stairs and the other is a tree by a river from which he once caused his friend Phineas to fall. As Gene inspects the stairs, he sees that they are made of extremely hard marble. From there, he goes to the tree and a flashback begins. It covers his life as a student from the summer of 1942 to the summer of the following year. He was sixteen at the start of the time period and living at Devon with Phineas (Finny), his roommate and closest friend. Gene and Phineas have very different personalities with Gene being shy and intellectual while Phineas is an outgoing, happy-go-lucky athlete.

During the summer of 1942, Phineas creates an organization he calls the “Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session,” which, as an initiation, makes members jump into the Devon River from a high tree. As their friendship grows, Gene and Phineas become lighthearted rivals. Gene concerns himself with outstripping his friend in the academic arena when he feels that Phineas is attempting to do the same to him. The rivalry continues and ultimately Gene and Phineas find themselves on the branch of the tree, poised to jump. Gene shakes the branch on which they are standing, and Phineas falls and breaks his leg. As a result, he will never be able to be competitive in sports again. Knowing athletics to have been the most important thing in Phineas’s life leads Gene to reexamine his feelings of jealousy towards his friend and to try to overcome them and lead a better life. From this point forward, the novel focuses on Gene’s inner struggle to figure out why he shook the branch, what kind of person he really is, and how to come to terms with the guilt he feels. He admits to Phineas that he was responsible for the accident, which leads to Phineas feeling hurt.

Later, Brinker Hadley, another Devon student, stages a trial during a meeting of the Golden Fleece Debating Society. He cites evidence about the event with Gene and Phineas and the incident at the tree. He accuses Gene of attempting to kill Phineas. During the “trial,” Phineas says he lost his balance. He is pressed to tell what caused that to happen and is asked where Gene was at the time. He thinks Gene was at the bottom of the tree and after Gene agrees, Phineas remembers that they were attempting a double jump and were climbing the tree together. Another boy, Leper, is enlisted to tell what he saw. He is about to tell that he saw one of them shake the other off of the branch but then stops himself. Brinker tries to get Leper to continue but Phineas says he does not care what happened and leaves the room crying. On his way out, he falls down the flight of stairs before which Gene was standing as the flashback began. Phineas breaks the same leg that had been broken earlier. When Gene tries to mend fences, Phineas initially refuses but later realizes that the action of his friend was not out of anger, and they reconcile. The following day, Phineas dies during surgery to repair his leg.

Because of Gene’s acceptance of his own guilt and the forgiveness he received from Phineas, Gene has come of age. He is able to become a compassionate adult who has risen above petty jealousies and denial.

Like a plethora of titles in the canon of commonly taught high school literature, A Separate Peace has met with its share of controversy. Commonly, calls for it being censored stem from suggestions that there is an implied homosexual draw between Gene and Phineas. Knowles said that was never his intention and that had it been, the characters would have acted in totally different ways. That potential component of the book, intended or not, is widely ignored and the book, at least in the arena of public secondary education, is viewed as a coming of age story.