A Separate Peace

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A Separate Peace
A Separate Peace cover.jpg
First edition
AuthorJohn Knowles
CountryUnited States
PublisherSecker & Warburg
Publication date
Media typePrint (hardback and paperback)

A Separate Peace is a coming-of-age novel by John Knowles, published in 1959. Based on his earlier short story "Phineas", published in the May 1956 issue of Cosmopolitan, it was Knowles's first published novel and became his best-known work. Set against the backdrop of World War II, A Separate Peace explores morality, patriotism, and loss of innocence through its narrator, Gene.

Plot summary[edit]

Gene Forrester returns to his old prep school, Devon (a thinly veiled portrayal of Knowles's alma mater, Phillips Exeter Academy),[1] 15 years after he graduated, to visit two places he regards as "fearful sites": a flight of marble stairs and a big tree by the river from which he caused his friend, Phineas, to fall. First, he examines the stairs and notices that they are made of marble. He then goes to the tree, which brings back memories of his time as a student at Devon. From this point, the novel follows Gene's description of the time from the summer of 1942 to the summer of 1943. In 1942, he is 16 and living at Devon with his best friend and roommate, Phineas (nicknamed Finny). World War II is taking place and has a prominent effect on the story's plot and characters.

Gene and Finny, despite being opposites in personality, are surprisingly close friends: Gene's quiet, introverted, intellectual personality is a character foil for Finny's extroverted, carefree athleticism. One of Finny's ideas during their "gypsy summer" of 1942 is to create a "Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session", with Gene and himself as charter members. Finny creates a rite of initiation by having members jump into the Devon River from a large, high tree.

Gene and Finny's friendship goes through a period of one-sided rivalry during which Gene strives to out-do Finny academically since he believes Finny is trying to out-do him athletically. This rivalry begins with Gene's jealousy towards Finny. It climaxes (and is ended) when, as Finny and Gene are about to jump off the tree, Gene impulsively jounces the branch they are standing on, causing Finny to fall and shatter his leg, permanently crippling him. Because of his accident, Finny learns that he will never again be able to compete in sports, which are most dear to him. Finny's "accident" inspires Gene to think more like his friend in order to become a better person, free of envy. The remainder of the story revolves around Gene's attempts to come to grips with who he is, why he shook the branch, and how he will proceed. Gene feels so guilty that he eventually tells Finny that he caused the fall. At first, Finny does not believe him and afterward, understandably, feels extremely hurt.

World War II soon occupies the schoolboys' time, with student Brinker Hadley rallying the boys to help the war effort and Gene's quiet friend Leper Lepellier joining the Ski Troops and becoming severely traumatized by what he sees.

During a meeting of the Golden Fleece Debating Society, Brinker sets up a show trial of sorts and, based upon his shaking of the branch, accuses Gene of trying to kill Finny. Faced with the evidence, Finny leaves shamefully before Gene's deed is confirmed. On his way out, a still injured Finny falls down a flight of stairs (the same ones that Gene visits at the beginning of the novel) and again breaks the leg he had shattered before. Finny at first dismisses Gene's attempts to apologize, but he soon realizes that the "accident" was impulsive and not premeditated or anger based. The two forgive each other. The next day, Finny dies during the operation to set the bone when bone marrow enters his bloodstream during the surgery.

After they graduate, Gene and Brinker enlist in the Navy and the Coast Guard. Gene observes that many people lash out at others in order to protect themselves from their own insecurities. The only person he knew who did not do that was Finny, the only person Gene knew who was truly honest, and the only person Gene knew who never had an internal war to fight. Back in the present, an older Gene muses on peace, war, and enemies.


  • Gene Forrester: A Separate Peace is told from Gene's point of view. Gene focuses on, and succeeds at, academics. He envies his roommate and best friend Finny's graceful, easy athleticism, and social prowess, while also admiring these very features. Gene is from "three states from Texas", is therefore somewhat unaccustomed to Northeastern culture, and is thus, an outsider of sorts. Gene shakes a branch which causes his best friend Finny to fall from a tree and break his leg; however, it is ambiguous whether this move is deliberate or not.
  • Phineas (Finny): Gene's best friend and roommate; an incorrigible, good-natured, carefree, athletic, daredevil type. In Gene's opinion, Finny can never leave anything well enough alone, and could always get away with anything. He always sees the best in others, seeks internal fulfilment free of accolades, and shapes the world around himself to fit his desires. He is a prodigious athlete, succeeding in every sport until his leg is shattered in his fall from the tree.
  • Brinker Hadley: Brinker is a classmate and friend of Gene and Finny's. He ceaselessly strives for order during the Winter Session at Devon. Brinker wants to get to the bottom of Finny's accident, but it is unclear if he intended for the investigation to be a practical joke. He organizes the "midnight trial" to confront and accuse Gene of causing Finny's accident. During the questioning of Finny by Brinker, Finny changes the story to make Gene appear innocent of his actions in the tree. Finny cites Lepellier as an unreachable witness. Brinker ultimately reconciles with Gene, who appears to forgive him both for his part in Finny's injury and for the trial.
  • Elwin 'Leper' Lepellier: Leper is Finny and Gene's friend and a key member of the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session. He is the first student in his class to enlist in the military. Late in the novel, Leper goes insane from the stress of his enlistment in the army. He is a witness at Gene's "trial," testifying that Gene was responsible for Finny's fall.

Themes, Motifs and Symbols[edit]

A Separate Peace contains many themes, motifs and symbols that occur throughout the book. Some of these are present throughout the book, like the tree Finny falls off and the presence and significance of sport; while other themes exist as part of Gene's consciousness and his relationship with Finny, like the threat of co-dependency and the creation of inner enemies. In addition to this, there are many ambiguous factors that are unresolved in the book. Examples of this include the reliability of Gene as a narrator, and whether Gene was responsible for the fall.[2]

Co-dependency and Identity[edit]

The central relationship between Gene and Finny is a model of co-dependency. After the fall, the two become reliant on each other for fulfilment. Gene's submissive nature leads to him lacking a strong identity without Finny; and Finny's free, sport-loving spirit needs to be fulfilled by his love of sport, an action that he can only experience through Gene after the fall. This is furthered by the notion that World War II is merely a conspiracy, which creates a private illusion for both Finny and Gene to exist in together. Towards the end of the book, after Finny's death, Gene notes that he feels Finny's funeral is his own, as so much of his identity rests upon Finny.[2]

Athletics and Blitzball[edit]

Athletics compromise a key part of Finny's personality - he views them as an expression of achievement, and believes there are no winners or losers. This is epitomized by Finny's breaking of the school swimming record, which he refuses to publicise; and Blitzball, a game that Finny spontaneously invents that has no winners or losers, which Finny excels at as it requires pure athleticism rather than focusing on defeat of opponents.[2]

The Summer and Winter Sessions[edit]

The Summer Session at Devon High School is defined by freedom, lack of rules and little academic study. This symbolises innocence and youth, which is "lost" when Finny falls from the tree, giving lead to the Winter Session. The Winter Session is defined as the polar opposite of the Summer Session - tight rules, rigorous study, little freedom, and a cold and unforgiving atmosphere. The Sessions represent the shift from carefree youth to adulthood and maturity, which occurs throughout the novel.[2]

Finny's Fall[edit]

Finny's fall from the tree represents the climax of the novel. It is both a literal and symbolic fall. The literal fall has a knock on affect of no sports for Finny, which leads to a loss of independence and identity. The symbolic fall represents a fall from innocence and from youth, as well as representing the beginning of the end of Finny and Gene's friendship. The fall can be interpreted as having biblical allusions - like Adam and Eve, Finny and Gene existed in a carefree, idyllic setting, epitomized by innocence (like Eden), which is tainted by a force of darkness (the snake, or Gene's growing resentment) and then is shattered by a fall from innocence (the fall from the tree).[2]

Implied Homoerotic Undertones[edit]

Various parties have asserted that the novel implies homoeroticism between Gene and Finny, including those who endorse a queer reading of the novel, and those who condemn homosexuality as immoral. For example, the book was challenged in the Vernon-Verona-Sherill, NY School District (1980) as a "filthy, trashy sex novel"[3] despite having no substantial female characters and describing no sexual activity.

Though frequently taught in U.S. high schools, curricula related to A Separate Peace typically ignore a possible homoerotic reading in favor of engaging with the book as a historical novel or coming-of-age story.[4] Knowles denied any such intentions, stating in a 1987 newspaper interview:

Freud said any strong relationship between two men contains a homoerotic element...If so in this case, both characters are totally unaware of it. It would have changed everything, it wouldn’t have been the same story. In that time and place, my characters would have behaved totally differently....If there had been homoeroticism between Phineas and Gene, I would have put it in the book, I assure you. It simply wasn't there.[5]


The novel has been adapted into two films of the same name: the first, starring Parker Stevenson as Gene and John Heyl as Finny, with a screenplay by Fred Segal and John Knowles, was released in 1972;[6] the second, directed by Peter Yates, with a screenplay by Wendy Kesselman, was released in 2004.[7]

Awards and honors[edit]


  1. ^ Carragher, Bernard (October 8, 1972). "There Really Was a Super Suicide Society". The New York Times. Retrieved 4 December 2020.
  2. ^ a b c d e A separate peace : John Knowles. Knowles, John, 1926-2001., SparkNotes LLC. [New York, NY]. ISBN 1-4114-6979-8. OCLC 856977904.CS1 maint: others (link)
  3. ^ "American Library Association – Banned and/or Challenged Books from the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century". Retrieved 2014-11-17.
  4. ^ Tribunella, Eric L. (2002). "Refusing the Queer Potential: John Knowles's A Separate Peace". Children's Literature.
  5. ^ "SunSentinel – Knowles Now Thirty Years After He Wrote A Separate Peace, John Knowles Is Coming To South Florida To Teach Creative Writing -- Even Though He Says, "Everybody Knows You Can't Teach Anyone To Write."". 1987-03-15. Retrieved 2014-11-17.
  6. ^ Canby, Vincent (September 28, 1972). "Movie Review – A Separate Peace". The New York Times.
  7. ^ "A Separate Peace (2004)". IMDb. Retrieved 29 October 2019.

External links[edit]