Quicklet on John Knowles' A...

Table of Contents
Quicklet on John Knowles' A... Table of Contents

Table of Contents

I. John Knowles' A Separate Peace
About the Book

Introducing the Author

Overall Summary

Chapter-by-Chapter Summary and Commentary

Character List

Key Terms & Definitions

Major Themes and Symbols

Interesting Related Facts

Sources and Additional Reading

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John Knowles' A
Separate Peace

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About the Book

Is it possible to be at peace while your country is at war? Today, the answer to that
question often seems to be a decisive yes; while the United States is entangled in military
conflicts in numerous far-away countries, the average American citizen is able to lead a
largely untouched life. Except perhaps for the price of gas at the pump, itself more an
economic than political ramification, we face few harsh reminders about the wars that
are being fought in our name.

This was not always the case. When John Knowles, author of A Separate Peace, sat down
to write a novel inspired by his experiences as a high school student during World War II,
he was reflecting on an era that demanded far more sacrifices from the average U.S.
citizen. In addition to the food and fuel shortages that affected even the upper-class
rungs of society that Knowles was part of, people were also forced to live with the war as
an enormous psychological specter that was nearly impossible to ignore.

Because of the novel’s frank and emotional portrayal of the way in which youths
experienced World War II, A Separate Peace is considered a classic of modern American
literature and is a staple of high school curriculums, still appearing regularly on bestseller
lists, such as the January 23-29 2012 list in the Boston Globe. According to the Los
Angeles Times, Knowles felt incredibly validated by the book’s popularity, explaining,
“What touches me most, what pleases me most, is that people who are far removed
from the world of prep schools love it.”

The world depicted in the pages of this novel is based largely on the one Knowles himself
knew as a teenager in the early 1940s. Devon, the fictional school attended by the books’
characters, is modeled closely after Phillips Exeter Academy, an elite college preparatory
school in New Hampshire, where Knowles himself studied. Many of the historical details of
the book—such as the apple harvesting, the shoveling work at the railroad, the absence
of senior faculty, and the disappearance of maids from the campus—are ones Knowles
experienced directly as a student. Howard T. Easton, a former instructor at Exeter,
published a reflection about the school’s culture during the war in The Exonian, in which
he recalls, “We all had to adapt to unusual circumstances, some of them quite trying.”

In addition to being a faithful rendition of a particular historical time and place, A

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Separate Peace also offers readers a timeless depiction of friendship, the struggles of
adolescence and the loss of innocence. Just as the main characters are unable to hide
from the war, they are also unable to forestall the onset of adulthood, a transition that
marks the end of the carefree, naïve happiness they knew as boys during the summer
session. Each character grapples with these changes in his own way, but in the end, none
of them is left unchanged.

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Introducing the Author

John Knowles’ name has become synonymous with his semi-autobiographical World War
II novel, A Separate Peace. Though he wrote a total of seven novels, as well as some
short stories, all but A Separate Peace were largely dismissed by critics and met with little
popular success. Indeed, aside from this book and its lesser-known sequel, Peace Breaks
Out, his novels are no longer being published.

Being a one-hit wonder never seemed to bother Knowles much, however. (Or at least if it
did, he never let it show.) In his 2001 obituary in the New York Times, he is quoted as
saying contentedly that A Separate Peace “paid the bills for 30 years. It has made my
career possible. Unlike most writers, I don't have to do anything else to make a living.”

Born in 1926 in West Virginia, Knowles was just coming of age as World War II broke out,
and the war dramatically affected his outlook on life. Like the protagonist of the novel,
Gene, Knowles was a southerner who attended an elite private college preparatory school
in New Hampshire, Phillips Exeter Academy. In the novel, Gene opines that for all adults,
there is a particular era that defines the way they think of the world. He confides that for
himself, this setting is the early years of the war while he was a student at Devon. The
reader senses that this is a confession coming not from Gene the character, but rather
from Knowles himself—this era, in a very basic way, defined his worldview, which he
characterizes in this way:

The war was and is reality for me, I still instinctively live and think in its atmosphere.
These are some of its characteristics: Franklin Delano Roosevelt is the President of the
United States, and he always has been. The other two eternal world leaders are Winston
Churchill and Josef Stalin. America is not, never has been, and never will be what the
songs and poems call it, a land of plenty. Nylon, meat, gasoline, and steel are rare. There
are too many jobs and not enough workers. Money is very easy to earn but rather hard to
spend, because there isn’t very much to buy. Trains are always late and always crowded
with “servicemen.” The war will always be fought very far from America and it will never

In the essay “A Special Time, A Special School,” Knowles acknowledges the formative
role his time at Exeter played in his life, writing, “Exeter was, I suspect, more crucial in

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my life than in the lives of most members of my class, and conceivably, than in the lives
of almost anyone else who ever attended the school.” And though darkness pervades
almost every aspect of his seminal novel, Knowles never criticizes the school itself. “The
novel has one peculiarity for a school novel: It never attacks the place; it isn't an exposé,”
Knowles wrote in that same essay, explaining that he “found there [at Exeter] a gorgeous
world prepared to shape me up.”

After graduating from high school in 1945, Knowles briefly served in the U.S. Air Force
prior to the end of the war. Subsequently, he went to study at Yale University and began
his writing career at the Connecticut newspaper Hartford Courant. His writing was greatly
influenced by famous American playwright Thornton Wilder, who, according to R. Baird
Shuman in Great American Writers: Twentieth Century, told him to throw out his initial
attempts at novels and encouraged him to write about his personal experiences instead.
Knowles received public acclaim with the publication of A Separate Peace in 1960, which
won him both the William Faulkner Foundation Award and the Rosenthal Award of the
National Institute of Arts and Letters. It immediately placed him in the ranks of authors
such as J.D. Salinger, to whom Gore Vidal compares him in the Los Angeles Times.

Later in life, Knowles moved to Florida, where he became involved with the literary
community and did some teaching at universities. In an interview with the Sun Sentinel,
Knowles expressed a love for teaching and interacting with the youth. “This is an
excellent way to stay in touch with a new generation — what they feel and think,” he said,
adding, “It`s extremely healthy for a writer to be in contact with young people.”

John Knowles died at the age of 75 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, following a brief illness.

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Overall Summary

Fifteen years after graduating from the Devon School, a college preparatory school for
wealthy young boys, Gene Forrester returns to campus for the first time. There are two
places in particular he aims to visit: a marble staircase in one of the school’s halls and a
certain tree on the edge of the Devon River.

Upon reaching the staircase in question, he notes with some foreboding that they appear
to be particularly hard stairs, as generations of boys’ boots have barely made any
indentation on the steps. Trudging through the rain across the muddy campus, Gene
struggles to pick out the tree he’s in search of. When he does identify the tree, he notes
with some relief that it seems smaller and less intimidating than he remembered.
Remarking to himself that “it was time to come in out of the rain,” Gene leaves the tree
behind and walks back to campus.

At this point in the narrative, the story suddenly moves back in time to the summer of
1942, when Gene is studying at Devon during the summer session. Gene describes
himself as sixteen years old this summer, an excellent student and a pretty good athlete.
He develops an intensely close friendship with his roommate, Phineas (nicknamed
“Finny”), who is both the school’s best athlete and one of its most charismatic figures.

A highly competitive daredevil, Finny takes every possible opportunity to engage in sports
and games, and this summer, he enlists Gene as his partner in crime. The two of them,
on Finny’s insistence, found what they call the Super Suicide Society of the Summer
Session, a secret club that demands its members jump from a high tree branch down into
the Devon River. Finny also ropes Gene into helping him invent a new sport, called
blitzball (named for the German battle tactic of the time, the blitzkrieg), and the two of
them flout other school rules, as well, including the time they escape from campus and
spend the night on the beach.

At first, Gene is flattered by Finny’s attention and charmed by his free spirit. In time,
however, he begins to feel suspicious about Finny’s motives, concluding that his friend is
trying to distract him from his studies so that Gene won’t become the head of their class.
If Gene were to be valedictorian, he feels, and Finny were already the best athlete, they
would be equals. Gene is suddenly convinced that Finny is afraid of being considered his

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equal, and is therefore trying to sabotage his work ethic by dragging him away to play
useless games.

Now certain that Finny isn’t a true friend to him, Gene nonetheless acts as if nothing has
changed, and the two boys continue their friendship as before. At one meeting of the
Super Suicide Society, however, when Finny suggests that the two of them jump from the
tree at the same time, Gene feels his knees buckle beneath him, making the limb wobble.
This causes Finny to lose his balance and fall hard onto the ground below, shattering his
leg. The doctor reveals to Gene that Finny will be unable to play sports again, a huge blow
to the all-star athlete. Gene is consumed by guilt and doubt as to whether or not he
intentionally caused Finny to fall, and, if so, what the significance of that act may be.

The summer session ends and the boys have a few weeks of vacation before fall
semester commences. Gene returns to his home in the south. On his trip back to Devon,
he impulsively visits Finny at his home just outside Boston and confesses that he was the
reason Finny fell. Finny gets angry and tells him he’s crazy, and the two part on awkward
and uncertain terms.

Back at school, the war is the major topic on everyone’s mind, and shortages and
cutbacks affect their ordinarily sheltered lives. The boys work various local jobs to help
compensate for the wartime labor shortages, harvesting apples and shoveling snow.
Gene devotes himself to his studies but neglects sports and remains largely distant from
the other boys.

Finny returns to school in the middle of the term on crutches, and is once again Gene’s
roommate. Gene quickly devotes himself to helping his friend, both with everyday tasks
and with his homework. The two are once more inseparable, and, caught up in Finny’s
fantasies, are oblivious to the world war. Things seem to have reached an even keel
again when Brinker Hadley, an arrogant and ambitious student in their class, takes it
upon himself to organize a student-run trial to determine who had been at fault when
Finny fell.

At the midnight trial, Gene finds himself standing accused in front of his suspicious peers,
and Finny comes to his defense until he suddenly remembers that Gene had been
standing behind him on the limb, a fact he’d forgotten in the chaos of the day. Frustrated
and disgusted with the trial, Finny rushes from the room, only to trip on the marble
staircase, fall down, and break his leg once more. Gene nervously goes to see him in the
infirmary a few days later, and the two boys eventually reconcile. Finny accepts that
Gene shook the branch impulsively, not out of any anger or hatred he felt for his friend.
He also admits some of his insecurities regarding his injury and his inability to join the

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military effort.

Gene’s relief at making up with Finny is soon obliterated when he learns later that same
day that Finny has died. While his bone was being set, a fluke blood clot came loose and
that straight to his heart, stopping it directly. Gene is subsequently unable to talk about
Finny with people, as he feels both as if Finny is still alive and still with him, and as if it
were Gene himself who died. The boys graduate, go on to serve in the military, and leave
Devon behind.

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Chapter-by-Chapter Summary and

Chapter 1


Gene Forrester returns for the first time since his graduation fifteen years earlier to the
Devon School. There are two places he wishes to visit: a marble staircase, and a tree by
the river. After seeing the stairs, Gene walks to the riverside and searches for the tree.
Surprised, Gene realizes that they all look similar. When he finally finds the tree, Gene is
relieved that it looks smaller than he remembered.

The narrative flashes back to Gene’s time during the summer session of 1942. He is
standing by this same tree with his charismatic roommate Finny and a few other boys.
Finny decides to jump from a high branch into the river, a feat only seniors ever
accomplished. After being teased a bit by Finny, Gene jumps, too, but the other boys are
too scared. As the other boys hurry back, nervous about being late for dinner, Gene feels
himself rebelling against his rule-abiding nature. Rather than hurrying, he initiates a
wrestling match with Finny, and the two boys laughingly return to their room without


This chapter serves to introduce the narrator of the story, a grown man reflecting on his
adolescent experiences. He is clearly pensive about his visit to Devon, and recalls the fear
he lived with while a student. These facts, along with the mysterious nature of his anxiety,
set a dark mood for the story that contrasts with the sunny summer Gene begins by
describing. This chapter also describes the novel’s setting at an elite prep school during
World War II, when shortages and war preparation affected even these privileged boys.
Simultaneously, the dynamic between Gene and Finny is established, with Finny being the
more charming and influential of the two, and Gene striving to live up to his friend’s

Chapter 2:

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Gene continues telling the story of that summer at Devon, focusing on how captivated he
and the rest of the school are by Finny’s wild, extroverted personality. Though the
substitute headmaster arrives to reprimand the boys for missing dinner, Finny is able to
sweet-talk him into dismissing their infraction. Finny begins wearing a bright pink shirt as
a celebration of an Allied success in the war, and charms the faculty at an afternoon tea
despite being underdressed. Gene feels a level of awe at the fact that his friend can
seemingly get away with anything. Later, the two boys go swimming in the river, and
Finny suggests that they found a secret new club, the Super Suicide Society of the
Summer Session, which would have boys jump from the tree branch into the river. The
two go to jump themselves, and when Gene briefly loses his balance, Finny reaches out to
steady him. Gene reflects that Finny perhaps just saved his life.


Though theoretically recounting his experiences as a student, what Gene actually focuses
on in his story is his friend Finny. Finny is the center of each and every event in this
chapter, and Gene is often presented as a mere witness to Finny’s greatness. Gene’s own
thoughts and desires are submerged under Finny’s garrulousness, and a steady creeping
of jealousy can be sensed in Gene, who wishes that Finny would sometimes get the
punishments he so clearly has earned. Gene doesn’t express any of this to his friend,
however, and takes part in all of Finny’s antics, including Finny’s declaration that he
doesn’t really believe that the Allies bombed central Europe. In this way, even Gene’s
basic sense of reality is skewed by his desire to impress Finny.

Chapter 3:


Gene reflects that, though Finny may have saved his life on the tree branch, it was Finny’s
fault he was there in the first place, so he needn’t be overly grateful. He continues to be
by Finny’s side throughout the boy’s various escapades, which include establishing the
Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session, a hugely successful venture. Disgusted
with the school’s athletic program that summer and its inclusion of things like badminton,
Finny invents a new sport, blitzball, in which there are no teams and everyone is everyone
else’s enemy. Only Finny excels at the game. One day, Finny breaks the school’s
swimming record on a lark but won’t let Gene tell anyone about the achievement, a
demand that frustrates and confuses Gene. Again on Finny’s insistence, the two boys

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break school rules by biking to the beach and spending the night there, drinking beer they
acquire with forged draft cards. Finny confides to Gene in a rare moment of sincerity that
he is his best friend. Gene almost responds but decides not to.


The jealousy and resentment that were hinted at in previous chapters are on full display
in chapter 3. Everything that Finny does is an incredible success, a fact that his sidekick,
Gene, finds more and more frustrating. When Finny refuses to reveal the fact that he
broke the school swimming record, Gene is astounded and can’t make sense of his
behavior. As ever, Gene ignores his own opinions and defers to Finny, risking serious
punishment by joining him at the beach and neglecting his studies. The war also
continues as an important background theme, with blitzball being named after the
German Blitzkrieg and supposedly serving as a metaphor of the war. Gene’s inability to
respond to Finny’s declaration of friendship highlights his internal struggle and his desire
to maintain a sense of superiority regarding his friend.

Chapter 4:


The boys bike back to school, and Gene makes it just in time for his trigonometry test,
which he fails. He has never failed a test before and is quite distraught. When Finny
teasingly accuses Gene for wanting to be valedictorian, Gene becomes convinced that
Finny is jealous of his academic success. Rather than being a true friend, Gene believes,
Finny only wants to sabotage his studies. When Finny insists that Gene attend a club
meeting, Gene explodes and says he needs to study. Finny confesses that he hadn’t
realized that Gene needed to study to do well and expresses admiration for Gene’s
intelligence. Gene realizes then that Finny had never been jealous and feels morally
inferior. At the club meeting, Finny suggests they jump from the branch together, and
Gene follows him up the tree. Once on the branch, Gene’s knees bend and wobble the
limb, causing Finny to fall to the ground below.


In this chapter, Gene’s insecurities reach new heights, and he becomes convinced that
Finny is as petty and jealous as Gene himself is. When Finny ends up being “better” than
Gene on this topic, too, wishing his friend only the best, Gene feels completely inferior,
which enrages him. It is this resentment that casts a dark shadow over the events in the
tree and causes the reader to wonder whether Gene intentionally made Finny fall. The fall
itself can be understood as a biblical metaphor, referencing Adam and Eve’s fall from

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grace and exile from Eden. Finny’s fall similarly marks the end of the summer’s
innocence. Gene’s dark nature, especially when compared with Finny’s bright energy,
creates an anxiety in the reader, who is conditioned to side with the narrator/protagonist
of the story but can no longer entirely trust Gene.

Chapter 5:


Gene learns that Finny’s leg was “shattered” when he fell, and that he needs time to
recover alone in the infirmary. Wanting to escape himself and his inner turmoil, Gene
puts on Finny’s clothes one night and feels as if he has become Finny for a moment. This
brings him great relief. When the doctor gives Gene permission to visit, Gene attempts to
confess to Finny that the accident was his fault, but is interrupted. Finny is soon sent
home to Boston to recover, and the summer session comes to an end. On his way back
to school in the fall, Gene stops by Finny’s house and tells him the truth about his actions
in the tree. Finny is incredibly upset by this revelation and refuses to accept it. Gene
leaves for school, realizing that it was a mistake to tell Finny because this news hurt him
more than the physical injury. Finny says he will return to Devon by Thanksgiving.


When Gene puts on Finny’s infamous pink shirt and feels as if he has been transformed
into his friend, the extent to which Finny has infiltrated his psychology becomes clear.
Gene can no longer entirely separate his identity from Finny’s, and nor does he want to.
Gene tries to confess his guilt to Finny largely because he assumes that is what Finny
would do if their roles were reversed. Thus, even his moral compass has become
something external to himself. Gene’s attempt to admit his wrongdoing and end their
friendship is dismissed by Finny, who always seems to have the last word and get his own

Chapter 6:


The start of the fall semester sees the return of discipline and routine to Devon, which
has been a lenient, carefree place during the summer. Brinker Hadley, a loud and
popular student, moves in across the hall from Gene. Instead of participating in sports
directly, Gene chooses to be an assistant manager for the crew team, a position typically
filled by handicapped students. He gets into a fight with Cliff Quackenbush, the manager,
who aggressively mocked him for not participating properly in athletics. Mr. Lusbury, the

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head of Gene’s dorm, scolds him for his behavior over the summer and tells him he has a
long-distance phone call. Finny has called to make sure that Gene isn’t acting “crazy”
anymore, and that his place in their room hasn’t been filled. Hearing that Gene wasn’t
participating in sports, Finny gets angry and demands that Gene play sports for Finny’s
sake, as he no longer can.


The transition from the summer of innocence to the winter of disillusionment and
discipline is begun with the start of the fall semester. Finny’s absence is filled by the strict
and unlaughing personality of Brinker Hadley, and the war becomes more of a focal point
at Devon. Mr. Ludsbury’s lecture stands in stark contrast to the jocular interactions Finny
had with authority figures over the summer. This imparts the sense that crimes will no
longer go unpunished. Gene’s will is once again trampled upon by Finny, who refuses to
accept Gene’s lack of interest in sports. Interestingly, Gene seems relieved to be getting
orders from Finny again and excited about living out Finny’s athletic ambitions for him.
The two boys’ identities continue to blur in this way.

Chapter 7:


Noticing that Gene has a double room all to himself while Finny is away, Brinker accuses
him of intentionally getting rid of Finny. This presumably playful accusation affects Gene a
good deal, and he becomes nervous about what the other boys think about him and
Finny’s fall. Gene encounters Leper Lepellier, a shy and emotional boy whom other boys
always tease, while he’s on his way to find a beaver dam. Students go shovel snow off the
railroad tracks to make up for wartime labor shortages, and though the work is dull, they
get excited when they see a train full of young recruits. Later, Brinker tells Gene he’s
ready to enlist right away rather than waiting to graduate, and Gene decides to do the
same. Back on campus, Gene is shocked to find Finny in their room.


The discipline of the winter session isn’t limited to the faculty, we see, as Brinker’s casual
accusation indicates a harsher and more judgmental environment at Devon. The
presence of the war in the boys’ daily lives parallels this strict environment. Shoveling out
the railroad and encountering the train full of soldiers are among the first direct
experiences the students have with World War II, and it clearly both excites and scares
them. Leper’s character serves as a foil to the rest of the boys at Devon, as he is

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introverted, naturalistic and unsuspecting. Though others mock him mercilessly, Gene
can empathize with him. The reader is uncertain of Gene’s goodness, still, as Gene is
seen both sympathizing with the bullied kid and harboring dark thoughts about his best

Chapter 8:


Though Finny is on crutches and needs Gene’s help getting around, he still wields a
forceful personality. With Finny back, Gene quickly dismisses Brinker and his plan to enlist
and becomes Finny’s constant companion once more. Finny convinces Gene to skip class
to he can look around the campus, and the two end up in the gym locker room. Gene
defends his choice not to sign up for any sports team by referencing the war, and Finny
surprises him by saying there is no real war, just a conspiracy by fat rich men to keep the
younger generation in its place. Finny says he understands this because of how much he
has suffered, a declaration that takes both boys aback. To relieve the tension in the
room, Gene begins doing pull-ups, and Finny brightens, cheering Gene on and declaring
his intention to coach him for the 1944 Olympics.


Finny’s surprise arrival serves as another instance when Finny’s plan overtakes one of
Gene’s. Rather than enlist, as he had planned the night before, Gene decides to dedicate
himself even more fully to Finny. His devotion to Finny seems to stem out of a mixture of
guilt (for causing his injury) and relief (that Finny still wants to be his friend). By deciding
not to enlist and playing along with Finny’s fantasy that the war is a conspiracy, Gene
allows himself to live in denial about life’s real problems. Longing for the innocence of the
summer, he believes that through sheer stubbornness he and Finny can avoid the real
world and all of its darkness, the war included.

Chapter 9:


Gene manages to distract himself from the war and his own internal conflicts by
dedicating himself to training for the Olympics with Finny, despite the fact that the war
will likely prevent the Olympics from actually taking place. The first Devon student to
enlist is Leper, a fact that shocks everyone, given his innocent nature. Finny continues to
come up with wild plans, this time organizing a secret winter carnival with sports, music
and alcohol. The carnival is a joyous occasion, with Finny dancing on a table and all the

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boys getting tipsy. The joy, however, is quickly brought to an end for Gene when he
receives a telegram from Leper, saying that he has escaped and needs Gene’s help.


Gene, who has had a codependent relationship with Finny from the start, is now fully
invested in becoming essentially the same person with the same goals. With Finny as his
athletic coach, Gene will be able to attain all the great athletic accomplishments that
Finny himself had once dreamed of. Since Finny’s injury is at least partially his fault, Gene
takes on the responsibility of making his friend’s legacy live on. The winter carnival seems
like a rejuvenation of the summer session’s carefree spirit. However, in the end, denial
isn’t sufficient to block out the difficulties of the real world, as Leper’s telegram brings
reality crashing down.

Chapter 10:


Gene heeds Leper’s call and travels to the boy’s “Christmas location,” his home in
Vermont. Gene is confused by Leper’s use of the word “escape,” and tells himself that he
must have escaped from spies. When he arrives at Leper’s house, the boy is acting
erratic and paranoid. He confesses that he ran away from the army, as they were
threatening to discharge him for being insane, or “psycho.” Leper then lashes out at
Gene, accusing him of pushing Finny out of the tree. Gene reacts violently, kicking Leper’s
chair over. After Leper’s mother serves them lunch, the two go for a walk in the
wilderness, and Leper begins detailing the crazy thoughts he experienced while in the
army. Unable to tolerate this type of talk, Gene runs away, leaving Leper alone in the


Leper’s transition from a sweet-spirited, unsuspecting boy into a hardened, paranoid man
symbolizes the dangerous transition from adolescence to adulthood that Gene fears. It
parallels the earlier transition from summer to winter, lightness to darkness. When Leper
indicates that he knows that Gene isn’t innocent, either, Gene stands seriously accused
for the first time. He doesn’t handle that well, and he similarly can’t tolerate Leper’s
detailed descriptions of his wartime hallucinations. Unable to face reality once again,
Gene literally runs away from it. For the reader trying to tally the ups and downs of
Gene’s moral choices, abandoning his ailing friend in the snow is a definite negative

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Chapter 11:


When Brinker hears the news of Leper’s breakdown from Gene, he comments that their
class has had two casualties. By implication, the other is Finny. Gene reacts to this
statement with defensive anger, and Brinker tells him that pretending that Finny is
uninjured will only prolong his suffering. Finny admits to Gene that he does believe in
World War II after all, because if something can make a person go crazy, it must be real.
Late one night, Brinker drags Finny and Gene to a student-run trial he has organized to
determine the cause of Finny’s fall. Finny claims that Gene is innocent, but becomes
suddenly unsure when he remembers that they were on the branch together. Leper, who
has secretly returned to Devon, is summoned and made to testify about what he saw that
day. Disgusted, Finny rushes from the room, and the boys can hear him trip and fall on
the marble staircase.


Leper’s breakdown puts an end to the boys’ denial of the war. Though it was Finny’s
fantasy to begin with, Finny is the first to let it go, while Gene would rather keep
pretending. So long as there is no war and there are Olympics to be trained for, he and
Finny can be inseparable friends. The war, Gene fears, would separate them. Two
moments in the chapter reveal Gene’s dishonesty: his claim to have been on the ground
when Finny was up in the tree and the posters on his wall of a plantation he pretends
belongs to his family. The trial is the second major climax of the book, and it makes it
clear that the innocence of the summer has been irrevocably lost. It has been replaced
with the severe discipline of the winter and the real world. Even so, Finny tries one last
time to escape reality by running from the room, just as Gene does one chapter earlier.
This is a decision that leaves Finny even worse off than before.

Chapter 12:


The students summon the doctor, and Finny is quickly taken to the infirmary. The doctor
tells Gene that is was a clean break and nothing to worry about. The following morning,
Gene is asked to bring Finny a suitcase full of clothes. When he gets there, Finny
confesses that he has been trying to find a branch of the military to accept him all winter,
and that none of them will because of his injury. If he couldn’t be a part of the war, Finny
explains, he didn’t want to admit there was a war. Suddenly in tears, Finny declares that
Gene must have made him fall because of some accidental impulse, and not out of hate

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or anger. Gene assures him that this is true, though doubts whether Finny can actually
make himself believe that. He then goes to class. When Gene returns in the evening, the
doctor tells him that Finny died while his bone was being set, as a bit of marrow got loose
and stopped his heart. Gene does not cry at the funeral, as he feels that it is his own.


Though the boys achieve a resolution just before Finny dies, the reader is still left
wondering what really happened. Finny wants desperately to exonerate his best friend
and forces himself to believe in Gene’s innocence, even though Gene himself can see
that this must be nearly impossible for Finny to really believe. Finny’s insecurities are also
on display for the first time in this chapter, and we realize how much he depends on Gene
in building up his fantasy world. Finny’s unexpected death is the final intrusion of the adult
world into Gene’s life, with all of its injustice and loss.

Chapter 13:


After Finny’s death, life at Devon continues and the boys in Gene’s class graduate and
prepare to start their military training. The school itself becomes even more fully invaded
by the war, as a portion of the campus is donated to forces busy making parachutes for
the troops. Gene meets Brinker’s father, who criticizes Gene and his son for choosing
“safer” routes in the army, the coast guard and the navy, rather than enlisting as ground
troops. Brinker later tells Gene how much he resents the older generation that has
caused the war but expects the younger generation to fight it. Gene begins narrating as
an adult looking back once more, and notes that he never killed anyone during his time at
war. He explains that he had already killed his enemy at Devon.


The novel ends on a note of disillusioned sadness and loss. The boys who had once been
excited about their future and the war are now plodding grudgingly towards military
service. Devon, the site of their former innocence, becomes militarized itself with the
arrival of the parachute riggers. At this point, each boy is forced to become an adult in
whatever way he can. Brinker decides to join the coast guard, and Gene will join the navy.
Only Finny manages to escape the real conflicts of adult life, and he had to die to do so.

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Character List

Brinker Hadley: A loud and bossy boy who moves in across the hall from Gene during
the winter session. He is the first person to become suspicious of Gene’s involvement
in Finny’s fall and organizes the tribunal to determine Gene’s guilt. Though he speaks
of enlisting early on, he ends up joining the coast guard after graduating.

Chet Douglass: The other potential class valedictorian and a skilled trumpet player.

Cliff Quackenbush: The manager of the crew team, and angry and abusive boy who
harasses Gene for volunteering to be the assistant manager, a position for
handicapped students.

Dr. Stanpole: The doctor who treats Finny and tells Gene of his death. He warns
Gene that boys of his generation need to get used to this sort of tragic news.

Elwin (Leper) Lepellier: An introverted boy, interested in nature and skiing, Leper
has a breakdown when he becomes the first boy to enlist in the army. His
psychological problems make the war undeniable for the rest of the boys.

Gene Forrester: The main character of the novel and its narrator, Gene is a good
student and decent athlete from a southern state. He quickly establishes a
codependent relationship with his roommate, Finny, which will define the rest of the
novel and his life.

Mr. Ludsbury: The head of Gene’s dormitory and a strict enforcer of rules. He stands
in contrast to the lenient Mr. Patch-Withers who was in charge during the summer

Mr. Patch-Withers: The stand-in headmaster during the summer, who doesn’t know
all the rules and doesn’t try particularly hard to enforce the ones he does know.

Phineas (Finny): The object of Gene’s obsession, Finny is a gifted athlete and an
overall charmer who suffers a great loss when he falls from a tree and shatters his
leg. He becomes dependent on Gene and doesn’t want to admit his friend’s faults. He
dies at the end of the book.

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Key Terms & Definitions

Blitzball: A sport invented by Finny, who is frustrated with the school’s summer
athletic program. There are no teams, and everyone competes against everyone else.
Only Finny is good at the game, as it challenges his incredible abilities.

Blitzkrieg: The German battle tactic after which blitzball was named, which involves a
fast and forceful attack by air forces and ground forces simultaneously.

The Cage: Devon students’ nickname for the gym, which confuses Gene when he first
arrives at school.

The Devon School: The elite college preparatory school in New Hampshire attended
by the novels’ characters. It is modeled after a real school, Phillips Exeter Academy,
which the author attended.

Devon River: The clean, flowing river the boys play in during the summer.

Draft Card: A notice sent by the military telling young men to report for army duty. In
the book, some students use forged draft cards as fake IDs to buy alcohol.

Naguamsett River: The muddy, murky river where boys row crew in the fall.

Plus c’est la même chose, plus ça change. : French for “The more things change,
the more they stay the same.” This is what Gene remarks to himself when he sees
that the intimidating tree of his youth has become shrunken and old over time.

Quadrangle: Today, people mostly say “quad,” but quadrangle is the full name for
the type of courtyard surrounded by three or four buildings found on many campuses.

Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session: Finny’s brainchild, this is a secret
club that requires its members to jump from a tree limb down into the river below.
Before Finny, this was only ever accomplished by seniors.

Yellow Peril: A nickname for Brinker Hadley, whom Finny and Gene mock for wanting
to enlist.

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Major Themes and Symbols


A Separate Peace is, above all, a coming-of-age story. The struggles faced by all the boys
are related to the fact that they are being forced to grow up more quickly than they had
planned. What’s more, the world they are to become a part of is more sinister and
frightening than they had anticipated. This can be seen clearly in the character of Leper,
an innocent boy who becomes convinced that he must help his country in the war effort
and enlists right away, only to be driven mad by the brutality of war. Gene is thrust
unpleasantly out of childhood when he (intentionally or not) causes Finny to fall from the
tree and becomes responsible for his friend’s well being. Finny is the only character who
remains childlike until the end, refusing to believe in Gene’s darker nature. To maintain
this innocence, however, Finny must die.

The Beaver Dam:

One winter’s day, Finny runs into Leper, who is going off on skis to search for a nearby
beaver dam. Most of the other boys have volunteered to help shovel snow on the railroad
as part of the war effort, an event Leper seems entirely oblivious of. Later on, Leper is
cruelly mocked by Brinker Hadley for being interested the dam. The dam, which Leper
does succeed in finding, is a symbol of unsullied natural beauty that stands in contrast to
the dirty railroad tracks and manual labor the other boys engage in. The other boys’
defensive nature and group mentality cause them to reject Leper’s appreciation for the
dam as strange and stupid. When Leper himself becomes a soldier and engages with the
industrial, masculine world the other boys are interested in, he loses his mind and his
connection to everyday miracles like the dam.


The question of independent identity is crucial to this novel, as both Gene and Finny find
their unique characteristics subsumed in the intense relationship they forge with one
another. Whether through feelings of guilt, insecurity, or just plain neediness, the boys
are unable to separate from one another. When Gene attends Finny’s funeral, he feels
that it is really his own funeral, as well. This theme can be seen in other characters in the
novel, as well. Brinker Hadley is all set to enlist early so long as Gene will accompany him,

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novel, as well. Brinker Hadley is all set to enlist early so long as Gene will accompany him,
but backs out as soon as Gene does. Arguably, the most independently minded character
is Leper, who is oblivious to the mocking and peer pressure that the other boys try to
exert on him. His independent spirit ultimately contributes to his downfall, however, as his
sincere psychological questioning of the war and violence renders him “insane” in the
eyes of the military establishment.

Finny’s Fall:

Finny’s fall from the tree brings the summer of innocence to an end, much in the way
Adam and Eve’s fall from grace causes the two biblical figures to be expelled from the
Garden of Eden. Both events are tinged with questions about the basic morality of
humanity. In the story of Adam and Eve, the two disobey the orders given to them by
their god and subsequently lie about their actions. In A Separate Peace, Gene’s
simmering envy and resentment of his friend color the events in the tree, and both Gene
and we are left wondering about the quality of his moral character.


A Separate Peace is remarkably absent of any female characters. The world Knowles
constructs is one composed of striving, ambitious boys interested in sports and war. The
one character given some stereotypically feminine attributes, Leper, is mocked by the
other boys and ends up going crazy. So androcentric is the environment that Finny’s
decision to don a pink shirt shocks the school, and even his best friend thinks he looks like
a “fairy,” a contemporary slur for gay men. On the cusp of manhood, the boys at Devon
guard their masculine pride fiercely, so much so that Gene is unable to respond when
Finny confides that Gene is his best friend.


The summer represents innocence, carefree joy, and relaxed authority. The boys, Finny
in particular, break rules and go unpunished. The world they inhabit is lush and beautiful,
with full trees, a rushing river, an icy ocean and warm sand. Gene, Finny and everyone
else are continually outdoors, submersed in nature. The war, graduation, and life’s other
struggles are distant thoughts. The summer ends with Finny’s fall from the tree.


The winter stands in contrast to the summer in A Separate Peace. Where the summer is
lenient, the winter is strict. Where the summer offers the boys natural bounty, the winter
offers icy obstacles and unforgiving cold. Rules are enforced with great rigidity, and the
war becomes a more serious presence on campus. The winter sees Leper enlist and

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suffer a mental breakdown, as well as Finny’s tragic death.

World War II:

World War II forms the crucial background to this book, constantly informing the boys’
experiences. Even during the summer, when the war is largely an afterthought, it still
inspires the boys play (blitzball), talk, and dress (Finny’s pink t-shirt). With the onset of the
fall term, the war forces itself into the school’s reality to an even greater degree. Boys
volunteer to pick apples and shovel snow as part of the war effort, and military recruiters
stop by the school to encourage enlistment. Hardships such as food and fuel shortages, a
lack of maid service, and the absence of young faculty members make for a somber
environment. Seniors in particular are being prepared for the war just as much as they
are being prepared for graduation itself, through the school’s intense physical education
programs and accelerated classes.

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Interesting Related Facts

Phineas (also spelled Phineus) is a character in Greek mythology, whom the Library of
Greek Mythology describes as “a diviner who had lost the use of his eyes” as
punishment from the gods for “foretelling the future to the human race.”

A film version of A Separate Peace was made in 1972. Exeter, the school on which
Devon was modeled, gave the filmmakers permission to shoot on campus.

Many of the characters were based on real people. Knowles wrote in a reflective
essay about the novel, “I put part of myself into all four main characters in A Separate
Peace: Phineas, Gene, Leper, and Brinker.” Similarly, Brinker Hadley was inspired by
the famous author Gore Vidal, who was a few classes ahead of Knowles at Exeter.

The Exeter Bulletin reported in 1943 that war preparations at the school were quite
extensive. The school helped out with the Red Cross, an Aircraft Observation Post, and
other wartime activities such as community blackouts. Courses were also condensed
to allow some boys to graduate before they reached draft age.

In “Reflections of John Knowles about his Novel,” Knowles claims that there really was
a Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session, and he was one of the members.

The sequel to A Separate Peace, a novel called Peace Breaks Out, takes place at
Devon immediately after World War II and addresses many of the same themes as the
first book.

Meg Rosoff, a book critic for the Guardian, categorizes A Separate Peace as a
“crossover novel,” as it is aimed both at teenagers and adult readers. Other such
novels, Rosoff says, include Pride and Prejudice and For Whom the Bell Tolls.

John Knowles and George Harrison, the guitarist for the Beatles, died on the same day,
November 29, 2001.

One of Knowles’ most influential teachers was the playwright Thornton Wilder, who
told him to throw away his first novel drafts. After receiving advice from Wilder,
Knowles started writing A Separate Peace.

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David Hackett, the man upon whom Finny’s character was based, was an all-star
athlete and close friend of Robert Kennedy who died in 2011.

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Sources and Additional Reading


Boston Globe, “Bestsellers Jan. 23-29”

The Exeter Bulletin, “How Exeter Responded to the Coming of World War II”

The Exonian, “A Critic’s Perspective”

The Exonian, “A Faculty Perspective”

The Exonian, “A Student’s Perspective”

The Guardian, “The Grand Tradition of Crossover Novels”

Ingenue Magazine, “ ‘A Separate Peace’ Interview”

The Internet Movie Database, “A Separate Peace (1972)”

John Knowles, “A Special Time, A Special School”

Los Angeles Times, “John Knowles, 75; Wrote ‘A Separate Peace’ ”

M.R. Williams, “The Academy in Wartime”

The New York Times, “John Knowles, 75, Novelist Who Wrote ‘A Separate Peace’ ”

Phillips Exeter Academy, “Reflections of John Knowles about his Novel”

R. Baird Shuman, “Great American Writers: Twentieth Century”

Robin Hard, The Library of Greek Mythology

Sun Sentinel, “Knowles, Now Thirty Years After”

Additional Reading:

The Exeter Bulletin, “The Anticipatory Program”

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National Public Radio, “Essay: George Harrison and John Knowles”

Phillips Exeter Academy, “A Page from the Original Manuscript”

Phillips Exeter Academy, “Photo Essay”

Slate, “The Secret of A Separate Peace”

T.B. Thomas, “Labor Enters the Curriculum”

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About The Author

Anna Wood
Anna Wood, a writer and journalist, studied history and creative writing at
Columbia University. Her fiction and nonfiction can be found in a handful of
literary journals, including The Nervous Breakdown and Line Zero, and her
novella "A Place Worth Getting To" was longlisted for the Paris Literary Prize in 2011. She
is a frequent contributor to the regional newspapers Southeast European Times and SES
Turkiye, writing about human rights, politics and culture in Turkey.

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