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Gene is visiting these two "fearful sites" as an adult. They hold bad memories for him. The tree is the place from which Phineas fell, as an adult he sees it is "weary from age, enfeebled, dry." Because of this, Gene comes to understand that, "Nothing endures, not a tree, not love, not even a death by violence." Seeing the tree again gives Gene a sense of peace, and he finds himself changed by the experience.
The marble stairway is located outside the Assembly Hall in the First Academy building. The stairway serves as the setting for the Gene's trial (did he, or did he not, jostle the tree limb on purpose?), and also the place where Finny "clumsily fell down the white marble stairs," as he angrily walked away.
A Separate Peace
The image of how Devon appears to have changed also presents the contrast between reality and what exists in the memory, and shows how memory can be tinged by feelings that change how reality is perceived and recalled. This is especially evident when he looks for a tree by the river, that also appears to have a special meaning to him. "It had loomed in my memory as a huge lone spike dominating the riverbank, forbidding as an artillery piece, high as a beanstalk," he says, his similes characterizing the tree as a great, forbidding mass (5). Yet, when he sees it, he finds it "absolutely smaller, shrunken with age," and nothing like the great giant he had remembered. Perhaps the tree had actually shrunk since Gene's time; but this is a more apt example how things can be obscured or emphasized in the memory via emotional factors, and a good introduction of the theme of memory versus reality.
When Gene revisits the school, he dwells on the sight of the old marble steps in the First Academy Building, and seeks them out especially, as if they have some great significance in his life. He realizes how hard the marble is, and notes how "surprising [it is] that [he] had overlooked that, that crucial fact" (p. 3). At this point in the novel, he does not say what meaning these steps have; but that he remarks on their qualities, especially the hardness, foreshadows their significance in future events.