A Separate Peace Summary and Analysis
by John Knowles
Chapter 1 Summary:
The narrator, Gene, returns to the Devon School in New Hampshire, where he was a student with his rebellious friend Phineas almost 15 years ago, just as World War II was breaking out. He notices how much like a museum the school looks, how lifeless and polished; but the place brings back even keener memories for this preserved quality of appearance. It is a rainy, cold November day as he inspects the school grounds, and revisits the cold, hard marble stairs in the First Academy Building, which seem to hold some kind of memory for Gene; he also trudges over the muddy playing fields, to the river, and a tree that he and Phineas used to jump off of, bravely. He notices, when he sees the tree, how vast the difference is between youthful memory and adult perception.
The narrative shifts back 15 years, to Gene's days with Phineas. It is their first attempt to jump off the huge tree into the rivera daunting and somewhat dangerous feat that is usually reserved for senior boys. Phineas, being the daredevil, goes firstand Gene is the only one from the small party that he is able to persuade to follow him. They head back toward school, late for dinner; Phineas, the rebel of the two, exasperates Gene by making him really late, and then Gene gives in and decides to skip dinner altogether with his friend. Gene is normally a conservative, conformist type person, but under Phineas' potent influence, he becomes more devil-may-care and consents to break the rules with his friend.
The point of view and perspective of a work are always very important, and they are especially important in A Separate Peace, a novel that is highly colored by these two factors. The story is a first-person narrative, and the narrator is telling of events that took place fifteen years before the time he is recording the story; because of this, the tone is colored with nostalgia, and tempered with the narrator's feelings about his past. Even the narrator's recollections are filtered through his present experience and interest; at times, he speaks of the events of his past as if they were just happening, but then he breaks the spell with some adult commentary, reminding the reader that the story was written after the events took place, and therefore is influenced by his present state, and dependent upon his memory. The theme of reflection is also central to the novel; the novel is spawned by a visit back to his old school, and the work hinges upon a dialogue between the past and the present, and the relation of a man to his much younger self.
The images that the narrator uses to describe his former home paint the school as a place of conservatism and traditionalismtwo qualities against which Finny fights. The Devon School is "more perpendicular and strait-laced, with narrower windows and shinier woodwork" than Gene remembers; it is as if the school has lost all of its rebellious air, and has reverted to its true, very conservative self without Finny and Gene's presence (p.1). He takes notice of "those most Republican and bankerish of trees, New England elms," that seem to both match the school's qualities and reinforce its staunch, old character.
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.
The Devon School, fifteen years later, seems almost unreal to Gene; it occurs to him that he's always believed Devon "was vibrantly real while I was a student there, and then blinked out like a candle the day I left" (p. 1). The simile emphasizes how unrealistic this view of Gene's is, but also what time and place the school inhabits in his memory, and how much his experience at Devon was colored by Finny, who is not with him on his return visit.
Upon his visit, Devon takes its place in Gene's mind as a symbol of innocence, and of the youth that he is lost; he realizes when he is there how much he has changed since being a student there. Devon is also a symbol of the fear he felt when he was younger; when he revisits the place, he can still sense the fear he felt while he was there. Though he associates some of his happiest days with the school, the school is also a symbol of fear, and of shelter from the harsh realities, especially of war, that the boys were oblivious to.
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.
Note the difference between the weather Gene encounters when he comes back to Devon, and the summer weather of the session he recalls; the juxtaposition accentuates the difference in station and age between Gene as a youth and Gene as a man. The June/ November symbolism is a subtle way to set the two Genes apart, and gives a certain appropriate and divisive tint to the two linked time periods.
In mid-chapter, the prose reverts to the period of Gene's school days, with his narrative voice speaking as if he were back in those days with Finny, though he is not. He leaves off his present narrative with remarks about how things have changed, and how something like the riverbank tree that loomed so huge in memory can be so small; he begins this past section with a statement about how forbidding the tree is, therefore addressing the issue of memory vs. reality once again.
In these first chapters, Gene is sure to set up a good, thorough characterization of Finny from the minimal events described. From the tree-jumping incident alone, we learn that Finny is a daredevil, able to wrangle others into doing things, and a bit of a devil-may-care kind of guy. Gene shows his weakness for Finny on page nine, with the tree incident illustrating perfectly how great Finny's hold on Gene is and what kinds of things Finny can persuade him to do. Finny and Gene are kindred spirits, but are also foils to each other; Finny's daredevil, rule-breaking attitude contrasts nicely with Gene's rule-abiding conservatism, and though the two are good friends, they are very different kinds of people. Gene breaks into his "West Point stride" when he is late for dinner, while Finny horses around and goes even slower; Finny is the one who gets himself into and out of trouble so easily, while Gene sits and watches it happen. The push-pull between them is already a major issue in the book in Chapter 1; and the differences, and compatibilities, between Gene and Finny, will continue to be a crucial theme within the rest of the work as well.
Chapter 2 Summary:
One of the school masters, Mr. Prud'homme, noticed the boys' absence from dinner the previous evening, and pays them a visit to discuss the offense. Finny (aka Phineas) concocts some long-winded but amusing excuse about going swimming, watching the sunset, etc., and how the activities were absolutely necessary in light of their almost being of age for the draft; Mr. Prud'homme is won over by Finny's charm in trying to weasel his way out of trouble, and the master forgets any charges. Gene says that Finny doesn't care about getting away with things, so much as wheedling a friendly and warm reaction out of his teachers and superiors after his transgressions of school rules.
Finny is an anomaly among Devon students; he is a good student and athlete, but also a rule breaker with the ability to charm his way out of trouble. Gene is jealous that Finny has the school in the palm of his hand, and can get away with nearly everything as well. Also, the school masters tend to be lax with Gene because, as Gene recalls, they were completely innocent and ignorant of the war; they are young and carefree and having plenty of fun, though they are perilously close to being drafted in a year or two.
Finny, ever the rebel, decides to wear a pink button-up shirt as an emblem of victory for the forces abroad; then, the substitute headmaster, Mr. Patch-Withers, gives a tea for their class, which Finny and Gene of course attend. The subject of the day is the bombing of Central Europe, which the American forces had just begun; Finny does most of the talking but, completely clueless about the war as he is, his views on the situation aren't exactly realistic. Mrs. Patch-Withers notices that Finny has used the school tie as his belt, something which is considered a capital offense. Finny again concocts some nonsense excuse, how it's another show of his patriotism, and means no disrespect to the school. Of course, Mr. Patch-Withers is taken by surprise at the explanation, and does not punish Finnyletting him off the hook yet again. Gene is amazed that Patch-Withers is actually amused by the whole affair; he is usually stern and sour, but Finny has gotten the better side of him to come out. To Gene and Finny, the war is remote and hard to accept; they have seen newsreels from the front and films of bombs dropping, but cannot accept that such a thing could be happening while they are having a great time at their comfortable, sunny little school.
Finny decides they should jump out of the tree again, while they are swimming at the river. They come up with the idea for a "Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session," a group for exciting and dangerous things, and make a leap from the tree the entry requirement. Gene goes onto the diving limb with Finny, and loses his balance; Finny stops Gene from what could have been a very dangerous fall, and Gene soon realizes that his friend saved his life.
The extent of Finny's ability to charm and persuade is explored in Chapter 2, with his encounters with and triumphs over authority coming to the fore. Twice he is able to escape punishment by inventing ridiculous excuses, and using their ridiculousness to please and cheer those who are in charge. Gene furthers Finny's characterization by devoting a chapter to his misadventures and successes in winning his sour masters over; Finny, more and more, becomes the "model boy who was most comfortable in the truant's corner," and not just through Gene's recollective statements, but also through the events and ways in which Gene chooses to present Finny. Perhaps Finny was not completely the rebellious good-boy that Gene presents; after all, he is writing this from fifteen years afterward, and the narrative is tinged with memories that are a combination of emotion and fact. But, Gene decides to show Finny only at his most wily and interesting, meaning that the Finny we get to know might not be the one that Gene really knew.
In the contrast between rebellion and conformity at Devon, conformity was definitely favored; but Finny, according to Gene's account, baffled judgment and expectations by mixing elements of both. We see that Finny is able to do well in his studies and sports and be a great member of his school overall, like Gene is; he has some discipline and a definite ability to achieve, and also to fit in, as Gene does as well. Finny is Gene's foil only to the extent that he is a rebel; again, the issue of rebelliousness vs. conformity surfaces, to explain Finny and Gene's main similarity, but also their main difference.
Gene's narrative voice slips here, on page 16, back into recollections from his present state of life; when he does so, his tone becomes more sentimental, more measured, and more reflective of his present state than of his past. These passages in which Gene descends from his story to add a bit of his older perspective ground the story in its initial frame, of being a recollection and a work about memory. He also takes the chance to again mention the theme of innocence vs. age, as he tells of how they were children of "careless peace," set apart from adults by their lack of knowledge of the war, and their utter abandon to their own small, happy worlds.
Phineas means his pink shirt as a symbol of patriotism, and heartening victory; what the shirt really symbolizes, at least from Gene's perspective, is Finny's willingness to be different, and how little he cared about what people thought about this. The incident of the shirt shows Finny to have little self-consciousness about him, and a great deal of confidence in himself; when he wears the pink shirt, he exemplifies this, not so much as blinking when the headmaster approaches him to ask about the oddly colored shirt. The shirt is merely a symbol, an object in one of Finny's little rebellions, of which the tie is one as well.
Although Finny's knowledge of world affairs is scant, he discusses the subject of the bombing of central Europe with youthful abandon, and is not corrected or challenged on the subject, even with his lack of knowledge. In his innocence, he strikes a pose of worldliness, which, combined with his charisma, manages to win over adults who long for the days of their youth. Finny manages to get Mr. and Mrs. Patch-Withers on the same wavelength that he is on; they join in the discussion with him, even showing a bit of youthful trifling in the process. This is one of Finny's greatest skills on display; he is able to bridge the gap between youth and age with ease, which is a magical, special quality, especially as Gene sees it. Finny is shown to be one of a very rare breed, a person in whom contradictions exist, like the abilities to be both orderly and wild; but these contradictions do not cause any conflict in Finny, like they do in Gene. Finny is so special because he is able to have such contradictory elements in his nature, and make the best of them; Finny is the figure in which many of the themes of contrast in the novel, like innocence vs. experience and order vs. rebellion reside in a perfect balance. Gene, however much he tries, cannot duplicate this balance that is inherent in Finny's nature, and his story is an attempt to explore and revisit this interesting person who was nearly immune to many of the issues that still trouble Gene.
The world around Gene and Finny seems permanent and endless, in retrospect; Gene's choice of images conveys this permanence which they believe their surroundings to have, which is belied by Gene's return to the school. Devon is full of "permanent hanging gardens" of ivy, with the leaves on the trees also seeming "permanent and never-changing" (22). These images convey Gene and Finny's confidence in the lasting peace of their world; they know of a war overseas, but are idealistic enough to believe that such happenings will not affect them in their present lives. In retrospect, Gene is not sad at the sheltered state he and Finny lived in back at school; "the people in the world who could be selfish in the summer of 1942 were a small band," he says, "and I'm glad we took advantage of it" (23). Though they wanted to be or to seem older and more knowledgeable when they were young, in retrospect, their freshness was a rare thing, and too soon spoilt. This is the dilemma that faced Gene and Finny during their New England summer, and it is their exuberant ignorance that Gene laments when he realizes he has aged.
Chapter 3 Summary:
Finny begins to tell friends about his and Gene's new club; quite a few of them join, and Finny makes up the rules himself as he goes along. The first rule is that Finny and Gene must jump from the tree at the beginning of every meeting; Gene cannot get used to this daredevil stunt, though he has done it many times before. The club meets every night, because Finny deems it so; Gene doesn't want to go every night, or do everything Finny wants to, but follows Finny anyway because of their friendship. Gene realizes that Finny, despite being very free-thinking, abides by his own set of rules and regulations; he also abhors badminton, despite his love for almost all other kinds of sports. Finny dismantles and throws away the shuttlecock; he picks up a ball, and refuses to go join the rest of the class at badminton. Gradually, some of the boys leave their games and come to Finny; Finny makes up a game called "blitzball," sort of a variation on rugby and football, and also adds new rules as they go. The game, though rather haphazard, is a hit that summer, and the nature of the game showcases Finny's incredible natural athleticism.
Gene reverts to commentary from the present, telling of the great hold that the war still has on him, and how he hasn't been able to loosen the hold that the time period has on him. Gene builds Finny's legend by telling of how Finny casually and easily broke a school swimming record, but did it unofficially and just to see if he could do it. Finny refuses to do it again and have it count, and so Gene builds him up into even more of a hero/athlete. Finny proposes that they go to the beach, which is far away and means they will be in big trouble if they are caught; Gene, against his better judgment, says he will.
They ride their bikes to the beach, and then spend the whole hot afternoon there. In the evening, they visit the boardwalk of the coastal town; Finny has picked up a nice tan that makes him look especially handsome, according to Gene. They sleep on the beach that night, and Finny admits that he considers Gene his best friend, which touches Gene deeply; but something keeps Gene from admitting the same thing.
The beginning of Chapter 3 is a great contrast with the ending of Chapter 2 in terms of both tone and sentiment. At the end of Chapter 2, Gene says that he was grateful to Finny for keeping him from falling out of the tree; but, at the start of the next chapter, he accuses Finny of being responsible for the whole thing, and owes his friend no thanks, since Finny is the one who goaded him to go up there in the first place. Gene is rationalizing away his feelings on the near accident; unlike Finny, Gene shows difficulty in expressing or even admitting emotions to himself, as displayed by this change of heart. The statement also demonstrates how Gene's nature is tainted by his jealousy and negative feelings for Finny, which corrupt his behavior and his good nature.
Although Finny is a great rebel, as seen in Chapters 1 and 2, Finny is also a walking contradiction in that he does believe in rules to the spontaneity and chaos that take him. There are certain things that Finny religiously does or refrains from doing, like saying prayers though he is not terribly religious, or stating his height as 5'8 _". Above all, "Finny never permitted himself to realize that when you won they lost" in terms of sports and other activities (27); he thinks that, as a rule, participating is victory, and doesn't believe in any other view on the subject. Again, Gene portrays Finny as a person who is a harmonious conglomeration of many contradictory elements, which Gene seems to question, though Finny certainly does not.
Already, Gene admits that he follows his friend around and participates in their club out of obligation, rather than free will; he believes he is in a "strait jacket" in his dealings with Finny, betraying some ill-will toward Finny that foreshadows a necessary confrontation. This is an issue that becomes more and more important in the work; the jealousy in Gene's nature causes him to think badly of Finny, and cast himself as Finny's opponent, which is very important when examining the ways in which Gene portrays Finny in the work.
In spite of Gene's reservations about his friend, he is able to tell of his friend's thoughts and intentions merely from the tone of Finny's voice. When "humor infiltrated the outrage in [Finny's] voice," Gene can tell that Finny is trying to find a way to weasel himself out of the unpalatable prospect of badminton practice (27). Gene knows exactly how Finny is regarded by his classmates, and is able to predict how the other boys will react to Finny's refusal to play badminton; but although Gene is so knowledgeable about Finny's thoughts and his appearance to others, he still cannot correctly recognize all aspects of Finny's behavior.
Again, the theme of the divide between innocence and experience surfaces, as lackadaisical activities of the happy, peace-enveloped juniors are juxtaposed with the semi-military drills that the seniors have to endure. Associated with the seniors are obstacle courses and "insidious exercise," while the juniors get to enjoy the "optimistically green" playing fields at their disposal (27).
Finny's invention of "blitzball" shows many aspects of his character at work, especially his inventive spirit and his ability to balance chaos with rules. It also shows off Finny's incredible athletic ability, making him even more of a wonder in Gene's estimation. Gene is so impressed by Finny's skill at this difficult, invented game that he describes Finny as being capable of "acts of sheer mass hypnotism," a phrase which suggests some kind of player's charisma at the game. Gene's language becomes somewhat exaggerated, and heavy in praise, when he describes Finny's triumphs at blitzball; he is awe of Finny at this point, and channels this feeling into his characterization, which becomes almost impossibly impressive.
This brings up a very pertinent question; is Finny really the superman athlete that Gene makes him out to be, or is his characterization of Finny altered by his feelings toward Finny? And what are Gene's motives in pumping up Finny's triumphs for the reader in a manner that makes him seem like an impossible human being? Up until this point, Gene focuses upon events that make Finny seem larger than life, omitting any details that would expose his flaws. However, when Gene gets angry with Finny in the next chapter, Gene's treatment of Finny changes dramatically; Gene projects his feelings about Finny into Finny's character, and also reveals Finny's academic challenges, which Gene had glossed over by making Finny out to be the perfect, all-around "model boy" in previous chapters.
Gene confesses in this chapter that he is still stuck in the time of World War II; his memory still has a tremendous hold on him, as evidenced by his ability to recall the goings on of fifteen years' past with such detail. The presence of memory, and its role over time, is a major theme of this book; when Gene reiterates his thoughts on the past and on the lasting impact of the events he is describing, he only increases the importance of this theme within the novel.
The scene of Finny's swimming triumph is almost surreal; the "white tile and glass brick," the "green, artificial-looking water," and the "general well of noise" that blurs the atmosphere around the pool create an odd, almost dreamlike setting for this part of the novel (34). The metaphor of Finny as a bullet also adds to the dreamlike qualities of the scene; "his body uncoiled and shot forward with sudden metallic tension," as Finny seems more like a machine, or a pellet from a gun, than a real person (35). These images and metaphors contribute to Gene's disbelief of the whole scene; Finny breaking a long-standing swimming record as only a casual swimmer is quite an impressive feat, and the description of the situation reinforces Gene's shock as he tries to grasp what happened.
Finny's rebelliousness is again reinforced by the swimming incident; he does not see a point in following the rules and making his record official, because others' recognition is not nearly as important to him as his own. Gene is again shown as a foil to Finny, since he espouses the more common and simply logical point of view, which is contrary to Finny's beliefs. They are opposite in their natural instincts, and in several aspects of their nature; still, they are able to get along, just as the opposite aspects of Finny's natures do not cause him problems. The contrast between the two of them as they ride to the beach also reasserts the differences between them; Gene is quiet and is working hard going up and down hills, while Finny is floating along and joking with him, in a much lighter mood.
Gene takes a very dramatic stance on Finny's record-breaking; he calls it "a mistake, a lie," and says it is a secret that he has to force it down into the recesses of his mind. Gene treats Finny's feat with a great sense of awe, but his diction reveals a darker aspect that Gene believes to be inherent in the feat. Why Gene treats this event with such a tone of doom is unclear at this point; Finny's purpose in this swimming event was just to see if he could do it, while Gene treats it like some dark secret that he doesn't want to keep.
In Chapter 3, Finny's characterization through Gene reaches a praise-filled peak; up to this point, Gene has painted a picture of a flawless super-athlete, a characterization soon to be marred in Chapter 4. The "absolute schoolboy glamour" aspects of Finny are on display, with any of Gene's negative feelings toward him still undiscussed (37). Finny even seems to look perfect, according to Gene's description; he sports a "movie-star tan," and strangers on the street can hardly help but notice him and his good looks.
When Finny and Gene finally reach the ocean, it seems to resemble Finny in its appearance and qualities. The "salty, adventurous, flirting wind" seems to symbolize Finny especially, and mirrors his daring, omnipotent qualities (39). As Gene says, Finny "was everywhere, he enjoyed himself hugely"; this description seems to cement his association with the light, refreshing breeze, and reinforces Finny's connection with the sea.
Gene's reluctance to answer Finny's comments that Gene is his best friend foreshadows some kind of conflict within Gene; up until this point, Gene has had nothing but praise for Finny, but the fact that he cannot acknowledge his best friend openly indicates something wrong beneath the surface. Gene says that he was "stopped by that level of feeling, deeper than thought, which contains the truth"; Gene finally acknowledges his second thoughts openly, which foreshadows Gene's coming crisis about his true feelings for Finny (40).
A Separate Peace Essays and Related Content
- A Separate Peace: Major Themes
- A Separate Peace: Essays
- A Separate Peace: Questions
- A Separate Peace: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- John Knowles: Biography
- A Separate Peace Summary
- About A Separate Peace
- Character List
- Major Themes
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 1-3
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 4-6
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 7-9
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 10-11
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 12-13
- Related Links on A Separate Peace
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Author of ClassicNote and Sources