“A Separate Peace” is a coming-of-age novel published in 1959 and written by John Knowles. The novel is Knowles first and best-known published work. It is based on a previous short story of his titled, ‘Phineas’. The book received many awards, including the William Faulkner Foundation Award and the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award in 1961. It also made the New York Times Bestseller list in 1960 and was a National Book Award Finalist in ’61.
The main plot of the novel revolves around a man named Gene Forrester who revisits his old high school in New Hampshire and thinks about how little it has changed and how much he has changed.
Most of the novel is told through a flashback to his teenage years during World War II, where we see him as a sixteen-year-old boy and meet his best friend Finny. Finny, a talented, athletic boy is the subject of Gene’s jealousy and resentment although he does not know it.
One day, while Finny and Gene are taking turns jumping from a large tree branch into a river on the school ground, Gene jostles the branch and Finn slip off and hits the riverbank below with enough force to shatter his leg.
Though Finny begins to heal, he is deemed unfit to play sports or join the war as the other boys intend to once they finish school. Finny remains optimistic and upbeat but Gene struggles with the realization that he may have purposely hurt his friend out of resentment. Soon, another student begins to suspect Gene of lying about what happened the night Finny was hurt and organizes an informal tribunal of students to try and ascertain what really happened. During the tribunal, Finny becomes so upset by the accusations against Gene that he runs from the room sobbing and mistakenly falls down the stairs, re-breaking his healing leg. Shortly afterward, during an operation on the leg, Finny passes away and Gene is left to finish school and enlist in the Navy. Back in the future, Gene thinks about how he made a war out of his time at school and perceived Finny to be an enemy when he was truly a friend.
The novel opens with Gene Forrester, the narrator and a former student of the Devon School in New Hampshire, walking around the school’s campus fifteen years after his graduation and marveling at how well preserved the buildings are. He feels that they look just as they did when he attended the school in the early 1940’s.
Gene remembers how afraid he was at that time when World War II was just beginning to impact the US. He makes a point to visit all of the spots on the campus that he most associates with that fear. First is on of the staircases in an academic building and the second is a tree growing on the bank of a river that runs along the edge of the campus. He recognizes the specific tree based on the scars across its trunk and thinks that the tree now seems smaller than it did when he was a boy.He remembers a French proverb that translates too, “the more things remain the same, the more they change” and goes back inside to get out of the rain.
Now the narrative flashes back to the summer of 1942. Gene is sixteen and standing before the same tree which towers over him like a “steely black steeple”. He is surrounded by his roommates, Phineas (or Finny), Elwin “Leper” Lepellier, Chet Douglass and Bobby Zane. Finny attempts to convince the boys to jump off of one of the trees long branches and into the rushing river. He notes that the jump is regularly done by the older boys departing from the school in aid to their training for the war. Finny is the first to jump, inspiring the other boys with confidence. Gene is second but the other boys refuse. The group goes back to the center of campus. Finny tells Gene that he jumped well once he was shamed into it and Gene denies this accusation even though he inwardly knows it to be true.
Finny and Gene engage in some roughhousing and then go back to their room to do homework. Mr. Prud’homme, a teacher, comes to scold the boys the next morning for roughhousing and missing dinner but Finny’s easy and engaging manner win him over and he leaves without punishing them.
That day, Finny decides to wear a bright pink shirt in solidarity and in celebration of the allied bombing of central Europe. Gene notes that he envies Finny for being able to get away with wearing the color pink and that Finny seems to be able to get away with anything he wants. Proving this, Finny shows up to afternoon tea wearing the school’s tie as a belt and accomplishes the nearly impossible feat of making the school’s stern headmaster, Mr. Patch-Withers, laugh. Gene is momentarily angered by Finny’s lack of punishment but moves on quickly and the two boys head out to the tree together, laughing. They decide to go back to the tree and jump into the river again. White swimming, they agree to form the “Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session”, a new secret society.
When they go to jump from the tree once again, Gene turns to make a sarcastic remark to Finny and loses his balance. Finny halts his fall, catching him by the hand and Gene thinks that Finny may have just saved his life, however, upon reflection he realizes that he would not have been in the tree at all had it not been for Finny, therefore, he does not really owe him gratitude.
That night, Finny convinces six other boys to join their society. He begins to think up rules, including requiring him and Gene to begin each meeting by jumping out of the tree.
Gene does not contest this rule although he hates it and still fears the jump. Soon, Finny and Gene decide to go to the beach, a trip that the school strictly forbids. The trip takes them hours on a bicycle. Gene agrees to go despite his disinterest in the plan. The ocean is too cold and the sand too hot. Finny enjoys himself regardless. The two eat hotdogs and manage to obtain beer by showing forged draft cards. Then they lie among the dunes where Finny says that he is glad that Gene decided to come along and that he considers him his best friend. Gene starts to agree but hesitates at the last moment and ultimately says nothing.
The boys spend all night on the beach and awaken with the dawn. They head back to campus, where Gene takes a trigonometry test. He fails and laments that it is the first time that he has ever failed a test. Finny tries to cheer him up and assures him that he works too hard anyway. He playfully accuses Gene of aiming to be the class valedictorian which Gene denies. Privately, however, Gene does wish to be the head of the class so that he can match Finny and all of the boy’s athletic awards.
Gene asks Finny how he would feel if he did become the valedictorian and Finny jokes that he would be so envious that he would kill himself. Gene feels that the joke has more truth to it than Finny realizes. He suddenly begins to feel that the envy in their relationship is mutual and invents a rivalry that he has never realized before. Going further, he concludes that Finny’s friendship and diversions may be a way to distract him and keep him from achieving academic success over Finny. Gene begins to double down on his schoolwork. Finny begins to work more as well and Gene perceives this as a gamble to overthrow his bid for valedictorian. He begins to guard himself around Finny but still attends the nightly meetings of their secret society in order to keep him from getting suspicious.
One night while Gene is busy studying, Finny bursts into his room and announces that Leper (Lepellier) is going to jump from the tree into the river in a bid to join their secret society. Gene doesn’t believe this and assumes that Finny made the story up to distract him from his studying. Gene grumbles that his grades will suffer, but follows the boy out to the tree. Finny confesses that he believed that Gene never had to study and that his academic prowess just came naturally. He tells Gene that he doesn’t have to join them if he wishes to study instead but Gene relents and says that he has studied enough. Finny’s attitude weakens Gene’s resolve in the rivalry and he begins to feel that there may never have been a competition between them at all. He feels that moreover Finny may even be morally superior to him for his upbeat, cheerful way of looking at life and his kindness. Finny, he believes, seems to be incapable of being jealous of anyone. Suggesting a double jump, Finny and Gene strip to their underwear and climb out onto the branch that stretching over the river. Finny goes out onto the limb first but when Gene follows he accidentally jostles it, causing Finny to lose his footing and fall, hitting the riverbank with a sickening thud. Gene then dives into the river fearlessly so that he can help his friend.
Soon it is discovered that Finny’s leg is shattered. Gene worries that he will be accused of making him fall on purpose, but no one seems to suspect this. Disallowed from seeing his friend in the infirmary, Gene spends most of his time alone in his room thinking about the accident. One day he dresses in Finny’s clothes and when he looks in the mirror feels a relief in the transformation. This relief lasts through the night but the next morning it is gone and Gene is left with the guilt of what he caused to happen to his friend, whether it was intentional or not.
That morning, Gene discovers that Finny is somewhat recovered and wants to see him but that he will never recover enough to play sports again. At this news, Gene begins to get upset. He goes to see Finny and asks him what he remembers about his accident. Finny relates that he remembers something making him lose his balance and that he looked over to Gene and tried to reach out to him. Gene confirms this and states that he tried to reach out to Finny but couldn’t. Gene starts to tell him that he was the reason that he fell but is interrupted by Finny’s doctor who tells Gene that visiting hours are over. The next day Gene is told that Finny is not well enough to see visitors. An ambulance takes Finny home to Boston and the summer session soon ends. Gene goes to his own home in the South for a month of vacation.
In September, Gene starts back to Devon School but ends up visiting Finny at his house on the way. He finds Finny propped up in a hospital like room and the other boy is delighted to see him. Gene tells Finny that he deliberately shook the limb to make him fall. Finny refuses to believe this and grows angry. Gene realizes that he has only done Finny more harm by admitting this than good. Finny tells him that he will be back to school by Thanksgiving. Gene returns to school and notices Finny’s absence everywhere.
Mr. Ludsbury, the normal school headmaster scolds Gene for taking part in so much delinquent behavior over the summer. He has heard about Gene and Finny’s trip to the beach and also about Gene playing late night poker games in the dormitories. Gene feels no remorse for this and only admonishes himself for not taking better advantage of the summer substitute headmaster’s laid back attitude while he could. Mr. Ludsbury tells Gene that he has a phone call in the master’s study. Gene returns the call to find that the number is Finny’s. Finny asks how the school is going. Gene tells him that he has no roommate for the moment and Finny is relieved. Finny tells Gene that he just wanted to check to make sure that Gene is not feeling “crazy” like he was when he visited Finny and claimed that he jostled the limb. Finny tells Gene that he should join a sports team at the school for his sake.
Soon, Finny returns to school. The night before he does, Leper tells Gene that he is enlisting in the war and Gene begins to feel that he should as well. Finny discovers Gene’s plan to enlist and does not support it. Gene assumes it is because he does not want him to leave. Gene informs him that he no longer plans to enlist and that it was just a silly idea. Instead of going to their first class of the day, the boys decide to cut so that Finny can see if anything on the campus has changed while he was away.
They go to the gym and Gene worries that this will make Finny remember his former athletic status and get upset. But Finny merely takes the other boy to the locker room and asks him what team he has decided to join this year. Gene confesses that he hasn’t tried out for any, noting that sports are not very important anymore now that there is a war. Finny argues that he does not believe that there is a war. He thinks that it is all a conspiracy put on by the government to keep young people like them in their place. When Gene asks why the conspiracy has not been discovered by others Finny says that only he can see it because of the amount of suffering he has gone through. This quiets the boys joking manner and an awkward silence descends. To break the silence, Gene begins to do pull ups on an exercise bar. Finny encourages him to do thirty. He tells Gene that he had aspirations of becoming an Olympic athlete and attempts to convince Gene to do it in his place despite Gene pointing out that the Olympics will most likely be preempted because of the war. Finny begins to train Gene to be an athlete and Gene begins to tutor Finny in his schoolwork. Both boys begin to see impressive results.
The following January, Leper enlists in the war. Gene finds this surreal and confusing. He feels like the war is difficult for him to comprehend. Gene and Finny find the other boy’s talk of the war alienating and begin to spend more time training and less time with their other friends. During a winter carnival held at the school, Gene receives a telegram from Leper saying that he has deserted the war and that he needs Gene to come and meet him at his families home in Vermont. Gene does so immediately, traveling overnight and arriving early the following morning.
Gene gives Leper the benefit of the doubt and assumes that he misread the telegram but Leper informs him that he did, indeed desert. He tells him that the army was going to give him a Section Eight discharge for being mentally unfit and that this would’ve prevented him from being able to get a regular job once he got back home. Gene is uncertain about this and he and Leper begin to fight. Leper accuses Gene of causing Finny to fall from the tree. Gene kicks over a chair. Leper’s mother comes into the room and demands to know what the two are fighting about. She tells Gene that her son is ill and demands to know why he would attack him. Gene agrees to stay for lunch out of guilt. After lunch, the two boys go for a walk. Leper suddenly breaks down and tells Gene that he was having hallucinations during training camp that frightened him. This is why the army decided to declare him insane. Gene finds this all too overwhelming and runs away into the snowy fields.
Gene returns to Devon and finds Finny leading a snowball fight on the grounds. He asks Finny if he should be participating in something so strenuous but Finny counters that he can already feel his bones getting stronger. Gene tells the other boys that Leper has changed and that he has deserted the army. They all assume that Leper has had a mental breakdown although Gene never confirms this.
Over the course of the semester, most of the other boys in Gene’s class begin to make an effort to enlist in some safe branch of the military. Finny relents and admits that he believes that the war is real now. If it can make someone go insane, he explains, then it must be real. Another student named Brinker tells the boys that he is ashamed that two of their graduating class have already been “sidelined” from the war (Finny and Leper). He tells Gene that he knows that he has decided not to enlist because of his pity for Finny and requests that he confront Finny about his injury and force him to accept it. He adds that he knows that Gene has a “personal stake” in the story of Finny’s injury being forgotten. He confesses that he did not believe Gene’s story about Leper at first but recently saw him hiding in the bushes on campus. Gene is shocked to hear that Leper is back at school.
That night, another student named Brinker gathers several other students in the assembly hall for an inquest into Finny’s injury. Brinker asks Finny to explain what happened the night of the accident and Finny reluctantly explains that he merely lost his balance and fell. The makeshift council asks what caused him to lose his balance and asks about where Gene was. Finny lies and says that Gene was on the ground looking up at him. Gene says that he cannot remember exactly what happened that night. Brinker wishes that Leper were there since he could have remembered everyone’s exact position. Finny admits that he saw Leper on campus that morning and a few boys are sent to track him down. Gene defends himself, saying that it doesn’t matter what Leper remembers because he is crazy anyway. Leper returns with the boys and admits that he saw two people on the branch and saw one shake it so that the other would fall. Brinker asks who was on the branch and Leper suddenly becomes hesitant. He insists that he will say nothing else. Brinker tries to get Leper talking again but Finny announces that he doesn’t care what happened and rushes out of the room in tears. The boys hear his footsteps running away and the tapping of his cane followed by a thud as his body falls down the marble staircase.
The boys react well, fetching the nearest adult, the wrestling coach who lives nearby. They also send someone to get the school doctor. The doctor arrives and assures them that though Finny’s leg has broken again, this time, it is a clean break. The other boys disperse but Gene follows Finny to the infirmary where he waits outside for a chance to sneak in. After the doctor leaves Finny to sleep, Gene sneaks into the room. Finny begins to struggle in his bed, demanding to know what Gene has come to break now. In his struggle, he falls out of bed but prevents Gene from coming in to help him back up. Gene is upset and tells Finny that he is sorry before leaving.
Despairing, Gene wanders the campus all night by himself. The next morning he returns to his room and finds a note from the doctor asking him to bring some of Finny’s things to the infirmary. Gene does so and when he sees Finny again, notices that his friend’s hands are shaking. Finny admits that he has been writing to military branches all through the winter begging them to let him enlist and over look his injury but that all of them have rejected him. He confesses that the reason he kept telling Gene that he didn’t believe in the war was because he felt left out of it. Gene tells Finny that he wouldn’t have been any good in the war because he would have wanted to make friends with the enemy and confused everyone as to whom they were fighting. Finny begins to cry and says that he feels that Gene hadn’t realized what he was doing by knocking him off of the branch months earlier. Gene admits that it was a deep impulse that he cannot explain that made him do it and not underlying hatred toward him. Finny is comforted by this. The doctor tells them that he is going to set the bone in Finny’s leg that evening and that Gene can come back later.
Gene rushes through his day and returns to the infirmary that night only to discover that Finny died during the operation. The doctor tells him that a bit of marrow escaped from the bones and got into Finny’s bloodstream, stopping his heart. Gene does not cry but feels that a part of him has died as well.
In the last chapter, the school year ends and Gene’s class graduates. The school donates part of it’s grounds to the military for training purposes and Gene watches as the trucks role in to occupy it. Gene has decided to join the Navy so that he can avoid the danger of the infantry. As he is packing up his locker, Gene sees some army men going out to the field for training. He knows that he will soon have to engage in similar training but thinks that he is glad that it is not happening at Devon.
Fifteen years in the future, older Gene wraps up the book. He tells the reader that he never had to kill anyone in the war, that his war was fought at Devon and it was there he killed his enemy. He concludes that everyone, at some point in their lives, finds themselves pitted against something that is hostile to them. For his classmates, this was during the war. Only Finny never felt that he was fighting against anything. Gene remarks that Finny was never afraid and never hated anyone. Finny was the only person that understood that a perceived enemy may not really be an enemy at all.
Gene Forrester – the main character and narrator of the book. Gene begins the story as an older man revisiting his school out of nostalgia but spends most of it as a sixteen-year-old boy in a flashback. Gene is a very polarizing character. At times very sincere and kind and at others mean and downright hurtful. He is the main source of all of the narration in the novel, yet qualifies as an unreliable narrator even concerning insights into his own motivations. At first, we assume that his adult self will bring perspective and wisdom to his memories of Devon but this is not the case. Gene as an adult still appears to be swamped with fears and insecurities. He worries that nothing has changed – in the school or himself – since his teenage years.
Gene initially presents he and Finny’s friendship as being idyllic but through his account, we learn that this was not the case. Take, for instance, the way that Gene assumes that Finny resents him for his academic success, but as the reader, we quickly ascertain that it is, in fact, the other way around. That is, Gene resents Finny for his athletic success and easy going attitude. Furthermore, he resents Finny more for Finny’s lack of resentment toward him. After Finny’s fall, Gene’s resentment takes a backseat. By causing Finny’s accident (rather intentionally or unintentionally) Gene has succeeded in bringing Finny down to his level.
Gene and Finny become increasingly inseparable and codependent after this and it becomes evident that Gene is not only attempting to equalize himself with Finny but perhaps trying to blur the lines between them until they are one personality. Gene’s wearing of Finny’s clothes symbolizes his wish to leave himself behind and become more like Finny. Gene regularly describes Finny in worshipful and sometimes almost erotic terms. His depiction of Finny seems to harbor a strong physical attraction.
Finny is the object of Gene’s jealousy and therefore the subject of his own personal “war”. Yet many scenes in the book seem to imply that Finny is also Gene’s greatest love. It is only after crippling Finny that Gene’s confounding mixture of worship and resentment can give way to care giving and devotion. It is never made clear in the book whether Gene intentionally jostled Finny out of the tree as a result of his own design or an unconscious impulse. However, he certainly does not know that this fall will be the first move in a chain of events that ultimately leads to Finny’s death, thus making Gene the killer of the thing that he loves most. Gene’s attempt to make himself like Finny and to blur the lines between his love and hatred for his friend is what makes this novel a tragedy.
Finny – Gene’s friend and roommate. An all-around popular boy at Devon School and star athlete. Finny is a jovial, easy going boy who gets along with most everyone in school and seems to truly enjoy life. He is energetic even after his injury and is capable enough and friendly enough to talk his way out of any situation. His personality seems to be bulletproof, not suffering at all from Gene’s depiction of him which is at times dark and unforgiving. Even though Gene often secretly harbors these feelings, he still seems to hold Finny in extremely high regard and is in awe of him. Finny is presented in terms that are akin to a Greek hero/athlete always excelling in physical tests and laughing in the face of danger. This is fully teased out by the depiction of Finny, like many Greek heroes, dying young.
In life, Finny tends to think the best of people and take no one as an enemy. He notes that he dislikes games with winners and losers and would rather play for the fun of playing. Gene considers Finny’s inability to perceive enemies as a weakness as well as a strength. Finny patently refuses to attribute any dark motivations to Gene even when Gene admits that he has them and this proves fatal for him, in the end. Finny often assumes that everyone thinks like he does and insists that he and Gene go along with whatever he wishes to do. This attitude is the root of the resentment that Gene develops toward him although Finny never picks up on it. Finny is a charismatic and powerful figure and perhaps too good of a person as his life is tragically cut short young.
Elwin “Leper” Lepellier – a fellow classmate of Gene and Finny’s. A boy that is quiet, peaceful and reserved who surprises his classmates by becoming the first to enlist in the war. He further shocks them by deserting the war shortly after. Lepers enlistment represents a dark shadow of war that will greet the boys as soon as they graduate, overshadowing their relaxing high school years and making their current actions and motivations seem pointless. Leper’s desire to enlist stems from his hatred of waiting and his need to move on quickly to what he knows is inevitable. His desertion represents this, too as well as the reminder that despite getting more preparation than most the boys will never truly be prepared for the atrocities that they will experience during the war.
One of the novel’s darker moments stems from Leper’s description of his experiences in the war and his hallucinations. It is during a walk outdoors with Gene that Leper recounts what he saw and this juxtaposition of the beautiful natural world with the dark, frightening inner world of his character is very jarring. Leper confesses that most of his hallucinations involved a transformation of some kind (he notes that they were of men transforming into women and chair arms turning into human arms) which represents the fears of adolescence and the transformation of the boys into men and, since it is war time, the transformation of men into soldiers.
Brinker Hadley – another student at Devon. Brinker is a sometime friend of Gene and Finny who organizes a tribunal of boys to judge whether or not Gene purposefully knocked Finny from the tree branch to cripple him. Ostensibly, he does this as a friend to Finny. Brinker is in many ways a foil and opposite to Finny. He is the leader of the Devon boys. While Finny’s character takes center stage in the warm, sunny summer session, Brinker’s takes it in the tougher, colder winter. In this way, the two boys come to represent these seasons with their characters.
Brinker is a believer in the war and resents any boy that he perceives as being, even subtly, a detractor. He openly derides both Leper and Finny for being injured before enlisting and considers them “sidelined”. His character takes on a bit of a government-like presence at the school, almost seeming to patrol the halls and keep a suspicious eye on Gene. Brinker also represents the sense of responsibility that comes with adulthood. He is the one who convinces Gene to cast of the carefree nature of childhood and accept his adult obligations by enlisting.
John Knowles Biography
John Knowles was an American author born in Fairmont, West Virginia in 1926.
His father was the vice president of a coal company and as a result, the Knowles’ lived comfortably. Knowles graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy in 1945 and went into the army afterward, serving in the Air Force during World War II.
After the war, Knowles attended Yale University. While there he contributed to the campus humor magazine, ‘The Yale Record’ and was a member of the ‘Yale Daily News’ staff. He was also a record-holding champion varsity swimmer. He graduated in 1949 and went on to write for the Hartford Courant and Holiday magazine.
During this time, he also began to write novels.
Knowles first novel ‘A Separate Peace’, (1959) draws from Knowles own childhood attending Phillips Exeter Academy and Knowles 1981 novel ‘A Peace Breaks Out’ used the same setting to greater advantage.
Including these, Knowles published 12 books in his lifetime, the last one being published on the internet in its burgeoning days in 1995.
Knowles died in November of 2001 in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida at the age of 75.