A Separate Peace

A Separate Peace

Overview
A Separate Peace is a novel by John Knowles
John Knowles
John Knowles was an American novelist best known for his novel A Separate Peace. He died in 2001 at the age of seventy-five.-Early life:...

. Based on his earlier short story "Phineas", it was Knowles' first published novel and became his best-known work.

Gene Forrester, the protagonist, returns to his old prep school, Devon (a thinly-veiled portrayal of Knowles' own alma mater, Phillips Exeter Academy
Phillips Exeter Academy
Phillips Exeter Academy is a private secondary school located in Exeter, New Hampshire, in the United States.Exeter is noted for its application of Harkness education, a system based on a conference format of teacher and student interaction, similar to the Socratic method of learning through asking...

), fourteen years after he graduated to visit two places he regards as "fearful sites:" a flight of marble stairs and a tree by the river.
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Encyclopedia
A Separate Peace is a novel by John Knowles
John Knowles
John Knowles was an American novelist best known for his novel A Separate Peace. He died in 2001 at the age of seventy-five.-Early life:...

. Based on his earlier short story "Phineas", it was Knowles' first published novel and became his best-known work.

Plot summary


Gene Forrester, the protagonist, returns to his old prep school, Devon (a thinly-veiled portrayal of Knowles' own alma mater, Phillips Exeter Academy
Phillips Exeter Academy
Phillips Exeter Academy is a private secondary school located in Exeter, New Hampshire, in the United States.Exeter is noted for its application of Harkness education, a system based on a conference format of teacher and student interaction, similar to the Socratic method of learning through asking...

), fourteen years after he graduated to visit two places he regards as "fearful sites:" a flight of marble stairs and a tree by the river. First, he examines the stairs and notices that they are made of very hard marble. He then trudges through the mud to the tree. The tree brings back memories of Gene's time as a student at Devon. From this point, the plot follows Gene's description of the time span from the summer of 1942 to the summer of 1943. In 1942, he was 16 years old and living at Devon with his best friend and roommate, Phineas (nicknamed Finny). At the time, World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

 is taking place, and has a prominent effect on the story.

Gene and Finny, despite being polar opposites in personality, become fast friends at Devon: Gene's quiet, introverted intellectual personality complements Finny's more extroverted, carefree, athletic demeanor. During the time at Devon, Gene goes through a period of intense friendship with Finny. One of Finny's ideas during Gene's "Sarcastic Summer of 1942" is to create a "Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session," with Gene and himself as charter members. Finny creates a rite of initiation by having members jump into the Devon River from a large, high tree. He also creates a game called "blitzball" (from the German blitzkrieg
Blitzkrieg
For other uses of the word, see: Blitzkrieg Blitzkrieg is an anglicized word describing all-motorised force concentration of tanks, infantry, artillery, combat engineers and air power, concentrating overwhelming force at high speed to break through enemy lines, and, once the lines are broken,...

) in which there is no winner.

Following their period of intense friendship was a period of intense one-sided rivalry during which Gene strives to out-do Finny academically, since he believes Finny is trying to out-do him. This rivalry culminates (and is ended) when, as Finny and Gene are about to jump off the tree, Gene purposely jounces the branch they were both standing on, causing Finny to fall and shatter his leg. Because of his "accident", Finny learns from the doctor that he will never again be able to compete in sports that are most dear to him. The remainder of the story revolves around Gene's attempts to come to grips with who he is, why he shook the branch, and how he will continue to go forward. Gene tells Finny that he caused Finny's fall. At first Finny does not believe him and afterward feels extremely hurt.

During a meeting of the Golden Fleece Debating Society, a debate/trial organization that Brinker Hadley set up, Gene is confronted about the "accident" by Brinker, who accuses Gene of trying to kill Finny. Faced with the evidence, Finny leaves shamefully before Gene's deed is confirmed. On the way out, Finny falls down a flight of stairs (the ones Gene visits at the beginning of the novel), and again breaks the leg he had shattered before. Finny dismisses any of Gene's attempts to apologize at first, but he soon realizes that the "accident" was impulsive and anger-based. The two forgive each other.

The next day, Finny dies during the operation to set the bone. The doctor surmises that Finny died when bone marrow entered the blood stream, and stopped his heart during the surgery. Gene does not cry over Finny, but learns much from how he lived his life, stating that when Finny died, he took his (Gene's) anger with him. In Finny's death, Gene could finally come to terms with himself.

Characters

  • Gene Forrester: A Separate Peace is told from Gene's point of view. Gene focuses on, and succeeds at, academics. He envies his roommate Finny's graceful, easy athleticism and social prowess. Gene is from "three states from Texas," and is therefore somewhat unaccustomed to Northeastern culture. Gene caused his best friend's fall, in his suppressed envy by making a small but deliberate quick move on a tree branch from which Phineas would not otherwise have fallen.

  • Phineas "Finny": Incorrigible, good natured, athletic, daredevil type that in Gene's opinion could never leave anything well enough alone, and could always get away with anything. Gene's best friend and roommate. He always sees the best in others, seeks internal fulfillment free of accolades, and shapes the world around himself to fit his desires. He is a prodigious athlete, succeeding in every sport until his leg is shattered one fateful day, in his fall from the tree.

  • Brinker Hadley: Brinker is a classmate and friend of Gene and Finny's. He ceaselessly strives for order during the Winter Session at Devon. The main antagonist, Brinker wants to get to the bottom of Finny's accident, but it is unclear if he intended for the investigation to be a practical joke. He organizes the "midnight trial" to confront and accuse Gene of causing Finny's accident. During the questioning of Finny by Brinker, Finny changes the story to make Gene appear innocent of his actions in the tree. Finny cites Lepellier as an unreachable witness. Brinker ultimately reconciles with Gene, who appears to forgive Brinker both for his part in Finny's death and for the trial.

  • Elwin "Leper" Lepellier: Nature-loving and strange, Leper is Finny and Gene's friend, and was a key member of the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session. He is the first student in his class to enlist in the military. Late in the novel, Leper goes insane from the stress of his enlistment in the army. He is a witness at Gene's "trial," testifying that Gene was responsible for Finny's fall.

Adaptations

  • In 1972, the novel was adapted into a film of the same name
    A Separate Peace (film)
    A Separate Peace is a 1972 film directed by Larry Peerce. It was adapted by John Knowles and Fred Segal , from the former's best-seller...

    , starring Parker Stevenson
    Parker Stevenson
    Parker Stevenson is an American television and film actor.-Career:His first notable screen appearance was a starring role in the 1972 movie A Separate Peace...

     as Gene and John Heyl as Finny, with a screenplay by Fred Segal and John Knowles.

  • In 2004, it was adapted into a made-for-TV movie by Showtime.