A Separate Peace
Gene Forrester, the narrator of the story, returns to the Devon School in New Hampshire, fifteen years after being a student there. He walks around the campus and notices that everything seems well preserved, as if a coat of varnish had been applied to the buildings, keeping them just as they were during his time there. He reflects on how fearful he was in those days—the early 1940s, while World War II raged in Europe—and decides to visit the two places that he most closely associates with that fear. The first is a marble staircase in one of the academic buildings, which Gene decides must be made of incredibly hard stone, since the depressions created by students’ feet over the years are still shallow. After staring at these steps for a time, he goes back outside, passing the dormitories and the gymnasium, ruining his shoes as he trudges across the soggy playing fields in the rain. He eventually reaches the river and searches for a specific tree on its banks, which he locates with some difficulty in a grove of trees similar to each other. He identifies his tree by a number of scars on its trunk and by the way that one of its branches sticks out over the river. He reflects that this tree now seems so much smaller than it did during his youth, and a French proverb comes to his mind: plus c’est la même chose, plus ça change, meaning “the more things remain the same, the more they change.” He turns to go inside out of the rain.
At this point, the narrative flashes back to the summer of 1942, when Gene is sixteen and standing at the foot of the same tree, which looms hugely like a “steely black steeple.” Gene is there with his roommate Phineas, or Finny, and three other boys: Elwin “Leper” Lepellier, Chet Douglass, and Bobby Zane. Finny tries to persuade them to jump off a branch of the tree into the river—a feat that no student of their age has ever tried before. The jump is done by the older boys in the school as part of their physical training prior to their graduation and departure for the war.
Finny jumps first to show the others that it is possible, popping up out of the river to declare how fun the jump is. He then sends Gene up the tree for his turn. Gene finds himself in a mild state of shock once he reaches the limb. As he ponders the plunge, Finny orders him to jump. Gene does so, but the other three boys refuse. The group heads back to the center of campus, Finny and Gene walking side by side. Finny tells Gene that he performed admirably once he had been “shamed” into jumping; outwardly, Gene denies being shamed into it, though he knows Finny’s claim is true. The school bell rings, signaling dinner, and Finny trips Gene and wrestles him to the ground. After they get up, Gene walks faster, and Finny teases him for wanting to be on time for dinner. Gene tackles him, and they wrestle each other in the twilight while the others run ahead. Realizing now that their wrestling has indeed made them quite late for dinner, Finny and Gene skip the meal and go straight to their room to do homework.
Summary: Chapter 2
Mr. Prud’homme, a substitute teacher for the summer session, comes by the next morning to discipline Gene and Finny for missing dinner, but he is soon won over by Finny’s ebullient talkativeness and leaves without assigning a punishment. Finny decides to wear a bright pink shirt as an emblem of celebration of the first allied bombing of central Europe. Gene envies him slightly for being able to get away with wearing this color (which he says makes Finny look like a “fairy,” or homosexual); indeed, Finny seems capable of getting away with virtually anything he wants to do.
Mr. Patch-Withers, the substitute headmaster, holds tea that afternoon. Most of the students and faculty converse awkwardly; Finny, on the other hand, proves a great conversationalist. As Mr. Patch-Withers enters into a discussion with Finny about the bombings in Europe, his wife notices that Finny is wearing the school tie as a belt. Gene waits tensely in expectation of Finny’s reprobation, but Finny manages to talk his way out of the display of disrespect, accomplishing the impossible feat of making the stern Mr. Patch-Withers laugh. For a moment, Finny’s escape from trouble disappoints Gene, but he pushes the emotion aside, and the two boys leave the party together laughing. Finny suggests a jump from the tree and pushes Gene along toward the river. Finny declares that he refuses to believe that the Allies really bombed central Europe, and Gene concurs. They swim for a while in the river, and Finny asks if Gene is still afraid of the tree. Gene says that he is not, and they agree to form a new secret society—the “Super Suicide Society of the summer session.” When they get out on the limb, Gene turns back to Finny to make a delaying remark and loses his balance. Finny catches him, and then they both jump. It occurs to Gene that Finny may have saved his life.
Summary: Chapter 3
Thinking back on the near-disaster, Gene decides that while Finny may have saved his life, he wouldn’t have been up in the tree in the first place if it weren’t for Finny. He feels, therefore, that he owes Finny no real gratitude. That night, the Super Suicide Society gets off to a successful start as Finny convinces six other boys to sign on as inductees. Finny invents a list of rather arbitrary rules, including one that requires him and Gene to start each meeting by jumping out of the tree. Gene hates this rule and never loses his fear of the jump. Nonetheless, Gene attends every one of the nightly meetings and never contests the rule. Finny, who loves sports above all else, is disgusted with the summer session’s athletic program, especially the inclusion of badminton, and spontaneously invents a new sport called “blitzball” one afternoon. The game utilizes a medicine ball that Finny has found lying around; competition in the game is not between two perpetually divided teams but rather shifts as the ball is passed from player to player. Whichever boy possesses the ball at a given moment becomes the target for the other players, who try to tackle him; the boy may try either to outrun the others or pass the ball off to another boy. The game produces no real “winner.”
“Blitzball” gains immediate popularity, and Finny himself shows the most skill in it. One day, Finny and Gene are at the swimming pool alone, and Finny decides to challenge one of the school’s swimming records. He breaks it on his first attempt, but only Gene witnesses it. Finny refuses to try again in public and forbids Gene to tell anyone about it. Finny remains uncharacteristically silent for a while before proposing that they go to the beach; the trip, which school rules strictly forbid, takes hours by bicycle. Gene agrees despite himself, and they slip away down a back road. The ocean is cold, the surf heavy, and the sand scorching hot. Finny enjoys himself immensely and tries to keep Gene entertained. They eat dinner at a hot dog stand, and each obtains a glass of beer by displaying forged draft cards. They then settle down to sleep among the dunes. Finny says he is glad that Gene came along and that they are best friends. Gene starts to say the same but holds back at the last moment.
After he and Finny sleep on the beach, Gene awakens with the dawn. Finny wakes up soon after and goes for a quick swim before they head home. They arrive just in time for Gene’s ten-o’clock test in trigonometry, which he flunks. It is the first time that he has ever failed a test, but Finny gives him little time to worry about it: they play blitzball all afternoon and have a meeting of the Super Suicide Society after dinner.
That night, Gene tries to catch up on his trigonometry and Finny tells him that he works too hard. Finny suspects him of trying to be class valedictorian, which Gene denies. Suddenly, however, he realizes that he does, in fact, want to be valedictorian so that he can match Finny and all of his athletic awards. Gene asks Finny how he would feel if he achieved the honor. Finny jokingly replies that he would kill himself out of envy; Gene feels that the jocular tone is a mere screen, however, and that there is some truth to Finny’s words. Believing that the envy in their relationship is mutual, Gene now perceives a rivalry that he never recognized before. Highly disturbed, he concludes that all of Finny’s overtures of friendship and insistence that Gene participate in all of his diversions are calculated to thwart him in his achievement of academic success comparable to Finny’s athletic success.
Gene works to become an exceptional student and begins to surpass his only real rival, Chet Douglass. Finny cannot compete with Gene academically, but he nonetheless intensifies his own studying. Gene interprets Finny’s hunkering down as merely an attempt to even out the sides of the rivalry, since Gene is an excellent student and a fairly good athlete, while Finny is an excellent athlete but a poor student. Despite Gene’s suspicions of Finny, the two get along well in the weeks that follow.
The masters of the school, meanwhile, give up any pretense of discipline, and one day Gene tells Mr. Prud’homme about his trip to the beach with Finny. To his surprise, the teacher shows no concern about their rule-breaking. Gene continues to attend the nightly meetings of the Suicide Society so as to prevent Finny from suspecting that their friendship might be flagging.
One night, as Gene studies for a French exam, Finny comes into the room and announces that Leper Lepellier is planning to jump from the tree by the river that night and thus become a full member of their society. Gene doesn’t believe that Leper would ever dare the feat and concludes that Finny must have talked him into the attempt in order to interrupt Gene’s studying. Gene complains that his grade will suffer and begins to storm out to the tree when Finny tells him casually that he doesn’t have to come along if he wants to study, as it is only a game. Finny says that he didn’t realize that Gene ever had to study; he thought his academic prowess came naturally. He expresses admiration for Gene’s intelligence and says that he is right to be so serious about something at which he excels. He tells Gene to stay and study, but Gene replies that he has studied enough and insists on going to see Leper jump.
As they walk toward the tree, Gene decides that there must never have been any rivalry between them after all. Moreover, he thinks that this latest interaction has proved that Finny is his moral superior: Finny seems incapable of being actively jealous of anyone. Finny proposes a double jump with Gene, and they strip and ascend the tree. Finny goes out onto the limb first, and when Gene steps out, his knees bend and he jostles the limb, causing Finny to lose his balance and fall with a sickening thud to the bank. Gene then moves out to the end of the limb and dives into the water, suddenly fearless.
Finny’s leg has been shattered in the fall from the tree. Everyone talks to Gene about the injury in the following days but no one suspects him of any wrongdoing. No one is allowed to see Finny at the infirmary. Gene spends an increasing amount of time alone in his room, questioning himself. One day, he decides to put on Finny’s shoes, pants, and pink shirt. When he looks in the mirror, he sees himself as Finny, and a wave of relief comes over him. The feeling of transformation lasts through the night but is gone in the morning, and Gene is confronted once more with what he has caused, whether or not deliberately, to happen to Finny.
That morning after chapel, Dr. Stanpole tells Gene that Finny is feeling better and could use a visit. He says that Finny’s leg will recover enough for him to walk again but that he will no longer be able to play sports. Gene bursts into tears and the doctor tries to comfort him, saying that he must be strong for Finny. He notes that Finny asked to see Gene specifically, from which Gene concludes that Finny must want to accuse him to his face. Gene goes in to see Finny but, before expressing any of his own ideas about what happened, asks Finny what his memories of the incident are. Finny says that something made him lose his balance and that he looked over to Gene to see if he could reach him. Gene recoils violently and accuses Finny of wanting to drag him down with him. Finny explains calmly that he wanted merely to keep from falling. Gene then states that he tried to catch hold of Finny but that Finny fell away too fast. Finny tells him that he has the same shocked facial expression now that he did on the tree.
Gene asks if Finny recalls what made him lose his balance in the first place. Finny hints that he had a vague notion that Gene was the cause, but he refuses to accept this idea and apologizes for even considering it. Gene realizes that if the roles were reversed, Finny would tell him the truth about his possible involvement. He rises quickly and tells Finny that he has something terrible to say to him. Just then, however, Dr. Stanpole enters, and Gene is sent away. The next day, the doctor decides that Finny is not well enough to receive visitors; soon after, an ambulance takes Finny to his home outside Boston. The summer session ends, and Gene goes home to the South for a month’s vacation.
In September, Gene starts for Devon by train and is delayed considerably. He catches a taxi at Boston’s South Station, but instead of taking it to North Station for the last leg of the trip to Devon, he proceeds to Finny’s house. He finds Finny propped up before a fireplace with hospital-type pillows. Finny is pleased to see him, though not surprised, and asks about his vacation. Gene recounts a story about a fire back home and then says that he was thinking a lot about Finny and the accident while at home. He now tells Finny that he deliberately shook the limb to make him fall. Finny refuses to believe him and grows furious. Gene realizes that he has injured Finny further with his confession and that he must take back his words, though he cannot do it now. Finny says that he will return to Devon by Thanksgiving.
Summary: Chapter 6
Gene sits at the first chapel service of the school year and observes that the school atmosphere seems back to normal, with all its usual austerity and discipline. He lives in the same room that he shared with Finny over the summer. The room across the hall, which belonged to Leper, now houses Brinker Hadley, a prominent personage on campus. After lunch, Gene starts to go across the hall but suddenly decides that he doesn’t want to see Brinker. He realizes that he is late for an afternoon appointment at the Crew House. On his way, he stops on the footbridge at the junction of the upper Devon River and the lower Naguamsett River. He envisions Finny balancing himself on the prow of a canoe on the river, the way Finny used to do.
Gene has taken the thankless position of assistant senior crew manager and has to work for Cliff Quackenbush, an unhappy, bullying type. After practice is over, Quackenbush pesters Gene as to why he has taken the job: normally boys only tolerate the position of assistant in hopes of becoming manager the following year, but Gene is already a senior. Quackenbush begins to insult him, implying that Gene must be working as a manager because he cannot row; indeed, as Gene knows, disabled students usually fill such positions. Gene hits Quackenbush hard and they start to fight and fall into the river. Gene pulls himself out and Quackenbush tells him not to come back. As Gene walks home, he meets Mr. Ludsbury, the master in charge of his dormitory, who berates him for taking advantage of the summer substitute and engaging in illegal activities: in addition to his escape to the beach with Finny, Gene had participated in late-night games of poker and transgressed the rules in other ways. Gene only regrets not having taken fuller advantage of the summer laxity.
Mr. Ludsbury then mentions that Gene has received a long distance phone call. Gene enters the master’s study and, calling the number written on the notepad there, soon hears Finny’s voice. Finny asks about their room and is relieved when Gene replies that he has no roommate. Finny says that he just wanted to be sure that Gene is no longer “crazy” like he was when he visited Finny and claimed that he jounced the limb. Finny then asks about sports and throws a fit when Gene tells him that he is trying to be assistant crew manager. Finny tells Gene that he has to play sports, for his sake, and Gene feels oddly joyful to think that he must be destined to become a part of Finny.
Summary: Chapter 7
Brinker comes across the hall to see Gene and congratulates him on getting such a large room all to himself. He jokingly accuses Gene of having “done away with” Finny to get the room. Gene tries weakly to play along with the joke and then suggests that they go smoke cigarettes in the basement “Butt Room.” Upon their arrival, however, Brinker pretends that the Butt Room is a dungeon and announces to the others there that he has brought a prisoner accused of killing his roommate. Gene tries to shake off the comment’s hint of truth by making an overblown, obviously joking confession; he chokes, however, when he begins to describe jolting Finny out of the tree. Paralyzed, he challenges a younger boy to “reconstruct the crime,” but the boy says simply that Gene must have pushed Finny off the branch. Gene ridicules the boy’s conclusion, directing attention away from himself but eliciting the boy’s hatred. He then declares that he must go study his French, leaving without having smoked.
To relieve wartime labor shortages, the boys shovel snow off the railroad and receive payment in return. On his way to the train station to go shovel, Gene finds Leper in the middle of a meadow, cross-country skiing. Leper says that he is looking for a beaver dam on the Devon River and invites Gene to come see it sometime if he finds it. Gene works on the same shoveling team as Brinker and Chet Douglass but finds the work dull and arduous. The boys shovel out the main line and cheer as a troop train, packed with young men in uniform, continues by them on its way. On the train home, the boys talk only of the war and their eagerness to be involved. Quackenbush says that he will finish school before going off to be a soldier, as he wants to take full advantage of Devon’s physical hardening program. The other boys accuse him of being an enemy spy.
When they arrive back at Devon, the boys find Leper coming back from his expedition to the beaver dam. Brinker makes fun of him and, as they walk away, tells Gene that he is tired of school and wants to enlist tomorrow. Gene feels a thrill at the thought of leaving his old life to join the military. That night, after spending some time contemplating the stars, he decides to enlist as well. When he returns to his room, however, he finds Finny there.