Gene – He is torn between love and hate for his best friend Finny. He is competitive and often broods over his own shortcomings.
Phineas – He is perfect in almost every way: handsome, honest, trusting, enthusiastic, and generally liked by everyone. He is never suspicious of anyone and seems to think that all people are just like him.
Leper Lepellier – He is a quiet and gentle boy. He enlists in the army but is mentally destroyed by the experience.
Brinker Hadley – He is a charismatic boy and class president. He is confident and enjoys have control and orderliness over the other students.
Cliff Quakenbush – He is the vitriolic crew captain that ridicules Gene for not being athletic.
Dr. Stanpole – The doctor is a caring man who operates on Finny after both his accidents.
The story begins in New England as a young man named Gene Forrester returns to the Devon school to visit, many years after he had left. He notices that everything seems remarkably well preserved; little has changed since his days as a student. He remembers the atmosphere during those days, the constant fear present due to World War II. He visits two particular places: a marble staircase and a tree on the edge of the river. During his school days, both had been very imposing in his mind, but when he goes to find that particular tree, it seems just like all the other trees.
It is the summer of 1942; Gene and his best friend Finny are sixteen years old and standing at the foot of giant tree. Finny decides that they are going to jump off the limb of the tree into the river. While all the boys are reluctant, Finny goes first and then forces Gene to jump as well. Gene resents Finny’s carelessness and feels obligated to prove that he can do anything Finny does. Finny wrestles Gene to the ground as they make their way to dinner and end up skipping it altogether. The next day, a substitute teacher comes to reprimand the boys for missing dinner and Finny worms them out of punishment with his exuberant and charismatic explanations. That afternoon, they go to tea with the headmaster, Mr. Patch Withers. Finny wears a garish pink shirt and the school tie for his belt. Mrs. Patch-Withers comments on it and Gene eagerly watches and wishes for Finny to be punished. Finny again talks his way out of the situation and even makes the stern headmaster laugh. Gene is envious and disgruntled that Finny seems to get out of everything. Afterwards, they go back to the tree and form the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session and jump off the tree. Gene loses his balance and Finny saves him from falling.
Gene decides that he does not owe Finny anything for saving his life because Finny was the one that got him onto the tree in the first place. Finny invents rules for the Society and one is that they must jump off the tree at the beginning of every meeting. Gene hates this but is too afraid to say no. One afternoon, Finny invents a new game called blitzball that personifies his own character. It is a game where individual competition and athleticism is utilized and in the end, there is no real winner. Finny also shows his athletic prowess when he and Gene go the pool and he decides that he wants to beat the school record. Without any training or practice, he beats the swimming record on the first attempt but refuses to tell anyone about it. The satisfaction is his own and he forbids Gene of speaking of it. Later that day, they break all school rules and bike many miles to the nearby beach. They spend the day in the waves and sleep on the sand.
They return just in time for Gene’s trigonometry test, which he fails. Gene suddenly becomes very suspicious of Finny, believing that Finny is plotting to distract Gene from his studies and thus lower his grades and his chances of becoming valedictorian. Gene begins to perceive nonexistent rivalry and jealousy in Finny. One night however, when Finny asks the studious Gene to attend a meeting, Gene becomes irrationally angry, accusing Finny of hurting his academics. Finny, realizing that Gene actually wants to study, tells him not to go. Gene finally realizes that there is no rivalry between them. He realizes that his behavior has been petty and vicious and that Gene is truly a better person than he. They double jump that night and as Finny steps out over the water, Gene jostles the limb and Finny crashes to the ground with a sickening crunch.
Finny’s leg is shattered in the fall and though he will eventually walk again, he will never be able to play any sports. Gene spends more and more time alone, examining himself and thinking about his actions. One day, he puts on Finny’s clothes and looks at himself in the mirror. His identity seems to blur with Finny’s. When Gene finally is allowed to visit Finny, the first thing he asks is what Finny remembers about the accident. Finny does not know that Gene caused the accident and when Gene starts to reveal the truth, Dr. Stanpole comes in and shoos him out. Both boys return to their respective homes as summer session ends. In September, Gene takes a detour to Finny’s home on his way to school. While visiting Finny, he reveals that he intentionally jostled the limb to make Finny fall. Finny is furious and refuses to believe him.
Gene returns to school but Finny is still not well enough to leave home. Gene decides to work as assistant crew-manager, usually the work of a junior who aspires to the crew manager position or someone disabled who cannot actually participate in the sport. Cliff Quackenbush, the manager, makes of fun of Gene and they get into a fight, which results in Gene quitting. Gene is still in the same room but is currently without a roommate. Across the hall resides Brinker Hadley, one of the more important students on campus. He jokes that Gene is lucky to have such a large room to himself and that he intentionally did away with Finny. He takes Gene to the Butt Room and pretends to accuse Gene of injuring Finny. Gene gives an exaggerated account, which sends all the boys into laughter, but he is unable to finish at the end and earns some skepticism. One weekend, they shovel snow off the railroad tracks for the war effort. Gene and Brinker had practically decided to enlist when Gene returns to find Finny in the room.
Gene realizes that Finny needs him to stay and changes his mind about enlisting. Together, the boys create a strong bond. Finny coaches Gene for the Olympics and Gene helps Finny with his studies. Surprisingly, the quiet Leper Lepellier is the first to enlist after seeing a propaganda video about ski troops. Finny plans a winter carnival complete with apple cider, ski jumps, athletic decathlon, and music. The festival is interrupted by a telegram from Leper to Gene saying that he has escaped and is at his home. Gene immediately goes to visit and realizes that Leper has been greatly affected by what he saw in the war. Leper accuses Gene of knocking Finny out of the tree and describes his deranged hallucinations. Gene cannot take Leper’s story and runs away.
Time goes by and many boys make arrangements to enlist in a safe division of the military. Only Gene does not and Brinker surmises that it is because he pities Finny. Brinker also implies that Gene may have contributed to Finny’s current situation and says that it would be best if things were cleared up. Later that day, Finny says that he saw Leper sneaking around the school and finally believes that the war is real and present. In the middle of the night, Brinker hauls Gene and Finny of the academic building to go before a tribunal of students. The goal is to clear up everything associated with Finny’s injury. First they question Finny and he says that Gene was at the bottom of the tree when he fell. Then he remembers that he had proposed a double jump and Gene desperately denies the story. Brinker wishes Leper were present to give evidence and Finny tells them that he saw Leper on campus. Leper is brought to meeting and states that he saw the silhouette of two boys and one shook the branch. He then refuses to say anything else. Finny, disturbed and crying, leaves the room, saying that he does not care what happened. The boys hear the tapping of his cane and then a crash as he falls down the marble stairs.
Dr. Stanpole is fetched immediately and he takes Finny to the infirmary while sending all the boys back to their dormitories. Gene alone stays out and sneaks to the infirmary to visit Finny. Finny is distraught and angry, asking Gene if he is here to break something else in his body. Gene apologizes and leaves quietly. Throughout the night, he wanders aimlessly, imagining that he is a ghost. The next day, he finds a note from Dr. Stanpole, telling him to bring Finny’s things to the infirmary. There, he speaks with Finny. Finny reveals that the reason he had been denying the war was because none of the military services would take him because of his leg. Finny starts crying and begs Gene to tell him that the accident was some stupid, blind impulse, not a deep-seated grudge or hatred against him. Gene admits that it was so and the two boys are reconciled as Finny says that he understands. Dr. Stanpole says that he must set the bone and Gene can come back later in the afternoon. When Gene returns, he discovers that Finny is dead because some bone marrow escaped during the operation and went to his heart. Gene does not cry, feeling in some ways that it is also his own funeral.
Gene and his class graduate, and he plans to enlist in the Navy. Devon donates their quadrangle to the parachute training and as Gene prepares to leave, he muses that soon, he too will be part of the war. The story flashes back to the present. He realizes that his war was fought at school. He never kills anyone during the war itself but Phineas is a casualty of his own personal war at Devon. Everyone has a way of defending himself from the enemy, like Leper descending into insanity. Only Finny never even recognizes the existence of an enemy and never hates anyone. What one believes is the enemy may not be an enemy at all.
Gene’s return to Devon was a somber one without Finny in tow. His room seemed too large, too empty. Only inhabiting one side of the room, he missed the controlled chaos that was Finny’s side of the room. His bed was always neat and made up, his desk organized with paper stacked in a corner. His clothes were always folded and neatly stacked in his closet and drawers. Finny on the other hand, did not understand the meaning of neatness. His desk was always strewn with paper and his clothes shed all over the ground. Brinker Hadley, class president and future politician, was now stationed across the hall. While moving in, Brinker wandered into the room and jokingly said that Gene had intentionally done away with Finny to get the large room to himself. Gene immediately bristled and retorted angrily that he did not. Brinker’s suspicions were aroused and he began plotting to discover the truth. When Finny returned, the controversy was momentarily forgotten in the minds of most students. Brinker alone continued to brood and to wonder what really happened. His curiosity continued to grow without check, as every time he asked Gene about it, Gene would get angry and clam up. Brinker knew that there was a secret in the story, and he planned to find out what it was.
Brinker had it all planned out. He had chosen a night to hold a tribunal, an inquiry into the cause of Finny’s injury. He had secured the participation of the other upper classmen. Everything was ready and only he knew exactly what was planned. However, things did not go quite as planned. Finny, through the grapevine, found out about Brinker’s little plot and resented it enormously. After dinner that night, Finny stormed into Brinker’s room and demanded to know what he wanted. Finny was getting desperate. He could no longer deny the existence of the war and the fact that he could not participate because of his injury. He called Brinker a coward and busybody. What did he care what happened to Finny? The injury was still intensely personal and painful for Finny to talk about. That accident changed his life forever. He had been athletic and fit; everything had been taken away from him. He did not want to think about it, much less relive the entire episode for a self-serving, arrogant kid. Brinker in his self-righteous glory refused to be put off by Finny’s anger.
For this first time, Finny went to an administrator and ratted on a schoolmate. It was dishonorable, ignoble, and it went against everything Finny believed in, but he just could not take it anymore. The pity, the sideways glances, everything was driving him to the edge of a bottomless chasm. He could see into the pit, the absolute darkness that threatened to swallow his very being and he teetered on his toes. Mr. Ludsbury waited in ambush for the Brinker’s crew to perpetrate his plot. At 10:00 PM, after curfew had already past, the headmaster caught Brinker and his cohorts sneaking out of their room red handed. He dragged them back, assigned detention, and locked them in for the night, sealing the door with duct tape. For the moment, Finny was still safe from his own demons.
In the end, it was Gene that saved him. Finally, Gene realized how valuable Finny’s friendship was to him. The hate began to dissipate into thin air, and he truly admired and respected his friend. No longer did their exist a tension between the two boys. Though they rarely discussed the accident, there was an unspoken agreement, a peace between them that pervaded all other aspects of their lives. They each went their own ways after graduating from Devon but they shared forever the memories of their high school days.
I chose to end the story in this manner because it is happier and more hopeful. When I read A Separate Peace, I felt that Finny did not deserve to die though his death is necessary to the story’s message. Finny was my favorite character, his carefree attitude and ridiculous antics made me laugh. I was particularly angry at Brinker for bringing on the tribunal. He has no right to probe into these that all parties would rather keep hidden. That is why I changed the ending so that Finny does not have to go through the pain of the questioning and Brinker is punished for what he does. I wrote it in third person, though it originally is in Gene’s perspective, because I wanted to be able to describe the thoughts of Brinker as he plans this tribunal and of Finny when he discovers what Brinker has planned. If only Gene were narrating, the options would be more limited.
A Separate Peace, by John Knowles, is a novel about youth and the secluded but carefree lives of teenage students in the midst of a war. It depicts the subtle ways in which even the students of the Devon School are influenced by the fear pervading the world around them and the relationship between two boys in particular. In A Separate Peace, John Knowles uses simplistic and elegant language to convey a simple but powerful message: both love and hate can exist in a relationship but in the end, love will prevail.
This novel is driven by the vivid descriptions and imagery found throughout rather than by plot. From the very beginning, Knowles paints a picture for the reader of a dreary and bleak landscape dominated by the imposing buildings of the Devon School. The style in the beginning in the perspective of the older Gene Forrester is different from the way the flashback and the majority of the novel is written. When Gene returns to Devon fifteen years after his graduation, he is much more mature and is able to put the events of his high school days into perspective. His writing seems tired, resigned, and filled with a tinge of disbelief that time has flown by so quickly. He calls the school “oddly newer” and shinier than it was when he was a student (1). Without the fear associated with the war and the pervading tension whenever Finny is present, Gene’s thoughts are sedate and secure. He prepares himself to be awed by the marble staircase and giant tree but discovers that they have shrunken over the years. While the school has remained the same, he realizes that it is he that has changed.
When the flashback begins and continues for the rest of the novel, it becomes the voice of a teenager. The writing style is less developed and less mature. He employs sarcasm and calls it his “sarcastic summer” (7). The way Gene speaks about Finny, especially in the beginning of the novel before the accident, is very derisive. One can easily tell the resentment and envy that Gene has towards Finny. The author juxtaposes the moments of love and hate to provide a conflicting picture of the relationship between the boys. When Finny jumps off the tree for the first time, he shames Gene into doing it as well. Afterwards, Gene says that they were the best of friends. Gene pretends that he never felt any fear or balked at all about jumping off the tree and gets angry when Finny truthfully mentions that if it had not been for him, Gene would never take as many risks. This is the way all things seem to go between these two boys. Finny is always the one to try new things, think out of the box, and Gene always follows along.
Gene’s thoughts are set down in diary type form. It is often written like stream of consciousness, detailing his thoughts and feelings more than the actual events. His writing does not give the impression of being refined because emotions usually are not. The conflict in Gene’s heart is the focus of the entire novel and the subsequent maturity that he gains as a result of Finny’s accident and death. His writing also reflects that because the beginning has a great deal of resentment and sarcasm. The accident seems to purge him somewhat of the hateful thoughts and jealousy of Finny. After Finny’s death, Gene becomes much more reflective, realizing that he has also lost a part of himself in losing Finny. He comes to terms with his role in the accident and muses upon the role that war plays in human being’s lives. The book ends on an introspective note with Gene becoming more observant and aware of the people around him.
This novel teaches a lesson to the
reader about envy and admiration, love and hate, friendship and
alienation. The experiences of these
boys at the Devon School provide a reflection onto the real world and the war raging
outside. Though they seem sheltered and
isolated, their struggles within their minds and hearts are as paramount as the
world war. Finny seems to embody
perfection; he cannot see jealousy or hatred in anyone and genuinely loves his
friends. Gene is the opposite: suspicious
and unwilling to trust. Yet these two
boys are the best of friends and are plagued by this love-hate
relationship. The change wrought in
Gene because of Finny’s demise is a tribute to the power of love. This novel conveys a sense of nostalgia and
hope for the future of our young people.