full title · A Separate Peace
author · John Knowles
type of work · Novel
genre · Coming-of-age story; tragedy
language · English
time and place written · New England, 1957–1958
date of first publication · 1959
publisher · Macmillan
narrator · Gene Forrester narrates the story as he revisits his high school campus and recalls events that happened fifteen years earlier.
point of view · The narrator speaks in the first person, describing events as he perceived them at the time of their occurrence, though occasionally with the augmented knowledge of hindsight (sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between the perspective of the younger Gene and the older Gene). Although he apparently recounts external events with honesty and thoroughness, Gene is an unreliable narrator in that he withholds his own thoughts and emotions regarding certain crucial scenes, such as Finny’s fall and the boys’ makeshift trial of Gene.
tone · Occasionally nostalgic but largely brooding and melancholy; often regretful
tense · Past tense; the narrator refers to the recent past (“not long ago”) before launching into a flashback on the more remote past of fifteen years earlier. The book then ends with a return to the recent past.
setting (time) · The story begins in 1958 but quickly flashes back to the years 1942–1943
setting (place) · The Devon School, an exclusive New England academy
protagonist · Gene
major conflict · Gene feels both love and hate for his best friend, Finny, worshipping and resenting Finny’s athletic and moral superiorities.
rising action · Gene’s envy of Finny grows; Gene realizes that Finny doesn’t return his resentment; Gene becomes jealous of Finny’s seeming incapacity to be envious; Gene feels that Finny is a morally superior person; Finny suggests that the boys climb a tree together.
climax · Gene jounces the limb of the tree, making Finny fall and shatter his leg.
falling action · Gene feels guilty about Finny’s fall; he and Finny become even more intimate, developing a codependency; the boys put Gene on “trial” for the accident; Finny falls down the stairs and breaks his leg again; Finny dies during the operation on his leg.
themes · Codependency’s threat to identity; the creation of inner enemies
motifs · Transformation; athletics
symbols · World War II; the summer and winter sessions at Devon; Finny’s fall
foreshadowing · Prior to his flashback, the older Gene makes reference to a “death by violence” and to fears that he had at school, which are associated with a flight of marble steps and a tree. These remarks foreshadow Gene’s revelation of Finny’s two accidents: the falling from the tree and the falling down the steps.