In A Separate Peace, the adult Gene Forrester examines his final years at the Devon School, particularly his complex relationship with his best friend, Finny. The two boys are shown to have completely opposite perspectives on the world. Whereas Finny sees the world as essentially harmonious and benevolent, the distrustful Gene sees the world as rife with divisions. Finny’s sense of completeness draws people to him, but the novel also suggests that he has an essentially childlike way of relating to the world, one that cannot survive the harsh realties of war.

The motifs of “wholeness” and “separateness” run throughout the novel, with Finny representing wholeness and Gene representing separateness. Finny seems to exist in perfect harmony with the world around him, a characteristic Gene notes again and again when he describes his friend’s walk as a “flow.” Finny’s body seems to be a single, seamless entity, and his body in turn is at one with the whole world, buoyed along by its currents and free of tension from outside forces. This sense of harmony with the physical world extends to Finny’s relationships with other people. Unlike the other boys, whom Gene describes as constantly constructing “Maginot Lines” against their real and imaged enemies, Finny never pits himself against others. Though he loves athletics, for example, he lacks the drive to distinguish himself. He refuses to let Gene tell the authorities that he has beaten the school swimming record, and then later invents a game, blitzball, where no one wins. Dividing people into categories such as “winners” and “losers” would defeat the true purpose of sports, in Finny’s eyes: physically communing with the air and sky and engaging with a group of other players. For Finny, sports are an act of connecting, not of dividing. Tellingly, all the prizes he won at Devon were for sportsmanship, not for athletic prowess.

Gene, on the other hand, continuously divides the world into hostile and friendly camps. In his eyes, even high school sports games conceal fatal aggressions. Gene describes how he doesn’t trust other athletes, vividly imagining football players “really bent on crushing the life out of each other,” boxers caught in fights to the death, and tennis balls turning into bullets. Whereas Finny believes that “when you really love something, then it loves you back,” Gene sees everyone as a potential enemy—even his best friend. Gene’s mistrust arises from the fact that he not only believes that people can be divided against one another, but also that people can be divided against their very selves. He sees Devon as a place where everyone has “many public faces,” appearing like scholars in the classroom, like “innocent extroverts” on the playing field, and like “criminals” in the smoking room. He’s constantly struck by the sense that it is impossible to know what anyone might truly be like on the inside, and this anxiety leads him to believe that Finny harbors a secret hatred for him. Over the course of the novel, however, Gene comes to realize that his friend’s public and private selves are fused into one whole—with Finny, what you see really is what you get.

While Gene remains wracked with guilt over his role in Finny’s accident and eventual death, the novel seems to suggest that Finny could not have survived life after Devon. Gene knows that Finny’s natural sense of empathy would be a liability on the battlefield; he teases him that he’d make a terrible soldier because he’d be forever confusing the lines between friend and enemy, inviting the Germans or Japanese to play baseball or accidentally trading uniforms with them. In a world sadly characterized by enmity and brutality, Finny’s idealistic view of human nature seems a naïve notion better suited to schoolboys than to soldiers. Finny himself seems to understand this when, for all his insistence on unity and wholeness, he draws a stark division between his existence and the greater reality of the war. The “separate peace” of the title refers to Devon, the Eden-like enclave where young men can live as innocent children. However, while most of the students understand the division between Devon and the rest of the world to be a false one, constructed for their emotional benefit, Finny intently denies that the war even exists. He compartmentalizes his knowledge about outside events so that he can live fully and wholly in the moment, but as the boys grow up and begin enlisting, it becomes clear that Finny cannot keep perpetuating this lie and expect to survive the war.

As Gene notes, all the other boys of Devon experienced a moment when they found themselves “violently pitted against the world around them.” Finny alone “escaped” this fate—the fate, that is, of growing up. Finny’s death, though tragic, also manages to preserve his innocence, turning him into an eternal symbol of harmonious childhood.