Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.


There are a number of significant transformations within the course of A Separate Peace. Finny is transformed from a healthy athlete into a "cripple" after his accident and then sets about transforming Gene into an athlete in his stead. These developments function as part of the broader process by which Gene’s identity blurs into Finny’s, a transformation symbolized by Gene’s putting on Finny’s clothes one evening soon after the accident. Meanwhile, the summer session at Devon, a time of peace and carefree innocence, metamorphoses into the winter session, in which rules and order hold sway and the darkness of the war encroaches on Devon. In a broad sense, the novel is intimately concerned with the growth of boys into men. The horrifying visions of transformation that drive Leper from the army—men turning into women, men’s heads on women’s bodies—embody all of the anxieties that plague his classmates as they deal with the joint, inevitable onset of war and adulthood.

Read more about transformations in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.


A Separate Peace is filled with athletic activities, from the tree-climbing that is central to the plot to swimming, skiing, and snowball fights. For the most part, these games shed light on the character of Finny, who is a tremendous athlete but who nevertheless despises competition (in contrast to Gene) and imagines athletics as a realm of pure vitality and achievement, without winners and losers. This mindset is evident in the way that he behaves after breaking the school swimming record—he refuses to let Gene tell anyone about his feat—and in the game of blitzball, which he invents. Blitzball is the perfect game for Finny because it requires tremendous exertion and agility yet is impossible to win and focuses on pure athleticism rather than the defeat of opponents.

Doubles and Binaries

Tied into the themes of individual identity and growing up, pairs or doubling appear throughout the novel. The most obvious of these, of course, is Gene and Finny. The novel sets them up as opposites: Gene is competitive, serious, conforming, academic, and Southern, while Finny is friendly, jovial, nonconforming, athletic, and from New England. In addition, the campus has two rivers, the pleasant Devon and the filthy Naguamsett. Devon has a dual focus of academics and sports. Gene’s life and the Devon campus is divided into the dichotomy of war and peace. While throughout part of the novel many of these doubles maintain an uneasy coexistence, one half ultimately overtakes the other. Just like the sweet river Devon eventually joins the brackish Naguamsett, war overcomes peacetime, with Devon devoting a large part of its campus to the war effort. As the boys of Devon all face enlistment, they begin to value studies less and concentrate on physical exertion. Gene survives Finny. In each of these the kinder, nicer, more innocent aspects of the world ultimately give way to their harsher counterparts, as if growing up involves the sacrifice of the gentle and innocent.