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.
This first chapter establishes the narrator’s position as an adult looking back on an incident in his adolescence from a perspective of (theoretically) greater maturity and wisdom. Gene’s wandering around the Devon campus in the opening scene creates a mood of dread that infuses the entire novel: the older Gene refuses to offer us any details of the story to come, but he makes ambiguous references to “specters” that haunted him as a young man, to “fear’s echo,” and to a “death by violence.” These hints of darkness are explicitly linked to two places that the older Gene visits: the stairs and the tree, thus foreshadowing the revelation of the tragic events that take place in those two locations.
Although Gene has deliberately returned to Devon, in many ways his purpose seems to be to prove the impossibility of true return: he wants things to be different on this visit to his old school; he wants to have a sense that time has passed—and erased, we assume—the dark events of his high school years. Thus, he feels disconcerted at how new and varnished the school looks, as if it had been frozen in time since the days when he attended. The hardness of the marble steps he finds equally disquieting, for it makes them look “the same as ever.” The most threatening aspect of these observations for Gene is what they imply about himself: that the passage of time hasn’t changed him either. Indeed, he notes, the only things that have changed for him in the years since high school are the superficial matters of “money and success and ‘security.’ ” When Gene discovers, then, that the tree by the river seems smaller than it did in his youth, he conveys a profound sense of relief. In citing the French proverb, however, Gene reverses the order of the clauses, which, when correctly ordered, translate to “the more things change, the more they stay the same” as opposed to his version, “the more things stay the same, the more they change.” His emphasis, whether conscious or unconscious, on the idea of things staying the same suggests a fear that he has not changed. As the novel progresses, the reader gradually comes to realize what it would mean to Gene if he had not moved beyond the person he was during his high school years.
The flashback that begins midway through this first chapter and lasts throughout the entire novel creates an odd effect: once the narrative drops us back into the 1940s, the story seems to be told from the perspective of the younger Gene; yet the narrator frequently inserts commentary and philosophical musings that seem to come from the older Gene. This shifting perspective is part of a larger complexity in A Separate Peace: namely, the problem of the unreliable narrator. While we can assume that Gene recounts external events relatively accurately, he seems less forthcoming about his own emotions and desires. The reader is forced to read between the lines in many of the book’s passages, especially those detailing Gene’s relationship with Finny.