A Synopsis of A Separate Peace (Contains Spoilers)
The novel begins with Gene Forrester visiting his high school, the Devon School, in a small town in New Hampshire 15 years after his graduation. He has come to visit two specific sites: the marble stairs in the First Academy Building, and the tree that juts out over the Devon River. The novel flashes back to 15 years ago, during a special Summer Session instituted to fast-track the boys into World War II. It turns out that the tree once had rungs in it that allowed the boys to climb the tree, walk out onto a branch, and jump into the river – part of a hardening regimen to prepare for the War. Finny, Gene, a boy named Elwin “Leper” Lepellier, Chet Douglas, and Bobby Zane are at the tree, with Finny leading the charge to jump. He goes first, and Gene, feeling pressured and wondering why he lets Finny talk him into these things, follows suit.
Finny is not like most other boys his age: he is brutally honest, has no use for rules or regulations he views as a waste of time, and he is naturally graceful and athletic in a way no one has ever seen before. Finny thinks of Gene as his best pal, but Gene, slightly jealous of Finny and ever-suspicious of others’ intentions, doesn’t understand how genuine Finny’s affection for him is. Finny is constantly distracting Gene from his studies by coming up with new and exciting activities to do instead, and Gene begins to wonder if this is on purpose. He wonders if Finny is in a competition with Gene, athletically and academically. This thought begins to warp Gene’s perspective of Finny, and causes him to make assumptions about Finny’s character that are unfounded.
Gene soon realizes that he is wrong when Finny simply explains that he thought Gene’s smarts came naturally to him, rather than having to be worked for – much like athletics come naturally to Finny. Gene’s mistake eats away at him, and he can’t believe how wrong he has been about Finny. At the tree, Gene does something he doesn’t really understand: during what was supposed to be a double-jump from the tree, Gene, standing at the trunk of the tree, jostles the limb while Finny is moving out toward the river. Finny loses his balance and Gene watches Finny tumble out of the tree and land on the bank below.
Finny’s leg is shattered, and he will be lucky to be able to walk again, let alone play sports. Gene is consumed by guilt, and resolves to visit Finny’s house in Boston and to tell him the truth on his way back to Devon after going home for the end of summer. At Finny’s house, Gene confesses that he deliberately jounced the limb so that Finny would fall. However, the pain he causes Finny with such a revelation causes Gene to immediately backtrack and blame his confession on a lack of sleep.
Back at Devon, Gene feels like peace has deserted the campus because Finny is missing. Finny calls Gene shortly after his arrival at the school and tells Gene that since he can’t play sports anymore, Gene will do it for him. This finally gives Gene a way to try to make up for what he’s done to Finny.
Brinker Hadley, a leader in the class, suspects Gene’s role in Finny’s injury. He even brings him down into a “mock trial” in the Butt Room (smoking room) with other boys. Gene tries to come off as calm and nonchalant, but doesn’t do such a great job. On their way to shovel snow off of the train tracks to get the troop trains moving, Brinker and Gene run into Leper, who is off cross-country skiing to look for a beaver dam. Leper is disconnected from the business of war, and is known as a “naturalist.” He clearly marches to the beat of his own drummer, and Brinker mocks him. After shoveling the tracks, Brinker brings up the idea of him and Gene going to enlist tomorrow. Gene agrees, but arrives back to his dorm to find Finny back at the school and changes his mind.
As Finny reacquaints himself with Gene and the Devon School, he reveals his newest ideology: that there is no war, that it’s all just something that’s been made up by fat guys in suits. Gene starts to go along with Finny’s ideology because it’s an escape from the coming reality of war. During this time, Leper is enraptured by a recruiting video of ski troops and decides to enlist. The boys begin to make up stories about Leper being a spy, and being a hero in various campaigns that were being reported in the newspapers. At the end of the Winter Carnival, however, Gene receives a cryptic letter from Leper that says he has “escaped” and gone home. Gene goes to see him at his house in Vermont.
Leper is different, changed. His mouth involuntarily twitches, and he is agitated. Gene finds out that Leper was going to be given a Section Eight discharge, reserved for the mentally ill. This discharge would be on Leper’s permanent record, would prevent him from finding meaningful employment, and it would follow him for the rest of his life. Leper reveals that he was having hallucinations in boot camp, things that didn’t make sense, and he couldn’t handle the rigid routines. He was a naturalist, not a soldier. So, instead, Leper has “escaped”, or gone AWOL, from the Army. Gene cannot believe what the service has done to Leper’s psyche, and he doesn’t want to see it anymore because he knows now that the service, or the war, could do the same thing to him. Leper also reveals that he watched Gene jostle the limb and knock Finny out of the tree. Leper calls Gene what he’s thought about himself deep down inside: a “savage underneath.”
Back at school, Brinker and some other boys drag Finny and Gene out of bed in the middle of the night and they stage a “formal trial” about Finny’s accident. Finny is incredulous at first, and angry that they would suggest that Gene would have done such a thing on purpose. Then, they drag in Leper to give his testimony. At this, Finny can no longer stand listening because he is so upset to have to confront the reality that his best friend did actually do something to hurt him. He gets up and runs out of the room, loses his balance on the marble stairs, and re-shatters his leg.
Gene wanders around the campus, lost, feeling like he was also losing his grip on reality. He finds his way to the Infirmary and tries to get into the room through Finny’s window. Finny freaks out and tries to lunge out of bed at Gene, wanting to know if Gene has come to break “something else in me”. The next morning, Gene brings Finny some clothes from their dorm, and Finny is much calmer. They speak, and Finny just wants to know why Gene did what he did at the tree. Gene is at a loss for his motivation; he doesn’t really understand what would make him hurt someone else like that. Finny also reveals that he has tried to get into every branch of the service, and they’ve all rejected him based on the injury to his leg. Gene tells him that he would have been terrible in the war, because Finny doesn’t believe in rules or taking sides. Gene tells Finny that an ignorance inside of him made him jostle the limb, and since it was never based on a long-standing hatred, Finny and Gene make peace with each other. Later that day, Dr. Stanpole performs surgery on Finny to fix his newly broken leg. Unfortunately, Finny dies during the surgery. It was supposed to have been a clean break, but there must have been some bone marrow that came loose, traveled through Finny’s blood stream, and stopped his heart. With Finny’s death, the war that Gene had been fighting within himself dies, too.
The end of the novel finds Gene and Brinker watching the war come to Devon’s campus as they are leaving, with the Parachute Riggers’ school having moved in. Gene concludes that many people fight their own wars, and set up their own defenses that mirror the Maginot Line (an intricate ground defensive line set up by the French after World War I, but immediately obsolete because of the introduction of airplanes) to ward off the enemies of the world, when really, the enemy is within themselves. However, the only person who never had an inner enemy to battle was Finny, Gene observes. Only Finny had escaped this terror, this brokenness of character. He created for himself a peace separate from everyone else’s, and Gene soon finds that tranquility, too: a separate peace.
Essential Questions for A Separate Peace by John Knowles
- How can jumping to conclusions about someone lead to serious consequences?
- What are some internal wars people face?
- What are the characteristics of a good friend? A bad friend?
- How can jealousy ruin a person, and their relationships with others?
- When can refusing to conform be a good thing?
- What are the different kinds of defenses people set up for themselves against being hurt, or against their own insecurities?
- Is war a necessary evil? Is it inevitable?
- What kinds of characteristics does competition bring out in people?