A Separate Peace by John Knowles

Teacher Guide by Kristy Littlehale

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A Separate Peace Lesson Plans

Student Activities for A Separate Peace Include:

This novel delves into the topics many contemporary teenagers face, including internal conflict struggles with identity, the complexities of friendship, and the realities of peer pressure. This is what makes John Knowles’ work still so relatable today, and a great piece for character analysis in relation to real-world scenarios. Gene and Finny, two 16-year-old boys at an elite boarding school in New Hampshire, are dealing with all of these common teenage obstacles and their inevitable draft into the armed forces during World War II. Gene is insecure about who he is, and who he wants to become. This leads him to project many of his insecurities onto his best friend Finny, and ends up destroying Finny in the process. While the backdrop of World War II is very real for Gene, it coincides with his own war: the war against the enemy within.

A Separate Peace Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers

Plot Diagram Graphic Organizer for A Separate Peace

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A common use for Storyboard That is to help students create a plot diagram of the events from a story. Not only is this a great way to teach the parts of the plot, but it reinforces major events and help students develop greater understanding of literary structures.

Students can create a storyboard capturing the narrative arc in a work with a six-cell Storyboard containing the major parts of the plot diagram. For each cell, have students create a scene that follows the story in sequence using: Exposition, Conflict, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution.

Example A Separate Peace Plot Diagram


Gene goes back to visit the Devon school and visits two sites: a tree, and a set of marble stairs. He flashes back to his time as a student 15 years earlier, where his best friend and roommate, Finny, is a rule-breaker during the summer session that is designed to help the boys move towards the war more quickly.


Gene believes that Finny is engaged in some sort of competition with him to bring Gene down to Finny’s level academically, so they can be even in academics and athletics. Gene is also jealous of Finny’s ability to get out of trouble and to break the rules. Gene finds it hard to break with rules and regulations.

Rising Action

Gene is so upset with himself for doubting Finny’s genuine honesty that he knocks Finny out of the tree, shattering his leg and ending his sports career. He tries to make it up to Finny by agreeing that there is no war, and training for the 1944 Olympics. Until they find out Leper went crazy in the Army, they are able to keep up the charade.


Brinker stages a trial to bring the truth of Finny’s injury to light and to try to help Finny deal with the fact that he will never be “normal” again. Finny is so upset when he is confronted with the reality that his best friend hurt him that he runs out of the room, slips on the marble stairs, and re-breaks his leg. Gene tries to visit Finny, and Finny freaks out, wondering if Gene is there to break something else in him.

Falling Action

Gene and Finny resolve things when Gene goes to see Finny the next morning. Finny is comforted by the fact that Gene acted on an impulse, an ignorance, rather than a long-held hatred. Finny dies in surgery after Dr. Stanpole resets the bone and a piece of bone marrow travels to Finny’s heart.


Gene and Brinker are both enlisted in the Army and the Coast Guard, respectively, as they graduate. Gene observes that many people lash out at others in order to protect themselves from their own insecurities. The only person who didn’t do that was Finny: he was the only person Gene knows who was truly honest, and who never had an internal war to fight.

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Student Instructions

Create a visual plot diagram of A Separate Peace.

  1. Separate the story into the Exposition, Conflict, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution.
  2. Create an image that represents an important moment or set of events for each of the story components.
  3. Write a description of each of the steps in the plot diagram.

(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)

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Character Map Graphic Organizer for A Separate Peace

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As students read, a storyboard can serve as a helpful character reference log. This log (also called a character map) allows students to recall relevant information about important characters. When reading a novel, small attributes and details frequently become important as the plot progresses. With character mapping, students will record this information, helping them follow along and catch the subtleties which make reading more enjoyable!

Gene Forrester

  • Physical Traits
    16-17 years old, 5’8 ½” tall, 140 pounds, athletic, smart, sarcastic; has a “West Point stride”

  • Character Traits
    Jealous and insecure; concerned with rules and regulations; feels guilty after knocking Finny out of the tree; lies about his background; afraid of the war

  • Quote
    “But by now I no longer needed this vivid false identity; now I was acquiring, I felt, a sense of my own real authority and worth.”

Other characters included in this map are: Phineas “Finny”, Elwin “Leper” Lepellier, Brinker Hadley, Cliff Quackenbush, and Dr. Stanpole

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Student Instructions

Create a character map for the major characters.

  1. Identify the major characters in A Separate Peace and type their names into the different title boxes.
  2. Choose a character to represent each of the literary characters.
    • Select colors and a pose appropriate to story and character traits.
  3. Choose a scene or background that makes sense for the character.
  4. Fill in the Textables for Physical Traits, Character Traits, and Quote.
  5. Save and submit the assignment.

(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)

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Literary Conflict Activity for A Separate Peace

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Storyboarding is an excellent way to focus on types of literary conflict. Have your students choose an example of each literary conflict and depict them using the Storyboard Creator.

In the storyboard, an example of each conflict should be visually represented, along with an explanation of the scene, and how it fits the particular category of conflict.

Examples of Literary Conflict from A Separate Peace


When Cliff Quackenbush mocks Gene and then calls him “maimed”, it hits too close to home and Gene loses it. He punches Quackenbush in the face and they fall into the river. Gene says this is the first of many battles he fights for Finny, as Finny has now become what is seen as “maimed.”


Gene struggles with internal conflict. Gene’s guilt about what he’s done to Finny leads him to try to make it up to him. When Finny returns to Devon, he declares that Gene will train for the 1944 Olympics in his place. Gene is happy to do something tangible to try to make up for hurting Finny physically, and hurting him in his confession to him in Boston.


Leper goes against the constructs of society by losing his mind and going AWOL from the Army. He is unable to deal with the demands of training, which is something that is expected of all men during this time of war in the 1940s. He is also not expected to desert his post and flee to his parents’ house, which is considered both illegal, and dishonorable.

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Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that shows at least three forms of literary conflict in A Separate Peace.

  1. Identify conflicts in A Separate Peace.
  2. Categorize each conflict as Character vs. Character, Character vs. Self, Character vs. Society, Character vs. Nature, or Character vs. Technology.
  3. Illustrate conflicts in the cells, using characters from the story.
  4. Write a short description of the conflict below the cell.
  5. Save and submit the assignment.

(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)

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Themes, Motifs, and Symbols in A Separate Peace

Themes, symbols, and motifs come alive when you use a storyboard. In this activity, students will identify themes and symbols from the novel, and support their choices with details from the text.

Themes and Imagery to Look For and Discuss


World War II is the backdrop to the novel: it shapes the Summer Session at Devon, the future of the boys as soon as they turn 18 and/or graduate, and it creates a lot of tension and resentment. Brinker blames his father’s generation for the war; Finny develops a reality of his own to deal with the fact that he can’t be a part of it; and Leper loses his connection with reality because of it. In addition to World War II, however, there is also a war, an internal conflict, going on inside of Gene, whose jealousy of Finny and his own insecurities cause him to lash out and hurt his best friend. In fact, many characters in the novel are fighting their own, internal wars. All except for Finny. Only Finny was honest and genuine enough to not be conflicted, and to not have to resolve some ignorance of the heart in order to live a happy life.


Gene is struggling with his sense of identity throughout the novel. He resents when Finny teases him for his preoccupation with the rules; he’s jealous of Finny’s personality and athleticism; he even creates a story about living in a town three states south of his own to give his background an air of southern romanticism that it just doesn’t have. As he progresses throughout the novel, however, he finds himself more at peace the more he learns from Finny. Finally, Finny’s death brings an end to Gene’s internal struggle as he realizes that his own insecurities were his biggest enemy.


Finny does not conform to the rules or the people around him. He doesn’t hate all of the rules, but he develops his own code for how he wants to live his life. He makes up his own rules for games, and he doesn’t seem bothered by slight chaos. Gene, on the other hand, feels pressure to conform, which is why he feels like he is always being peer-pressured into activities by Finny. Rather than standing up for himself and refusing to participate in activities that make him uncomfortable or will detract from his studies, he goes along with Finny’s plans because he wants to be liked. Leper’s inability to conform in the Army makes him go crazy, and his naturalist lifestyle does not conform with society’s war mentality at the time. It is clear that it is a mistake for Leper to enter into the Army when he clearly marches to the beat of his own drum.


Finny and Gene’s friendship is central to the novel. Finny thinks of Gene as his best pal, but Gene sees a sinister motive behind Finny’s planning and scheming for fun activities. When Gene realizes he is wrong about Finny, he is devastated inside that he could have been so wrong about Finny’s motives, and he knocks his best friend out of a tree. When he confesses and sees that it is hurting Finny, he decides to preserve their friendship by blaming his confession on exhaustion. Gene makes sure to dedicate himself to making up for his mistake to Finny, and he sticks by Finny, even when Finny wants to escape reality by saying that the war is made up.

Escape from Reality

With the war looming so closely, reality is something that the boys try to escape from often. Some ways that they are escape are through Finny’s plots, including blitzball, the Winter Carnival, and the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session. The boys escape from reality when Leper goes off to the ski troops by making up stories about his heroism, when they know that can’t be true. Finny escapes from the reality that he can never fight in the war by declaring that there is no war at all. Leper escapes from the reality of war by going insane, and then literally escaping from boot camp.

Motifs & Symbols

The Tree and the Marble Stairs

The tree and marble stairs represent many important themes in the novel, including war and Gene’s struggle with his identity. The tree is part of a hardening regimen for the boys preparing for the armed services, and it is where Finny tries to strengthen his and Gene’s friendship through creating the Super Suicide Society’s initiation ritual. It is where Gene makes the fatal decision to take out his anger at himself on Finny.


Blitzball highlights Finny’s inability to take sides, making him a terrible choice to be a soldier in a war. Finny doesn’t know things like jealousy, and he doesn’t understand the motivations behind what makes people divide in hatred, because he himself doesn’t harbor these intentions. Blitzball is also a “fun” take on a scary war, a cross between baseball and the word “Blitzkrieg”, a terrifying reality of a war against Germany. It is an escape from reality for the boys.

Winter Carnival

The Winter Carnival is another escape from reality for the boys, and where Gene realizes that Finny is set on making sure that peace reigns triumphant on the Devon campus, even in the face of war. At Devon, as long as Finny was making sure there was some kind of fun, then war could not reach them. He dances a “choreography of peace” on the prize table, blissfully ignoring the war that he can no longer be a part of.

Finny’s Leg

Finny’s injury brings an end to sports, and an end to the possibility of his participation in the War. It is also a constant reminder to Gene of what he has done to Finny, and it pushes him to try to keep Finny from the harsh reality that things will never be the same again. Finny’s leg also causes his death, and with it, the death of the war Gene had been fighting within himself all along.

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Vocabulary in A Separate Peace

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Another great way to engage your students is through the creation of storyboards that use vocabulary from A Separate Peace. Here is a list of a few vocabulary words commonly taught with the novel, and an example of a visual vocabulary board.

Example Vocabulary Words from A Separate Peace

  • inveigle
  • enmity
  • maimed
  • Section 8 Discharge
  • incongruity
  • idiosyncratic
  • blitzkrieg
  • accolade
  • torpidly
  • bellicose
  • conniver
  • contentious
  • anarchy
  • mordantly
  • venerable

(These instructions are completely customizable. After clicking "Copy Assignment", change the description of the assignment in your Dashboard.)

Student Instructions

Demonstrate your understanding of the vocabulary words in A Separate Peace by creating visualizations.

  1. Choose three vocabulary words from the story and type them in the title boxes.
  2. Find the definition in a print or online dictionary.
  3. Write a sentence that uses the vocabulary word.
  4. Illustrate the meaning of the word in the cell using a combination of scenes, characters, and items.
    • Alternatively, use Photos for Class to show the meaning of the words with the search bar.
  5. Save and submit your storyboard.

(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)

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Analyzing Gene as a Friend in A Separate Peace

A primary theme of A Separate Peace is friendship, and the dynamics and complexities that come along with such a topic. A good introduction to the novel is to have students list the “good” and “bad” characteristics of friends, and create a common list among the class that everyone can understand. Then, have students track specific examples of whether or not Gene is a good friend throughout each chapter. By the end of the novel, students usually have strong opinions and evidence to back up their thoughts about Gene as a friend to Finny. Have students use this evidence in a six-cell storyboard to illustrate their opinion as to whether Gene is a good friend or a bad friend to Finny.

Below is an example of a storyboard that highlights that Gene is a good friend to Finny, along with some traits of being a good friend.

Gene as a Good Friend to Finny

CompassionateGene confesses to Finny that he knocked him out of the tree, but once he sees how badly he is hurting Finny, he takes it back. He doesn’t want to make Finny feel worse just to make himself feel better.
LoyalGene was going to enlist in the Army with Brinker, but once Finny returns to school, he decides to stay with Finny instead.
CooperativeWhen Finny returns to school, Gene agrees to train for the 1944 Olympics to take Finny’s place since Finny can’t play sports anymore.
HelpfulGene helps Finny plan and execute the Winter Carnival, a welcome distraction from the war and the winter doldrums that hit the boys around this time of year.
CommunicativeGene tries to apologize to Finny when he is in the Infirmary, and before he dies, he is able to tell Finny that he didn’t jounce the limb out of hatred.
HonestyGene’s friendship with Finny makes him a better person: he becomes more honest, less rigid about conforming to the world around him, and he continues to remember Finny, as evidenced by his return to the tree and the stairs 15 years later.

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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

  1. How can jumping to conclusions about someone lead to serious consequences?
  2. What are some internal wars people face?
  3. What are the characteristics of a good friend? A bad friend?
  4. How can jealousy ruin a person, and their relationships with others?
  5. When can refusing to conform be a good thing?
  6. What are the different kinds of defenses people set up for themselves against being hurt, or against their own insecurities?
  7. Is war a necessary evil? Is it inevitable?
  8. What kinds of characteristics does competition bring out in people?

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•   (English) A Separate Peace   •   (Español) Una paz Separada   •   (Français) Une Paix Séparée   •   (Deutsch) Ein Eigener Frieden   •   (Italiana) A Separate Peace   •   (Nederlands) Een Afzonderlijke Vrede   •   (Português) Uma paz Separada   •   (עברית) שלום נפרד   •   (العَرَبِيَّة) سلام منفصل   •   (हिन्दी) एक अलग शांति   •   (ру́сский язы́к) Отдельный мир   •   (Dansk) En Separat Fred   •   (Svenska) Separatfred   •   (Suomi) Erillisrauhaa   •   (Norsk) En Separat Fred   •   (Türkçe) Ayrı bir Barış   •   (Polski) Oddzielny Pokój   •   (Româna) O Pace Separată   •   (Ceština) Separátní mír   •   (Slovenský) Samostatný Mier   •   (Magyar) Különbéke   •   (Hrvatski) Odvojeni mir   •   (български) Отделен мир   •   (Lietuvos) Atskiras Taikos   •   (Slovenščina) Ločen mir   •   (Latvijas) Atsevišķi Miera   •   (eesti) Eraldi Peace