A Separate Peace

From Academic Kids

A Separate Peace (1959) is a novel written by John Knowles set in a school named Devon in New England during World War II. The book explores themes of hate, vengeance and guilt. In 1972 it was adapted into a movie starring Parker Stevenson and John Heyl.

A Separate Peace book cover.
A Separate Peace book cover.



The narrator, from whose viewpoint the book is written. A very competitive student, his ambition is to earn the best grades in school. He is a sober, contemplative character, whose personality contrasts sharply with that of his best friend, Finny. His personal conflict is the basis for almost all the action in the book.


Arguably the protagonist of the work, as the book focuses on him far more than the undeveloped Gene. Finny is a very outgoing and nonconformist character, with a magnetic personality. Others are drawn to him as a leader, especially when he develops his creative games. Finny is pure of heart and noble in character, which contrasts heavily with his best friend, Gene.


Brinker is the closest the book has to an antagonist. A noted "joker", he first accuses Gene of causing Phineas's accident. Later in the novel Brinker organizes a "trial" with his cronies to "uncover the facts" behind Finny's accident, precipitating the climax of the novel.


Gene and Finny are the best of friends at Devon, an exclusive prep school, during World War II though their personalities differed greatly. Devon is likely based on Phillips Exeter Academy which Knowles attended. Finny decides to create a secret "Suicide Society", with the two as charter members. They create a rite of induction by having intiates jump out of a tree at a dangerous height. One night, Gene and Finny decide to make the jump alone. Finny falls from the tree and breaks his leg. It appears as if Gene intentionally jumped on the branch to precipitate Finny's fall, acting out of some secret jealousy towards Finny. Throughout the rest of the book, Gene contemplates his act, while Finny slowly convalesces- entirely unaware, it seems, of Gene's apparent guilt in the affair.

Meanwhile, Brinker begins to "investigate" the suspicious circumstances surrounding Finny's broken leg, first through veiled threats and then an outright trial towards the end of the novel. Finny maintains his characteristically chipper and upbeat attitude throughout this time, never even hinting at any animosity towards Gene. However, Finny begins to create a fantasy world of sorts around him through games. He creates "blitzball," named for blitzkrieg, the German World War II style of warfare, and pretends to have Olympic tryouts in 1944 even though the Olympics were canceled due to the war.

The action comes to a head when Brinker and his followers trap Gene and Finny in a trial of Gene, and force the two to confront the events of that night. Gene denies everything at first, but eventually admits the truth. At this point, it is Finny who goes into denial and runs down nearby stairs and falls, re-breaking his leg. Gene tires to console him but is shunned away by the suddenly resentful Finny. Gene ws around the campus for the night as if he was a ghost; this is the first time he has ever been without Finny. The next morning, Gene goes back to see Finny and they reconsile their differences: Finny makes Gene admit that he did make Finny fall but only because it came from some blind impulse that he could not control. Finny accepts this and forgives him (although Gene is still unsure of his excuse and is not sure if he did make Finny fall on purpose.) Gene leaves to collect Finny's things after the surgery and he meets the doctor after Finny's operation to reset the broken bone is his leg. The doctor informs Gene that during the operation, some bone marrow from Finy's leg went through his blood stream and to his heart, killing Finny. Gene takes the news as a shock and never cries about Finny; Gene believes that when Finny died, a piece of himself died as well, and you do not cry in that position.

Gene reflects that Finny's death was a result of Gene's hate and jealousy towards him. He goes onto explain that there is a point in everyone's life when they realize that there is evil in the world and that they must fight their inner demons to control themselves. It is at that time when one's innocence is lost forever. The only person that was immune to this was Finny and although this made him a unique and special individual, it is what lead to his demise.


There are many themes underlying the work. One central theme in this book is that people perceive threats when there really are none. For instance, Gene felt that Finny was trying to drag him down when Finny organized all kinds of activities to fill in all of their free as well as study time. Gene felt some hidden jealousy toward Finny for this, and as a result he jounced the limb that Finny was climbing on causing him to fall.

After the fact, Gene realized what had happened. Finny was not trying to get him. Finny was not in any way hostile to Gene. Even after the incident Finny thought that he had fallen out of the tree himself. He still refused to believe that Gene could do something of the sort even after Gene had told him that he did it. It was this innocence, attacked by both Gene and Brinker at the trial, that led to Finny's death. In the end, his epiphany about his fall from the tree was his true fall from innocence, and his death, caused by bone marrow from his leg flowing to and blocking his heart, symbolizes Gene's actions literally breaking his heart.

After Finny died, Gene realized that Finny's outlook on life and other people was justified and better than his own. He remarked that everyone was in a constant mental stage of alert that is utterly unnecessary. Sometimes this becomes an obsession that gets in the way of whatever that they were going to do. In a quote from the book:

All of them, constructed at infinite cost to themselves these Maginot Lines against this enemy they thought they saw across the frontier, this enemy who never attacked that way — if he ever attacked at all; if he was indeed the enemy.

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