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A Separate Peace opens as Gene Forrester returns to Devon School, a New England prep school, about fifteen years after he was in attendance there. World War II had just begun then and he remembers the Summer Suicide Society--an organization founded by his best friend, Finny, which devotes itself to initiating members by having them jump from the tree into the river. Gene and Finny always had to take the first jump from the tree. As time goes on, Gene begins to resent Finny because of his athletic talents and on one occasion, he jounces the limb so that Finny will fall. Finny's leg is shattered, preventing him from playing any sports, but Finny refuses to believe that Gene could have done this, even though Gene confesses. When Finny returns to school, he wants to develop Gene into a good athlete for the 1944 Olympics. As one of the many examples of opposing elements contrasted with each other, Gene tells Finny that sports are not important because of the war, which Finny refuses to believe. A while later, some boys from the prep school take Gene and Finny to a big assembly room, where they want to clear up the matter of Finny's broken leg. Gene realizes that he is being put on trial, Finny refuses to answer any questions because he trusts his friend, Finny leaves the room agitated, slips on the stairs, and breaks the same leg again. At the hospital, Finny has a changed attitude and asks Gene why he pushed him out of the tree. Gene says the act was a blind impulse. Later that day, Finny dies when some Q~i~ bone marrow gets into his bloodstream. Looking back on the experience, Gene believes that he was never very interested in the war because he was waging his own personal war between the acceptance of the clearly defined prep school values and Finny's laid-back values. He had killed his enemy at school.
Knowles' book focuses on the adolescent period of life. Adolescence is a very confusing time of life, primarily because a person fluctuates from wanting to be a child and being innocent to wanting to be an adult and questioning life. Knowles emphasizes that both worlds of adolescent and adult life share many similarities and overlap often--they are not separate entities. Even in the green, neatly kept paradise of Devon School, there existed some areas of uncontrolled wilderness.
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The summer session of Knowles' book represents a time of adolescence, undisturbed peace, and a certain unquestioned finality regarding life and its choices. These themes are represented through many paradise like descriptions of the Devon School and the summer weather. Even though the narrator is revisiting his alma mater during the "wet, self-pitying November day when every speck of dirt stands out clearly," his flashback begins during the "summer, 1942." Beginning the story of his younger years in the summer, the narrator takes the reader back to a time of adolescence when he had not yet begun to search for the morals of life--when choices were not really made, rather life was just accepted. This image of summertime and innocence is seen in the narrator's description of the Devon School. The school is described as the "most beautiful school in New England. It is the beauty of the small areas of order--a large yard, a group of trees, the healthy, green turf brushed with dew, cricket noises, twilight sun (p. 10)." The school, obviously a place where adolescents are educated, contains green forests and parks where adolescents can play, bringing out their innocent-childlike side. This school also provides rules and traditions which the students must follow without questioning. This sense of structure represents the childlike side of adolescents, as adults tend to question things they do not agree with.The authority of the school in the adolescent's life is represented by "the six o'clock bell from the Academy Building cupola, the calmest, most carrying bell toll in the world, civilized, calm, invincible, final (p. 10)." This bell is accepted by every student without question.
The first five chapters of the novel deal with innocent adolescence, however as Chapter six begins, "peace had deserted Devon," and simultaneously the fall session had arrived. "Fall had touched the full splendor of the trees...in the air there was an edge of coolness to imply the oncoming winter (p. 64)." The arrival of the fall marks a change in the narrator as his summertime childlike behavior has now been shattered. The peace at Devon is disrupted when authority is challenged and Gene's best friend, Finny, enters, suggesting they climb the "tremendous, steely, black steeple beside the river." After climbing and falling from the tree and causing Finny to fall from the tree and shatter his leg, Gene eventually experiences a self-examination and self-knowledge, but only after many chapters of frustration, doubt, and finally, savage violence. In the last chapter of the novel, Gene realizes how false he has been toward Finny by not appreciating him for his athletic talent, but by being jealous of it. As Gene looks on Finny after he has broken his leg for a second time, Gene "had the desolating sense of having all along ignored what was finest in him. In the last chapter of the novel, Gene again contradicts the authority of his childhood school days, by allowing his opinion to be influenced by Finny's.