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The primary setting of A Separate Peace is at the Devon School. The exact location of this school is not known in terms of a state, but it is identified as being in the South, sitting between a freshwater and a saltwater stream. The bulk of the story takes place in the years of 1942 through 1944 at the same time as World War II, but the beginning and end of the book consist of Gene looking back on his years at the Devon School 15 years after he had attended it.
A Separate Peace considers two conflicts: man against man and man against himself. Early in the story Gene believes that his problems lie within his best friend Phineas (Finny), but later he realizes that his conflict is internal. Misplaced jealousy, fear, love and hate fight for control of Gene's actions. When the dark side of him wins for a brief moment and he pushes Finny out of a tree it ends his man against man conflict and makes Gene realize that Finny's intention has never been to sabotage him. He had only wanted to have a close and meaningful relationship with his best friend, but their relationship was forever scarred by Gene's betrayal. Gene also learns that people destruct themselves all of the time for no reason, believing that others are enemies when they actually are not.. This can be observed in the last lines of the book when Gene states, "All of them, all except Phineas, 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."
The climax of the story occurs when Gene and Finny finally have a two-sited discussion about the incident at the tree. This tear-filled conversation makes each boy realize how much they actually care for each other.
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In the resolution of the story Finny dies a death that is indirectly caused by his best friend. When the doctor re-sets his twice-broken leg, some of the marrow in Finny's bone gets into his blood stream and stops his heart. Gene is remorseful, but always keeps Finny a part of him and adopts some of Finny's personality traits. Gene goes to war, but he realizes that the real war was fought during his years at the Devon School. His enemy had been killed there. His war had ended before he ever put on a uniform.
Gene Forrester goes through the ages of 16, 17, and 18 during the course of the story he tells. He is of athletic build and is five feet 8½ inches tall. He is the same height as Finny, but Gene weighs 140 pounds where Finny weighs 10 pounds more giving him a more athletic build. Gene is very intelligent and is at the top of his class. He is constantly striving to outclass everyone in his schoolwork, especially Brinker Hadley the charismatic class politician. Gene has trouble displaying emotion though. This can be seen when he and Finny have a heart to heart talk on the beach one evening. Finny tells him that Gene is his best friend in a tender show of emotion. Gene feels the same way, however he falls asleep without saying a word in reply. Gene is also very sarcastic which relates to his inability to show emotion. He can't express the feelings that he wants to, so he ends up coming across as cold and bitter sometimes. He tells sarcastic jokes and makes caustic remarks until he realizes that sarcasm is one of the marks of being emotionally weak.
A Separate Peace deals with themes of envy, violence, and hatred, but the overall theme is stated on page six; "The more things remain the same, the more they change after all. Nothing endures, not a tree, not love, not death by violence." This is stated by Gene after looking at the infamous tree 15 years after his schooling at Devon had commenced. The tree is the same it has always been, but in his mind has been dwarfed by time and his physical growth. This is also true of the Devon School when he revisits it. The school is the same as ever, but is vividly different in his mind. There had been an atmosphere of fear, animosity, struggle, competitiveness, fun, and heartache at Devon when he had attended. Now that he is not a student, that is all gone.
The style of A Separate Peace is realistic. It deals with real life dilemmas and is taken from the authors real experiences. The book concerns largely actual situations such as the war and the way schools were grooming young men for combat. It also speaks of the lighthearted summers of youth and their tough education. People also die and go insane in the book. This happens in real life as do horrible accidents that cause death. There is nothing romantic about this. It is also realistic that people have struggles against themselves and misplace their own feelings into others. It would be a fantasy to believe that man's internal struggles always end for the better.
I would recommend A Separate Peace to everyone who has eyes to read it or someone to read it to them. I think that even those who do not enjoy reading would like it. The story is spellbinding. It is interesting enough to hold the attention of anyone, while it tells a well written enough story to capture the hearts of the most advanced literate also. In my opinion it is a wonderful book. Though the sentence structure is a little odd at times, I couldn't put it down and I'm sure it would have the same effect on anyone.