A Separate Peace | Study Guide

John Knowles

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A Separate Peace | Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

The narrator of the story, Gene Forrester, describes his recent return to his high school alma mater, Devon School, as an adult. He finds it more sedate than he remembers, but he realizes that 15-year-old memories may not be reliable. Nonetheless, he doesn't like the sedate look of the school because he doesn't remember it that way. As a student, he felt the school was "vibrant." Yet he also remembers the pervasive fear he and other students felt even though they were not aware of it.

The adult Gene feels he's made a necessary escape from the school. Yet he acknowledges not only the fear he'd felt as a student but the "uncontrollable joy" of the time he spent there.

Gene describes that he was visiting some "fearful sites" of his childhood. During his visit, it is November and the school appears raw and rather grim. Gene walks through town, admiring the fine old houses, and enters the First Academy Building, which he remembers from his student days. He leaves the building and regards other parts of the campus. He notes that things have changed at the school but the changes are slow and "harmonize" with the past.

Gene walks across the Playing Fields, remembering how important sports were to the students. At the far end of the field is a small river with trees along its banks. Gene is looking for one tree in particular, a tree that looms large in his memory and helped shape him as an individual. When he finds the tree he's looking for, Gene notes that it is far smaller and less intimidating than he remembers it. He also notes that, like himself, the tree seems older, as though it is "enfeebled."

The narration shifts to the events that surrounded the tree when Gene was a teenage student. On the summer day that's described, the tree appears so tremendous that Gene is afraid to climb it. Gene's best friend Phineas (Finny) is a fearless adventurer, and he is determined to climb the tree, walk out on a high branch, and jump from the branch into the river. Finny accomplishes this feat and exclaims that it's "the most fun I've had this week." He then challenges Gene and the other boys to do the same. Gene, as Finny's best friend, is expected to be next. Gene is terrified of climbing and jumping from the tree. At Finny's goading, Gene climbs up and jumps off and into the river. Then it's the other boys' turn. A shy boy, "Leper" Lepellier, simply becomes "inanimate" in his refusal to take part. Chet Douglass and Bobby Zane complain shrilly about school regulations as the reason they won't climb and jump.

Gene and Finny walk back to their shared dormitory room, and Finny praises Gene for his jump. Gene is secretly delighted at Finny's praise. When they hear the dinner bell Gene says they must hurry, but Finny hates authority and loves to break rules. The boys begin to wrestle playfully until they're sure they're late for dinner. When they get to their dorm room both boys do some reading for class, although they listen to the news on an illegal radio played at low volume. They read and listen until it's time for bed.

Analysis

The book opens with the motif of memory and change. Gene says he hopes he "had achieved this growth and harmony in [him]self" since he'd left the school 15 years before—although he clearly does not feel completely reconciled with his past. Gene's surprise at how small the tree seems shows how changes over time can affect one's adult memory of a youthful experience. The tree that once loomed so large and fearsome seems to the grown-up Gene to be small, old, and enfeebled.

The adult Gene visits during the winter, a traditional symbol of grimness, death, and enforced rules. The atmosphere at the school is rather moody. Here the winter term also symbolizes the acceptance of reality and change; winter is a time of transition between death and rebirth. In his initial musings Gene remembers the pervasive fear he and other students felt during their last years at Devon School. In fact, he is visiting the school to exorcise the demons that haunt him from this period.

The symbol of marble is introduced in this chapter as an integral part of the buildings at Devon School. The marble is "unusually hard" and represents the unforgiving hardness and harshness of the real world. Only as an adult does Gene recognize this quality in the marble. He thinks "It was surprising that I had overlooked that ... crucial fact."

Freedom versus conformity comes into play when Gene describes himself as having "more money, success, and security" as an adult than he did as a young student. Having this lifestyle implies that Gene has lived up to society's expectations of what a successful adult should be. He's conformed to social demands and norms and has been rewarded by society for his conformity. It's implied that Gene's conformity is now part of his identity as a responsible adult. This isn't necessarily a terrible thing; Gene's situation seems to imply that growing up involves some degree of necessary conformity.

Conformity is also important to Chet and Bobby—friends in Gene and Finny's group. They refuse to jump out of the tree because it's against school regulations. They are not risk-takers but hang out with Finny and Gene because they are fun to be with. Yet they remain committed conformists. Gene, too, conforms as a youth, as the text reveals when Gene says he and Finny must hurry to get back in time for dinner. Finny engages Gene in a wrestling match just to derail Gene's notion that he must obey school rules—that he must respond to the dinner bell. However, Gene is not averse to listening to an illegal radio in his dorm room; his position clearly lies somewhere in between that of Finny and that of Chet and Bobby.

Several aspects of Finny's nature are revealed. He is fearless, he's a first-class athlete, he is fun-loving, and he encourages his friends to be the same. He is also a stickler for the truth—at least in some things. When Gene claims that he's "five feet nine inches tall," Finny corrects him saying "No, you're the same height as I am, five-eight and a half." Finny insists Gene be truthful about this fact and not exaggerate to make himself appear better or more than he is. Finny probably does not understand why Gene, a less gifted athlete, might exaggerate his height to burnish his image. The fact that the two are the same height is also significant: a number of moments in the book will imply that the two are like twins, or are the same person.

Identity and rivalry are explicit when the story reverts to the voice of the teenage Gene. Gene wonders "Why did I let Finny talk me into stupid things like this? Was he getting some kind of hold over me?" These thoughts reveal how great Finny's influence is on Gene's identity. The friendship between Gene and Finny is close. Although Gene is delighted to be praised by Finny (after Gene jumps from the tree) there is a sense of disquiet that he so readily acceded to Finny's prompting to do something dangerous and against the rules. Gene is glad he overcame his fear but has a nagging feeling that he doesn't want Finny to control him so much.

The reference to the remembered tree as a "forbidding artillery piece" reminds the reader of the war. In these early chapters—those that take place in the summer term—the war is mentioned only tangentially. It does not as yet loom large in the boys' thoughts or experience. In this chapter the war is alluded to only in relation to other things: the senior boys who are "practically soldiers," Finny's comment about torpedoes and troopships, and Gene's "West Point stride" as he walks purposefully toward the dining hall. Finny's early war-related comments will contrast sharply with his ideas about the war later in the book.

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