A Separate Peace | Study Guide

John Knowles

Download a PDF to print or study offline.

Study Guide
Cite This Study Guide

How to Cite This Study Guide

quotation mark graphic


Course Hero. "A Separate Peace Study Guide." Course Hero. 8 Jan. 2018. Web. 17 Dec. 2018. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Separate-Peace/>.

In text

(Course Hero)



Course Hero. (2018, January 8). A Separate Peace Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved December 17, 2018, from https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Separate-Peace/

In text

(Course Hero, 2018)



Course Hero. "A Separate Peace Study Guide." January 8, 2018. Accessed December 17, 2018. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Separate-Peace/.


Course Hero, "A Separate Peace Study Guide," January 8, 2018, accessed December 17, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/A-Separate-Peace/.

A Separate Peace | Chapter 2 | Summary



Mr. Prud'homme comes to Finny and Gene's dorm room to chastise them for breaking the rules by missing dinner. Finny tells the master that they missed dinner because they were swimming. His easygoing friendliness" wins over the master "in spite of himself." Yet when Finny explains that he and Gene "simply had to jump out of that tree" he pushes his luck, because jumping from the tree is an even greater transgression than missing dinner. Finny explains that they jumped as a form of military training. Mr. Prud'homme sighs with amazement and leaves it at that.

Gene explains to the reader that that was the way the masters treated them that summer. They "modified their usual attitude ... of chronic disapproval," in contrast to their stricter attitude during the winter term. During summer term the masters were more tolerant of rule-breaking behavior. Gene attributes this tolerance to Finny's charm and his desire to be good combined with an ignorance of the rules. Gene speculates that the masters tolerated Finny's hijinks because they truly admired his boyish, wild behavior.

After Mr. Prud'homme leaves, Finny puts on the clothes nearest to hand, some of them Gene's. He also dons a long pink shirt (made out of a tablecloth) that he says will be his emblem. Gene is astonished and says it makes Finny look gay. Finny couldn't care less. He's wearing the colorful shirt to celebrate some good news he's heard about the war. No one in the school taunts Finny about his pink shirt. Gene suspects it's Finny's charm and powers of hypnotism that protect him and allow him to get away with things. Gene admits to envying this power of Finny's.

At tea in the headmaster's home, Finny talks about a victorious Allied battle in Central Europe. No one else has heard this news, but Finny speaks at length about it. Finny states that he supports the war as long as bombs "don't hit any women or children or old people ... or schools ... or hospitals ... or churches." Headmaster Patch-Withers explains that no bombing raid can be that precise. As the conversation continues the headmaster notices that Finny is wearing the school tie as a belt. This is an insult to the school, but Finny manages to use charm and his gift of gab to talk his way out of any punishment. Finny makes it sound like the tie-belt is a tribute to both the school and the war. Gene admits feeling envious of Finny's ability to talk his way out of trouble, but notes that Finny is an extraordinary person.

After leaving the headmaster's house, Gene and Finny walk through the trees toward the river. They swim for a while, and then Finny challenges Gene to be the first to again jump out of the tree and into the river. The boys decide to form the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session, whose only requirement for membership was that a boy jump out of the tree into the river. They think it's a great idea. The two boys climb the tree and move out onto the high branch. For a moment Gene loses his balance on the limb but Finny grabs hold of him and steadies him. Then they jump into the water. Later, Gene realizes that if Finny had not grabbed him, he "might have been killed."


Freedom versus conformity are again developed in this chapter. Finny feels free to flout the rules with impunity in his never-ending pursuit of fun and adventure. He has no qualms about missing dinner and even compounds the infraction by admitting that he and Gene jumped out of the tree into the river—something that is forbidden. Finny knows that his fertile imagination and naïveté will win over Prud'homme, and so they do (as they also do with Mr. Patch-Withers later in the chapter). Finny's charm, gift of gab, and rich fantasy life help him concoct seemingly reasonable explanations for his sometimes-outrageous actions.

Conformity is contrasted with freedom when Finny makes his excuses to Mr. Prud'homme. Finny says jumping out of the tree was "perfectly all right. There isn't any question that we are conforming in every possible way to everything that's happening and everything that's going to happen." Finny pretends he and Gene are conforming to school rules by equating their adventures at the tree with training for the war.

The war is frequently Finny's excuse for his forbidden adventures, yet what he says about the war is untrue. He describes fictional incidents that simply pop into his head. Finny's discussion of the bombing of Central Europe has no basis in fact, yet he describes it with such relish and detail his listeners don't know if they should believe him or not. Later Finny puts on a pink shirt to celebrate the fictional military victory in Central Europe. His notion that the Allies should bomb their way to victory—as long as they don't hurt or kill most living things—is pure fantasy and shows how little Finny understands about war. It's a trope for him to use to his own advantage.

The school staff accedes to Finny's demand for freedom and carefree happiness. Gene speculates that Finny is largely responsible for the staff's leniency. Finny is described as "the essence of careless peace" who reminded adults "of the life the war was being fought to preserve ... of lives not bound up with destruction."

Finny's personality is explored in Gene's description of Finny as a charmer and spinner of tales. Finny (childishly) views unregulated freedom as a "commendable sign of maturity." He's nonchalant about his rule-breaking and is "most comfortable in the truant's corner." Finny accepts punishment as long as it comes after he's had his fun.

Gene's identity—reserved, resentful, and unsure of himself—is developed in opposition to Finny's: although they are close friends, Gene envies Finny's gifts and his indifference (or immunity) to discipline. Gene thinks "I was beginning to see that Phineas could get away with anything. I couldn't help envying him that a little, which was perfectly normal. There was no harm in envying even your best friend a little." Gene may be deceiving himself when he thinks "it was quite a compliment to me ... to have such a person choose me for his best friend." Gene tries to make light of his envy of Finny. Yet somehow the tone conveys the far darker, more deep-seated, and corrosive envy that Gene feels but is trying to mask with a veneer of "normality."

When Finny is caught wearing the school tie as a belt Gene's envy makes him glad that "this time [Finny] wasn't going to get away with it. I could feel myself become unexpectedly excited at that." Gene rejoices in anticipating the punishment he expects Finny will suffer. When Finny talks his way out of trouble yet again, Gene thinks he just "wanted to see some more excitement; that must have been it." But Gene is deluding himself. He cannot admit to himself that he was envious and wanted Finny to suffer.

It is noteworthy that Finny puts on some of Gene's clothes when he gets dressed. That Finny and Gene are so close they sometimes wear each other's clothes seems to meld their identities to some extent. The closeness is one of friendship but also hints at a conjoined identity (twinning). The author may be indicating how alike they are, or he may be revealing that their "twinness" in some matters will make it necessary for one or both of them to break away in order to realize his own individual identity.

The symbol of the tree takes on a more ominous meaning in this chapter. The tree becomes the focal point of the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session and foreshadows events to come. When Finny saves Gene on the tree limb by grabbing him and restoring his balance, the incident foreshadows a far different and more sinister event later in the story.

Summer and winter terms are briefly introduced and contrasted. The summer term represents the time of ease and laxity when the masters "seemed to be modifying their usual attitude of floating, chronic disapproval." In contrast, during the winter term, they regarded students "with suspicion, seeming to feel that anything we said or did was potentially illegal." In this chapter, during summer term, the school staff seems to uncoil and "a streak of tolerance is detectable" in them. It's noteworthy that adult Gene returns to school in the midst of the harsher, more strictly adult winter term.

Homoeroticism is hinted at when Finny puts on the large pink shirt and then wears it around the school. Gene warns Finny that it makes him look "like a fairy," but Finny couldn't care less, and no one bothers him about it.

Cite This Study Guide

information icon Have study documents to share about A Separate Peace? Upload them to earn free Course Hero access!