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A Separate Peace | Plot Summary

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Summary

The Return

Gene Forrester, a man in his 30s, returns to his old, exclusive prep school, the Devon School, in rural New Hampshire. His mind wanders back to his most important years there, 1942–43, which are likely also the most important years of his life. He walks around the campus for a while and then heads toward the river to look at an old tree that was a significant element of this crucial time period.

Summer, 1942

The timeframe then shifts to the carefree summer of 1942, when Gene and his best friend and roommate, Phineas—called Finny—are hanging out with a few others in their crowd and having a summer of rule-breaking freedom and fun. One day they all head toward a large, old tree with some branches that overhang the river. Finny is a fearless, athletic, and irrepressible 17-year-old, and he quickly climbs the tree and leaps into the river from one of its high branches. Gene is terrified of jumping from the tree, but he does it, probably to impress Finny or to demonstrate his equal but feigned fearlessness. Gene and Finny start the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session. To gain membership in this group a boy must jump into the river from the high tree branch.

Gene and Finny become closer friends as the summer progresses. However, Gene begins to feel jealous of Finny's charm and effortless athleticism. Gene tries unsuccessfully to suppress his feelings of rivalry and resentment. One day Gene and Finny decide to jump together from the high branch of the tree. Finny moves out toward the end of the branch as Gene stands behind him on the branch, holding the tree trunk. Perhaps unconsciously and unwittingly, Gene moves his legs and body to shake the branch. Finny loses his usually perfect balance and falls off. He lands on the riverbank, the bones in his leg shattered. Gene realizes what he's done and tries to confess and apologize to Finny. But somehow the time is never right, and before he knows it, the boys part for the summer break.

Winter Term

On his way back to Devon for the winter term, Gene (a Southerner) visits Finny at his Boston home. Finny's leg is in a cast, and he will not be able to get to Devon for the start of the winter term. Gene explains that he's responsible for Finny's fall, but Finny refuses to believe it.

Gene, Finny, Brinker Hadley, and others in Devon's Class of '42 are now seniors, and the war looms large in their futures. Brinker, the "big man on campus," tries to get Gene to enlist. Gene almost does, but then Finny returns to Devon and talks Gene out of enlisting. Finny has an idea that the war is a "fake," and he refuses to take it seriously. Everyone is surprised when a shy and gentle boy, "Leper" Lepellier, enlists in a branch of the armed forces where he hopes he'll be able to ski.

In his insistence that the war is a conspiracy created by "fat old men," Finny has Gene train for the 1944 Olympic games—games that, in reality, will not be held because of the real war that is being fought. Finny can no longer engage in sports because of his injury. But he trains Gene to qualify for the nonexistent Olympics. As he trains under Finny's guidance, Gene becomes a very good athlete. The boys' friendship deepens.

As the cold, drab winter gets the boys down, Finny initiates a Winter Carnival where the boys can compete in limited sports and win silly prizes. The carnival is a huge success until Gene is given a telegram informing him that Leper has "escaped" from the army and needs to see him right away. Gene makes his way to Leper's home in northern Vermont. He discovers that the stresses of the military have unhinged Leper's mind. Leper is irrational and hallucinatory. Yet he queries Gene about Finny's fall from the tree. Gene cannot tolerate this line of questioning and Leper's seeming insanity so he rushes back to Devon.

On Trial

Back at school Brinker continues to push Gene to enlist. Brinker wonders if the incident at the tree has something to do with Gene's reluctance to fight in the war. Then Finny notices Leper skulking around the school. One night Brinker has Gene and Finny brought to the Assembly Hall to be subjected to a kind of trial to determine what caused Finny's fall from the tree. Gene is in a near panic. Finny insists he can't remember what happened. When Finny mentions that Leper was at the tree at the time—and is now lurking about near the school—Brinker has some students leave to find Leper and bring him back to "testify." Leper is brought in, and he asserts that he saw Gene deliberately shake the tree limb to make Finny fall. Finny gets upset, says he doesn't care anymore, and hobbles out of the Assembly Hall. A few minutes later the boys in the hall hear Finny fall down the stairs. He breaks his injured leg.

Judgment

Finny is taken to the infirmary for treatment. Gene learns that this second break in the previously injured leg is a "clean" break, or simple fracture. Gene visits Finny in the Infirmary the next day. Gene tells Finny that he did not shake the tree limb deliberately. Finny accepts this explanation.

The doctor will operate on the leg to set the fractured bone the next day. Gene arrives back at the infirmary after Finny's surgery. The doctor tells Gene that Finny has died. Marrow from the broken bone entered his bloodstream and stopped his heart. Gene does not cry for Finny because by now he feels that Finny is a part of him. Gene serves in the military after graduating from Devon School, but he does not see combat. He recognizes that he fought his war at Devon School during the year the novel describes. Gene thinks that war arises from the hatred men hold in their hearts. He knows this is true of himself but understands that it does not apply to Finny, whose heart held no hatred.

A Separate Peace Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction

Introduction

1 Finny is exuberant, athletic, and a leader at school.

Rising Action

2 Finny starts the Super Suicide Society of Summer Session.

3 Gene jumps from the tree branch to join Finny's secret club.

4 Gene is obsessed by his rivalry with Finny.

5 Gene jolts the tree branch, and Finny falls, breaking a leg.

6 Gene tries to admit his guilt, but Finny won't believe him.

7 Finny returns to school on crutches.

8 Gene visits Leper, who escaped the army and is now insane.

Climax

9 Finny falls down stairs and rebreaks his leg.

Falling Action

10 Finny dies during surgery to set his broken leg.

11 Troops move into campus buildings at Devon School.

Resolution

12 Gene and Brinker enlist to fight the war.

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