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A Separate Peace | Symbols


The Tree

The old tree on the Devon School grounds whose branches extend out over the Devon River is a crucial element of the story. The tree of the boys' youth is seen as enormous, and it is the site of exciting and sometimes dangerous exploits. At the beginning of the book, during the summer term, the boys are innocent and enjoy climbing and playing in and around the tree. It is an object of fun and freedom. Later, especially after Finny's fall from the tree, the tree takes on a more sinister aspect, representing the rivalry between Gene and Finny, as well as Gene's guilt at what he's done.

When Gene returns to the school as an adult he revisits the old tree. The adult Gene sees that the tree is neither as large nor as intimidating as it had seemed when he was a boy. In this sense the tree represents change, especially the changes one goes through from childhood to adulthood. It also represents the loss of fear (as well as the loss of excitement and fun) that it embodied when Gene was young. Further, the tree was an instrument Gene used in his rivalry with Finny. In this case the tree may represent Gene's guilt and his coming to terms—as best he can—with that guilt.


There are two rivers that border Devon School. The Devon River is a clear, clean river that the boys enjoy swimming in. This river represents the boys' fun-loving, youthful innocence and exuberance.

The Naguamsett River is dirty and foul. The young boys in the school avoid this river. This river represents the rather sordid conditions in the real world. It thus also represents adulthood. As adults, the boys must face and accept, or at least recognize, reality—even in its most polluted form.

Summer and Winter Terms

During the summer term the boys who dominate this story are in Upper Middle grade, which makes them freer to pursue fun and adventure. The summer term represents the boys' time of innocence and pleasure. It is the time during which Finny flourishes as the leader of a group of boys who idolize him for his imagination, athleticism, and sense of daring. It is the time when school rules can be ignored without too many consequences. It is the time of innocence and youth.

The winter term represents the intrusion of reality into the boys' lives. At Devon School it is the time when rules are more strictly enforced, so the freedom of the summer is lost. During the winter term, the war becomes more real (for most). The boys' innocence is lost as they are forced to face the reality of war and the emergence of their individual identities. No longer can they flout the rules in a never-ending pursuit of good times. The boys must buckle down and face the real worlds of school and war. Innocence is lost during this grim winter term and experience brings out each boy's true character.

Sports and Athletics

Sports and athletics represent competition and rivalry that is essentially, if not always, innocent. They are, or should be, free of violence and bloodshed, and so sports serve as the youthful counterparts in the story to the violent enmity of the nations and soldiers fighting in World War II. They are one way the boys act out their exuberance as well as a way they discover their strengths, weaknesses, and identities.

In the book, Finny views sports and games as an ultimate good and as vitally real. This is in contrast to his denial of the reality of war. Sports and athletics are depicted as harmless and youthful alternatives to war. Sports are beautiful and friendly, in contrast to the deadly realities of combat, although Finny even manages to idealize sports as an activity in which everyone wins, rather than one with winners and losers. The rivalries and competition of sports and athletics are supposed to be innocent, although the events of the story reveal that they sometimes may morph into something far more sinister and real.


Marble represents the real world and the dangerous consequences for individuals that may arise from it. In A Separate Peace, marble is described in various ways that emphasize its hardness or its slipperiness.

In many places on campus Devon School has marble floors and other marble structures. The unforgiving hardness of the marble always underlines the implacable harshness of the adult world, and it proves Finny's undoing, causing the second break that leads to his death.

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