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A Separate Peace


Readability Age Range



Year Published

Book Review

This coming-of-age novel by John Knowles is published by Scribner, an imprint of Simon and Schuster. A Separate Peace is written for kids ages 14 to 17. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.

Plot Summary

Gene Forrester returns to Devon, the private high school he attended 15 years earlier. As he walks the campus, he remembers the summer of 1942, reflecting on the pervasive sense of fear that ruled his thoughts back then. The narrative then switches to his 16-year-old self.

News of bombings makes it hard to ignore World War II. Yet the war seems of little importance to Gene and his best friend and roommate, Finny, who is also at Devon for the summer session. Finny is a natural athlete who seems to be great at everything he does, except for academics. Everyone likes him. Gene likes him, too, but resents the fact that charming Finny seems to get away with breaking the school rules, even when he is honest about his antics to the faculty.

Still, Gene agrees to do whatever Finny suggests, even though it interrupts his studies. When Finny thinks a dangerous jump into the Devon River from a high tree limb would be fun, Gene goes along with it, even though he’s scared. Gene almost falls off the tree limb to the bank below, but Finny grabs him, and Gene’s balance is restored. Finny decides jumping should be a daily ritual and creates the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session, saying it meets every night.

When Finny nonchalantly breaks a school swim record while the two friends are alone in the pool, Gene wants Finny to redo it so it can be officially recorded. Finny declines, since he is not competitive and enjoys sport for the pure joy of it. The more Gene thinks about Finny’s skills and charm, the more jealous he becomes.

As the summer continues, Gene becomes convinced that Finny is making up sporting events in order to distract Gene from his studies. Gene decides that Finny is jealous of Gene’s top grades and wants to keep him from becoming head of their class. He views Finny as his rival.

One night, Finny interrupts Gene while he’s studying. He tells him that Leper Lepellier wants to join their society, and they must go to the river to jump. Once Finny realizes that Gene needs to study, he expresses his sincere desire to see Gene be the best in the class. Gene then knows that Finny feels no rivalry between them. Yet Gene still feels inferior because Finny isn’t jealous of him and doesn’t have to work at being the best athlete, while Gene must study to earn his A’s.

After Gene changes his mind and they meet the other society members at the river, Finny suggests he and Gene jump together. When they’re both on the tree limb, Gene purposefully jostles the branch. Finny falls to the bank and shatters one of his legs.

Because Gene feels guilty about causing his friend to fall, he visits him in the infirmary. Finny doesn’t suspect anything, and Gene almost confesses, but they are interrupted. The summer session comes to an end.

After a short summer break, Gene visits Finny’s home and confesses that he caused the accident. Finny refuses to believe Gene would hurt him, but Gene repeats his words, hinting that he has had hateful feelings toward Finny, which compelled him to jostle the tree branch. Gene realizes that his remarks have hurt Finny more deeply than a broken leg, so he backs off from the whole confession, saying he is tired and isn’t making sense.

Back at school, a fellow student named Brinker questions Gene about the accident and makes it obvious that he thinks Gene is at fault. When Finny returns to school, he acts normal. Gene drops any mention of the accident. He allows Finny to train him for the 1944 Olympics because Finny had hoped to compete before his leg was shattered. Gene agrees to be his replacement even though both know the task is impossible. Through it, Gene comes to understand Finny in a deeper way.

News of the war is everywhere, but Finny believes the war is made up of rich old men trying to keep the younger generation down. He seems to want to ignore the war, and Gene joins him in this fantasy. After the school shows a film of troops on skis, Leper, who is thought to be a coward but loves skiing, decides to join.

The winter drags on. Gene receives a telegram from Leper asking Gene to meet him. Gene travels to Leper’s home and finds his ex-classmate in a state of mental shock. Leper couldn’t handle boot camp and was dishonorably discharged. Gene is disturbed by Leper’s account of his breakdown.

The war is gaining momentum, and recruiters come to Devon. After a Naval officer speaks at chapel, Brinker accuses Gene of putting off enlisting. He says Gene hasn’t joined up because he pities Finny — a cripple who won’t be able to serve in the war. That night, Brinker and a few of his friends bring the roommates to one of the schoolrooms. They plan to investigate Finny’s accident. Leper is called on to testify what he saw. They conclude that Gene caused the accident. Upset, Finny runs from the room. He trips down a set of marble stairs and rebreaks his leg.

When Gene visits the infirmary, Finny asks Gene if it was a momentary impulse that made him jostle the limb or some deeper resentment. Gene tells him it was a moment of insanity, not a planned attack. The two reconcile. The doctor tells Gene that he can come back later after Finny’s bone has been set. When Gene returns, Finny is dead. The doctor thinks that some bone marrow must have traveled to Finny’s heart and stopped it. Gene identifies so closely with his friend that he feels as if he died as well.

The school year comes to an end, and Gene decides to enlist in the Navy. The narrative switches to Gene’s older self, reflecting on how all his anger and hatred disappeared when Finny died. His war was fought in Devon and was over before he enlisted. He believes that a part of Finny will live on in him and that Finny was the essence of peace, someone who was immune to the hatred in a human heart.

Christian Beliefs

Gene prays because it might turn out that God is real. He prays at night before bed and often says long prayers so Finny will believe he is pious. When Finny is not at school, because of his broken leg, Gene stops praying. He starts again when Finny returns.

One of Finny’s football trophies is for Christian sportsmanship. The boys attend chapel daily but the sermons aren’t mentioned, except for one title: “God in Foxholes.” When Finny sleeps on the beach, it reminds Gene of Lazarus brought back to life by God.

After Gene realizes that Finny never felt a sense of rivalry toward him and he regrets his hateful feelings toward Finny, Gene attends a school event where they sing a hymn with the lyrics: “Dear Lord and Father of mankind, forgive our foolish ways.”

Other Belief Systems

In the beginning of the book, a line equates the school’s high tree branches to church towers, saying both are remote and useless, and also says that love does not endure. After seeing Finny swimming in the river, Gene thinks Finny could be a river god because he seems so comfortable and natural in the water.

Authority Roles

Though Finny is never established as the leader, the boys at Devon look up to him. When he makes up the game blitzball, all the other boys simply accept the rules that he establishes as he makes them. Finny is able to persuade his friends to follow his ideas, such as when he decides they need to have a winter carnival or when he establishes a secret society.

Profanity & Violence

Variations of the words h—, a–, and d–n are used throughout the novel. S—, crap, b–tard and b–ch are also used. The name of God is taken in vain several times and the name of Christ is used as an exclamation. Though not spelled out, the f-word is mentioned to once. When Gene talks about the pictures of the southern plantation he placed on the wall of his room, he mentions the cabins and uses the n-word.

Because he is jealous of Finny, Gene shakes a tree limb that Finny is standing on, causing the boy to fall and shatter a leg. When Gene confesses, Finny is upset and doesn’t want to believe his friend is capable of such an act. He threatens to hit or kill Gene if he doesn’t stop talking about it.

Gene argues with a fellow student and punches him. Leper describes his breakdown for Gene. He imagined one of his fellow recruits coughing up his stomach and thought he saw people holding amputated limbs.

Sexual Content

Finny wears a pink shirt. Gene thinks it makes him look like a “fairy” (gay). When talking about the draft age, Finny says it’s all a question of birthdays unless you consider the moment of conception. He doesn’t want to do that because he doesn’t want to think about his parents’ sex life.

When initially questioned about his involvement in Finny’s accident, Gene tries to joke it off by telling the boys the things he’s done to hurt Finny. The list of fictitious wrongs includes making love to Finny’s sister.

Discussion Topics

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Additional Comments

Smoking: The boys smoke in a place called the Butt Room. The room is in the basement and is very drab, the school’s attempt to discourage the boys from smoking.

Alcohol: Finny and Gene drink beer when they go to the beach. At the winter carnival, Brinker is in charge of refreshments and brings hard cider.

Gambling: Gene and his friends gamble in Leper’s room.

Lying: Gene lies to his classmates when they first question him about his involvement in Finny’s accident.

Suicide: Finny makes light of suicide by naming his secret society the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session.

Breaking rules: Gene and Finny skip class and often break the school’s rules.

A Separate Peace was adapted into a film in 1972 by Paramount Pictures.

This review is brought to you by Focus on the Family, a donor-based ministry. Book reviews cover the content, themes and world-views of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. A book’s inclusion does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

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