A Separate Peace (1959) is a coming-of-age novel by John Knowles. Based on his earlier short story, "Phineas," it was Knowles' first published novel and became his best-known work. Set against the backdrop of World War II, A Separate Peace explores morality, patriotism and loss of innocence through its narrator, Gene.
Gene Forrester, the protagonist, returns to his old prep school, Devon (a thinly veiled portrayal of Knowles' alma mater, Phillips Exeter Academy), fifteen years after he graduated to visit two places he regards as "fearful sites": a flight of marble stairs and a tree by the river that he caused his friend, Phineas, to fall out of. First, he examines the stairs and notices that they are made of very hard marble. He then goes to the tree, which brings back memories of Gene's time as a student at Devon. From this point, the novel follows Gene's description of the time span from the summer of 1942 to the summer of 1943. In 1942, he was 16 and living at Devon with his best friend and roommate, Phineas (nicknamed Finny). At the time, World War II is taking place and has a prominent effect on the story.
Gene and Finny, despite being opposites in personality, are close friends at Devon: Gene's quiet, introverted, intellectual personality is a character foil for Finny's extroverted, carefree, athletic demeanor. During his time at Devon, Gene goes through a period of intense kinship with Finny. One of Finny's ideas during Gene's "gypsy summer" of 1942 is to create a "Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session", with Gene and himself as charter members. Finny creates a rite of initiation by having members jump into the Devon River from a large, high tree.
Gene and Finny's friendship goes through a period of fun, one-sided rivalry during which Gene strives to out-do Finny academically, since he believes Finny is trying to out-do him. This rivalry begins with Gene's jealousy towards Finny. This rivalry climaxes (and is ended) when, as Finny and Gene are about to jump off the tree, Gene jounces the branch they are standing on, causing Finny to fall and shatter his leg. Because of his "accident", Finny learns that he will never again be able to compete in sports, which are most dear to him. This leads to Gene starting to think like Finny to try to be a better person and to try to solve some of his envy towards him. The remainder of the story revolves around Gene's attempts to come to grips with who he is, why he shook the branch, and how he will go forward. Gene feels so guilty that he tells Finny that he caused Finny's fall. At first Finny does not believe him and afterward feels extremely hurt.
World War II soon occupies the schoolboys' time, with student Brinker Hadley rallying the boys to help the war effort and Gene's quiet friend Leper Lepellier joining the Ski Troops and becoming severely traumatized by what he sees.
During a meeting of the Golden Fleece Debating Society, Brinker sets up a show trial and, based upon his shaking of the branch, accuses Gene of trying to kill Finny. Faced with the evidence, Finny leaves shamefully before Gene's deed is confirmed. On his way out, Finny falls down a flight of stairs (the same ones Gene visits at the beginning of the novel) and again breaks the leg he had shattered before. Finny at first dismisses Gene's attempts to apologize, but he soon realizes that the "accident" was impulsive and not anger-based. The two forgive each other.
The next day, Finny dies during the operation to set the bone when bone marrow enters his bloodstream during the surgery.Gene Forrester: A Separate Peace is told from Gene's point of view. Gene focuses on, and succeeds at, academics. He envies his roommate Finny's graceful, easy athleticism and social prowess. Gene is from "three states from Texas", and is therefore somewhat unaccustomed to Northeastern culture. Gene causes his best friend's fall in his suppressed envy, by making a small but deliberate quick move on a tree branch from which Phineas would not otherwise have fallen. He is the main character.
Phineas (Finny): Gene's best friend and roommate; an incorrigible, good natured, athletic, daredevil type. In Gene's opinion, he can never leave anything well enough alone, and could always get away with anything. He always sees the best in others, seeks internal fulfillment free of accolades, and shapes the world around himself to fit his desires. He is a prodigious athlete, succeeding in every sport until his leg is shattered in his fall from the tree.
Brinker Hadley: Brinker is a classmate and friend of Gene and Finny's. He ceaselessly strives for order during the Winter Session at Devon. The main antagonist, Brinker wants to get to the bottom of Finny's accident, but it is unclear if he intended for the investigation to be a practical joke. He organizes the "midnight trial" to confront and accuse Gene of causing Finny's accident. During the questioning of Finny by Brinker, Finny changes the story to make Gene appear innocent of his actions in the tree. Finny cites Lepellier as an unreachable witness. Brinker ultimately reconciles with Gene, who appears to forgive him both for his part in Finny's death and for the trial.
Elwin 'Leper' Lepellier: Leper is Finny and Gene's friend, and a key member of the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session. He is the first student in his class to enlist in the military. Late in the novel, Leper goes insane from the stress of his enlistment in the army. He is a witness at Gene's "trial," testifying that Gene was responsible for Finny's fall.
Various parties have asserted that the novel implies homoeroticism between Gene and Finny, including those who endorse a queer reading of the novel, and those who condemn homosexuality as immoral. For example, the book was challenged in the Vernon-Verona-Sherill, NY School District (1980) as a "filthy, trashy sex novel" despite having no substantial female characters (and describing no sexual activity).
Though frequently taught in U.S. high schools, curriculum related to A Separate Peace typically ignores a possible homoerotic reading in favor of engaging with the book as a historical novel or coming-of-age story. Knowles denied any such intentions, stating in a 1987 newspaper interview:
"Freud said any strong relationship between two men contains a homoerotic element...If so in this case, both characters are totally unaware of it. It would have changed everything, it wouldn’t have been the same story. In that time and place, my characters would have behaved totally differently."
In 1972, the novel was adapted into a film of the same name, starring Parker Stevenson as Gene and John Heyl as Finny, with a screenplay by Fred Segal and John Knowles.1960 New York Times bestseller (Fiction)
1961 William Faulkner Foundation Award, inaugural winner
1961 National Book Award finalist (Fiction)