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Literature / A Separate Peace

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"Looking back now across fifteen years, I could see with great clarity the fear I had lived in, which must mean that in the interval I had succeeded in a very important undertaking: I must have made my escape from it."
Gene Forrester

A Separate Peace is a 1959 coming-of-age novel by John Knowles symbolizing Cold War paranoia during World War II. The events of the book take place from the summer of 1942 to the late winter of 1943.

Gene Forrester, a student at the Devon School, becomes jealous of his popular and athletic best friend Phineas, often called Finny. Paranoid, Gene convinces himself that his resentment is justified because Finny is jealous of his superior academic prowess and is actively attempting to sabotage his streak of good grades. This causes Gene to make a decision that destroys Finny's future and has tragic consequences for both him and Finny.

Surprisingly required reading in a lot of high schools, despite the Homoerotic Subtext. The book is based on two short stories Knowles had previously written, A Turn in the Sun and Phineas. It has been adapted into two movies of the same name, once in 1972 and again in 2004.


Many examples below discuss major twists at length. Do not continue reading if you want to avoid spoilers; some are still unmarked.

A Separate Peace contains examples of:

  • Added Alliterative Appeal: At the beginning, Gene and Phineas create the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session.
  • All Work vs. All Play: Whereas Gene never stops studying and strives to become the top of the class, all Finny wants is to break rules, play sports, and, quite simply, have fun.
  • Ambiguous Innocence: Finny. He's consistently depicted as friendly and kind, and at the end of the book, Gene concludes that Finny was free of the paranoid outlook borne by everyone else in the story. However, Gene is an Unreliable Narrator, and Finny is revealed as a Stepford Smiler near the story's end, suggesting that some of his innocent behavior may be a facade.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Gene, with his extremely detailed descriptions of Finny's body, very unnecessarily long description of Brinker's butt, and worship of Finny in general.
    • Finny also applies due to his overly pure, unwavering love for Gene. Additionally, we can't forget the pink shirt scene.
  • Ambiguous Situation: Nobody knows if Gene shook the branch due to an impulse, a conscious decision, or a minor loss of balance. We're not sure if we can trust what Gene himself says about the incident in the first place...
  • Anyone Can Die: And Finny, half of the main duo, does.
  • Bad Liar: Finny, as Gene asserts while explaining why the former always loses at poker.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Finny is the most beautiful out of all the Devon boys as well as the best person, although this is all based on Gene's narration, and Gene isn't the greatest at being objective.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Leper implies this when it comes to Gene, stating pointedly that the latter is quite kind until he has something to lose.
  • Big Man on Campus: Finny. Brinker too, once the Winter Session rolls around.
  • Bittersweet 17: Explored due to the fact that the book is a Coming-of-Age Story and most of the main characters are seventeen (though they start the book being sixteen and one of them turns eighteen before all the others). Also exaggerated, since they're not just becoming adults, but facing the idea that they'll be drafted into the military.
  • Boarding School: The story is set in Devon, a fictional prep school based on a real school that Knowles attended.
  • Brains and Brawn: Gene, one of Devon's best students, and Finny, one of Devon's best athletes—although this isn't so black and white. Gene mentions that though he's not nearly as good as Finny, he is a decent athlete, and Finny is smart, just not academically.
  • Break the Cutie:
    • Leper, Gene's good natured classmate, does not adjust well to war at all and gets a Section 8 discharge.
    • Finny seems to take the leg injury well... Until he breaks down in front of Gene and reveals that denying WWII is happening is his way of coping with the knowledge that he is no longer fit for military service.
  • Broken Ace: Gene is a quality athlete and straight-A student who's quite well-liked, despite what he'd have you believe. Unfortunately, he's also self-loathing, depressive, paranoid, and fatally obsessed with his best friend Finny.
  • Broken Pedestal: Gene's perception of Finny is a muddled mix of deep-buried resentment and idealization of his friend. The latter gets dashed real quick when Finny unpacks his own feelings of depression regarding his Career-Ending Injury.
  • Calvinball: Blitzball is kinda like this. There are rules, but they seem to be made up at random as they go.
  • Career-Ending Injury: Finny is never the same again after his leg injury.
  • Chekhov's Gun: At the beginning, Gene (as an adult) visits the marble stairs and notes that they are very hard. Near the end, this is where Finny breaks his leg for the second time, ultimately leading to his death.
  • Chromosome Casting: The version of this trope where the cast is all-male. This makes sense, as Devon is a boys-only boarding school. There is one woman who is mentioned briefly due to being the wife of the substitute headmaster, but she gets one completely insignificant scene and that's it.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Finny, who is optimistic, idealistic, and energetic.
  • Cloudcuckoolander's Minder: Gene is this for Finny, who is his best friend.
  • Coming-of-Age Story: Albeit a complicated and disturbing one.
  • Cool-Kid-and-Loser Friendship: Gene seems to see his friendship with Finny this way, but he's an Unreliable Narrator, and other people don't seem to exactly treat him like a loser...although Finny is undeniably the cool kid.
  • Cry Laughing: After Finny breaks his leg a second time and goes into surgery, Gene has a bit of a mental breakdown. He goes into fits of hysterical, misplaced laughter and bites his fist to prevent people from hearing him. Then he notices there are tears all over his hand.
  • Cynic–Idealist Duo: Gene and Finny, respectively.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Gene mentions that 1942 was his "sarcastic summer." This is the result.
  • Dean Bitterman: Mr. Ludsbury, the headmaster of Devon, is a stern disciplinarian. In the few scenes he has, he gives off the feel of being one of these.
  • Death by Despair: Possibly, with regards to Finny. Multiple people have posed the theory that the whole "bone marrow got to his heart during surgery and stopped it" thing is too weird and random to not be symbolic, saying Finny actually died due to anguish after realizing Gene's betrayal, as a figure such as him couldn't accept anything that penetrated his innocence and naive interpretation of the world.
  • Death By Newberry Medal: During Gene's Coming-of-Age Story, his best friend Finny dies during surgery.
  • Death Is Dramatic: Subverted. Gene gets told by a doctor, rather bluntly, that Finny has died during surgery, and Gene wasn't even there when any of it happened.
  • Downer Ending: Finny dies of a complication in his second surgery, and Gene is still struggling with his own feelings of grief and futility many years later.
  • Emo Teen: Gene, a cynical intellectual who is often overcome by his emotions, seems to be one of these.
  • Extracurricular Enthusiast: Brinker, until he turns to disillusioned rebellion and quits every single extracurricular activity he's a part of.
  • Foreshadowing: Gene's description of Devon, particularly his emphasis of how hard a set of marble stairs are.
  • Fatal Flaw: Gene's is his paranoia and tendency to act out of emotional impulses, which go hand in hand.
    • Finny's is his naive idealism of the world and the people he cares about.
  • Female Gaze:
    • Gene's narration tends to linger on Finny's attractiveness quite a bit, especially when they're swimming together.
    • There's also the scene where Gene describes Brinker's well-shaped behind for a long moment (Though some interpretations of the book see this scene as Gene describing Brinker being a fine ass of a different variety).
  • Friendship Moment: What Finny says to Gene in his "nighttime monologue" during the evening of their beach trip.
  • Gay Bravado: Finny wears a pink shirt without caring when Gene says he looks like "a fairy." (Note that "fairy" was common slang for a gay man during this time period.)
  • Growing Up Sucks: As the Devon boys rapidly approach adulthood, their innocence gets destroyed and their carefree, peaceful lives implode. Of course, it has as much to do with this trope as it does with the fact that, due to the time period, they will soon have to fight in World War II.
  • Hidden Disdain Reveal: Leper, who was kind and polite to everyone (even those who didn't reciprocate) before joining the military made him lose his mind, reveals during the "trial" that he holds some resentment towards the other boys for excluding him and throws a fit about how he used to be "the one who did whatever anyone wanted whenever they wanted it." The things Leper says at the "trial" also intensify the subtle, previously-established implication that he is specifically jealous of Gene and Finny's incredibly close friendship.
  • Homoerotic Subtext: Everywhere in the book, so blatant that the book has been banned from some libraries...but it's still just subtle enough for Plausible Deniability. Most of this stems from Gene's incredibly detailed descriptions of other guys' bodies in his narration and his relationship with Finny, in which the two boys sometimes seem a little too fixated on each other to just be Heterosexual Life-Partners.
  • Hope Spot: Finny's leg seems to be improving towards the end of the book. Then he falls again. We get a second Hope Spot when the doctor assures that it's a clean fracture and will require a simple set, but Finny dies from an embolism anyway.
  • I'm Crying, but I Don't Know Why: Gene breaks into a fit of laughter after Finny falls down the stairs, breaking his leg for a second time and having to go into surgery. During his laughter, he begins to cry for a reason he can't seem to discern, although it's not difficult for the reader to see why he would be crying. In reality, it's his laughter that's misplaced.
  • Inferiority Superiority Complex: Implied with Quackenbush. He is condescending and targets anyone he feels is below him, but Gene's narration explains that he has been disliked by every boy at Devon since he got there and probably feels inferior himself.
  • I Just Want to Be You: Part of Gene's very complicated feelings about Finny, who is more athletic, popular, and confident than him.
  • Laughing Mad: See Cry Laughing and I'm Crying, but I Don't Know Why above.
  • Like a God to Me: Implied to be how Gene feels about Finny. He once compares Finny to a river god, and he notably stops praying after Finny's death.
  • Lovable Jock: Finny, the best athlete in the school, is popular not just because of his athletic prowess, but also because of his magnetic charisma.
  • Memetic Badass: Leper, an in universe example. When he goes off to join the army, the students joke about how he has been at every major battle in the war. However, it's a actually a big subversion. While they're joking about him winning the war, he's at boot camp, longing for his collection of snails and the beaver dam, trying to retain his individuality and not go crazy.
  • Mind Screw: Lots and lots of it, because Gene is an Unreliable Narrator.
  • Minimalist Cast: Gene, Finny, Brinker, and Leper are basically the only characters in the entire book. There are a few others who are only mentioned in passing and literally do nothing.
  • Minor with Fake I.D.: Gene and Finny use forged draft cards to cover up the fact that they're Really 17 Years Old and drink at a bar.
  • Mutually Unequal Relation: Gene and Finny are best friends, but Gene also thinks they're secretly bitter rivals. Which, as it turns out, is not what Finny thinks at all.
  • Never My Fault: Gene is like this for the first few chapters of the book, until he messes up so badly that he can't even pretend it isn't his fault.
  • No Antagonist: Through his role in the story as the narrator and a sympathetic figure, Gene is technically the protagonist. Through his role in the story as the person Gene secretly wants to take down, Finny is technically the antagonist. However, Finny is a more pure-hearted and loving person than Gene, whose ignorance and resentment leads to Finny's death. The reader is made to care about both characters, and thanks to the aforementioned complications to the traditional protagonist-antagonist roles, there really isn't a true antagonist.
  • No Communities Were Harmed: Devon is a thinly veiled version of the high school John Knowles attended, Phillips Exeter Academy.
  • The Not-Love Interest: Finny to Gene. Finny is the center of Gene's universe, and Gene adores, obsesses over, and—at times—practically worships him. However, their role in the book is that of best friends.
  • Odd Friendship: Gene and Finny have one of these. You would expect their personalities to clash, as the former is cynical, serious, and rule-abiding, while the latter is idealistic, cheerful, and disregards rules like nobody's business. However, Opposites Attract, and they're best friends.
  • One-Gender School: The Devon School is a boys-only boarding school.
  • The Only One I Trust: Finny confesses late in the book that though he doesn't trust teachers, the government, or authority figures in general, he trusts Gene. This is a rather unfortunate choice, considering it's...Gene.
  • Platonic Declaration of Love: Although he doesn't explicitly use the word "love," Finny essentially gives Gene one of these when they're at the beach, implying a person can only have one best friend and confessing that Gene is his. This only counts if you believe his declaration was platonic, of course.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Gene refuses to share any of his negative feelings with anyone, including himself, which causes real problems when he begins to secretly resent and envy his best friend. As is to be expected, he doesn't talk about any of this with said best friend and just keeps it to himself until his emotions boil over and he makes a huge mistake. That mistake ultimately leads to his friend's death.
  • Precision F-Strike: At the "trial," Finny furiously yells at Brinker to "collect every f—cking fact there is in the world." (This is actually how it's written.) The film version applies Gosh Dang It to Heck! here.
  • Real Men Hate Affection: This seems to be the belief amongst the Devon boys—well, the ones who aren't Gene and Finny, at least. They've both expressed a desire to show their feelings more openly, but they're scared to because the Devon boys apparently scorn anyone who dares to do so.
  • Real Men Wear Pink: Finny wears a pink shirt and ignores any comments about it.
  • Sanity Slippage: Poor Leper goes off the deep end in a major way after he heads off to boot camp. When Gene visits him at home after he finally snaps and gets dishonorably discharged, he's a barely functional wreck who explodes at the slightest thing.
  • School Idol: Finny, beloved by the entire student body as well as the teachers at the Devon School.
  • Selective Obliviousness: After Gene pushes Finny out of the tree and the latter doesn't seem to understand what happened, Gene attempts to actually confess what he's done. And Finny refuses to accept it, writing Gene's claims off as him being "crazy" and conveniently denying it until he's literally forced to accept it at the end of the book.
  • Skipping School: Early in the book, Finny and Gene cut class for a day to head to the beach.
  • Smart People Know Latin: Gene helps Finny pass his Latin class, and he's shown at one point reading aloud a translation he's done from Latin to English about Julius Caesar. Said translation is fluent, and Gene even explains certain contextual details to Finny that prove how much he knows what he's doing.
  • Stepford Smiler: Finny. He's a constant source of energy and positivity, but a lot of it is eventually revealed to be his way of coping with the harsh reality that his broken leg means he'll never be able to fight in the war.
  • A Tragedy of Impulsiveness: If you believe what Gene did to begin the book's downward spiral was an impulse rather than malicious and intentional. It's left ambiguous.
  • Tragic Bromance: Played with. Finny and Gene's relationship bears most hallmarks of this trope—they're very close and Gene is profoundly affected by Finny's death, even fifteen years later—but it's subverted in that Gene doesn't truly consider Finny his best friend due to his deep-seated jealousy and paranoia, feelings which cause the accident that eventually leads to Finny's death.
  • Unable to Cry: Gene after Finny's death. Unlike most examples of this, he doesn't immediately angst over it, thinking he's a horrible person or sociopathic—because he understands and acknowledges that he can't cry because he feels as though Finny's funeral is his own, and people don't cry when they're dead.
  • Unknown Rival: Played for Drama. Gene secretly views Finny as his rival and assumes Finny feels the same; this leads him to cause Finny's accident. At the end of the book, Gene reflects that everyone acts this way, constructing lines of defense against an imagined enemy; only Finny (according to Gene) didn't behave this way.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Gene. He can only see people through his personal lens, which is quite often distorted due to his paranoia, jealousy, and cynicism.
  • World War II: Set during the time period and acts as the looming backdrop of the story. Most of the characters are either planning to go off to war after graduation or sign up early midway through the story.
  • Whole Episode Flashback: More like whole book flashback, as only the framing chapters let us know it's a flashback at all. The story is being told by Gene when he's in his thirties, but the story is about events that occurred when he was sixteen through seventeen. To make things more confusing, his narrative voice changes so that for most of the book, it's actually his teenage self narrating. And he's an Unreliable Narrator.


Example of: