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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. 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. His paranoia brings him to believe that Finny is secretly envious of his academic prowess and is attempting to sabotage his streak of good grades, as this would justify his own resentment. This leads Gene to commit an act of violence that 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 with 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:

  • Accidental Murder: Maybe. It's thought that Gene only wanted to cripple Finny by causing him to fall from the tree, but nobody can be sure. If this assumption is correct, then the example applies: Gene does successfully cripple Finny, but he doesn't expect Finny to die later from an unsuccessful surgery on his broken leg.
  • Added Alliterative Appeal: At the beginning, Gene and Phineas create the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session.
  • Adults Are Useless:
    • The teachers at Devon are a stuck-up lot who, despite constantly patronizing and scolding the students, are completely ineffective at enforcing the rules. Near the book's end, most of the students are suspicious of the circumstances surrounding Finny's fall from the tree and act accusatory towards Gene—yet the teachers are nowhere to be seen. Because of this, Gene essentially murders his best friend while escaping even a suspension.
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    • The few times parents are portrayed, they are either self-absorbed and overbearing or widely absent.
  • Affectionate Gesture to the Head: Finny gives one to Gene after they finish wrestling in the grass.
  • 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 Bi: Finny's love for Gene is pure and unwavering. During the pink shirt scene, he is astonishingly unaffected by Gene's accusation that he looks "like a fairy," though this could just be him being ahead of his time. The reason he's this instead of Ambiguously Gay is because in "Phineas" (the short story prototype of the book), it's clear he's interested in girls.
  • 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. Though this may be relatively understandable considering he goes to Devon, he never once expresses a desire for girls to be present at the school. This is in stark contrast to several similar characters who attend boys' schools, such as Holden Caulfield.
  • 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...
  • An Aesop:
  • Anyone Can Die: And Finny, half of the main duo, does.
  • Assimilation Academy: Devon doesn't seem too far away from this. The teachers act like students can't learn while actually enjoying their lives, and even minor transgressions don't seem to be tolerated. Gene says at one point, "If you broke the rules, then they broke you." The only exception here is that Finny, who loves mischief but is also clearly a good person, is able to thaw out many of Devon's teachers. They don't know what to do with him, so his rebelliousness—which comes out of a desire to have fun, not spite—mixes up the atmosphere at Devon.
  • Awful Truth: Doubly subverted. Originally, Gene's conscience won't let him keep crippling Finny to himself, and he outright confesses. However, Finny refuses to believe him. This causes Gene to realize Finny can't handle the truth, and both of them try to pretend nothing happened for most of the book until the end.
  • Bad Liar: Finny, as Gene asserts while explaining why the former always loses at poker.
  • Bait-and-Switch Comment: After Finny suggests they go to the beach, Gene mentally lists all the reasons why he should refuse—it's against the rules, it's hours away, he won't get to study for an upcoming test, he doesn't like riding his bike for long periods of time, it will mess up the general order of his life. Right when the reader thinks he'll tell Finny he doesn't want to go, he simply says, "All right."
  • 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.
  • Believing Their Own Lies: Finny has a conspiracy that wars are orchestrated by fat old men to keep control of the youth. However, it's later revealed that he convinced himself to believe this so he could avoid feeling grief over not being able to fight in the war himself.
  • Beneath the Mask:
    • Gene, the stoic, quiet straight-A student, is deeply uncomfortable with his own identity and represses the resentment and envy he feels towards his best friend. In one scene, Leper calls him "a savage underneath."
    • At the end of the book it's revealed that after breaking his leg, Finny isn't nearly as happy as he once was. Now that he can't pursue his dream of being a professional athlete and he also can't participate in the war, he doesn't feel like he belongs anywhere.
  • Beware the Honest Ones: Gene comes to distrust Finny, deciding that Finny's constant desire to spend time with him can't possibly be innocent and obsessing over what his ulterior motive must be. The reason Gene doesn't trust Finny is because he's a liar who covers up his feelings, whereas Finny says exactly what's on his mind most of the time.
  • 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 Fancy House: Finny's house is a bit of an odd example: though large, it's only really extravagant in the front, and it becomes less and less intricate. By the time you get to the back of the house, it basically looks like a nice barn.
  • Big Man on Campus:
  • 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.
  • The B Grade: Gene, who is generally a straight-A student, is not happy that he got a B in one class the previous semester. This is one of the things that makes him start to be irritated with Finny, as he believes he got a B because Finny was constantly distracting him.
  • 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, depressed, 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.
  • Brutal Honesty: Near the end of the book, when Gene tells Finny his innate friendliness towards anyone and everyone would have made him useless in the war.
  • 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.
  • Carpe Diem: This seems to be Finny's philosophy, as his main priority is enjoying his life and stirring things up.
  • Cast Full of Rich People: Devon is an upper-class New England boarding school, so this is heavily implied. It's pretty much outright stated that Finny, Leper, and Brinker are well-off, though it's slightly more ambiguous regarding Gene. There is not necessarily anything suggesting he's any less wealthy than the other students, but he does reveal that he initially lied to other students that his family owned an enormous plantation.
  • 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 are a couple of females mentioned in passing, but none actually have relevant roles in the story.
  • Cigarette of Anxiety: Though Gene doesn't mention smoking that much in his narration, Finny insists that he "smokes like a forest fire." It's also implied throughout the book that Gene is a Nervous Wreck.
  • 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. Some people believe that bone marrow getting to his heart during surgery and stopping it is an odd, abrupt explanation that does not fit with the book's general atmosphere. Thus, the theory is occasionally posed that this is symbolic: Finny actually died from anguish after realizing Gene's betrayal, since a figure such as him couldn't accept anything that penetrated his naive interpretation of the world.
  • Death by Newbery 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.
  • Dramatic Irony: Late in the book, Finny declares Gene to be the only person he trusts. By this point, most readers are very aware Gene is a liar.
  • Early Installment Weirdness: The book and its prototype version, a short story called "Phineas," have quite a few notable differences:
    • The incident with the tree isn't nearly as ambiguous, and Gene as much as says multiple times that he knocked Finny out of it on purpose.
    • Gene's overall characterization is surprisingly different. In the book it's understood his actions come from extreme insecurity, repression, and emotional confusion regarding whether he envies or admires Finny. In the short story, it's much harder to sympathize with him, as he's a passive-aggressive Jerkass who never really liked Finny in the first place. More closed-minded and traditional, the secret desire to rebel that nags at him in the book is completely absent here. Because Gene's love-hate relationship with Finny lacks the "love" part in the short story, the much-discussed Homoerotic Subtext of their relationship is also absent.
    • Finny's characterization is pretty different too. In the book he comes off as unusually caring and charismatic, whereas in the short story he comes off more clingy and annoying. Upon meeting Gene, Finny pretty much orders him to be his friend, then forces him to listen to a full-blown rant about his beliefs. Seemingly in line with Finny being more irritating in this version, the short story doesn't portray Finny as a Big Man on Campus so much as a strange, wild boy everyone tolerates because they don't know how to handle him.
    • The prose of the short story is itself different from the book. The short story is significantly more straightforward, almost entirely lacking the vivid, detailed imagery of the book.
    • The short story is also a lot more direct about Gene and Finny's views on religion and sex, two topics the book pretty much never discusses. Finny says he is spiritual but not religious, believing you have to discover God for yourself. Finny then says he thinks sex is more important than God, and proceeds to describe—apparently in detail—the three times he's slept with girls. Amusingly, Gene is scandalized by everything Finny says. It's heavily implied here that Gene is religious and sees Finny as a person lacking basic decency.
    • In the short story, the names of Leper and Bobby Zane are switched.
  • Easily Forgiven: It takes Finny one night to forgive Gene for causing him to fall out of a tree, crippling him and ruining his dream of being an Olympic athlete forever. However, it's possible this is darkly justified: Finny may be so desperate for Gene to return his affection and devotion that he's willing to forgive him for anything.
  • Et Tu, Brute?: The only thing that successfully breaks down Finny's positive, idealistic attitude is when Gene, his best friend, betrays him by causing him to fall from a tree. This cripples him and prevents him from pursuing his dream of being an Olympic athlete for the rest of his life. It's worth mentioning that the ever-cheerful Finny actually cries in response to this as well.
  • Everybody Smokes: Implied, as Devon has an entire room for students to go to smoke (the Butt Room), although it is mentioned by Gene that this room is made as dreary as possible by the staff in order to discourage smoking. The only student who doesn't seem to smoke at all is Finny.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: Gene isn't evil, but part of what makes him begin to resent (and envy) Finny is his inability to replicate the sincerity with which Finny helps and loves others.
  • The Evils of Free Will: The headmaster of Devon, Mr. Ludsbury, appears to believe that the best way for students to learn is to conform in each and every way possible, as their elders clearly know better than them.
  • Extracurricular Enthusiast: Brinker, until he turns to disillusioned rebellion and quits every single extracurricular activity he's a part of.
  • 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).
  • The Film of the Book: Two, neither of which are generally regarded as having done the book justice. The 1972 movie is usually declared mediocre. The 2004 movie is usually declared even worse.
  • Foreshadowing: Gene's description of Devon, particularly his emphasis of how hard a set of marble stairs are.
  • For Happiness: Finny loves everyone and believes the world to be a fundamentally friendly place, so this is why he does most things. Or so we think.
  • The '40s: The book is set in the early 1940s. It revolves around the lives of boarding school boys who are about to be drafted for World War II.
  • Four-Philosophy Ensemble: Brinker (Cynic), Finny (Optimist), Gene (Realist), and Leper (Conflicted). Note that Brinker becomes increasingly cynical as the book goes on, and Gene is only the Realist by the very end of the book (as before this point he was the Cynic).
  • Four-Temperament Ensemble: Finny (Sanguine), Brinker (Choleric), Gene (Melancholic), and Leper (Phlegmatic). Leper stops fitting his role after going crazy.
  • 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."
  • The Ghost:
    • Gene's (presumably older) brother, who gave him an army fatigue shirt he wears at one point during the story.
    • Finny's (presumably younger) sister may also be an example, assuming she actually exists. She's only ever mentioned when Gene jokes to a group of boys about doing increasingly outrageous things to ruin Finny's life, including sleep with his sister.
  • Glory Days: Brinker's father served in World War I and, according to Brinker, lives his entire life bragging about what he almost did. Because he has never moved on and looks back on these memories with a Nostalgia Filter, his expectations of Brinker (who will need to serve in World War II) are unrealistic.
  • Gratuitous French: Adult Gene uses the expression plus c'est la même chose, plus ça change to describe returning to Devon. It means "the more things stay the same, the more they change."
  • 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.
  • Heroic BSoD: Gene has one after Finny breaks his leg for the second time, laughing hysterically at things that really aren't that funny and then breaking into tears, wandering around aimlessly for hours, saying he feels like a ghost and like everything is alive except for him, and finally, deciding to sleep on the bleachers outside rather than going back to his room.
  • 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.
  • Holding Hands: Finny proposes that he and Gene hold hands while they jump off the tree as a display of their friendship. Unfortunately, Gene decides to knock Finny out of the tree and cripple him (?) instead.
  • Hollywood New England: The book takes place in a New Hampshire boarding school filled with snobbish, intellectual teachers and upper-class students. Presumably, many of these students also live in New England, though it is only specified that Finny is from Boston and Leper is from Vermont. This trope may seem especially present because the descriptions of New England come from the narrator, Gene, who is from the South.
  • 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 and Finny's friendship, which is unusually intimate and dangerously codependent.
  • 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 Just Want to Be You!: Part of Gene's very complicated feelings about Finny, who is more athletic, popular, and confident than him.
    I lost part of myself to him then, and a soaring sense of freedom revealed that this must have been my purpose from the first: to become a part of Phineas.
  • 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.
  • 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 do nothing noteworthy.
  • 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.
    • Gene views Leper as a friend, albeit not a very close one—and that's not even going into how Gene repeatedly mentions he has to actively resist the urge to make fun of Leper the way the other boys do. Leper, on the other hand, apparently views Gene as his best friend. However, it's important to note that it's heavily implied Leper knows he's not really Gene's best friend, and he may in fact be extremely jealous of Finny, Gene's actual best friend.
  • 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 (explicitly stated) role in the book is that of best friends.
  • Odd Couple: The relationship between studious, rule-abiding, anxious Gene and athletic, rebellious, free-spirited Finny is the center of the book. One would expect them to fight all the time over their differing beliefs and attitudes toward life, but Opposites Attract, and they're best friends. As it turns out, when things do go bad in their friendship, it has less to do with Gene getting annoyed with their differences than Gene wanting to be like Finny.
  • 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.
  • OOC Is Serious Business:
    • Leper is a friendly, unassuming Nature Lover who is nice to everyone despite being teased relentlessly. Naturally, his spiteful, volatile behavior after deserting the army has a devastating effect on Gene, Finny, and Brinker. In fact, being confronted with proof of Leper's emotional damage is one of the main things that forces them to process the reality of the war.
    • For most of the book, Finny is the living embodiment of positivity and charisma—which is why his panicked, resentful Precision F-Strike at the "trial" is so shocking, bringing the reality of how much he is suffering to the surface for the first time. Finny also cries twice near the end of the book, which has a profound effect on Gene.
  • Pink Is for Sissies: When Finny wears a pink shirt, Gene is scandalized and accuses him of looking like a fairy.
  • 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.
  • Popular Is Dumb: Played straight with Finny, who is a Book Dumb Lovable Jock. Averted with Brinker, a class leader and politician. Also averted with Gene, who is the valedictorian.
  • Precision F-Strike: When Finny starts getting uncomfortable with the revelations of the "trial," he stands up to leave, and Brinker calls for him to stay since they haven't yet gathered all the facts of the situation. The normally amiable and upbeat Finny then furiously yells at Brinker to "collect every fucking fact there is in the world." (Generally, a few letters are censored.) 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 with pride, declaring it his emblem. He doesn't care in the slightest when Gene says he looks like a fairy.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Finny's main means of avoiding punishment from teachers.
  • Riddle for the Ages: Regarding Gene and Finny, we know absolutely nothing about their family lives or anything they did before attending the Devon School. Strangely enough, we do get some vague details about the family lives of Brinker and Leper, who are not nearly as important to the story as Gene and Finny.
  • The Roaring '20s: Finny actually refers to the 1920s as this word for word.
    Finny: Listen, did you ever hear of the 'Roaring Twenties'? When they all drank bathtub gin and everybody who was young did just what they wanted?
  • 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 knocks 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 forced to accept it at the end of the book.
  • Self-Deprecation: All of Gene's narration is laced with it, highlighting his severe insecurity.
  • Sensitive Guy and Manly Man: Zigzagged. In the beginning, it seems like Gene is the sensitive guy to Finny's manly man, and it's clear that Gene sees it this way as well. Whereas Gene is a moody, introspective Broken Ace, Finny is a charismatic, Book Dumb sports prodigy. However, as it becomes increasingly apparent that Finny is a Wide-Eyed Idealist and Stepford Smiler, Gene's dark, aggressive stoicism rings truer to traditional masculinity.
  • Skipping School: Early in the book, Finny and Gene cut class for a day to head to the beach.
  • Sliding Scale of Plot Versus Characters: Pretty far on the character side. The "plot" is more a sequence of events driven by Gene and Finny's dysfunctional relationship and conflicting views of the world.
  • 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.
  • Title Drop:
    It wasn’t the cider which made me surpass myself, it was this liberation we had torn from the gray encroachments of 1943, the escape we had concocted, this afternoon of momentary, illusory, special and separate peace.
  • 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, he doesn't immediately angst over whether this means he's a horrible person—he explains his inability to cry as a manifestation of his feeling that Finny's funeral is also his own. 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.
  • When I Was Your Age...: An exceptionally ignorant example. Brinker's father says the boys being drafted into the military for World War II should be grateful that there are more "fun" wartime positions for them to fill than when he was younger, even suggesting they should be trying to get themselves into the more dangerous positions as opposed to playing it safe.
  • 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.