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Fifteen years after graduation, Gene Forrester, the narrator of A Separate Peace, returns to his old high school in New Hampshire, pursuing the roots of a memory that has left an indelible mark. As Gene walks around the deserted campus of the Devon School, we realize that something tragic and terrible happened there. When he comes to rest at the foot of a huge tree overhanging a riverbank on the edge of campus and pauses to reflect, our story begins in a flashback to the summer between Gene's junior and senior years.
We quickly meet the main character of the story and its hero, Gene's best friend, Phineas (called "Finny"). Finny is a boy who stands out from the crowd. He's brave to the point of foolhardiness, outspoken, athletic, bright, funny-yet, in his own quirky way, Finny is an enigma. He challenges the other boys to make a leap from the fateful tree on the riverbank into cold waters. This challenge, repeated throughout the book, ultimately proves to be Finny's undoing.
We follow Finny and Gene through their daily summertime routines: tea at the headmaster's cottage, frolicking on the playing fields, and more and more tree-jumping. One day Finny saves Gene's life when he's on the verge of toppling from the branch. It seems as if Finny always has to be in control, even to the point where he invents bizarre games with no rules except those he makes up as he goes along; the other boys are drawn into "blitzball," as Finny calls one such competition, because they cannot resist falling under his spell. He frees them from the cares and worries of school life.
But the boys cannot remain immune to the threat of war and the possibility of enlistment that hangs over their heads. Finny is the only holdout; he insists the war does not exist.
The friendship of Gene-shy, retiring, and modest-and Finny-outgoing, brazen, brilliant-becomes the central theme of the book. The turning point arrives when the two boys take an impromptu excursion to the beach and Gene is late for a math test, which he fails. Gene is soon convinced that Finny, far from wanting to look out for his best interests, in fact wants Gene to fall behind in his studies so that Finny will be number one in everything. Gene manages to drive himself into a frenzy over what he views as Finny's traitorous nature.
One evening, in the midst of studying for a French exam, Gene is again distracted by Finny into a jumping session by the river. This time he follows with sinister intent. The two boys mount the tree, inch out on the limb, and then, suddenly, Gene "jounces the branch" and Finny tumbles backward onto the riverbank, breaking his leg. The whole course of the story changes after this pivotal incident.
Sports-Finny's pride and joy-are now a thing of the past for him. His life appears to be ruined. Gene is numbed, not quite certain any more of his own nature and motivations. Ironically, without Finny he's adrift and lost and seems to have no reason for being. Gene makes a few feeble attempts to confess to his act in hopes Finny will forgive him, but his friend-like a true friend-cannot accept the apology. Confusion reigns.
Back at school in the fall term, with Finny absent, the other boys, who had once been overshadowed by him, move into the foreground: "Leper" Lepellier, the eccentric, withdrawn fellow who loves to ski and to go off by himself into the hills in search of beavers; Brinker Hadley, the class politician and Gene's rival for Finny's affections; and Quackenbush, the manager of the crew team, who gives Gene a hard time at the slightest provocation. Gene now has to struggle with the legacy of Finny's accident and the suspicion of the other students about how it was caused. It is a time of growth for Gene as he fights their antagonism.
Winter comes, and with it the encroaching shadow of war. The boys are called out to help shovel free a troop train trapped by snow-blocked tracks. The experience "brings the war home" for all of them, and they realize they'll have to face a crucial decision very soon. Maturity leaps upon them, whether they're ready for it or not, at the tender age of seventeen.
Gene resolves that he has nothing more to offer his present surroundings, that his life hasn't come to much, and that the army might be just the place for him at such a despondent time in his life. He resolves to enlist the next day and get it over with. Then Finny's return to campus, his leg in a cast, changes all that in a flash.
With the reunion of the two boys, the story takes a positive turn. Gene's peace of mind is rekindled at the sight of Finny, and he begins to serve as Finny's guide and helper around the school. And Finny dedicates himself seriously and intensely to getting Gene into shape for the 1944 Olympics. A Separate Peace now becomes as much a novel that is for human achievement and against war as it is a novel about the complexity of friendship.
Leper Lepellier is the first to enlist, and he doesn't last long. The Devon Winter Carnival-a devilish, crazy, free-for-all outdoor event invented by Finny to relieve the midwinter doldrums-is interrupted by a desperate telegram from Leper, summoning Gene to his home in Vermont. There Gene discovers a seriously disturbed Leper, his spirit broken by a few weeks in basic training. Gene retreats, fearful-if this is what war is all about-for his own fate and the future of his pals.
Just as the stress of war has proved to be too much for Leper, it has had a souring effect on Brinker. Perhaps out of his own sense of powerlessness over not being able to follow through on his noble intention to enlist, Brinker turns on Gene and threatens him with his determination to find out what "really happened" the day Finny fell from the tree. Gene's friendship with Finny is a sanctuary Brinker would like to enter, but it just isn't that easy.
Brinker and his friends resort to coercion. One night in the late spring of senior year, just when Finny and Gene have healed their wounds and established that special "separate peace" between them, the two are spirited away to the First Building for a mock trial spearheaded by Brinker. His vengefulness knows no bounds, though it is disguised as the pursuit of truth. The two boys are cross-examined until late into the night. It turns out that Leper, who witnessed the accident, has crept back to campus. Summoned to the trial, he testifies that Gene shook the tree limb. Finny, crazed with confusion and sadness, leaps up, bounds out the door, and falls down a flight of marble stairs, breaking his leg again.
After a long night and day of agony, Gene and Finny have their final, brief moment together and reach an understanding. "Something blind" made Gene cause the fall, but that no longer seems to matter to Finny. He believes his friend is truly his friend. That's the most important thing.
Finny dies during the operation to reset his leg.
Senior year draws to a close. Through Finny's death, Gene comes to possess a far deeper view of war and mankind's fate. He understands something about the more pervasive fallibility of human beings far, far beyond the intimate confines of the Devon School. Gene has changed.
We had admired Finny all along; now, in the closing pages of the story, with the army setting up a training base at the school and the noises of war in the air, we admire Gene for coming to terms with Finny's greatest gift: he had no enemies; therefore he had no defenses. To be his friend was to know friendship at its purest. To be his friend was to enjoy a truly "separate peace" unlike any other in the world.