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The setting of a novel is, quite simply, where and when the story takes place. Another way of describing it is "spirit of place," the atmosphere generated by descriptions of the environment and the characters' relationship to it. In Devon School, John Knowles has created a setting rich in evocative detail. The school figures almost as if it were another personage in the story, coming to life when Gene encounters it, existing while he's there, "blinking out like a candle" when he leaves.
By sketching the school's boundaries right away, Knowles presents it to us as a confining, even womb-like place, and everything that occurs within the school takes on a clear focus. You'll note that except for a few brief forays outside the school-Gene's trip home for vacation, his visits to Finny convalescing and to Leper after he has escaped from the army-the entire story unfolds within it. The school is a microcosm, a miniature world in and of itself. Perhaps your school is like that, with its intrigues, sets of friends, classes that stick together, members of clubs and teams, the senior lounge off limits to everyone else, the faculty lounge (where you may wonder what conversations go on).
In any school, such protectiveness can be a dangerous insulation from the world outside. Have you ever heard someone say that "real" learning doesn't take place in the classroom but rather in the day-to-day setting of natural events? Whether you agree with this statement or not (it is often made by people who have been out of school for a few years), there can be no doubt that the Devon School is a rarefied place, one where a small number of boys (no girls) with privileged backgrounds are sent to cultivate their characters as gentlemen. You'll have to decide how well their years at Devon prepare them for the subsequent tests of manhood.
Flip through the pages of A Separate Peace after you've read it a couple of times, and you'll discover the multiple moods of the Devon School, conditioned by seasons and the weather. In gray mist, shrouded and still, there's a somber feeling to the story. On golden summer days, when the boys are carefree, the fields welcome them and the story takes on a lighter tone-so that Finny's accident is thrown into violent relief. In the fall, when all the boys return to school, there's a crispness in the air-we all know it-in the waning days of summer, an inevitability you can't avoid, signaling the need to return to work. There's a quickening in your step and a bit of fear about what the new year will bring. As winter descends on Devon, so does boredom; more time must be spent indoors over books, and you wait with hope for the first signs of spring and release. A Separate Peace centers on the effects of these seasonal changes in the Devon School setting, and it uses them to demonstrate the place's variety of spirit.
Its exposure to the elements in an isolated area of New England that has great natural beauty makes Devon appear at times like a prison of sorts, one where the boys' "freedom" to come and go as they please is a grand illusion. Class follows class. Chapel leads into first period. Dinner is at a set time, and if you're not there, you'll be penalized. Lights go out at a set time, and if it's rumored that you were playing cards or talking afterward, a master may reprimand you. This general atmosphere of enforced routine lends a tinge of fear and tension to the story, and this is just as much a part of the setting as any physical characteristic of the school buildings or playing fields.
At the end of the book, we realize how familiar the place has become in our mind's eye: just enough to give the story a grounding, not enough to distract from the characters' movements and motivations.