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Have you ever in your life gone through an experience so intense, so joyful, so painful, or just so important at the time, that you could only understand much later what truly happened? Isn't it a fact that when we're in the middle of an experience, we are often unable to think clearly about it because we're too busy feeling the moment's thrill or sadness to stop and come to sensible conclusions?
Our high school years are just such a time: of quick growth and self-discovery, of forging as well as breaking friendships, of proving ourselves to others, in the classroom and on the sports field, and a time when we want very much to be individuals and to stick to our own principles. Meanwhile, we're also getting used to being told what to do and what to learn.
The hunger to understand a significant period 15 years earlier in his life brings Gene Forrester, the narrator of A Separate Peace, back to his old high school in New Hampshire, the Devon School, on a wet and cold November day.
We meet Gene as he approaches the school through the streets of the surrounding town. He is struggling to conquer his fear at returning to the old place, trying to let enthusiasm carry him along: "I felt fear's echo, and along with that I felt the unhinged, uncontrollable joy which had been its accompaniment and opposite face, joy which had broken out sometimes in those days like Northern Lights across black sky." We already know that something significant and life-changing must have happened to him a long time ago. He prepares us by building up an atmosphere of suspense as he nears the school that is familiar to him in appearance but also different-because he himself has changed, grown older and wiser.
Gene wants us to notice first "a long white marble flight of stairs" inside the First Academy Building. The stairs are hard and forbidding. He turns away quickly. We'll have to let the story unfold quite a bit before we find out what took place there fifteen years earlier.
NOTE: As Gene walks on, toward his second destination on campus, he remarks about the "scholarly and athletic" nature of the school. Aren't most high schools divided like this, whether they're public, private, or parochial, located in cities or in rural areas? Our minds are tested in the classroom, our bodies in the gym. And our friends often judge us on the basis of how well we do in one area or another. This double nature is a constant theme throughout the story, and we want to take note of it here, at the beginning.
Farther and farther beyond the confines of the immediate campus, Gene trudges through a fog and dampness that add to the sad and nostalgic mood he establishes.
Finally his quest is over. He finds a special tree, one long branch extending over the river, "not only stripped by the cold season, it seemed weary from age, enfeebled, dry."
"Nothing endures," he tells us, "not a tree, not love, not even a death by violence."
Did someone die at Devon 15 years ago? Is that the reason for Gene's solitary, melancholy quest on this damp November day? Preoccupied with his mission, he has failed to notice until this moment how soaked through he is, and now he decides to turn back.
A little break in the text-a larger space between the paragraphs-alerts us to the flashback. If we were watching a movie, we'd see Gene as a young man in his early 30s standing by the riverbank, wearing a raincoat and a broad-brimmed hat, looking up at this special tree with a wistful and knowing smile on his face. Perhaps he'd nod slowly in understanding. Then there'd be a slow fadeout and fade-in, and now we'd be seeing Gene as a boy of 16, standing on the same spot, looking up at the same special tree-only now he is accompanied by several pals.
The story moves back in time. It is now the summer of 1942. We are about to get some clues to the mystery of the tree at Devon and what happened there.
With Gene by the tree is his roommate and best friend, Phineas. As we come to know Gene better, we'll discover he's a shy, introspective boy, the kind who doesn't have a very high opinion of himself. Phineas is just the opposite. We are told right away that his voice is "the equivalent in sound of a hypnotist's eyes," that his green eyes have "a maniac look," that his wide mouth is often twisted into a "smirk."
NOTE: Friendships can come about just as often between people who don't seem to have anything in common as between people who seem to enjoy and care about many of the same things. The comradeship of Gene and Phineas, or Finny, is based on opposites. Keep this in mind as you watch their relationship grow.
Finny challenges Gene and the other three boys, Elwin Lepellier ("Leper"), Chet Douglass, and Bobby Zane, to climb the tree, step out onto the overhanging limb, and leap into the river. Senior class boys do this all the time; Finny wants to break tradition by doing it a few months early.
He jumps, and we discover his daring, his need to create tests for himself and others to rise to meet. Finny is Gene's hero, and he quickly becomes ours. He's cut from different cloth than the rest of us; in a way, he's superhuman.
Gene follows Finny's lead, plunging frightened into the cold waters, as he will do time and again as the story progresses. Why does he act against his true nature in this way? Because he wants so much to please Finny? Because Finny has "some kind of hold" over him? Because Finny "shamed" him into it? The other boys make excuses and back off. Their not jumping, their not taking risks or breaking rules, draws Finny and Gene even closer together.
As the boys head toward the dormitories on that warm summer evening in wartime (the war itself has not yet touched their lives), Gene and Finny become involved in their own personal combat. When Finny trips Gene, he shows he has to keep the upper hand until Gene in turn trips Finny-then Finny is "definitely pleased." They thrive on competition that lies always beneath the surface, where it must be in any deep friendship.