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SHORT PLOT/CHAPTER SUMMARY (Synopsis)
A Separate Peace is told as a flashback by Gene Forrester. He returns to Devon, a private preparatory school that he had attended during World War II. He visits his old alma mater to specifically visit two spots on and near campus: the First Building and a tree beside the Devon River. His visit triggers a flashback to his experiences during the summer session when he was sixteen years old and an Upper Middler. The flashback is his coming of age story and his attempt to come to grips with his experiences at Devon and the world at large. Throughout the flashback, Gene, serving as the first person narrator, fights a war within himself.
Gene remembers how he and Finny, his best friend and roommate, had gone near a large tree by the river one afternoon. Finny, who was by nature daring and spontaneous, suggested that the two of them jump from the tree. None of the younger boys had ever dared to do this feat before. Although Gene is frightened, he follows his friend's lead; he jumps because he does not want to be ridiculed by Finny. After the jumping incident, Finny organizes the Summer Suicide Society; all of the members of this society must jump from the tree into the river.
Although friends, Gene and Finny are very different. While Gene is a good student, Finny is a good athlete, probably the best at Devon. Where Gene tends to be quiet and studious, Finny has a vibrant, outgoing, and daring personality. Finny is also very clever, always managing to get himself through any situation. It is not surprising that Finny is very well liked by both teachers and student. Gene absolutely idolizes him, considering him a hero; but Gene also is jealous and resentful of him. Gene's grades are suffering because he spends too much time with Finny. He is convinced that Finny is intentionally trying to make him a bad student.
As the novel progresses, Gene's jealousy intensifies. In fact, his internal conflict develops to such a degree that it becomes an insanely destructive power that wants to destroy this "perfect" friend. On one occasion when he is in the tree with Finny, Gene purposely bounces the limb to make his friend fall out of the tree. Finny is seriously injured and must be taken to the hospital. The doctor announces that Finny's leg has been so badly broken that he will be partially crippled. Although he will be able to walk, he will never be able to play sports again.
Gene's jealousy turns to fear and then to guilt. At first he worries that Finny suspects that he has caused the accident and will report that Gene has caused him to fall off the limb. To allay his fear, he goes to talk with Finny and finds that his friend trusts him completely and has no suspicion about what has happened to him. Gene then becomes riddled with guilt. He is relieved when the summer session is over, and he can go home for a break. On his way back to Devon after summer vacation, Gene stops to see the crippled Finny at his home. In order to relieve his conscience, he confesses to his friend that he was responsible for the accident. Finny, however, refuses to believe the confession.
Back at Devon, school life is very different for Gene without Finny around. Brinker, the leader of the class, becomes suspicious about Finny's accident. He playfully accuses Gene of doing away with Finny so that he can have a room all to himself. Gene is very much embarrassed and uncomfortable over the joke. Continually haunted by the memory of the accident, Gene tries to bury himself in his studies. Then Finny shows up again. He is determined to make Gene into a good athlete; they strike an agreement where Gene will coach Finny in his studies, and Finny will coach Gene in sports.
Gene's guilt intensifies as he sees Finny struggling with his crutches and with life. His mood then worsens because of World War II, which is raging across the ocean. Because many of the regular workers at Devon are off fighting in the war, the students have the extra burden of doing manual labor around the campus. Additionally, many students are beginning to leave school to enlist. Gene thinks about the war constantly. Then the war begins to invade the peaceful environs of Devon. Leper, a fellow student who devotes himself to butterflies, birds, and beavers, enlists in the army. Unable to take the pressures of army life and fighting, Leper becomes psychotic. When Gene goes to visit him, he grows fearful that his own personal war will cause his own insanity.
Finny admits that he refuses to think about the war since he cannot participate in it because he is crippled. Gene is a bit envious of Finny, for he has no decision to make about enlisting in the army. He will be able to retain his own separate peace. But then Brinker shatters the peace for both Finny and Gene. Suspecting foul play in Finny's accident, he organizes a student trial to investigate what has really happened. Gene and Finny are led to the assembly room in the First Building. The assembled students begin to question Finny about what happened in the tree. Gene quickly realizes that he is being accused of causing the accident. Finny, finally understanding the truth, leaves the room in a confused state of mind. He falls on the slippery stairs and breaks his crippled leg again.
When Gene goes to visit Finny, he finds that his friend has changed, seeming totally indifferent to life. He then, however, begins to question Gene about why he caused the accident. He asks whether it was an act of blind impulse or of personal hatred. Gene, tongue-tied with guilt, has trouble responding, but tries to convince him he has no personal hatred. Later in the day Finny dies of complications from the new break in the leg. The doctor says that some of the marrow had migrated into his blood stream. Amazingly, Gene does not cry over Finny's death; he knows that he is too numb for tears. He also feels that he has died with Finny, and one does not cry over one's own death.