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PLOT STRUCTURE ANALYSIS
A Separate Peace is a novel involving an adolescent's attempt to understand his world and himself. The novel begins with Gene Forrester returning to Devon School, where he was a student some fifteen years earlier. He recollects his experiences there during the summer session, when he was sixteen years old and a world war was raging. The entire novel is told as a flashback from Gene's first person point of view.
Although the novel is a flashback, the plot is developed along traditional lines. The first two chapters are largely introductory, presenting the characters and setting. The rising action begins when Gene is seen trying to follow in Finny's footsteps. Even though he is scared to death, Gene jumps from the tree into the river with Finny and then joins his Suicide Society. He also tries to compete in sports, rides three miles with Finny to the beach, cuts classes, and is involved in other antics suggested by Finny. Gene, however, never feels as successful as his roommate and grows very jealous of him. His jealousy finally leads him to cause Finny's fall from the tree. When Finny is crippled by the accident, Gene is engulfed in guilt and shame. He tries to ignore and even justify his behavior, but to no avail.
He then tries to tell Finny the truth of the accident in order to rid himself of the guilt, but Finny will not listen. In the end, it is the student trial, organized by Brinker, which forces the climax of the plot. Both Finny and Gene are forced to come to grips with the truth. Finny runs from it and falls down the steps. Gene is released from his shame by the truth. Unfortunately, the falling action is very tragic. Finny re-breaks his bad leg and grows bitter. He verbally and physically attacks Gene when he comes to see him in the infirmary. Ironically, Gene feels relief that the conflict is out in the open rather than buried within him. The conflict cannot be fully resolved, however, because Finny, seeing no reason to go on living, dies during the minor surgery required to set his leg. Gene is left to pick up the pieces of his life. The conclusion shows his joining the Navy, staying aloof from the emotions of the war, and returning to Devon to come to grips with his past.
The novel is really structured around two wars. The first is the internal battle that rages in Gene's mind, both before and after he causes Finny's accident. Because he was tremendously jealous of his roommate, he intentionally bounces him out of a tree, causing him to fall and become crippled. Gene's jealousy then turns to guilt and shame over what he has done to Finny. As a background to this internal struggle, a world war rages in Europe. All of the students, including Gene, are very concerned about it and its affects on them. As the novel progresses, students begin to leave Devon in order to join the military and fight in the war. Leper is the first to leave; by the end of the novel, Gene himself has enlisted in the Navy.
Of the three major unifiers of time, place, and character, the novels violates the first two. Although most of the action is set on or near the campus of Devon, there are several other locations, including the beach, Leper's home in Vermont, and Finny's home in Boston. Also the novel really spans fifteen years. Even though most of the novel occurs in less than a year, from the summer session through the winter session at Devon, it really encompasses fifteen years, for a picture is given of Gene Forrester both as an adult and as a student.
The novel is largely unified by character. Gene tells the whole story, and his center of concentration is on Finny. As he tells about what happens to Finny during his stay at Devon, he really is telling about himself, for he reveals his thoughts and feelings about every event. In the process, he shows his jealousy, his guilt, and his shame. He also reveals that his experiences with Finny have continued to haunt him into his adult life. As a result, he has come back to Devon after fifteen years to face and deal with his fears about the First Building and the tree by the river.
A Separate Peace is really a coming of age novel. During the course of telling Finny's story, Gene, serving as the narrator, shows how he changes and matures as a person. He also develops two clear Themes: the pain caused by jealousy and the destructive nature of guilt and shame.