A Separate Peace

A Separate Peace is a coming-of-age novel by John Knowles, published in 1959. Based on his earlier short story "Phineas", published in the May 1956 issue of Cosmopolitan, it was Knowles's first published novel and became his best-known work. Set against the backdrop of World War II, A Separate Peace explores morality, patriotism, and loss of innocence through its narrator, Gene.

Plot summary

Gene Forrester returns to his old prep school, Devon 15 years after he graduated, to visit two places he regards as "fearful sites": a flight of marble stairs and a big tree by the river from which he caused his friend, Phineas, to fall. First, he examines the stairs and notices that they are made of marble. He then goes to the tree, which brings back memories of his time as a student at Devon. From this point, the novel follows Gene's description of the time from the summer of 1942 to the summer of 1943. In 1942, he is 16 and living at Devon with his best friend and roommate, Phineas. World War II is taking place and has a prominent effect on the story's plot and characters.
Gene and Finny, despite being opposites in personality, are surprisingly close friends: Gene's quiet, introverted, intellectual personality is a character foil for Finny's extroverted, carefree athleticism. One of Finny's ideas during their "gypsy summer" of 1942 is to create a "Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session", with Gene and himself as charter members. Finny creates a rite of initiation by having members jump into the Devon River from a large, high tree.
Gene and Finny's friendship goes through a period of one-sided rivalry during which Gene strives to out-do Finny academically since he believes Finny is trying to out-do him athletically. This rivalry begins with Gene's jealousy towards Finny. It climaxes when, as Finny and Gene are about to jump off the tree, Gene impulsively jounces the branch they are standing on, causing Finny to fall and shatter his leg, permanently crippling him. Because of his accident, Finny learns that he will never again be able to compete in sports, which are most dear to him. Finny's "accident" inspires Gene to think more like his friend in order to become a better person, free of envy. The remainder of the story revolves around Gene's attempts to come to grips with who he is, why he shook the branch, and how he will proceed. Gene feels so guilty that he eventually tells Finny that he caused the fall. At first, Finny does not believe him and afterward, understandably, feels extremely hurt.
World War II soon occupies the schoolboys' time, with student Brinker Hadley rallying the boys to help the war effort and Gene's quiet friend Leper Lepellier joining the Ski Troops and becoming severely traumatized by what he sees.
During a meeting of the Golden Fleece Debating Society, Brinker sets up a show trial of sorts and, based upon his shaking of the branch, accuses Gene of trying to kill Finny. Faced with the evidence, Finny leaves shamefully before Gene's deed is confirmed. On his way out, a still injured Finny falls down a flight of stairs and again breaks the leg he had shattered before. Finny at first dismisses Gene's attempts to apologize, but he soon realizes that the "accident" was impulsive and not premeditated or anger based. The two forgive each other. The next day, Finny dies during the operation to set the bone when bone marrow enters his bloodstream during the surgery.
After they graduate, Gene and Brinker enlist in the Navy and the Coast Guard. Gene observes that many people lash out at others in order to protect themselves from their own insecurities. The only person he knew who did not do that was Finny, the only person Gene knew who was truly honest, and the only person Gene knew who never had an internal war to fight. Back in the present, an older Gene muses on peace, war, and enemies.


Various parties have asserted that the novel implies homoeroticism between Gene and Finny, including those who endorse a queer reading of the novel, and those who condemn homosexuality as immoral. For example, the book was challenged in the Vernon-Verona-Sherill, NY School District as a "filthy, trashy sex novel" despite having no substantial female characters and describing no sexual activity.
Though frequently taught in U.S. high schools, curricula related to A Separate Peace typically ignore a possible homoerotic reading in favor of engaging with the book as a historical novel or coming-of-age story. Knowles denied any such intentions, stating in a 1987 newspaper interview:
Freud said any strong relationship between two men contains a homoerotic element...If so in this case, both characters are totally unaware of it. It would have changed everything, it wouldn’t have been the same story. In that time and place, my characters would have behaved totally differently....If there had been homoeroticism between Phineas and Gene, I would have put it in the book, I assure you. It simply wasn't there.


The novel has been adapted into two films of the same name: the first, starring Parker Stevenson as Gene and John Heyl as Finny, with a screenplay by Fred Segal and John Knowles, was released in 1972; the second, directed by Peter Yates, with a screenplay by Wendy Kesselman, was released in 2004.

Awards and honors