What Is the Synopsis of "A Separate Peace" by John Knowles?

by David Harris

"A Separate Peace," a 1959 novel written by John Knowles, is the author's first and best-known work. He took its title from a scene in the Ernest Hemingway novel. "A Farewell to Arms." Knowles was unable to find an American publisher for his novel at first but it is now considered an important work in 20th century literature.

Two Boys

The book opens at the Devon School in New Hampshire in 1942. The quiet Gene Forrester becomes friends with his roommate, the athletic Finny, a charismatic but mischievous boy. They form a secret society, cemented around a ritual of jumping from a tree into a river. But Gene soon believes that Finny is resentful of his intelligence and imagines a rivalry exists between the two boys, one that does not exist. However, when Finny goes to jump from the tree, Gene shakes the branch and Finny falls, breaking his leg and ending his athletic days.


On his way home to the South in the summer, Gene stops by Finny's house to confess he shook the branch on purpose, but Finny refuses to believe him. When the boys return to Devon, World War II is in full swing. Gene toys with the notion of enlisting to fight in the war, but Finny talks him out of it, claiming the war is a conspiracy to keep young men from taking over the power from older men.


Finny tells Gene he wanted to appear in the 1944 Olympics and asks his friend to train in his stead. But Gene receives word that one of his classmates who enlisted in the war has gone insane. Gene goes to visit the boy, who claims he was there the night of the accident and he knows that Gene injured Finny on purpose. When Gene returns to Devon, a tribunal is waiting for him to resolve the matter once and for all.


"A Separate Peace" is considered a coming-of-age story where Gene moves from adolescence to adulthood through a series of internal and external conflicts. Gene learns about the nature of life from his relationships with his friends, as well as the external pressure of the war. Some also look at the story as an allegory with the Finny character taking Christ's role and Gene acting as Judas. The story is told by Gene in an extended flashback, so his adult perceptions are part of the story.

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