Justification for Teaching

A Separate Peace is a profound coming-of-age novel set in the time of World War II. The book shows students the ups and downs of friendship, transformations within oneself caused by friendship, as well as the depths of guilt. The relationships within the novel exhibit the struggle between being codependent on others or creating one’s own identity.

The novel also explores different ways of telling a story, as well as the credibility of a person’s memory as they look back on past events. Students will question the narrator’s trustworthiness and brainstorm ideas about the importance of the narrator’s point of view. Students can find and interpret the many different symbols in the novel as well, including Finny’s fall and the different seasons.

A Separate Peace gives the classroom a harsh depiction of the real world and the intense effects of war on everyday life. Discussions of everyday guilt as well as the difficult realities of wartime are made easier with the novel as a basis and backdrop. Although the story of Gene and Finny may be boring or uneventful to some, it will challenge the skills of students and help shape them into better, more informed readers.


An older, reflective Gene Forrester visits his old prep school, Devon, a school based on Knowles’s real-life prep school of Phillip Exeter Academy. Gene wishes to visit the flight of marble stairs and the tree, two sources of bad memories.

The novel moves on to a flashback of Gene and his roommate Finny’s past, with a backdrop of World War II hanging over the story. Throughout the narrating of their past, readers watch the differences between the two characters unfold, events unravel, and friendships change.

Key Literary Elements & Techniques

  • Symbolism
  • Narrative Perspective
  • Internal Conflict
  • Foreshadowing
  • Foil Characters
  • Allegory
  • Imagery
  • Flashback

Themes and Motifs

  • Identity — Gene and Finny spend the duration of A Separate Peace trying to come to terms with who they're growing up to be. This is, of course, one of the defining characteristics of a Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story.
  • Conflict: Man vs. Self — Though the story is set during World War II, the primary conflicts are internal.
  • Contrast and Change — Finny and Gene are good friends in spite of their contrasting personalities. Much of the novel deals with Gene's attempts to change his personality and become a better person — something he may not have done without Gene's example.

Related Works

Themes of Identity

The Giver, by Lois Lowry

Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

Themes of the conflict between Man and Self 

Hamlet, by William Shakespeare

Divergent, by Veronica Roth

1984, by George Orwell

Themes of Contrast and Change

Metamorphoses, by Ovid

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson

Key Facts

  • Recommended Grade Band: 8 – 11
  • Publication Date: 1959
  • Length: 236 pages
  • Lexile Measure: 1110L


  • New York Times Bestseller
  • William Faulkner Foundation Award
  • Rosenthal Family Foundation Award


Two movies have been made using A Separate Peace as the source material:

  • A version released in theaters in 1972 (PG)
  • A made-for-TV version released in 2004 (R)

Of the two, the version released in 1972 hews more closely to Knowles's novel.​

Your Students will love:

  • Gene and Finny’s friendship and teenage angst, both of which are comparable to what students are experiencing in and out of school
  • The many different personalities of the characters

Students may have problems with:

  • Long, musing descriptions from a very reflective narrator. A lack of direct action and primarily internal conflicts make some readers think that the book is a bore
  • Some students may find the privileged, white characters at a prestigious private school difficult to relate to

Available from Prestwick House

We carry the novel itself as well as teaching guides full of questions and activities. See a list here.

Other Prestwick House Teacher's Guides to Literature

See all our Teacher's Guides to Literature here.

A Separate Peace