Written by John Knowles, A Separate Peace is a profound coming-of-age novel that deals with themes of identity, envy, and change. Based loosely on Knowles’s experiences at Phillips Exeter Academy, a prestigious boarding school, the book follows the improbable friendship between two teenagers growing up in the early 1940s. Although the nuanced story of Gene and Finny may seem boring or uneventful to some, it will challenge the critical thinking skills of students and help shape them into better, more informed readers.

While Gene and Finny are best friends, they are very different. The diligent, introspective Gene has a penchant for academics and authority. On the other hand, the outgoing and athletically inclined Finny always seems to get away with breaking the school’s rules. Because of their opposing natures, Gene and Finny act as foil characters throughout the story. As they read, students should note the ways in which Knowles uses contrasting descriptions to build upon each character.

A Separate Peace also explores the concept of narrator credibility. As the story is strictly told in flashback from Gene’s perspective, students should question the narrator’s trustworthiness. Can readers rely on Gene’s memory as he looks back on past events? Consider holding a class discussion on how moments in the story might change if told from other characters’ points of view.

And now, let us go back to the Devon School; learn more about teaching A Separate Peace below.

Summary of A Separate Peace

Key Facts

  • Publication Date: 1959
  • Length: 236 pages
  • Lexile Measure: 1110L
  • Recommended Grade Band: 9-11

An older, reflective Gene Forrester returns to his old prep school, Devon. Gene wishes to visit the school’s flight of marble stairs and a certain tree by the Devon river, two sources of bad memories.

The novel moves on to an extended flashback of Gene and his roommate Finny. Over the school’s summer session, Finny decides to create a “secret society” in which members must jump from a tree into the river to prove their loyalty. Finny and Gene attempt to jump at the same time, but Gene jounces the tree limb, causing Finny to fall and break his leg.

Their classmates hold a mock trial in which they accuse Gene of purposefully trying to hurt Finny. Angered by the idea, Finny leaves the room but falls down the marble stairs, breaking his leg again. Gene later visits Finny to express his guilt, and the two make amends. However, Finny dies from complications stemming from his injuries.

What Your Students Will Love About A Separate Peace

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

Potential Student Struggles With A Separate Peace

  • Reading long, musing descriptions from a very reflective narrator
  • Relating to the privileged characters at a prestigious private school

Learning Objectives for A Separate Peace

  • Explain how the story’s first-person perspective and use of flashbacks affect the narrator’s credibility.
  • Evaluate the characters of Finny and Gene as foils to one another.
  • Analyze the qualities that make Gene a dynamic character.
  • Determine how the novel’s historical World War II setting influences the overall plot.

Literary Elements in A Separate Peace

  • Allegory
  • Conflict
  • Dynamic Characters
  • Flashback
  • Foil Characters
  • Foreshadowing
  • Imagery
  • Narrative Perspective
  • Symbolism
  • And more!

Major Themes in A Separate Peace

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 one of the defining characteristics of a Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age story.

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Envy — Gene’s primary conflict stems from his mixed feelings of admiration and resentment towards Finny. From his perspective, Gene sees Finny as the ideal—and seemingly unattainable—version of himself.

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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 Finny’s example.

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Other Resources for A Separate Peace

Order A Separate Peace Resources from Prestwick House

Resource Format
A Separate Peace Paperback Student Edition
A Separate Peace Teaching Unit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
A Separate Peace AP Teaching Unit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
A Separate Peace Activity Pack Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
A Separate Peace Response Journal Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
A Separate Peace Multiple Critical Perspectives Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
A Separate Peace Complete Teacher's Kit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set

This free guide was originally posted in July 2015. It has been updated as of December 2019.