As the novel opens, Gene Forrester returns to Devon, the New Hampshire boarding school he attended during World War II. Gene has not seen Devon for 15 years, and so he notices the ways in which the school has changed since he was a student there. Strangely, the school seems newer, but perhaps, he thinks, the buildings are just better taken care of now that the war is over.
Gene walks through the campus on a bleak, rainy November afternoon, revisiting the buildings and fields he remembers — and especially two places he recalls as "fearful sites." At the First Academic Building, he enters the foyer to look closely at the white marble steps. Then he trudges across the playing fields to the river in search of a particular tree and finally recognizes it by its long limb over the water and the scars on its trunk. The tree, he thinks, is smaller than he remembers. The chapter section ends with Gene heading back to shelter through the rain.
The second section opens during the summer of 1942 when Gene is 16. He is attending a special Summer Session at Devon, designed to speed up education to prepare the boys for the military draft in their senior year.
Gene stands at the same tree with his best friend and roommate, Phineas (nicknamed Finny), and three other boys, Elwin Lepellier (Leper), Chet Douglass, and Bobby Zane. The tree seems enormous to Gene, but Finny suddenly decides to climb it and jump into the river, just like the Devon 17 year olds, who are training for military service. Finny jumps and dares Gene to follow. Against his better judgment, Gene climbs the tree and also jumps, but the three others refuse. .
The shared danger of jumping brings Finny and Gene closer. While the rest of the boys hurry ahead at the sound of the bell for dinner, the roommates playfully wrestle until they are late for the meal. They slip into the dormitory, where they read their English assignments and play their radio (against school rules), until it is time for bed.
A Separate Peace tells a story of initiation — the account of Gene Forrester's growth from adolescence into adulthood during World War II.
The novel opens with the narrator, Gene, returning to his old prep school Devon. Significantly, he makes his visit alone, not as part of an official homecoming or alumni reunion. The visit is private, his goal personal — to revisit two "fearful sites" from his youth. In encountering the past, Gene hopes to understand the crucial events that shaped his adulthood, in order to face them and finally move beyond them.
Gene's recognition of the changes in Devon shows the ways he himself has changed. The beauty of the campus still impresses him, even in a cold rain, but the school itself seems like "a museum," a place to observe rather than to inhabit. Gene has grown beyond his school and is no longer a part of it; yet the school and his memories of what happened here continue to shape him in ways he feels compelled to explore and finally to understand.
The two "fearful sites" Gene visits — a marble staircase inside the First Academic Building and a tree by the river — sharply contrast with each other. The tree, gnarled and old, represents an integral part of nature, simplicity itself, while the marble staircase, beautifully formed and decorated, expresses a highly polished culture. The two sites seem to show the double nature of Devon — natural landscape and rich interiors.
The narration makes clear that the tree and the stairs hold great, even terrifying significance for Gene, but the chapter gives no indication of what might have happened here. Gene's past, the narrator hints, somehow unites these two very different places. The intriguing combination sparks curiosity about the story that will unfold in the novel.
Gene contemplates the "hardness" of the marble stairway in the First Academic Building and then takes an intent walk toward the tree through the rain and fog — a trek that ruins a pair of expensive shoes in the mud. This sacrifice emphasizes the importance of his visit, just as his determined push to the river represents a journey into the past, the mud symbolizing the messy, unresolved events from long ago that stick to him, and even threaten to pull him down.
But when Gene arrives at the second "fearful site" — the tree — he finds that it has lost at least some of its power for him. The tree, like Devon, has changed because Gene has changed. The tree seems smaller than he remembers, much less isolated and imposing, because he has grown in height, and the tree has also been shriveled by age. Relieved, changed, Gene leaves the tree, his revisiting accomplished, his fears put finally to rest.
But while the adult Gene makes peace with himself in the present, the tree itself pivots the story back into the past. Like a cinematic effect, the image of the adult Gene dissolves as the young Gene emerges, an indication that the novel will not be an adult's retelling of past events, but a reliving of the experience through the young boy's eyes.
The fateful tree looms large in the past. Forbidden to all but the senior Devon boys training for war, it stands as a challenge and even, imaginatively, as a matter of life and death. It recalls, symbolically, the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden and the Fall of Man. Great and tragic changes traditionally take place under (or in) such trees.
Under this tree, Gene and Finny now appear together, their physical similarities underscored, even down to height and weight; and yet, as the scene progresses, their fundamental differences emerge. Finny shows himself to be adventurous, witty, unconcerned with the rules, while Gene proves to be more thoughtful and less daring than his friend. This first look at both boys, including their jumps from the tree limb, dramatizes the fact that Finny will be the heroic character of the novel.
Gene's uncertainty, his unwilling obedience, and his sudden euphoria after the jump represent an early expression of the mixed feelings he has for Finny. Finny has power over Gene, and Gene quietly resents this power. Unwilling to challenge his friend directly, Gene works out his repressed anger in the horseplay at the end of the chapter, knocking Finny to the ground. Finny responds playfully, but the physical struggle between the boys foreshadows another struggle that will end in tragedy.
Leper a person having leprosy; a person to be shunned or ostracized, as because of the danger of moral contamination. Here, it is a nickname for the quiet, aloof Elwin Lepellier.
seigneurs lord (French) a lord or noble, specifically, the lord of a fee or manor. Here, the term characterizes the superiority Gene and Finny feel when they jump from the tree and the others do not.