3 Sentence Summary
“A Separate Peace”, written by award-winning author John Knowles. It is considered one of the most popular post-war novels about adolescence. Set during World War II, the book delves into the personal struggles of a young man as he transitions from childhood to adulthood.
Summary Read Time: Less than 4 minutes
Actual Book Length: 208
First Published in: 1959
Below is the detailed yet quick summary of the book:
Gene Forrester, a man in his 30s, visits his alma mater, the Devon School in New Hampshire, after 15 years. He is struck by the contrast between his memories of the place and the reality he encounters. The marble stairs seem much smaller and the tree by the river much less significant. He realizes that he has changed, and this makes him feel glad.
The story then shifts to 1942, when Gene is about to embark on his senior year in high school. He and his carefree and athletic roommate Finny attend the summer session at Devon School, which prepares seniors to join the military in World War II. Finny and Gene mostly spend their days by a big tree by the river. There Finny proposes that they form a secret club called the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session. To join the club, one must jump out of the tree, and Gene, who is terrified, must swallow his fear on a daily basis as they make the plunge each evening before every meeting.
Gene and Finny’s friendship grows stronger during summertime. However, Gene starts to feel jealous of Finny’s athletic abilities and starts to suspect that Finny is purposely trying to sabotage his academic performance. One day, Finny convinces Gene to go to the beach instead of studying for a crucial exam, and Gene ends up failing the exam. Despite his belief that Finny wants to interfere with his studies, Gene soon realizes that Finny does not harbor such feelings towards him.
One day, Finny tries to pull Gene away from studying to go to the tree, but Gene responds angrily. Finny’s compliment shows Gene that he does not see him as a rival, and Gene then follows Finny to the tree, where Finny suggests they perform a jump. During the jump, Gene causes Finny to fall, breaking his leg and ending his athletic career. Later, when Gene visits Finny in the infirmary, Finny almost suspects him of malice, but then apologizes for thinking so poorly of him.
When Gene goes home for summer vacation, he visits Finny and confesses that he is responsible for his injury, but Finny refuses to believe him. Eventually, Gene realizes that he is only hurting Finny more by talking about it. So he apologizes saying that he’s tired from his travels. He then returns to Devon and finds that the laxity of the summer session has been replaced by the strict rule of the regular masters.
As the senior boys at Devon School become more aware of the ongoing war, Brinker Hadley convinces Gene to enlist in the military. Gene initially agrees to sign up but changes his mind when he sees Finny sitting in his room upon his return. The next day, Brinker makes a joke about Gene causing Finny’s fall. This makes Gene feel defensive as he lashes out at Brinker and tells him he will not be enlisting. This makes Finny happy, but their friend Leper Lepellier surprises everyone by enlisting in the military himself.
Finny and Gene’s relationship grows stronger as Gene starts training for the Olympics, a dream that Finny used to have. The two boys also hold a successful Winter Carnival, filled with play and youthful mischief. But then a telegram arrives from Leper who has deserted the military due to mental instability. Gene visits Leper at his home in Vermont and learns that Leper had become hallucinatory and ran away to avoid being discharged for mental instability.
Leper’s disturbing revelation about the military leads Gene to question the glamorized perception of war and its consequences. He becomes increasingly uncomfortable as Leper goes on to accuse Gene of having something “ugly” within him, which is why he caused Finny’s fall. Gene becomes deeply troubled by these words and kicks Leper out of his chair before leaving shortly thereafter.
At Devon, Brinker starts to doubt why Gene hasn’t joined the military, which he believes is related to Finny’s fall. He thinks that Gene feels guilty about what happened to his friend and doesn’t want to leave him behind by enlisting. The story of Leper’s reaction to the war also makes both Finny and Gene realize that the war is real. Finny spots Leper hiding behind a bush and runs into a teacher’s room. That leads Brinker and some other students to hold a mock trial to investigate Finny’s fall. The information from Leper causes Finny to realize that Gene caused his fall on purpose. In response, Finny rushes out of the room and falls down the nearby marble stairs, re-breaking his leg.
Gene tries to visit Finny in the infirmary, but Finny is angry with him. Gene spends the night wandering campus before visiting Finny again the next morning. The two boys agree that Gene’s actions were not intentional. Finny also confesses that he has been trying to contribute to the war effort by writing to various military organizations but has been denied. He decides to ignore the war altogether. Sadly, Finny dies that afternoon. Gene attends his funeral without shedding a tear as he feels that Finny is now a part of him.
After Finny’s death, Gene and his classmates graduate and enlist in the safer branches of the military. Gene never sees active duty but feels that he fought his own war at Devon. He then understands the hatred that all men harbor in their heart, except for Finny.