For the next few weeks, we will be doing a read-along of the novel A Separate Peace by John Knowles. Each week, we will publish a Mockingbird Reader’s Guide to a section of the novel. Please join us and read along! The book is available for purchase through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or IndieBound.

The author would like to thank her mother, who originally taught her this book.

The Fall

I think it is the best-written, best-designed, and most moving novel I have read in many years. Beginning with a tiny incident among ordinary boys, it ends by being as deep and as big as evil itself.

Aubrey Menen, from the cover

You may have heard of the book A Separate Peace. Perhaps you remember a summer reading assignment you didn’t want to write an essay for, perhaps it’s lumped in your mind with all of those (spoiler alert) sad-books-you-read-at-school-where-someone-dies. Bridge to Terabithia, Where the Red Fern Grows, Of Mice and Men—really, what is wrong with school reading lists?

Wherever, or whether, you may have stumbled across A Separate Peace before, it is worth a re-read. Especially in our times, and in this place. Who knows but that you have come to a book for such a time as this?

As our cover blurb tells us—and what a blurb that is!—this is not simply a novel about childhood friends. This is a novel about the loss of innocence, the discovery of evil, and the literal and spiritual fall of two teenage boys, which echoes a refrain found throughout literature: the refrain of a garden in Eden and a fall, from paradise to death, that began with a tree.

John Knowles, our author, knows his symbols. And so, rather than craft a wholly new world of fantasy or space or illusion in which to wrestle with the questions of good and evil and the human heart, he plops his reader right down, in Chapter 1, in front of the tree.

The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is not just found in Chapter 2 of Genesis. John Knowles places his tree by the edge of a river near a school named Devon Academy.

Because our novel is written as a flashback, there are two very different images of this tree within the span of a page. Our narrator, Gene Forrester, has returned to his old school grounds fifteen years after his graduation:

Unbelievable that there were other trees which looked like it here. It had loomed in my memory as a huge lone spike dominating the riverbank, forbidding as an artillery piece, high as the beanstalk. Yet here was a scattered grove of trees, none of them of any particular grandeur.

A Separate Peace is set against the backdrop of early World War II. Our protagonists—Gene and Finny—are sixteen-year-old boys at a boarding school in New England racing, not towards college and careers, but towards tanks and troops. The imagery of war plays into the similes and allusions that Knowles uses to describe the campus, the relationships between the boys of Devon, even the games that they play. In this first description of the tree, we see the very real image of war and death in the huge lone spike and in the artillery piece. Spikes and artillery are weapons of war and, therefore, weapons of killing. Specifically, the destruction of the human body. Beanstalks, on the other hand, are images from childhood fairy tales. The juxtaposition of these allusions—the destructive, fatal image of the tree alongside the child-like, fairy-tale quality of Jack’s beanstalk—places us in situ, on the precipice between childhood and adulthood, between knowledge of the innocent and the good and knowledge of the guilty and the evil. Adam and Eve once found themselves in just such a place.

Gene is finally able to distinguish the tree because of “certain small scars rising along its trunk” and by a limb that extends over the river. Our older narrator realizes that the tree seems “weary from age, enfeebled, dry” and that not only is the tree changed, but he himself has changed. As we read this novel, we will come to see precisely how much Gene has changed from that summer when he climbed the tree at sixteen years old.

The tree was tremendous, an irate steely black steeple beside the river. I was damned if I’d climb it. To hell with it.

We’ve now entered the main narrative timeline, fifteen years previously, when Gene, a student at the Devon School for the Summer Session, is standing in front of the same tree. He is part of a group of rising juniors who are taking classes in order to graduate by the following summer, in time for their eighteen-year-old birthday parties and the draft. Unlike the seniors, however, Gene and his friends are still “calmly, numbly reading Virgil and playing tag in the river farther downstream.” Until Finny thinks of jumping out of the tree and into the river below.

The tree is no longer simply a symbol of childhood or wartime to Gene but a symbol of damnation itself. The tree is tremendous, angry, steely, black and—of all things—a steeple. A black steeple, damned if he’d climb it, to hell…there are powers and principalities with which Gene will have to wrestle—the very forces of hell itself—because of this tree.

To Finny, however, the tree is “a cinch.” And thus begins the splintering, the differentiation between Gene and his best friend, between his fears and inner turmoil and between Finny’s lighthearted, happy-go-lucky approach to the world around him.

Finny is distinct, individual, and unique in the world of Devon that summer. He is an extraordinary athlete, but he has a “simple, shocking self-acceptance,” which prevents him from lying about his height. Unlike Gene, who had been claiming 5’9’’ until he met Finny, it never occurs to Finny to lie about anything. “No, you’re the same height I am, five-eight and a half. We’re on the short side.” Finny jumps easily from the tree into the river, but Gene has “the sensation that I was throwing my life away.” Of all their friends that day, Gene is the only one who follows Finny into the waters.

Throughout the first two chapters of the book, we see Finny’s influence over Gene, pulling him into misadventure after misadventure, steering Gene off of the tried and true course and into the pathway of spontaneity, of ease, and of happiness in a world where “the sky is darkening rapidly.” It is no accident that after Gene and Finny jump out of the tree for the first time, a phonograph plays “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” as they return to their dormitory that evening. Beware the forbidden fruit, the music warns.

*

We learn more of Phineas’s—Finny’s—character in Chapter 2, where Gene describes several conversations Finny has with the masters at Devon. These conversations seem to slip into “a flow of simple, unregulated friendliness between them, and such flows were one of Finny’s reasons for living.” A mind’s-eye picture begins to develop of this strange boy, who talks seriously about the bombing of Central Europe at the headmaster’s tea while wearing a flagrantly pink shirt and the school tie as a makeshift belt. Gene describes, in the opening of the chapter, how,

He rambled on, his voice soaring and plunging in its vibrant sound box, his eyes now and then widening to fire a flash of green across the room. Standing in the shadows, with the bright window behind him, he blazed with sunburned health.

Similar imagery appears in Chapter 1 when,

Phineas just walked serenely on, or rather flowed on, rolling forward in his white sneakers with such unthinking unity of movement that “walk” didn’t describe it.

Finny is otherworldly, angelic even, in the way that light blazes around him, in the way that he floats above the ground, clad in the symbolic white of purity and innocence, that state before the Fall. He is otherworldly in how he seeks out friendship, with classmates, with masters, and in the way that he embodies “the essence of this careless peace … of lives which were not bound up with destruction.” Finny is a separate peace, existing on a plane above even the peaceful, joyful nature of the Summer Session, and nowhere is that more evident than in his pleasure at jumping out of the tree again and again, at taking flight from the roots of the world and leaping through the air into the cool, clean waters of the river below.

It is Finny, however, who sows the seeds of his own destruction when he suggests forming the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session—membership requirement: one tree jump—and the alliterative hissing of the ‘s’ consonant slithers into the summer’s paradise.

But it is also Finny who practically saves Gene’s life when he almost stumbles and falls from the tree during their first double jump. Finny restores Gene’s balance at the end of the same chapter in which we begin to see the seeds of competition sprouting in Gene’s mind.

As Gene jumps into the river, he is struck by the knowledge of what Finny has done, in the act of saving him. Like the Tree of Genesis 2, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, it is not just the knowledge of Finny’s goodness but the knowledge of his culpability:

Yes, he had practically saved my life. He had also practically lost it for me. I wouldn’t have been on that damn limb except for him.

Gene’s flaw—his damnation at the tree—is that he cannot see the good in Finny without also ascribing evil. Gene’s achingly human heart cannot accept the gift of life that Finny hands him without also creating a specter of blame and darkness around that gift.

*

Throughout Chapter 3, Gene and Finny encounter the symbol of water, again and again. The Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session continues to meet each night, baptizing new members in the river below the tree. Finny creates another, infamous game—blitzball—which is played throughout the fields along the river. He breaks a school swimming record, and by the end of the chapter, we find Gene and Finny flouting all of the school rules to ride bicycles to the ocean, where:

This kind of sunshine and ocean, with the accumulating roar of the surf and the salty, adventurous, flirting wind from the sea, always intoxicated Phineas. He was everywhere, he enjoyed himself hugely, he laughed out loud at passing sea gulls. And he did everything he could think of for me.

Water is a boon, a gift of freedom and joy for Finny and one which he yearns to share. Gene, however, has a very different experience of the ocean:

The second wave, as it tore toward the beach with me, spewed me a little ahead of it, encroaching rapidly; suddenly it was immeasurably bigger than I was, it rushed me from the control of gravity and took control of me itself; the wave threw me down in a primitive plunge without a bottom, then there was a bottom, grinding sand, and I skidded onto the shore. The wave hesitated, balanced there, and then hissed back toward the deep water…

Like his fear of the tree, the water pulls at the primeval fear in Gene’s heart, a tide of darkness rushing in around him. Like the disciples in the boat, like Jonah in the storm, like Leviathan in the deep, water is a threat and a danger to Gene’s sense of control and power, and Finny’s continual pull on Gene to jump from the tree, to swim in the ocean, begins to fester in Gene’s heart. At the end of Chapter 3, when Finny tells Gene that he is his “best pal,” Gene cannot respond because he knows, in the depths of his heart, that he is not Finny’s best pal. He has only been wearing a mask, one which the ocean around him has begun to dissolve.

According to Gene, Finny’s revelation of his sincere emotion “was the next thing to suicide.” One of the laws of teenage friendship, a law of Devon, a law of vulnerability, is to never reveal how you truly feel. Unmasking real emotion is akin to exposing your Achilles’s heel, the one place where you can be hurt and crushed, the one place the snake can strike.

*

Chapter 4 opens with foreshadowing of what’s to come. Gene sees dawn for the first time, but it is a dawn that is “a strange gray thing, like sunshine seen through burlap.” In the light of the gray dawn, Phineas appears “more dead than asleep.” As the sun breaks and dawn begins to glow,

The beach shed its deadness and became a spectral gray-white, then more white than gray, and finally it was totally white and stainless, as pure as the shores of Eden. Phineas, still asleep on his dune, made me think of Lazarus, brought back to life by the touch of God.

Rather than reveling in the transformation of the gray dawn of death into the white light of resurrection and the restoration of the shores of Eden, sixteen-year-old Gene is focused, instead, on the things of this world. And he is magnificently unprepared—and very late—for that most worldly appointment of teenagehood: a trigonometry test.

When Gene and Finny return to campus, and after Gene flunks his test, Gene’s mind begins to twist. His self-justifying heart begins to believe that he is locked in a deadly rivalry with Finny—thus far even on both sides—to come out on top. Finny’s antics of the summer are naught but battle tactics, skirmishes to distract Gene from pulling ahead as a student and an athlete, while Finny is left in the dust of only succeeding at sports. “You are even in enmity,” Gene thinks. “You are both coldly driving ahead for yourselves alone.” Gene has tasted of the fruit of hatred, and its poison is slowly but surely making its way through the veins of his blood and into the chambers of his heart.

Gene cannot ignore, however, even in the midst of rivalry, competition, and pride, the beauty of the separate peace of Devon’s Summer Session:

It was hard to remember when one summer day after another broke with a cool effulgence over us, and there was a breath of widening life in the morning air … It was hard to remember in the heady and sensual clarity of these mornings; I forgot whom I hated and who hated me. I wanted to break out crying from stabs of hopeless joy, or intolerable promise, or because these mornings were too full of beauty for me, because I knew of too much hate to be contained in a world like this.

Gene is ripped apart by the duality of the war in his heart and the peace of the natural world around him. As summer morning after summer morning break like ocean waves against his fearsome hold on this deadly competition with Finny, something in Gene stirs to the idea that hatred, grief, and strife are not the only answers to the world’s questions. The dawn may begin in grayness and death, but it never ends that way.

And then one night, Gene realizes the truth. Finny and Gene are on their way to the tree for another round of the SSSotSS initiation, Finny coaxing Gene along “in wild French, to give me a little extra practice” before a French exam the next day. Finny has just admitted to Gene that he never knew Gene needed to study, that he thought school came as naturally to Gene as sports did to Finny, and Gene is turning over this new revelation in his mind.

I said nothing, my mind exploring the new dimensions of isolation around me. Any fear I had ever had of the tree was nothing beside this … He had never been jealous of me for a second. Now I knew that there never was and never could have been any rivalry between us. I was not of the same quality as he.

Finny is genuine and innocent and selfless in a way that Gene can never be. Finny does not wear a mask—how could someone who shamelessly claims five feet eight and a half ever pretend? Gene has been projecting his own lonely, selfish ambition onto Finny, and when faced with the truth of Finny’s goodness and innocence, Gene sees only one option.

Holding firmly to the trunk, I took a step toward him, and then my knees bent and I jounced the limb. Finny, his balance gone, swung his head around to look at me for an instant with extreme interest, and then he tumbled sideways, broke through the little branches below and hit the bank with a sickening, unnatural thud. It was the first clumsy physical action I had ever seen him make.

Faced with Finny’s innate goodness, Gene’s impulsive heart learns the true nature of evil. As Finny physically falls from the tree, Gene’s spirit falls into the darkness, death, and damnation that have been waiting, hissing around the tree, to embrace him. Seeing the truth of his own dark heart in the light of Finny’s vibrant innocence drives Gene to commit the ultimate act of treachery. In the denial, destruction, and betrayal of his best friend, Gene damns his own soul.

Tune in next time for Part II of A Mockingbird Guide to A Separate Peace.