Discovering Symbols In A Separate Peace

Everybody has a place or object that triggers a flood of memories. These objects can be from any place, such as the accident site or the pencil that helped them pass a tough test. They can hold memories that are either painful or happy, or they may represent a beginning or an end. But, what all objects and places have in common is the fact that they are more than what meets your eye. A tree at the Devon riverbank is an example of such a symbol. While it might appear to be just another tree on the riverbank, the students at Devon during WWII saw it as a symbol of many different things. The tree is used in A Separate Peace to represent fear, friendship and youth. The tree in A Separate Piece represents the bond and friendship that can only be formed by an unusual activity. This action was for Finny and Gene, especially. The “Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session” is born from this bond. Gene recalls that “Rigid”, when he first started climbing the rungs, was slightly reassured to have Finny following me. Finny added, “We will jump together to cement the partnership.” “We’ll form suicide societies, and the membership requirements is one jump off of this tree.” I stiffened my voice. Knowles (31) mentions the “Suicide Society of the Summer Session”. The tree helps to cement their partnership and bond Gene with Finny. The tree was essential for Gene and Finny to bond. Without it, society would not exist. Gene and Finny are both bound by the idea that they can jump from the tree. However, Finny is forever grateful to Gene for the first jump. Gene is eternally grateful for Finny’s help in saving Gene from a serious fall from the tree. Gene understands this realization when he thinks about how Finny saved Gene from falling off the tree. I could have fallen and been seriously injured. Finny had virtually saved my existence” (Knowles32). Gene doesn’t seem to be ecstatic that Finny made him go up on that limb. Finny does not show Gene much gratitude. But the sequence that led to the society and Finny saving Gene cements their special bond. They are connected to something larger than their feelings for one another. Their bond is stronger than just being friends. The Suicide Society is temporary and not very important. Gene stands by Finny until the end, even though Finny is dying. This was not because he caused Finny’s death. Gene did not stay in pity or duty. He loved Finny and stood unaffected when Finny pushed him away. Gene and Finny have never been friends. Instead, their friendship has blossomed into something more. Friendships are built on the tree. However, fear is also rooted in the tree’s summer session 1942 experiences. Gene eventually fears his past, but it all began from a fear of his closest friend. Gene describes his delusional anger toward Finny. He recalls that he found one sustaining idea. The thought was that you and Phineas were already there. You are even enmity…Finny had purposely set out for me to wreck my studies…that would explain his insistent that he share all his diversions…It’s all cold trickery. Gene accuses Finny, but his feelings are rooted in jealousy and a deep-seated fear that Finny is better than Gene. Gene must console his self and find a way of justifying his anger towards Finny. Gene decides to frame Finny. Gene shouts “…my knees bent. Finny yells at him. Finny’s balance was off… he stumbled sideways and landed on the bank with an unnatural, sickening thud. Unthinkingly certain, I jumped out on the limb to the river, leaving behind all trace of my fears of this.” (Knowles, 59-60). Gene is afraid for his life and Finny’s alleged intentions so he decides to push Finny. Finny is not only altered by his actions, but also he jumps in the river feeling nothing. Gene allowed his emotions to control him. This is because of his jealousy for Finny, which leads to Gene’s fear that Finny will take away his one advantage: his education. Gene finally admits to it when he states, “I’ve never killed anyone or developed a hatred of the enemy.” My war ended before my uniform was even worn. I was active-duty my entire time at school and I killed my enemy. Only Phineas wasn’t afraid. Only Phineas hated no one” (Knowles 204) Gene’s fear about Finny’s betrayal culminates with the tree. Therefore, one can see the tree as a tool for bringing out fear in others and oneself. A Separate Peace’s last symbol is youth. Gene visits Devon years later and many of Gene’s initial reflections are made at the tree. He grew up on those very branches, which is how the story ends. Gene’s principal reflection comes when he considers how “This tree looked to me like those giants of my youth.” Gene then recalls his thoughts about the tree. He thinks that the tree looks exactly like them. The old giants are now pigmies because you looked the other side” (Knowles 14. Gene says that the tree represents how Gene has grown since his time at Devon. Gene, his friends and all of them were boys during their time at Devon. This makes even more sense given that Gene’s flashback is less than one year old. The tree is slowly dying and revealing how once something was a great achievement to leap from, it is now a memory. Everybody grew up around that tree, from Finny learning to love Gene and Finny discovering that part of his life was not meant for Finny’s charm and perfection. This tree represents significant events and milestones in all of the boys that attended Devon during the summer session 1942. It represents war because students used to jump from it. It represents tragedy, but also joy. The tree that stands at the Devon River’s edges is where the boys from Devon were exposed both to the reality of Finny’s downfall and its consequences as well as the joys of friendship. The tree is also a symbol of youth. Learning from mistakes is part and parcel of growing up. The tree at Devon speaks volumes about the life that was lived in 1942. It represents friendship, fear, growth, and a sense of community. Many people are able to point out places that bring back fond memories and can also confidently state that this is the place where they grew up. Devon was home to the tree. These boys were made men in 1942’s summer session. It is not just one tree that is important to Devon. This tree is also symbolic of the 1942 Devon School.


  • zakhart

    Zak Hart is an educational blogger and professor who has been writing about education for over 10 years. He has written for various publications, including The Huffington Post and Edutopia, and has been a guest lecturer at various universities. Zak is the founder and director of the Edutopia Academy, an online education program that provides teachers with resources and lessons to help them improve their teaching skills.

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