A Separate Peace

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Change and Growing Up Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
War and Rivalry Theme Icon
Identity Theme Icon
Change and Growing Up Theme Icon
Sports and Athletics Theme Icon
Jealousy Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A Separate Peace, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Change and Growing Up Theme Icon

When Gene returns to Devon fifteen years after graduation, he looks at the tree from which Finny fell and thinks, "The more things stay the same, the more they change." The tree looks vastly changed only because Gene's perspective has changed as he grew up and became an adult. A Separate Peace is the story of this changing perspective, of how things both change and stay the same.

As a story about boys anxious about growing into men, A Separate Peace contains numerous references to change. As the war looms, the carefree joy of summer at Devon turns into the strict discipline of autumn. Finny goes from an athletic youth to a cripple, and then turns Gene from a bookworm into an athlete. Yet though these changes are dramatic to the boys who experience them, when Gene revisits Devon he discovers that the school itself is much the same, almost like a museum. So while all the world felt like it was changing, it was in fact staying the same. Gene himself, however, has continued to grow, and so the very fact that the school stayed the same made it seem to him like it had changed: now the "giants of his childhood" don't seem like giants at all. Gene finds comfort in this: though in the grander scheme of things the world stays the same, because people change they can live harmoniously with their past, and even leave it behind.

Change and Growing Up ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Change and Growing Up appears in each chapter of A Separate Peace. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Change and Growing Up Quotes in A Separate Peace

Below you will find the important quotes in A Separate Peace related to the theme of Change and Growing Up.
Chapter 1 Quotes
"This was the tree, and it seemed to me standing there to resemble those men, the giants of your childhood, whom you encounter years later and find that they are not merely smaller in relation to your growth, but that they are absolutey smaller, shrunken by age....[for] the old giants have become pigmies while you were looking the other way."
Related Characters: Gene Forrester (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Tree
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

As Gene Forrester explores his alma mater, the prestigious prep school Devon, he returns to a tree by the river. We do not yet know the significance of this tree, but the nostalgia that colors Gene's encounter with it alludes to its thematic importance in the novel. The tree, as Gene explicitly describes, serves as a symbol of "the giants of your childhood" -- the individuals that one views with unbridled admiration during your adolescence. Now, the tree seems physically smaller to Gene because it itself has shriveled, Gene has grown, and Gene's perspective has changed. Viewing this tree causes then Gene to become further "changed"; it provides him with an opportunity to reflect on this novel's themes -- finding an identity in relation to others, transforming as you are growing -- and begin the novel from a perspective of wisdom and introspection.

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"Nothing endures, not a tree, not love, not even a death by violence. Changed, I headed back through the mud. I was drenched; anybody could see it was time to come in out of the rain."
Related Characters: Gene Forrester (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Tree
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

The shrunken tree reminds Gene of the scenery after a battlefield, the scenery which becomes colored with "death by violence." These descriptions and observations -- of a "drenched" Gene moving "back through the mud," of the fact that "nothing endures" -- evoke martial imagery and the despair of war. Gene is very briefly described like a soldier, and this alludes to the central importance of World War II in the novel. In this moment, Gene recognizes that he needs to "come in out of the rain," and this physical movement parallels the internal transformations of coming to greater knowledge and perspective that will occur during the novel.

Chapter 4 Quotes
"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. With unthinking sureness I moved out on the limb and jumped into the river, every trace of my fear of this forgotten."
Related Characters: Gene Forrester (speaker), Phineas ("Finny")
Related Symbols: Fall (Autumn) and Finny's Fall
Page Number: 59-60
Explanation and Analysis:

These small, seemingly insignificant physical movements -- bending a knee, swinging a head -- constitute the climax and narrative core of the entire novel. Thy do not conclusively establish Gene's guilt, but they certainly allow us to see why Gene might be guilty: his knees bent, but it was Gene himself ("I") who  actually "jounced" the limb, causing Phineas to look at his best friend with "extreme interest" before a sickening fall. Phineas here makes the "first clumsy physical action" that Gene sees him make, reminding us of the way that Phineas's night beach adventure made Gene fail his first exam. It is noticeable that once Phineas falls, Gene finally jumps from the tree limb without fear; he almost seems to replace Phineas with this athletic action and new carefree attitude -- free from jealousy, that is. This already suggests that the idealized character of Phineas which has so affected the novel thus far, and brought the entire community at Devon under his charm, is already gone.

Chapter 6 Quotes
"Across the hall...where Leper Lepellier had dreamed his way through July and August amid sunshine and dust motes and windows through which the ivy had reached tentatively into the room, here Brinker Hadley had established his headquarters. Emissaries were already dropping in to confer with him."
Related Characters: Gene Forrester (speaker), Brinker Hadley, Elwin "Leper" Lepellier
Related Symbols: Fall (Autumn) and Finny's Fall, The Devon School
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:

Now that Devon's first Summer Session has ended and fall has arrived (along with Phineas's own "fall"), the school which had been largely "leaderless" (and thus open to Phineas's whims, because the few faculty members who remained over the summer were lenient to him and students followed his example) has returned to its typical, hierarchical order. Students such as Brinker Hadley return to their usual positions of power, which Gene analogizes to martial positions of command. Here, Phineas is gone, and the carefree atmosphere which he fostered has left with him, replaced by the realities of growing up and the looming threat of World War II.

"'Listen, pal, if I can't play sports, you're going to play them for me,' and I lost part of myself to him then, and a soaring sense of freedom revealed that this must have been my purpose from the first: to become a part of Phineas.
Related Characters: Gene Forrester (speaker), Phineas ("Finny") (speaker)
Page Number: 85
Explanation and Analysis:

After Phineas's fall, he still considers Gene a "pal," and his enduring absence of rivalry and jealousy is revealed when Phineas encourages Gene to play sports "for him." With these words, Phineas almost seems to advocate that Gene should take his place -- a sentiment that Gene latches onto as well. Of course, the bookish, less-athletic Gene cannot truly act in Phineas's stead. He can, however, feel that same "soaring sense of freedom" that threaded all of Phineas's actions. Gene takes some comfort in the thought that his "purpose" was to replace Phineas, subsuming his own identity into that of the friend he so loves and hates. Throughout the novel, Gene questions his own motivations during the fateful tree scene. Did Gene intend to have such a malicious consequence of his actions, or was his behavior accidental? These are the sorts of possibilities soldiers on the spontaneous, frenetic environment of the battlefield encounter as well -- where a single movement or a single confused second can have life-changing consequences.

Chapter 7 Quotes
"To enlist. To slam the door impulsively on the past, to shed everything down to my last bit of clothing, to break the pattern of my life....The war would be deadly all right. But I was used to finding something deadly in things that attracted me."
Related Characters: Gene Forrester (speaker)
Page Number: 100
Explanation and Analysis:

As the protagonist of a novel so embittered by the struggles of identity -- the uncertainties of separating your actions from your intention, the difficulties of remaining a cohesive character while you are growing and realizing your intrinsic flaws and competitive spirit -- Gene finds the anonymity of the soldier to be an alluring prospect. Yet he also finds the danger of the martial life to be appealing, and he reflects that this is nothing unusual for his character -- he reacts to war in the same way that he reacts to everything else, particularly his relationship to Phineas. This indicates that war, like other competitive places such as a prep school, is a phenomenon which reveals one's inner character. 

Chapter 13 Quotes
"I never killed anybody and I never developed an intense level of hatred for the enemy. Because my war ended before I ever put on a uniform; I was on active duty all my time at school; I killed my enemy there. Only Phineas never was afraid, only Phineas never hated anyone."
Related Characters: Gene Forrester (speaker), Phineas ("Finny")
Related Symbols: The Devon School
Page Number: 204
Explanation and Analysis:

As the novel comes to a close, Gene cements the way this narrative connects petty schoolboy jealousies with the antagonisms of war: it treats them as the same phenomenon, the same manifestation of intrinsic human failings. Soldiers who have their fear and hatred translated into death and destruction are merely schoolboys who have become a few years older, and have been given deadlier weapons and a vague cause to kill and die for. Gene also finally defines Phineas here, after he has refused to define his friendship throughout the novel (most noticeably when Phineas calls him his "best pal" by the beach). Phineas was the "enemy" to Gene -- as other soldiers are the "enemy" at war. Phineas is the only being truly separate from intrinsic human selfishness -- a selfishness Gene attributes to himself and all others.