A Separate Peace

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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.
Identity Theme Icon

Like most sixteen year-old boys, Gene and Finny and their friends struggle to define their identities. World War II complicates their otherwise typical teenage identity crises and forces them to define themselves first and foremost in relation to the war. Different boys do this in different ways. Leper decides to enlist, even though military life contrasts sharply with his gentle, nature loving instincts. Brinker Hadley assumes an air of bravado. Finny denies the war exists at all. In each case, the boys are trying to define themselves against something in order to be men.

Gene goes through the same identity crisis, but his crisis resolves not around war, but Finny. Gene's admiration for and jealousy of his friend is so great that he literally loses himself in Finny. At one point he secretly dresses up in Finny's clothes. At another time when Finny is injured, he feels that he doesn't exist. Gene's personal identity is so wrapped up in Finny that in order to become an individual with his own identity, he has to destroy Finny. Through this tragedy, A Separate Peace makes the case that in the effort to define themselves as they grow into adults, people create false enemies out of true friends.

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Identity ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in A Separate Peace related to the theme of Identity.
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 2 Quotes
"I think we reminded them of what peace was like, we boys of sixteen....We were careless and wild, and I suppose we could be thought of as a sign of the life the war was being fought to preserve....Phineas was the essence of this careless peace."
Related Characters: Gene Forrester (speaker), Phineas ("Finny")
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

At the beginning of the novel's flashback, Gene and his best friend Phineas are sixteen-year-old students at Dover, who are busy engaging in reckless, spontaneous activities during their school's Summer Session -- all at Phineas' urging. Phineas, with his spontaneous attitudes, easy charm, and impressive athletic abilities, leads the other students in endeavors that often just cross the line and are not allowed or inappropriate. Although Phineas should be reprimanded, according to the prep school's regulations, faculty are more than likely to let one of Phineas's endeavors go unpunished, especially when Phineas provides a charismatic reason for his venture. From his mature perspective, Gene the narrator understands that the faculty allowed such behavior because it symbolized the less complicated, freer times before World War II broke out. Gene no longer views Phineas with such envy; instead of becoming subconsciously irritated that Phineas is allowed to break every rule, the elder, narrator-Gene now more sympathetically understands the broader social issues that inspire the faculty to such lenience. The contrast between sixteen-year-old Gene and the narrator suggests that Gene's envy and sense of rivalry might intensify as such favor continues.

Chapter 3 Quotes
"To keep silent about this amazing happening deepened the shock for me. It made Finny seem too unusual for—not friendship, but too unusual for rivalry. And there were few relationships among us at Devon not based on rivalry."
Related Characters: Gene Forrester (speaker), Phineas ("Finny")
Related Symbols: The Devon School
Page Number: 45
Explanation and Analysis:

Phineas -- who was known as Finny to his friend Gene -- breaks a school record for 100 Yards Free Style (without practicing for this endeavor) while only Gene is watching him swim in the pool. Yet, Phineas does not want to add to his impressive list of athletic prizes by repeating this feat with a more public audience. He asks Gene to keep it "just between you and me," inspiring Gene to wonder about his friend's motives. Gene considers that Phineas might want to impress him, or that Phineas might simply be above rivalry. For an individual as competitive as sixteen-year-old Gene (and all his competitive, jealous peers at the Devon School), this must be a frustrating possibility. Phineas was not only one of the best students, but he seemed to live in a wholly separate existence above all of his peers. 

Chapter 4 Quotes
"I found a single sustaining thought. The thought was, You and Phineas are even already. You are even in enmity. You are both coldly driving ahead for yourselves alone....I felt better. We were even after all, even in enmity. The deadly rivalry was on both sides after all."
Related Characters: Gene Forrester (speaker), Phineas ("Finny")
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

After Phineas beats the school record in the 100 Yard Free Style, he takes Gene to the beach and they stay there overnight. Gene barely arrives back at school in time for his Trigonometry test in the morning, which becomes the first test which he flunks.

After this occurs, Gene believes he understands the motivation behind Phineas advocating such reckless activities all summer: Phineas is (supposedly) attempting to sabotage Gene's academic achievement at Devon. Gene takes this rationale as evidence for Phineas's competitiveness, and convinces himself that Phineas is just as competitive as Gene is. Therefore, Phineas and Gene are "even in enmity"; Phineas is just as morally questionable as Gene is. Although Gene is here stating that he and Phineas are equal, this thought underscores Gene's competitive spirit; he does not want to recognize the way that Phineas is morally superior to him and above his competitive, jealous perspective.

"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."
Related Characters: Gene Forrester (speaker), Phineas ("Finny")
Page Number: 59
Explanation and Analysis:
After Phineas announces that another student, Leper, will leap down the tree tonight, in order to join their club of reckless behavior (which Phineas dubbed the "Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session"), Gene finally tells Phineas that he does not wish to attend. After withholding his resentment and anger for so long, Gene angrily tells Phineas that he will "ruin my grade" if he goes tonight instead of studying. Phineas is "interested, surprised"; he had no idea that Gene felt that such endeavors would sacrifice his grades. So, Gene's theory (that Phineas invented such careless exploits in order to prevent Gene from studying) was completely false, and Gene must once again face the reality that Phineas seems oddly innocent and free from the jealousy that tortures Gene.
"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 8 Quotes
"So the war swept over like a wave at the seashore, gathering power and size as it bore on us, overwhelming in its rush, seemingly inescapable, and then at the last moment eluded by a word from Phineas; I had simply ducked, that was all, and the wave's concentrated power had hurtled harmlessly overhead."
Related Characters: Gene Forrester (speaker), Phineas ("Finny")
Page Number: 109
Explanation and Analysis:

Gene has just had an invigorating day, shoveling snow off the railroads along with other classmates and viewing a train of men dressed for war pass by thanks to his work. Inspired by his classmate Brinker's passion for enlisting, and the night sky which is pulsing overhead with possibilities, Gene decides to enlist, to spontaneously join the communal war effort and remake his life. Yet, when he returns, he finds Phineas -- the constant reminder of his prior transgressions and confused identity -- in his bedroom. Phineas is dazed and surprised, and he clearly hopes that Gene will not enlist and leave him. So because of Phineas, Gene's quixotic, momentary dream of becoming a soldier and leaving his life as a student behind becomes an impossibility. The powerful possibilities of enlisting pass Gene by in an unsettling way, though he also realizes that the war cannot be avoided forever.

Chapter 9 Quotes
"It wasn't the cider which made me surpass myself, it was this liberation we had torn from the gray encroachments of 1943, the escape we had concocted, this afternoon of momentary, illusory, special and separate peace."
Related Characters: Gene Forrester (speaker), Phineas ("Finny"), Brinker Hadley, Brownie Perkins
Page Number: 136-137
Explanation and Analysis:

During one Saturday afternoon, which is typically the most lonesome time at a boys' school such as Dover, according to Gene, Gene and his classmates hold a winter carnival (inspired by Phineas, whose stream of ideas has been slower of late). Stimulated by cider, a general awareness that they may be breaking school rules, and the fact that they are definitely creating a fictitious celebration, they engage in revelry, making a sort of "momentary, illusory, special and separate peace." We know that this peace specifically contrasts with the harsh reality of World War II, because this carnival ends when Gene receives a letter from Leper, who was the first boy at Devon to enlist in the war. Leper's tense, terse note begs Gene to visit him at his "Christmas location" (without giving a genuine address or a genuine reason), returning the narrative to the cold realism of the winter of 1943.

Chapter 10 Quotes
"Fear seized my stomach like a cramp. I didn't care what I said to him now; it was myself I was worried about. For if Leper was psycho it was the army which had done it to him, and I and all of us were on the brink of the army."
Related Characters: Gene Forrester (speaker), Elwin "Leper" Lepellier
Page Number: 144
Explanation and Analysis:

Gene visits Leper as he had requested in his note, but he does not necessarily respond to Leper's condition with the sympathy we would expect in a friend as visitor. Rather, to Gene, Leper's plight is a larger commentary on societal forces beyond one's control. For Gene, Leper's internal, individual pain is not the concern. Instead, he is more troubled by the amorphous entity of War that has the power to have made Leper so disturbed. Leper's plight makes Gene fear how the war will affect him and his friends, rather than make him feel any special sympathy for Leper as an individual product of the war.

Chapter 12 Quotes
"'You'd get things so scrambled up nobody would know who to fight any more. You'd make a mess, a terrible mess, Finny, out of the war.'"
Related Characters: Gene Forrester (speaker), Phineas ("Finny")
Page Number: 191
Explanation and Analysis:

As the boys hold a makeshift court session to investigate the cause of Phineas's fall from the tree, Phineas grows agitated and storms out, down the hall and falling down the marble stairs, from where all of the boys involved in the meeting can hear his accident. When Gene visits Phineas afterwards, Phineas says he cannot mentally take being an invalid while there's a war on -- living in "separate peace" because he cannot serve his country. Gene, however, rightly tells Phineas that he would "make a mess out of the war": because of his inherent goodness, Phineas would likely engage in behaviors as nonsensical as befriending the enemy.

With this characterization, Gene implies that school boys who engage in petty rivalries would be good at the war, used to feelings of guilt and skilled at the task of ruining others' lives. It's boys like Phineas (or, in another sense, Leper), who exist apart from petty jealousy and competition, who would be destroyed by the war and make a "terrible mess" of things.

"I could not escape a feeling that this was my own funeral, and you do not cry in that case."
Related Characters: Gene Forrester (speaker)
Page Number: 194
Explanation and Analysis:

Phineas dies from a bit of bone marrow making its way to his heart during the surgery to reset his broken bone. Upon learning of the tragedy, Gene does not cry for his friend. Gene does not even cry at Phineas's funeral -- especially because he feels as if this funeral is his own.

Gene might still feel as if he is replacing Phineas, or has lost himself in Phineas's identity -- a possibility which provided him with some comfort earlier in the novel -- but it is more likely that this emotion actually stems from Gene's more negative feelings -- his guilt, his self-understanding, his internal emptiness. Gene does not entirely describe the reasons for his lack of tears, which further suggests that he is a broken individual, whose faults are painful to recognize, even to himself.

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.