A Separate Peace

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Sports and Athletics 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.
Sports and Athletics Theme Icon

Finny views athletics as an "absolute good," and throughout A Separate Peace, athletic contests represent an idealized alternative to war. Like war, sports involve opposing sides intent on victory, but unlike war sporting events lack the casualties common to the battlefield. Finny's perspective on sports is exactly the opposite of his views on the war. He sees war as a construct invented by governments, a conflict in which everyone loses, while he believes "everyone always won at sports," which gives athletics a "perfect beauty." The novel supports Finny's ideas most powerfully by depicting Gene's experience while training for the Olympics. The intense training and single objective become a world of their own, a kind of cocoon surrounding Gene and protecting him from the fears of both adulthood and war. When he's training, Gene experiences the same inner peace that Finny had before his injury.

Sports and Athletics ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in A Separate Peace related to the theme of Sports and Athletics.
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.

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Chapter 6 Quotes
"'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 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.