Gene Forrester visits the Devon School in New Hampshire 15 years after graduating. As he walks through campus, he feels that something has changed. The buildings seem different, as if they’re glossier and covered in varnish. When he stops to think about this, he realizes that the school for him was a place of somber austerity because he attended during World War II. Things like varnish, he thinks, must have gone off to the war—along with everything else. Now, as he surveys this shiny new appearance, he realizes that he has always felt that Devon sprang into existence when he first set foot on campus and then winked out as soon as he left. Standing on the grounds, though, he can plainly see that this isn’t the case.
In the opening pages of the novel, John Knowles calls attention to several important thematic threads. First, readers see the effect that World War II had not only on the Devon School, but on Gene himself, since he still spends time thinking about the ways in which the war impacted his adolescence. Furthermore, it becomes evident that Gene struggles to grasp the changes that have taken place since he was a teenager. Returning to Devon makes him feel like he has returned to a very specific period in his life, and though this period feels remote, he recognizes that Devon has continued to exist without him—a sign that his past is perhaps not as inaccessible as he might otherwise think.
Gene notes that he used to feel a constant sense of fear when he was a student, and the only way he’s able to recognize this is by noticing its absence as an adult. This, in turn, tells him that he has managed to wriggle free of the persistent sense of foreboding that used to follow him around as an adolescent. Thinking this way, he goes to the First Academy Building across the campus, a building that looms large in his memory. When he enters, he faces a set of marble stairs and stops to look at them, noticing that, despite all this time, the indentations in the center of each step aren’t very deep. This tells him that the marble itself is extremely hard and durable—a thought that disarms him for a moment, since he can’t believe that this “crucial fact” didn’t occur to him before.
That Gene was consumed by fear as a student at Devon suggests that something about the school’s atmosphere—perhaps its social dynamics or its wartime customs—were intimidating and fraught. Similarly, his thoughts about the marble staircase and how it hasn’t changed despite how different it seems indicates that something terrible must have happened while Gene was a student at Devon. Otherwise, he most likely wouldn’t obsess over how much he has changed in relation to this environment. As it stands, his interest in registering his own growth implies that he wants to believe that he’s a different person than he was when he was a teenager.
Still looking at the marble stairs, Gene understands that they’re the same as they’ve always been. He, however, feels different than he did as a teenager, when he walked up and down these steps every day. Feeling older, he begins to catalogue all of the ways in which he feels changed. He’s taller and—more importantly—doesn’t feel quite as small in comparison to the staircase. Turning, he goes back outside and makes his way through muddy terrain toward the Devon River, thinking as he goes that Devon is both different and the same as it has always been. It has managed, he thinks, to “harmonize” its changes with its past, and this gives him hope, making him feel as if he might be able to do the same.
In this moment, it becomes clear that Gene has come back to Devon so he can come to terms with something that happened in his past. More importantly, he wants to make peace with himself, hoping that he’ll be able to “harmonize” the person he’s become with the person he used to be. This, of course, implies that he feels at odds with himself, as if his current identity clashes discordantly with his troubled memories of the past. As he seeks to rectify this, the Devon School becomes a barometer of sorts, helping him determine just how much he has matured since he was a student.
Ruining his shoes in the mud, Gene finally reaches the river and starts looking for a particular tree. Peering through fog and wind, he senses that any of the trees along the riverbank could be the one wants to find, and this alarms him because he would have thought that it would stand out. In his mind, the tree is huge and commanding, hulking enormously over its surroundings. When he finally identifies it by certain markings in the bark, though, he’s startled to see that it’s much smaller and more insignificant than he remembered. In fact, not only is it smaller, but he himself is larger than he used to be, so that the tree seems doubly small.
Again, Gene charts his own growth by comparing himself to things that used to seem colossal to him as a teenager. However, it’s worth noting that this tree most likely seemed larger when he was child not just because he himself was smaller, but because it was somehow significant to his everyday life. Of course, Knowles hasn’t yet clarified why this might be the case, but the fact that Gene trudges through mud and rain and fog just to see a spindly old tree suggests that it is fraught with meaning.
Gene is grateful to have found the tree and to have seen how truly small it is. This makes him think of an old French saying, which translates to, “The more things remain the same, the more they change after all.” With this in mind, Gene contemplates the fact that nothing in life can withstand the test of time—everything changes, even love and “a death by violence.” Feeling changed, he returns to campus.
Readers still don’t know what, exactly, has brought Gene back to Devon, other than that he clearly wants to gain a new perspective on something that happened when he was a student. As Knowles prepares readers to read the rest of the novel, then, he merely puts an emphasis on the nature of change, calling attention to the fact that time and renewed perspectives can help a person cope with even the most difficult memories—memories that apparently have to do with love and death.
The narrative jumps back to 1942, when Gene is attending the summer session at the Devon School. Looking at the tree, he feels as if it’s enormous and foreboding, and he doesn’t even want to climb it, let alone jump out of it, which is exactly what Phineas, his roommate and best friend, wants to do. Unlike Gene, Phineas is unafraid, waxing poetic about how much he likes this tree. As he does so, Gene stalls by responding sarcastically, but Phineas (or “Finny”) makes him laugh in spite of himself. They are standing beneath the tree with three other friends: Elwin “Leper” Lepellier, Chet Douglass, and Bobby Zane. The tree itself is the focus of many boys at Devon, since it’s part of the fitness test that seniors have to pass before graduating. And though they aren’t yet seniors, Finny has decided that he and Gene must complete the test.
Although the very beginning of the novel is somber and wistful, this shift back to 1942 changes the novel’s tone, as young Gene revels in the joys of summertime. Of course, World War II is already going strong, but Gene is more focused on pleasing his best friend, Finny, than on anything having to do with the war. In this regard, then, he has managed—at least so far—to retain his youthful innocence.
Jumping out of the tree is more than a simple fitness test—it’s also part of the “physical hardening regimen” that the school has developed to prepare seniors for the military. World War II is gaining momentum, and the young men just one year older than Gene and Finny are all headed to the war, either enlisting or getting drafted. For now, though, Gene and his friends are too young to get swept up in the military, although Finny declares that they will be contributing to the war effort by jumping out of the tree. He then playfully asks his friends if any of them would like to go first, and when nobody responds, he climbs the rungs nailed into the trunk, balances on the limb that stretches out over the bank, and jumps, making sure to clear the bank.
The fact that the seniors above Gene and Finny have to jump out of this tree to physically prepare themselves for the military spotlights the ways in which Devon has been influenced by World War II. Although Gene and Finny are still enjoying the innocence of youth, the students just one year ahead of them are already focusing on training their bodies and becoming adults. This, in turn, influences the younger boys’ summer, encouraging adventurous people like Finny to gravitate toward daring, dangerous activities. Despite this, even his supposed attempt to contribute to the war effort is rather juvenile, since it’s obvious that simply jumping from the tree will do nothing to influence what happens in Europe.
Although he resists it with every fiber of his being, Gene agrees to jump next. When he mounts the limb, he sees he’ll have to fling his body forward in order to avoid landing on the bank. As he contemplates this, Finny reminds him that he won’t be able to hesitate like this when his ship is getting torpedoed by enemies. In response, Gene throws himself into the water, and when he surfaces, Leper suggests that his jump was even better than Finny’s, though Finny tells him to hold his judgments until he tries it himself. Despite this, nobody else agrees to make the plunge. “It’s you pal,” Finny says to Gene, “just you and me.”
Finny’s comment about pausing before jumping off a sinking ship underscores the extent to which thoughts about violence and the war pervade the group’s otherwise innocent and childish exploits. What’s more, Gene’s unwillingness to tell Finny that he doesn’t want to jump suggests that he’s eager to impress and please his best friend, meaning that he most likely loves it that he and Finny are the only ones to make the jump—an act that solidifies their bond, even if there is a whiff of competition in the air after Leper suggests that Gene’s jump was better than Finny’s.
As the five boys walk back to campus for dinner, Finny says that Gene did well, though he points out that he needed to guilt him into going through with the jump. This, he says, is one of Gene’s problems—he always needs Finny to push him into doing things. Gene objects and begins to walk faster so they aren’t late for dinner, launching into what Finny refers to as his “West Point stride.” Thinking that his friend is being too serious, Finny trips Gene, inciting a wrestling match that lasts so long that they ultimately decide to skip dinner. Instead, they go to their dorm room, do some homework, and go to sleep.
The dynamics of Gene and Finny’s relationship emerge in this scene, as Finny suggests that he always has to egg Gene on in order to get him to do anything truly adventurous. Perhaps because of this accusation, Gene is all too eager to stop and wrestle with Finny to prove that he isn’t as serious as he seems. In turn, readers see the profound effect that Finny has on Gene and, in turn, the strong, all-consuming bond that is their relationship.