A Separate Peace

The Tree Symbol Icon

The large tree from which Finny falls looms in Gene’s mind even as an adult, representing the ways in which certain elements of the past can often seem overwhelming and unconquerable in a person’s memory. As a man in his 30s, Gene imagines the tree as a “huge lone spike” or an “artillery piece,” but when he sees it up close during his return visit to Devon, it looks small and unthreatening. Though the tree has stayed more or less the same, Gene realizes that he himself has changed and ultimately gained a new perspective over the years, one that enables him to face the tree without seeing it as something that will continue to haunt him. The tree is therefore a symbol of the profound changes in perspective that time and growth can grant people, demonstrating that even the most harrowing elements of a person’s memory are mutable.

The Tree Quotes in A Separate Peace

The A Separate Peace quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Tree. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
War and Rivalry Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Scribner edition of A Separate Peace published in 2003.
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 absolutely 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, The Devon School
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:
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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), Phineas (“Finny”)
Related Symbols: The Tree, The Devon School
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 4 Quotes

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 Symbols: The Tree
Page Number: 59
Explanation and Analysis:
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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”)
Page Number: 59
Explanation and Analysis:
Quotes explanation short mobile
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The Tree Symbol Timeline in A Separate Peace

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Tree appears in A Separate Peace. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1 
Change and Growing Up Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Change and Growing Up Theme Icon
Gene is grateful to have found the tree and to have seen how truly small it is. This makes him think of an... (full context)
War and Rivalry Theme Icon
Change and Growing Up Theme Icon
Friendship and Honesty Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
War and Rivalry Theme Icon
Change and Growing Up Theme Icon
Optimism, Idealization, and Denial Theme Icon
Jumping out of the tree is more than a simple fitness test—it’s also part of the “physical hardening regimen” that... (full context)
Chapter 2 
War and Rivalry Theme Icon
Change and Growing Up Theme Icon
Optimism, Idealization, and Denial Theme Icon
...the actual reason they missed dinner was because they had to jump out of the tree. This, Gene notes, is a much more serious infraction than missing a meal, but Finny... (full context)
War and Rivalry Theme Icon
Change and Growing Up Theme Icon
Optimism, Idealization, and Denial Theme Icon
Friendship and Honesty Theme Icon
...for a while before Finny asks if Gene is still afraid of jumping from the tree. Gene claims he isn’t, so Finny asks him to jump first, and he obliges. On... (full context)
Friendship and Honesty Theme Icon
About to jump, Gene loses his balance on the tree limb. Seeing him teeter, Finny swiftly reaches out and catches him. Flooded with relief, Gene... (full context)
Chapter 3
War and Rivalry Theme Icon
Friendship and Honesty Theme Icon
...him in danger in the first place—after all, he wouldn’t have even been in the tree if it weren’t for Finny. Thinking this way, he decides that he doesn’t need to... (full context)
Optimism, Idealization, and Denial Theme Icon
...to the river, Gene never voices his true feelings. Instead, he follows Finny to the tree and jumps, eternally afraid of losing Finny’s favor. Meanwhile, he observes that Finny has certain... (full context)
Chapter 4
War and Rivalry Theme Icon
Friendship and Honesty Theme Icon
...Society, since Finny frequently interrupts his studies so they can go jump out of the tree. And yet, Gene is unwilling to let Finny go without him, knowing that this, too,... (full context)
War and Rivalry Theme Icon
Friendship and Honesty Theme Icon
...is caught off-guard by Finny’s suggestion that he keep studying instead of jumping from the tree. But Finny goes on, explaining that he should pursue his studies because he’s naturally good... (full context)
War and Rivalry Theme Icon
Friendship and Honesty Theme Icon
When they reach the tree and greet the other members of the Suicide Society, Finny suggests that he and Gene... (full context)
Chapter 5
War and Rivalry Theme Icon
Friendship and Honesty Theme Icon
...Gene doesn’t know what to say. Speechless, he finally asks Finny what happened in the tree, wanting to know how he fell. In response, Finny says that he simply fell, that... (full context)
War and Rivalry Theme Icon
Friendship and Honesty Theme Icon
Insisting that he made the tree branch move, Gene stands and loudly states that he was responsible for Finny’s fall. Calmly,... (full context)
Chapter 6
War and Rivalry Theme Icon
Change and Growing Up Theme Icon
...peace and tranquility of the summer, Gene feels, ended the night Finny fell from the tree, and now he must set himself to the rote habits of the traditional school year.... (full context)
Chapter 11
Optimism, Idealization, and Denial Theme Icon
Friendship and Honesty Theme Icon
...his mind for quite some time. He admits that he sometimes feels as if the tree shook him out of it itself, but then Brinker points out that there was another... (full context)
War and Rivalry Theme Icon
Optimism, Idealization, and Denial Theme Icon
Friendship and Honesty Theme Icon
...other boys jump in at this point, pointing out that Gene was also in the tree. As he scrambles to answer, though, Finny says that Gene was at the bottom of... (full context)
Optimism, Idealization, and Denial Theme Icon
Friendship and Honesty Theme Icon
...Finny suddenly insists that he remembers what happened. He says that he was in the tree and remembers seeing Gene standing on the bank. He recalls Gene making fun of him... (full context)
Optimism, Idealization, and Denial Theme Icon
Friendship and Honesty Theme Icon
...in his eyes, he knows for a fact that there were two people in the tree. One was holding onto the trunk, and the other had walked out on the limb.... (full context)
Chapter 12
War and Rivalry Theme Icon
Optimism, Idealization, and Denial Theme Icon
Friendship and Honesty Theme Icon
...it was just a “blind impulse” that led Gene to bounce him out of the tree, and Gene assures him that it was, hoping that he’ll believe him. (full context)
War and Rivalry Theme Icon
Optimism, Idealization, and Denial Theme Icon
Friendship and Honesty Theme Icon
...believe him when he says there was nothing personal about what he did in the tree. What matters most to Finny, he admits, is that Gene didn’t feel a sense of... (full context)