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
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.
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.
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.
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.