John Knowles’s A Separate Peace is a story about the ways in which time and maturity can change a person’s perspective on the past. At the beginning of the novel, Gene visits the Devon School for the first time in 15 years. When he arrives, he realizes that he has always thought of the school itself as frozen in time. By association, then, he has also considered his experiences at the school as immutably stuck in the past. However, returning to Devon helps him recognize the emotional distance he has gained in the years since Finny’s death. Going back, he can scarcely believe that the tree Finny fell from looks so small. And yet, his feelings about this have less to do with the tree itself than with the enormity of his own actions as a teenager, when he bounced the limb and sent Finny plummeting. What he wants to see, it seems, is that he has changed, that he’s no longer the kind of person who would act against his best friend. This is why he has come to Devon: not necessarily to measure how much the school has changed, but to measure how much he has. Accordingly, he feels the resonance of an old adage, “The more things remain the same, the more they change.” Although he treasures the memory of Finny, his relationship to the horrible events of the past has transformed. Having gained the kind of perspective that only the passage of time can bequeath, Gene wriggles out from the burden of guilt and sadness that followed Finny’s death. And though there’s nothing he can do to alter the past, the mere fact that he has changed helps him cope with the trauma of his adolescence.
Gene arrives at Devon as an adult feeling as if the place has been stuck in time ever since he graduated. He admits that he feels in a “deep, tacit way” that Devon sprung into being when he first set foot on campus and then “blinked out like a candle the day” he left. While he was a student, every single day felt extremely real and alive, but the memory of this does nothing to help him see that Devon has continued to exist without him. This suggests that humans often associate their subjective experiences with certain places and time periods, unable to keep their own perceptions from coloring and defining the way they look back on the past. It’s worth noting that Gene considers these thoughts alongside his guilt about Finny’s death. After all, if he sees Devon as stuck in time, then he must also think of what he did to Finny as locked away and inaccessible, so firmly rooted and preserved in the past that nothing about the entire ordeal—not the way he thinks about it nor the way he processes his grief—can ever change. In this sense, then, Gene’s decision to revisit Devon is an attempt to recapture a period in his life that now feels impossible to access and, thus, impossible to process.
To his surprise, though, Gene finds that Devon has changed. Returning to campus, he sees that it hasn’t vanished from existence, and he also sees that it hasn’t remained exactly the same, noting that the buildings have a certain newness to them. As he walks around, he marvels at the various changes before realizing that nothing much about his surroundings has actually changed all that much. Rather, the way he looks at the environment at Devon has shifted. For instance, when he visits the marble steps that Finny fell down, he notices that they aren’t as tall or numerous as he used to think. And yet, he recognizes that they’re exactly the same as they’ve always been, meaning that his perspective is the only thing that has changed. Consequently, he begins an “emotional examination” of all the ways he has grown since his time at Devon. In turn, readers see that coming back to Devon has helped him take stock of the way he has matured and developed since adolescence, thereby enabling him to approach his memories with a renewed perspective that might help him cope both with his guilt and with the loss of his best friend.
Recognizing that Devon has changed while also staying largely the same, Gene has newfound hope that he has also been able to “slowly harmonize” his growth with everything that came before it—namely, Finny’s death. When he visits the tree, he’s surprised by how small it looks. Not only is he himself bigger now, but the tree itself seems withered and weak. In this sense, then, his relationship to it suddenly shifts because both the tree and he have undergone change. This, in turn, shows him that “nothing endures,” an idea that somewhat frees him from his guilt and sorrow. Although he’s not necessarily excusing himself for what happened to Finny, he’s allowing himself to acknowledge the passage of time, permitting himself to accept that he’s not necessarily the same person who caused Finny to fall. This, it seems, is what time and maturity can grant a person: the nuanced ability to accept the unalterable past alongside that which has already changed. And by embracing this perspective—celebrating the human capacity to change—people like Gene find themselves newly capable of processing grief.
Change and Growing Up ThemeTracker
Change and Growing Up 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.
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.
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.