The Devon School is shown to be microcosm right from the start, where the first part of the book contains abundant pastoral images and descriptive passages.
The book under review depicts a peaceful New England's boy's school by the name of Devon. The most important aspect is that there is a pastoral quality about the school, for it is surrounded by enormous playing fields, is filled with sunshine, and has a peaceful river flowing through campus. The inspiration comes from real life as during World War II, the novelist John Knowles attended Phillips Exeter Academy on which Devon was based.
The school is well described in almost Eden-like terms, vivid imagery is painted of the enormous playing fields, healthy green turf, gently flowing river, and calling birds, all helping in creating a microcosm. It should be noted that this peaceful environment serves as a sharp contrast to the world war that rages in Europe and the personal conflict that rages in Gene's mind. So encompassing is the existence of the Devon school as a world within a world that Gene gets a baptism in to his Finny-like life in the clean, delightful waters of the Devon River.
The tree in the Devon school is shown to help the central character throughout life. This tree leads Gene to pain, and out of the pain comes an emerging knowledge and acceptance of self. This therefore portrays the importance of the structures within the school and around it in forming the life of the child. When Gene leaves Devon to join the Navy, he is still in the process of maturing and accepting what has happened to him at school. This therefore shows the strong affiliation that is built with Devon.
The link does not break as Gene as an adult, comes back to Devon to come to grips with the power that the tree has held over him during his life. So strong is the existence of the power and influences of school that when Gene finally locates the tree by the river, it is not so fearful as he imagined. Also the context of age is well built into the story as Gene notices that the tree has changed a great deal; like the narrator himself, the tree has aged and matured, seeming almost weary.
When viewed with the background of the story, the existence of Devon school as a microcosm becomes even more apparent as, The Second World War functions as the background of the novel and is a contrast to the "separate peace" that exists on the Devon campus. However, is should be noted that the internal conflict going on in the mind of the narrator is compared to the greater conflict of the world war, and therefore the environment of Devon school is at odds both with the narrator and with the world outside. Moreover, so encompassing is the world of the Devon school that the narrator finds it very difficult to decide whether to live in the safety and security of the school campus or enter the adult world full of the complexities and confusions of war. The affinity that is formed is so strong that though in the end, Gene enlists in the navy to join the war effort, but his heart is never in it.
The novel is so written that most of the action is set in or around Devon School. The word microcosm implies that the existence of a world within a world is present. Therefore it shows that this is the presence of an alternate form of life that helps in the living of those who feel that the world outside is unfair and full of strife and hard life without rewards. This should however not be taken as the indication that the world that the Devon school has to offer to its people has less complexities. It is shown that though this world is without the presence of external conflicts, inhabitants of this world still have to fight and over come their inner conflicts.