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The novel is a coming of age story; it describes an adolescent's growth into maturity as he tries to come to grips with the world in general and his own life in particular. The main theme revolves around the pain of growing into manhood.
Closely related to the main theme of the novel is the secondary theme related to the danger of jealousy. Although openly a friend to Finny, Gene was really extremely jealous of this well-liked and talented student. His jealousy was so intense that it led him to bounce Finny out of the tree, causing him to become a cripple and indirectly causing his death.
A second minor theme is the pain of war. The backdrop for the entire novel is World War II, which is in sharp contrast to the peaceful and removed environs of Devon; but as students begin to leave the school to join the military, the separate peace of Devon is impacted.
Since the novel is set against a background of the Second World War and the narrator's mind is riddled with jealousy and then guilt, the mood is primarily one of confusion. At points in the novel, it seems that Gene is totally unstable.