a separate peace

Title: a separate peace
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BARRON'S BOOK NOTES JOHN KNOWLES'S A SEPARATE PEACE ^^^^^^^^^^JOHN KNOWLES: THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES John Knowles was only 33 years old when A Separate Peace was published, in 1959, in England (see The Critics section at the end of this book for a good idea of how popular the book was there) and then, in 1960, in the United States. The book was an immediate and stunning success, receiving the William Faulkner Foundation Award and the Rosenthal Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. But John Knowles had begun writing seriously a decade before the success of A Separate Peace enabled him to abandon full-time employment. He was assistant editor for the Yale Alumni Magazine where he'd attended college, he worked as a reporter and drama critic for the Hartford Courant, and then he wrote his first novel, Descent into Proselito, while living in Italy and France. That novel was never published; his friend and teacher, the playwright Thornton Wilder, felt it was not good enough. Knowles was born in Fairmont, West Virginia, on September 16, 1926, the third of four children. At age fifteen, during World War II, he went away to boarding school, the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. The pressures of this environment at such a dire and impressionable time laid the foundation for A Separate Peace--and, even before that novel, for a short story called "Phineas," which takes us through the events of the first half of the novel. Like so many writers before and since, John Knowles found his way to New York City, renting an apartment in the Hell's Kitchen area of the West Side, where he applied himself rigorously to his craft in the mid-1950s. Determined to make a name for himself, he busily turned out drama reviews, short stories, and freelance articles. A story about Phillips Exeter Academy published in Holiday magazine received wide acclaim, and Knowles moved to Philadelphia to work for the magazine from 1957 to 1960. Once again he was able to travel abroad, and he tied two more books directly into his life experience, a travelogue called American Thoughts Abroad and Morning in Antibes. Then he tried his hand at teaching for several years, at the University of North Carolina and at Princeton. Since 1970, he has lived in Southampton, Long Island, where he focuses his attention on novel writing. When we take a sweeping look at John Knowles' work, we understand him as a writer involved in a continuous autobiography through fiction. One major theme occurs over and over again: the inner struggle we all must endure between the "civilized" and "savage" parts of ourselves; and that struggle--or "battle," as Gene Forrester calls it in A Separate Peace--in the larger sense of man versus his environment. His years as a travel and magazine writer gave John Knowles a knack for describing the atmosphere of places, as you'll notice immediately when you begin to read A Separate Peace. A Vein of Riches (1978), another novel, takes place in a West Virginia mining town similar to Fairmont, where John Knowles grew up. The Devon School (modeled after Phillips Exeter) returns in the guise of Wetherford Country Day School in Indian Summer (1966); Yale University figures strongly in The Paragon (1971); and the sultry atmosphere of the French Riviera, where Knowles spent so much time traveling and writing, is captured vividly in Spreading Fires (1974). Gene Forrester feels sometimes hemmed in, at other times protected by the close-knit setting of the Devon School. In the same way, many of John Knowles' major characters fight to achieve an understanding with where they are, testing themselves constantly against their current situations. Knowles' novels express his own unresolved conflicts, conflicts that every serious writer must feel inside himself to some degree: Who am I? What shapes me? What is the true extent of my power, and how successfully can I shape my own future? To what degree do I represent "the American Character" (Knowles' term), and to what degree do I represent myself alone? None of John Knowles' subsequent novels has achieved the peak of popularity that A Separate Peace has reached (in 1982 it was in its 55th printing). But readers and critics agree that he possesses a sensitive awareness of human nature--of what makes us tick--and that he is a craftsman of prose style who has produced an enduring classic: the novel you're about to read. ^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: THE PLOT Fifteen years after graduation, Gene Forrester, the narrator of A Separate Peace, returns to his old high school in New Hampshire, pursuing the roots of a memory that has left an indelible mark. As Gene walks around the deserted campus of the Devon School, we realize that something tragic and terrible happened there. When he comes to rest at the foot of a huge tree overhanging a riverbank on the edge of campus and pauses to reflect, our story begins in a flashback to the summer between Gene's junior and senior years. We quickly meet the main character of the story and its hero, Gene's best friend, Phineas (called "Finny"). Finny is a boy who stands out from the crowd. He's brave to the point of foolhardiness, outspoken, athletic, bright, funny--yet, in his own quirky way, Finny is an enigma. He challenges the other boys to make a leap from the fateful tree on the riverbank into cold waters. This challenge, repeated throughout the book, ultimately proves to be Finny's undoing. We follow Finny and Gene through their daily summertime routines: tea at the headmaster's cottage, frolicking on the playing fields, and more and more tree-jumping. One day Finny saves Gene's life when he's on the verge of toppling from the branch. It seems as if Finny always has to be in control, even to the point where he invents bizarre games with no rules except those he makes up as he goes along; the other boys are drawn into "blitzball," as Finny calls one such competition, because they cannot resist falling under his spell. He frees them from the cares and worries of school life. But the boys cannot remain immune to the threat of war and the possibility of enlistment that hangs over their heads. Finny is the only holdout; he insists the war does not exist. The friendship of Gene--shy, retiring, and modest--and Finny--outgoing, brazen, brilliant--becomes the central theme of the book. The turning point arrives when the two boys take an impromptu excursion to the beach and Gene is late for a math test, which he fails. Gene is soon convinced that Finny, far from wanting to look out for his best interests, in fact wants Gene to fall behind in his studies so that Finny will be number one in everything. Gene manages to drive himself into a frenzy over what he views as Finny's traitorous nature. One evening, in the midst of studying for a French exam, Gene is again distracted by Finny into a jumping session by the river. This time he follows with sinister intent. The two boys mount the tree, inch out on the limb, and then, suddenly, Gene "jounces the branch" and Finny tumbles backward onto the riverbank, breaking his leg. The whole course of the story changes after this pivotal incident. Sports--Finny's pride and joy--are now a thing of the past for him. His life appears to be ruined. Gene is numbed, not quite certain any more of his own nature and motivations. Ironically, without Finny he's adrift and lost and seems to have no reason for being. Gene makes a few feeble attempts to confess to his act in hopes Finny will forgive him, but his friend--like a true friend--cannot accept the apology. Confusion reigns. Back at school in the fall term, with Finny absent, the other boys, who had once been overshadowed by him, move into the foreground: "Leper" Lepellier, the eccentric, withdrawn fellow who loves to ski and to go off by himself into the hills in search of beavers; Brinker Hadley, the class politician and Gene's rival for Finny's affections; and Quackenbush, the manager of the crew team, who gives Gene a hard time at the slightest provocation. Gene now has to struggle with the legacy of Finny's accident and the suspicion of the other students about how it was caused. It is a time of growth for Gene as he fights their antagonism. Winter comes, and with it the encroaching shadow of war. The boys are called out to help shovel free a troop train trapped by snow-blocked tracks. The experience "brings the war home" for all of them, and they realize they'll have to face a crucial decision very soon. Maturity leaps upon them, whether they're ready for it or not, at the tender age of seventeen. Gene resolves that he has nothing more to offer his present surroundings, that his life hasn't come to much, and that the army might be just the place for him at such a despondent time in his life. He resolves to enlist the next day and get it over with. Then Finny's return to campus, his leg in a cast, changes all that in a flash. With the reunion of the two boys, the story takes a positive turn. Gene's peace of mind is rekindled at the sight of Finny, and he begins to serve as Finny's guide and helper around the school. And Finny dedicates himself seriously and intensely to getting Gene into shape for the 1944 Olympics. A Separate Peace now becomes as much a novel that is for human achievement and against war as it is a novel about the complexity of friendship. Leper Lepellier is the first to enlist, and he doesn't last long. The Devon Winter Carnival--a devilish, crazy, free-for-all outdoor event invented by Finny to relieve the midwinter doldrums--is interrupted by a desperate telegram from Leper, summoning Gene to his home in Vermont. There Gene discovers a seriously disturbed Leper, his spirit broken by a few weeks in basic training. Gene retreats, fearful--if this is what war is all about--for his own fate and the future of his pals. Just as the stress of war has proved to be too much for Leper, it has had a souring effect on Brinker. Perhaps out of his own sense of powerlessness over not being able to follow through on his noble intention to enlist, Brinker turns on Gene and threatens him with his determination to find out what "really happened" the day Finny fell from the tree. Gene's friendship with Finny is a sanctuary Brinker would like to enter, but it just isn't that easy. Brinker and his friends resort to coercion. One night in the late spring of senior year, just when Finny and Gene have healed their wounds and established that special "separate peace" between them, the two are spirited away to the First Building for a mock trial spearheaded by Brinker. His vengefulness knows no bounds, though it is disguised as the pursuit of truth. The two boys are cross-examined until late into the night. It turns out that Leper, who witnessed the accident, has crept back to campus. Summoned to the trial, he testifies that Gene shook the tree limb. Finny, crazed with confusion and sadness, leaps up, bounds out the door, and falls down a flight of marble stairs, breaking his leg again. After a long night and day of agony, Gene and Finny have their final, brief moment together and reach an understanding. "Something blind" made Gene cause the fall, but that no longer seems to matter to Finny. He believes his friend is truly his friend. That's the most important thing. Finny dies during the operation to reset his leg. Senior year draws to a close. Through Finny's death, Gene comes to possess a far deeper view of war and mankind's fate. He understands something about the more pervasive fallibility of human beings far, far beyond the intimate confines of the Devon School. Gene has changed. We had admired Finny all along; now, in the closing pages of the story, with the army setting up a training base at the school and the noises of war in the air, we admire Gene for coming to terms with Finny's greatest gift: he had no enemies; therefore he had no defenses. To be his friend was to know friendship at its purest. To be his friend was to enjoy a truly "separate peace" unlike any other in the world. The characters in a novel must be believable to the point where we are allowed insights into the reasons why they do the things they do (their motivations). Characters must also be able to carry ideas and themes without appearing unnatural. You don't want to find yourself saying, "Oh, so-and-so represents such-and-such an idea" or "John Knowles created so-and-so to stand for such-and-such a concept." Rather, the ideas and themes should become apparent to you bit by bit, as you begin to understand the characters as people interacting with each other. The more you find yourself asking what you would do in a given situation, the more successfully the characters are playing their parts. Interacting is the key concept in this book because it's about a group of boys in a confined place, where they eat together, share rooms, play and study together, and are always open to the same overriding threat of war. None of the boys, no matter how individualistic he may be, is living in an isolated world. The Devon School is like a theater in which each boy is both an actor and a member of the audience. In some ways A Separate Peace may be easier to relate to than other books you've read, because the characters are close to you in age. You might want to think about whether that assumption proves true as you're reading. We don't want to tell you too much about the characters at the outset because the sheer pleasure of seeing them develop so effortlessly as the story unfolds is one you can't afford to miss. John Knowles introduces detail after detail about each person so that you receive a building up of character--in much the same way it would happen if you were actually getting to know someone over time. And, as you will see, it's often dangerous to trust first impressions and hasty judgments. ^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: GENE FORRESTER Gene is the narrator of the story. He tells us what is going on; we see everything through his eyes. But because he is telling us what is happening, step by step, he must be the kind of person who has the ability to get involved in situations and then to step back from them and view them impartially. Gene is observer as well as participant, and that dual role can create problems for him. Occasionally, as when his friend Finny is in trouble, Gene comes across as confused and unable to act. When we meet him, Gene is a thoughtful young man, innocent, soft-spoken, a follower rather than a leader--the perfect foil for Finny, his best friend. Gene's the kind of boy you wouldn't notice immediately in a crowd; he's usually around the fringes rather than at the center. He isn't much of a self-starter either, and he lacks initiative. You wonder sometimes if he has any ideas of his own, and then he surprises you by coming out with sharp pronouncements and judgments. Following the progression of his friendship with Finny, we begin to notice Gene emerge from his shell, drawn forth by the magnetism of another. Is it being too harsh on Gene to say that he's a goody-goody? You know the type: someone who'd never take a chance by breaking the rules or doing anything outrageous. No, there's a glimmer of the adventurer inside Gene Forrester, waiting for someone like Finny to set the spark going. Gene is like a butterfly emerging from his cocoon, gradually unfolding and spreading his wings. Gene is an empathetic boy. That means he's strongly in touch with other people's feelings. Because he's sensitive, he possesses the rare ability to feel along with others. Sometimes this capacity gets him into hot water. It's always dangerous to empathize too deeply; you're bound to get swept away. No doubt you'll notice a touch of envy breaking to the surface now and again. Close friendships like Gene and Finny's often suffer from one person's comparing himself to the other. This is inevitable when two people do so many things together. Gene is often looking to see how Finny is getting along--better, usually, despite his injury. Like so many young people in a group, Gene has the easily recognizable problem of not being able to decide whether to go along with the crowd or to follow his own instincts. He doesn't want to lose the respect of his peers, but also he doesn't want to sacrifice his values just for a little more popularity. Gene is torn in many ways. That's probably why we like him so much. He is unsparing in admitting to confusion: whether to laugh or cry in harsh situations; to jump from a tree or not; to go into the army or not; to study for a test or not. He's only human. We wouldn't want to follow the path of an overly self-confident narrator because we wouldn't be able to identify with him. Gene characterizes many fears and hopes we all possess. Finally, the most appealing part of Gene's character is his idealism. Right to the end, despite the trials and tribulations he's subjected to, including the most painful of all, the loss of his dearest friend, Gene maintains a deeper faith. We know he's going to turn out all right because, if nothing else, he's a survivor. ^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: PHINEAS (FINNY) Finny, Gene's best friend through good or ill, rests securely at the center of the story. Right from the start we know Finny is unlike any other person we've met, or rather, he's an extreme form of the most incredible person we've ever met. Like a tragic hero, which Finny certainly is, the boy is daring. Finny's daring is as natural to him as breathing. He thrives on challenges, and when none presents itself, he invents one: the tree-jumping ritual is the first--and ultimately the most costly. What are the characteristics of a true leader? A leader must be able to inspire others to confidence, then convince them to follow in assurance that no harm will befall them. A leader must be vigilant--because leaders have a way of being toppled when they are not careful. Even while he's scaling new heights, Finny casts sidelong glances. We wonder if he's too trusting of the other boys. A true leader must stand for something, a set of principles or ideals. What are Finny's principles? He never seems to take anything all that seriously; he is always capable of a good laugh at his own expense. Sports are beyond reproach to Finny. The playing field is sacred ground, the gym is a holy temple. To him, sportsmanlike prowess and athletic ability far outweigh the ability to give the right answers on a test. You've heard the expression, "Pride goeth before a fall." Think, as you read A Separate Peace, about whether this maxim describes accurately what happens to Finny. Heroes are often brought down by excessive, blind self-confidence. They go through too many situations in which they are tested and succeed, and their triumphs intoxicate them, go to their heads, make it hard for them to maintain an accurate perspective. On the other hand, we certainly can't say that Finny is selfish. There's nothing guarded in his nature. What you see is what you get. Gene finds this side of Finny disarming; indeed, it is difficult to accept a person on his own terms in a world where there's so much suspicion. Finny serves to remind us of the greater forces of goodness and peace in the world, and his fall reminds us how rare these forces have become. In this respect A Separate Peace goes beyond the boundaries of a schoolboy story and into John Knowles' vision of the human condition. Finny has a sense of humor. Perhaps that doesn't strike you as unusual. But think for a moment how rare a truly fine sense of humor is these days. And the greatest humor of all is found in the person who can laugh at himself. Many of us are so close to our own problems, so wrapped up in the little things of daily life, that we can't see the bright spots. Finny, with all naturalness, can make himself the object of the funniest jokes without losing any of his self-esteem. Finny's "steady and formidable flow of energy" often overwhelms his schoolmates when it does not inspire them. It's a double-edged quality that stems no doubt from his endless need to be in control, to be a guiding, steering force. He likes to keep moving. Even when his leg is in a cast he seems to radiate a kind of dynamic force field around himself. When he isn't running, he's talking. When he isn't swimming, he's playing blitzball or riding a bicycle backward. And he's always thinking. Imagine what a different story A Separate Peace would be if Finny, instead of Gene, were the narrator! In the end, why do we weep for Finny? Because we will miss him, as we would miss anyone of such vitality and honesty who passed from our lives. The author has set Finny up in an idealized way; in other words, he has made the boy larger than life so that he embodies important truths beyond himself. ^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: ELWIN "LEPER" LEPELLIER Gene is the commentator, Finny the transcendent leader; Leper is the tagalong--with a twist. How incredibly wrong first impressions can prove to be! When we meet him, Leper's one of the boys standing at the base of the tree, refusing to jump into the river, "bidding for an ally." He wants to be liked, but he doesn't want it badly enough to move an inch from his rooted, stubborn disposition. Gene gives a hint of the general opinion of Leper when he refers to him as "inanimate," someone who is simply there, for no particularly good or bad reason. During blitzball this observation is borne out when Leper refuses to take possession of the ball. He exists to prove a point rather than for any exemplary act he is capable of performing. He's very good at denying and rejecting ideas, throwing them into relief. He threatens to make the leap, to join the Suicide Society, but he never comes through. Of all the characters, Leper is most nearly the opposite of Finny. That is not to say Leper doesn't possess the courage of his convictions. He marches to the beat of a different drummer, that's all. While all the other boys are shoveling snow for the war effort, Leper is in the countryside skiing. He has no personal objection to what the others are doing; he simply possesses his own, very personal agenda, and he sticks to it unfailingly. Leper is a fascinating character because you don't want to think he's important, and then he turns out to be crucial. A lot is going on beneath the surface, and you find yourself watching and wondering about him. Why is he the first to enlist? What is the cause of his emotional breakdown? Why does he summon Gene to his home in Vermont to confess to him? Why does he return to Devon? Why does he feel the need to report on the events at the tree when Finny fell? It's easier to pity Leper than to hate him for what he does. You are tempted to condemn him for seeking revenge; then that feeling is followed by the overwhelming desire to feel sorry for him--"There but for the grace of God go I," you think. The army was clearly no place for a boy like Leper, but how can anyone know anything about an experience, especially one of such magnitude, without having undergone it? Leper's bravery, unwitting though it may be, and his motivation for enlisting, the naive expectation to ski his way through the war--appeal to us. His cry for help does not go unanswered, but even Gene can do nothing to aid him. After all, Gene too is struggling through the same difficult period in his own life. ^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: BRINKER HADLEY Brinker beautifully balances out the other three boys' extreme characteristics. He seems the most "typical," the most representative of the Devon students we meet. He goes out for extracurricular activities; he's good in sports and average in the classroom; he's big and personable and popular, in the best sense of that word, the kind of guy you're bound to like immediately, not too smart, not too crafty. Brinker's room is just across the hall from Finny and Gene's, so he is in on much of what passes between them. He bears witness to their friendship and probably wants to be more a part of it, but it's an exclusive little mutual admiration society. That knowledge is frustrating for Brinker; his affable, tolerant mood eventually turns self-righteously sour. "Brinker, with his steady wit and ceaseless plans," as Gene presents him to us after the summer, lacks the exotic appeal of Leper, who'd occupied the same room during the idyllic summer session. Leper's interest lay in his oddness; Brinker is decidedly different, always looking for another way to score points. But Brinker's labored attempts at leadership cannot measure up to Finny's inborn lust for life. People are attracted to Finny no matter what he does; he doesn't have to go out and lobby for himself in the way Brinker often carries on. Brinker knows Gene and Finny have no pressing need to check in with him, to be part of his circle, as the other boys in the class do. At first he pretends not to care much, but gradually he becomes unable to suppress his jealousy. He turns into a self-appointed detective in search of the answer to the question of what really happened on the riverbank during summer session, while he was away from school. Brinker seems to have decided that if the only way he can make inroads into Gene and Finny's microcosm is by destroying it, so be it. As in the case of Leper, we cannot simply condemn Brinker for his feelings. It's natural to react this way, isn't it, when you sense the action has passed you by? Brinker appoints himself a Sherlock Holmes, a searcher after truth, but he doesn't have the stature to carry the investigation off gracefully. Too outspoken and blunt, he's unconscious of the implications of his actions. Brinker shows his true colors, too, when he "talks up" the idea of enlisting in the army but doesn't follow through until the last possible moment. His instinct for self-preservation is much stronger than his patriotism. So, finally, we see something of ourselves in Brinker. It is an indication of John Knowles' skill as a storyteller that he makes all his characters distinctly different from one another, each with his own distinguishing features. Although they are fictional characters in a novel, we feel that we know them as living persons. We'll also meet Chet Douglass and Bobby Zane, Cliff Quackenbush and Brownie Perkins--some of the other boys at Devon. They're the "chorus" of the story, providing background action and competition for games and studies, moving against a backdrop of nameless and faceless students who stride across the common between classes, dash across the playing fields, crowd around outside the dining hall, indulge in horseplay and late-night card games in the dormitories, and file into chapel on Sundays. Gene and Finny, Leper and Brinker do not exist in a vacuum. Their context is vital to an understanding of the story. A prep school, like any school, is made up of cliques, groups of people who socialize together, and A Separate Peace focuses on just such a small group. But life goes on for the rest of the school as well, and the energy that arises from all that other activity comes through in the story. In much the same way, the teachers (called masters), Mr. Pike, Mr. Patch-Withers, Mr. Prud'homme, and Mr. Ludsbury, exercise their dubious authority over the boys in a typically proprietary, benign, iron-hand-in-a-velvet-glove manner. The school is permissive but traditional, encouraging free expression within a structure that says certain things must be learned in a certain way. The boys laugh at their teachers and imitate them behind their backs; how could they not? The boys are meek and respectful to their teachers' faces--except, of course, for Finny. On their part, the teachers know that boys will be boys, and they are aware of their role as disciplinarians, guardians, passers-along of the legacy: what it means to be a gentleman at all times. Dr. Stanpole, the school physician, is a caring, generous man who tries to do his best for Finny and who feels deeply the agony of losing a generation to war. He cannot bring himself to accept the fact that many of the boys must face combat. Phil Latham, the wrestling coach, seeks to develop healthy bodies for the fine minds in his charge; he is called to the scene when Finny has his last accident. Brinker's father makes a cameo appearance at the end of the story, just in time to remind Gene and Brinker of the true meaning of patriotism and the importance of fighting for democracy. The adult characters in A Separate Peace are treated with the finest balance of reverence and humor. They all treasure the precious time of youth--but whose youth are they thinking of. Do they make the mistake of projecting onto the boys of Devon a concept of youth based on the way life once was for them and is no longer? And does this misconception add a heightened dimension to the ultimate tragedy? ^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: SETTING The setting of a novel is, quite simply, where and when the story takes place. Another way of describing it is "spirit of place," the atmosphere generated by descriptions of the environment and the characters' relationship to it. In Devon School, John Knowles has created a setting rich in evocative detail. The school figures almost as if it were another personage in the story, coming to life when Gene encounters it, existing while he's there, "blinking out like a candle" when he leaves. By sketching the school's boundaries right away, Knowles presents it to us as a confining, even womb-like place, and everything that occurs within the school takes on a clear focus. You'll note that except for a few brief forays outside the school--Gene's trip home for vacation, his visits to Finny convalescing and to Leper after he has escaped from the army--the entire story unfolds within it. The school is a microcosm, a miniature world in and of itself. Perhaps your school is like that, with its intrigues, sets of friends, classes that stick together, members of clubs and teams, the senior lounge off limits to everyone else, the faculty lounge (where you may wonder what conversations go on). In any school, such protectiveness can be a dangerous insulation from the world outside. Have you ever heard someone say that "real" learning doesn't take place in the classroom but rather in the day-to-day setting of natural events? Whether you agree with this statement or not (it is often made by people who have been out of school for a few years), there can be no doubt that the Devon School is a rarefied place, one where a small number of boys (no girls) with privileged backgrounds are sent to cultivate their characters as gentlemen. You'll have to decide how well their years at Devon prepare them for the subsequent tests of manhood. Flip through the pages of A Separate Peace after you've read it a couple of times, and you'll discover the multiple moods of the Devon School, conditioned by seasons and the weather. In gray mist, shrouded and still, there's a somber feeling to the story. On golden summer days, when the boys are carefree, the fields welcome them and the story takes on a lighter tone--so that Finny's accident is thrown into violent relief. In the fall, when all the boys return to school, there's a crispness in the air--we all know it--in the waning days of summer, an inevitability you can't avoid, signaling the need to return to work. There's a quickening in your step and a bit of fear about what the new year will bring. As winter descends on Devon, so does boredom; more time must be spent indoors over books, and you wait with hope for the first signs of spring and release. A Separate Peace centers on the effects of these seasonal changes in the Devon School setting, and it uses them to demonstrate the place's variety of spirit. Its exposure to the elements in an isolated area of New England that has great natural beauty makes Devon appear at times like a prison of sorts, one where the boys' "freedom" to come and go as they please is a grand illusion. Class follows class. Chapel leads into first period. Dinner is at a set time, and if you're not there, you'll be penalized. Lights go out at a set time, and if it's rumored that you were playing cards or talking afterward, a master may reprimand you. This general atmosphere of enforced routine lends a tinge of fear and tension to the story, and this is just as much a part of the setting as any physical characteristic of the school buildings or playing fields. At the end of the book, we realize how familiar the place has become in our mind's eye: just enough to give the story a grounding, not enough to distract from the characters' movements and motivations. ^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: THEMES The themes in a novel are the main issues and ideas the author grapples with and addresses, the questions posed by the actions of the characters, the concerns raised in our minds as we read. Some themes are easily identified, perhaps even articulated by the characters themselves, so we can't miss them. Others are presented more subtly and may be open to a wider variety of interpretation. Still others may form themselves within you, regardless of the author's intent. Here, then, are some of the themes we find in A Separate Peace. You may very well discover others. ^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: FRIENDSHIP Friendship, in all its complexity, is certainly a major theme of the book. Friendship is often based on mutual need, on people seeking each other out to fill gaps they feel inside themselves. You often hear friends spoken of as much for how they differ as for how much they have in common. A Separate Peace explores the ins and outs of a relationship between two teenagers hovering between childhood and adulthood. Although the story is told from the perspective of fifteen years after the events, innocence and naivete figure deeply. Gene and Finny are victims of circumstance, and that makes their friendship all the more poignant. They are drawn to each other for reasons they don't entirely understand. Throughout the story you'll notice that the balance of power of their friendship, so to speak, tips one way and then the other--and with each shift, their friendship is tested anew. It's sad when their affection for each other survives one final test, for then Finny is lost forever. ^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: CONFORMITY Following close behind friendship in importance is the theme of conformity. The book poses important questions about the hard choices young people have to make between going along with the crowd (bowing to peer pressure) and pursuing their own paths (preserving a sense of individuality). Finny is a force of continuous pressure on the other boys, especially on Gene. He's a rebel to the core of his being, flamboyant and careless. But most schoolboys can't afford to compete the way Finny does. Can you imagine what Gene's life would have been like if he had never met Finny? We've all encountered at least one person who has changed our lives by showing us another possible road to take, one we would never otherwise have considered. In his steadfast disbelief in the existence of "the War," Finny contradicts every value the Devon School represents. This skepticism, crazy as it sounds, serves to point out the importance of the test every boy must pass: how to face the question of enlisting. Gene's inclination is to go along with the crowd, represented here by Brinker, until he sees Finny again and his best laid plans are shattered. And Leper, the person everybody least expects to make the plunge, enlists first and finds his concept of conformity sorely tried within hours of arriving at basic training. Certainly the whole issue of who will and will not jump from the infamous tree is a primary example of this theme. Can you find others? ^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: TRUTH AND FALSEHOOD Truth and falsehood may sound a touch abstract and lofty, but it's a theme that permeates the story insofar as it relates to the way we perceive ourselves, the way others see us, and our frustrating inability to get to know another person completely. Because we are always subjected to what is going on inside Gene's head (we'll explore this issue more carefully when we take up Point of View), we're often left short of the mark when we want to find out more about Finny from Finny. Imagine all the instances where we'd be so much better served if we could know what Finny was truly thinking, say at the headmaster's tea party, or when lying on the beach with Gene saying his prayers, or while distracting Gene from his studies. The only justifications we hear for Gene's turnabout from friendship to entirety are his own, based on what he sees as Finny's duplicity. We all know when we're presenting to someone else a self--a persona, or mask--that's truly us, and when we're playing a part in order to get our way or to be manipulative. The ultimate test of this theme is the episode on which the whole story turns, that moment when Gene jounces the branch of the tree. Why does he do it? Many pages later he confesses, the last time he sees Finny, "to some crazy thing" inside himself, and Finny "believes" him. Are we satisfied? Will we ever know the truth of that moment, or for that matter (the author may be asking), of any moment? ^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: GROWING UP Growing up is a broad theme that encompasses many subthemes in the book. No story focusing on adolescence could avoid this issue and still be effective. A Separate Peace poses many questions about the nature and extent of maturity, what it means to be responsible for yourself and your actions, to what extent this responsibility can be delegated, and to what extent can be delegated, and to what extent it falls upon you whether you seek it or not. How mature are you, when one day you're being chastised for coming late to dinner and the next you're watching a film about training for the army ski patrol? One set of superiors (teachers) subjects you to the rule of punctuality; another (army recruiters) implies you can make a choice about your destiny because you're approaching the magical age of eighteen. What does chronological age signify, and why has it taken on such intensified meaning in our society? The senior boys at Devon cannot continue to have the best of both worlds. They want to preserve freedom, to run free and compete with each other until graduation day; but as that day approaches they sense a new and even more obvious destiny that is too large to stave off. The touchstone of their maturity resides in how they cope with the threat of war. Meanwhile, we all know that a high school diploma doesn't automatically make you an adult. Boys may yearn for that certification and their liberation from school, but the fact that they're going straight into the army tempers their enthusiasm. We see this in Brinker's early resolution, his wavering, and then his compromise in front of his father. ^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: STYLE Another word for an author's style is his voice, and that's an appropriate term when you think of an actual person telling a story, unfolding it before you, speaking to you one-to-one. Thus the style of A Separate Peace is most simply characterized as the fictional person of Gene Forrester, created by John Knowles, talking to us through the pages of the book. Gene has a low-key, almost diffident manner. Because he is subtle in his observations, we are welcomed immediately. There's no problem entering the story and walking with Gene through the damp fields. He wants companionship, and his style, his manner of presentation, expresses that need admirably. We might also say the book possesses a confessional style; in other words, the narrator has some burden he needs to cast off upon us. Anyone who reads the book automatically takes on that burden. Gene has done something too painful to bear in solitude, and he wants to believe that his sharing it will make the weight less heavy for him. (Is this necessarily so?) Again, the style helps get the message across because it accumulates in gradual stages, in an unhurried manner, as if it were sneaking up on us. The book further possesses a deferential style; in other words, the narrator keeps himself out of the forefront of the action. Notice how sparingly Gene interjects himself. Often he'll quote Finny for pages and pages, while he just stands there, a transmitter, a transparent vehicle for carrying the main event to us. He tries to keep his opinion out of the foreground too, and he succeeds until Finny becomes his "enemy." At that point the style of the book changes and flares up into a more vivid, determined, focused language, as if it were hacked from stone, where before it had been ever so gently molded. You'll notice another interesting aspect of the book's style if you compare the spoken words (in quotes) with the exposition, the descriptions and passages that tie the dialogue together. Gene, Finny, and the other boys speak with the vocabulary of teenagers of the 1940s, and the teachers also seem true-to-life for the period. The Gene who narrates, however, is the adult Gene, and his insights are those of someone in his middle to late thirties. Thus the book encompasses beautifully the simplicity and directness of young people speaking and acting in tune with their time of life as well as the more mature voice of an older person looking back to that time in retrospect. ^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: POINT OF VIEW We think of point of view as the angle from which the story is told, the perspective from which we receive information. Sometimes an author will use the third person "he" or "she" throughout a book; this tends to remove us from the work rather than draw us in, to put and keep us outside it. In A Separate Peace, where one of the central characters is the narrator, we see everything through his eyes. Gene Forrester happens to be a quiet, shy, self-effacing person whose point of view does not overwhelm anyone. He's the kind of person you wouldn't notice immediately if you walked into a crowded room; he'd be off to the side, arms crossed, with a clear, steady gaze and an attentive air. He'd speak little unless spoken to, and he'd weigh his words carefully. He'd be forthcoming with observations about people, and you'd probably be surprised at first by his accuracy, until you understood that Gene spent most of his time watching and listening, a participant in his mind more than through any physical action. This sensibility brings the story to us, allowing us to absorb it without feeling threatened or intimidated. The power of A Separate Peace resides in the subtle way it conveys very emotional material. This is a book about the rise and fall of a heroic figure who happens to be all of seventeen years old--as seen through the eyes of his dearest friend, who, in a bizarre and finally inexplicable way, is responsible for the final, painful tragedy. It is a book about youth fading to premature age through exposure to death. It is a story told with measured, consistently dampened tones, no shock value, no cheap thrills--and this makes it all the more rewarding, especially in a time when we are in danger of becoming insensitive under a daily barrage of exaggerated sensations. A Separate Peace is a brief novel that gives the gift of time to breathe as we read it. This is what the leisurely, fair-minded point of view of Gene Forrester provides unwaveringly--except at those severe points of stress when his friend Finny falters, falls, suffers, rises up, admits his love, discovers their shared secret, and falls again for the final time. ^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: FORM AND STRUCTURE The form of A Separate Peace can best be described as cyclical. The book begins with the narrator's revisiting the scene of the story after 15 years, retracing his steps for us, preparing us for the sequence of events to follow. From the words "The tree was tremendous" (middle of Chapter 1), we are back in high school days during the summer between Gene's junior and senior years. Each succeeding chapter is chronologically arranged, moving through the fall term, winter vacation, spring term, graduation, and summer again--12 months, from mid-1942 to mid-1943, recounted in 13 chapters. There are no tricks here, no attempts to put the reader off guard, as you might find in more experimental novels. The transitions from the end of one chapter to the beginning of the next are smooth and expected, each new chapter picking up the narrative thread from the old one. The shift from the end of Chapter 2 to the beginning of Chapter 3 is a good example. Gene has almost fallen from the tree, Finny grabbing him at the last moment. The last sentence of Chapter 2 is, "Finny had practically saved my life." And the first sentence of Chapter 3 is, "Yes, he had practically saved my life." We are reassured by the narrator's constant efforts at giving unity and coherence to the story. Look at the end of Chapter 10, where Gene runs out on Leper. Gene tells us, "I didn't care because it had nothing to do with me. And I didn't want to hear any more of it. Ever." He's trying so hard to deny the effect on himself of seeing Leper in decline, and he beats a hasty retreat to the school's protective environment. Filled with turmoil, we turn the page to the beginning of Chapter 11 and read, "I wanted to see Phineas, and Phineas only. With him there was no conflict except between athletes." Gene's switch from trying vehemently to shut out an image of Leper to seeking desperately the comfort of Phineas and his "separate peace" tells us a lot about the relationship between the boys. We talked about how the reassuring tone of Gene's narrative voice draws us into the story. The straightforward structure of the book, A leading to B leading to C without interruption, also serves to draw us in because we never have to stop to try to figure out where the author is taking us. He wants us to stay with the plot, the course of events, because sheer, unelaborate depiction--deceptively simple when you read it, but quite difficult to accomplish--finally packs quite a wallop. Remember, the structure of the book is also conditioned by the fact that the point of view is through the eyes of one person. We have to be everywhere Gene is. As he moves and thinks, so must we, as readers, move and think. ^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: CHAPTER 1 Have you ever in your life gone through an experience so intense, so joyful, so painful, or just so important at the time, that you could only understand much later what truly happened? Isn't it a fact that when we're in the middle of an experience, we are often unable to think clearly about it because we're too busy feeling the moment's thrill or sadness to stop and come to sensible conclusions? Our high school years are just such a time: of quick growth and self-discovery, of forging as well as breaking friendships, of proving ourselves to others, in the classroom and on the sports field, and a time when we want very much to be individuals and to stick to our own principles. Meanwhile, we're also getting used to being told what to do and what to learn. The hunger to understand a significant period 15 years earlier in his life brings Gene Forrester, the narrator of A Separate Peace, back to his old high school in New Hampshire, the Devon School, on a wet and cold November day. We meet Gene as he approaches the school through the streets of the surrounding town. He is struggling to conquer his fear at returning to the old place, trying to let enthusiasm carry him along: "I felt fear's echo, and along with that I felt the unhinged, uncontrollable joy which had been its accompaniment and opposite face, joy which had broken out sometimes in those days like Northern Lights across black sky." We already know that something significant and life-changing must have happened to him a long time ago. He prepares us by building up an atmosphere of suspense as he nears the school that is familiar to him in appearance but also different--because he himself has changed, grown older and wiser. Gene wants us to notice first "a long white marble flight of stairs" inside the First Academy Building. The stairs are hard and forbidding. He turns away quickly. We'll have to let the story unfold quite a bit before we find out what took place there fifteen years earlier. NOTE: As Gene walks on, toward his second destination on campus, he remarks about the "scholarly and athletic" nature of the school. Aren't most high schools divided like this, whether they're public, private, or parochial, located in cities or in rural areas? Our minds are tested in the classroom, our bodies in the gym. And our friends often judge us on the basis of how well we do in one area or another. This double nature is a constant theme throughout the story, and we want to take note of it here, at the beginning. Farther and farther beyond the confines of the immediate campus, Gene trudges through a fog and dampness that add to the sad and nostalgic mood he establishes. Finally his quest is over. He finds a special tree, one long branch extending over the river, "not only stripped by the cold season, it seemed weary from age, enfeebled, dry." "Nothing endures," he tells us, "not a tree, not love, not even a death by violence." Did someone die at Devon 15 years ago? Is that the reason for Gene's solitary, melancholy quest on this damp November day? Preoccupied with his mission, he has failed to notice until this moment how soaked through he is, and now he decides to turn back. A little break in the text--a larger space between the paragraphs--alerts us to the flashback. If we were watching a movie, we'd see Gene as a young man in his early 30s standing by the riverbank, wearing a raincoat and a broad-brimmed hat, looking up at this special tree with a wistful and knowing smile on his face. Perhaps he'd nod slowly in understanding. Then there'd be a slow fade-out and fade-in, and now we'd be seeing Gene as a boy of 16, standing on the same spot, looking up at the same special tree--only now he is accompanied by several pals. The story moves back in time. It is now the summer of 1942. We are about to get some clues to the mystery of the tree at Devon and what happened there. With Gene by the tree is his roommate and best friend, Phineas. As we come to know Gene better, we'll discover he's a shy, introspective boy, the kind who doesn't have a very high opinion of himself. Phineas is just the opposite. We are told right away that his voice is "the equivalent in sound of a hypnotist's eyes," that his green eyes have "a maniac look," that his wide mouth is often twisted into a "smirk." NOTE: Friendships can come about just as often between people who don't seem to have anything in common as between people who seem to enjoy and care about many of the same things. The comradeship of Gene and Phineas, or Finny, is based on opposites. Keep this in mind as you watch their relationship grow. Finny challenges Gene and the other three boys, Elwin Lepellier ("Leper"), Chet Douglass, and Bobby Zane, to climb the tree, step out onto the overhanging limb, and leap into the river. Senior class boys do this all the time; Finny wants to break tradition by doing it a few months early. He jumps, and we discover his daring, his need to create tests for himself and others to rise to meet. Finny is Gene's hero, and he quickly becomes ours. He's cut from different cloth than the rest of us; in a way, he's superhuman. Gene follows Finny's lead, plunging frightened into the cold waters, as he will do time and again as the story progresses. Why does he act against his true nature in this way? Because he wants so much to please Finny? Because Finny has "some kind of hold" over him? Because Finny "shamed" him into it? The other boys make excuses and back off. Their not jumping, their not taking risks or breaking rules, draws Finny and Gene even closer together. As the boys head toward the dormitories on that warm summer evening in wartime (the war itself has not yet touched their lives), Gene and Finny become involved in their own personal combat. When Finny trips Gene, he shows he has to keep the upper hand until Gene in turn trips Finny--then Finny is "definitely pleased." They thrive on competition that lies always beneath the surface, where it must be in any deep friendship. ^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: CHAPTER 2 One of Finny's great thrills, a part of his daredevil personality, is getting away with such acts of defiance as tree-jumping. But authority wins out time and again. Gene's natural way is to bend with the rules--and school days are full of rules. Thus, when Mr. Prud'homme, one of the summer substitute teachers, stops by their room the next morning to reprimand the boys for missing dinner again, Finny is ready with a breathless speech of excuse. Gene keeps silent and reports to us. Finny's natural charm and zest for life, "his voice soaring and plunging in its vibrant sound box, his eyes now and then widening to fire a flash of green across the room," win Mr. Prud'homme over. At times like this, when most boys would be intimidated and fearful of punishment, Finny triumphs because he is always searching for common ground in another person, no matter how old he or she may be. Finny recognizes none of the conventional boundaries between people, such as usually exist between teacher and student. He's too full of energy and the simple faith that what he's doing is right. The Devon faculty had never before experienced a student who combined a calm ignorance of the rule with a winning urge to be good, who seemed to love the school truly and deeply, and never more than when he was breaking the regulations. Finny manages to convince Mr. Prud'homme that he leaped from the tree for the war effort, to bring himself "that much closer to manhood." We find this explanation is especially significant and touching when we realize the boys are still only 16. It's an important age. You're far from childhood and tantalizingly close to many of the rights and privileges of adulthood. You're also close to draft age. Because A Separate Peace takes place during World War II, we will observe the gradual and inevitable invasion of the war into these boys' lives. In Chapter 2 this war has no immediate danger for Gene and his friends; they feel protected by their familiar surroundings, the old buildings and sentimental teachers who do not want to lose touch with them. They are still more concerned with Latin assignments, trigonometry tests, and wrestling matches than they are with bombs and bullets. And "Phineas was the essence of this careless peace." Phineas represents the flower of boyhood turning ever so slowly into manhood, and that makes his eventual tragedy all the more difficult to accept, both for Gene and for us, the readers who come to know and love him. Finny continues his outrageous but good-natured defiance of school tradition by appearing at afternoon tea in the headmaster's cottage dressed in a shocking pink shirt, his school tie around his waist in place of a belt. If any boy other than Finny had done this, Mr. Patch-Withers, the substitute headmaster, would have sent him packing. But Finny's intentions are simple and heartfelt. He wears a pink shirt to "celebrate the bombing of Central Europe"; he wears his tie as a belt because he was in such a hurry to dress. NOTE: Perhaps there's another significance here. Do traditions need to be broken from time to time? And are only certain people capable of breaking them successfully without being put down as rebels or revolutionaries? Finny alone is relaxed and at ease sipping tea in the headmaster's cottage. The environment doesn't faze him; he is always himself, first and foremost, wherever he happens to be. This ability to "get away with" things begins to make Gene a little jealous. But is getting away with things all Finny is attempting? Can that be too simple an interpretation? When Mr. Patch-Withers, despite his buttoned-up manner, enjoys a good, hearty laugh over Finny's outfit, Gene feels "a sudden stab of disappointment." Gene really wants to be proud of his best friend, yet he can't fight down a growing sense of resentment. Somehow, perhaps, Finny's uniqueness makes Gene look less important. "This was my sarcastic summer," Gene admits. "It was only long after that I recognized sarcasm as the protest of people who are weak." Do you agree with Gene? What does this confession tell you about Gene's character? Breaking the expected pattern once more, Finny proposes a jump in the river. Time and again he's the initiator, the one to come up with an odd suggestion. It's a way of keeping Gene on his toes, confused, defensive; but Gene goes along. Finny's power is so strong sometimes that we wonder whether the only reason for Gene to be around, his main purpose in life, is to serve as describer of the wondrous Finny. At this early point in the story, we may find ourselves thinking that the balance in their friendship is tilted pretty oddly in one direction. Gene follows along passively, noticing in his sensitive, perceptive way the "permanent and never-changing" elm trees and the Devon School woods, which he imagines as the beginning of an unbroken stretch of forest extending all the way to Canada. He wants to hide in the knowledge of security and protectiveness the school offers, like shelter from the storm. Maybe the inner awareness that he's on the brink of growing up makes him fight all the harder to keep from growing up. But we can't have it both ways. Finny urges Gene to make a move by jumping out of the tree first. Gene would never volunteer to do this, and he tries to stall for time. Then he loses his balance and nearly falls off the limb onto the riverbank. Finny, his quick reflexes in action, reaches out and saves Gene. Then they jump successfully. ^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: CHAPTER 3 You'd think Gene would be grateful, but he isn't. He realizes it was Finny's fault in the first place that once more he found himself out on a limb. It's worth considering that expression as a description of a risky state of being, in addition to its literal meaning. Finny thrives at being "on the edge." He loves to be tested by every situation. Part of his friendship for Gene is based on his urge to draw Gene into the same kinds of tests. When we met Finny, Gene said he "almost always moved in groups the size of a hockey team." The crowd acts as a chorus for Finny, boosting him up and making him appear even more different than he is. So it's no surprise to us when their Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session, created for the sole purpose of tree-jumping, begins with just the two of them as members but quickly expands to include more and more boys. As founding members, Gene and Finny are required to jump first. It is a nightly event. "I hated it," says Gene. "I never got inured to the jumping.... But I always jumped. Otherwise I would have lost face with Phineas, and that would have been unthinkable." It is just as much in character for Finny to make tree-jumping a part of his daily life as it is for Gene to resist it with every fiber in his being while continuing to go along out of sheer desperation and the need for Finny's respect. How long, we wonder, can one person accumulate more and more power over another before something happens to break the flow? Gene begins to observe another unique characteristic of his friend Finny. Not only does he "march to the beat of a different drummer," he goes yet a step further, making up his own rules to live by and then declaring them to everybody else: "Never say you are five feet nine when you are five feet eight and a half." "Always say some prayers at night because it might turn out that there is a God." And the most important rule is, "You always win at sports." How should we interpret this last rule? Perhaps it means that Finny always seeks the positive side of an experience. He believes that even if something bad happens to you, such as being on the losing side in a baseball game or a tennis match, you'll learn from it. Walking on the sunny playing field one afternoon with Gene, Finny demonstrates his latest rule by expressing his scornful opinion of badminton. He picks up a shuttlecock from the grass and tears it apart, casting the pieces to the wind. Then his eye alights on a large medicine ball, and in a flash he invents the entirely new sport of blitzball. It's as if, in dismissing badminton, Finny makes light of all official sports and games in one fell swoop. The only sport that really makes sense is the one he creates himself. As usual, the other boys go along with Finny, playing the game according to rules he announces from moment to moment. Once more he is in complete control. The only boy who appears to resent Finny's latest triumph is Gene. The new game is well suited to Finny's endlessly active personality, and every time Finny asserts himself, Gene takes it to heart and sinks a little lower in his own self-esteem. He wants to measure up to his friend, but Finny is always a step ahead of him. Gene can't make a move without Finny, and Finny knows it. When Gene tells us in so many words that he is proud of Finny, we begin to doubt his sincerity, especially once he has admitted that this is his "sarcastic summer." Gene behaves more and more the way he thinks a friend is supposed to behave, and less and less the way he honestly wants to act toward Finny the spellbinder and magician. NOTE: We are now being reminded with greater frequency of the war going on in the larger world outside the school. Devon, we have seen, is a sheltered and nurturing place where boys have traditionally been allowed to grow, free from outside interference. But it is not always possible to prevent a greater reality from invading our lives. We watch TV, listen to the radio, read newspapers and magazines. In time of war close friends and family members may be sent off to fight. These circumstances bring thoughts of the conflict home to us. Resist as they might, the boys at Devon are influenced by the war even though they do not fully understand the effect it has on them from day to day. Fighting to ward off the war, Finny exerts more and more energy in pushing himself to greater heights of achievement. Wasn't he the first to announce the "bombing of Central Europe"? We suspect that part of the reason for his frenetic activity may lie in some deep fear of that other conflict, a fear so deep in the summer of 1942 that he can't express it in words, only in actions. With Gene his sole witness, Finny tries to break the school swimming record for the "100 Yards Free Style," competing with a name and a time posted on a board above the swimming pool: "A. Hopkins Parker--1940--53.0 seconds." This simple notice is a direct challenge to Finny. He won't accept any threat to his prowess, no matter how distant; he never knew A. Hopkins Parker, yet he responds as if the boy were standing there thumbing his nose, daring Finny to action. Notice how Gene describes Finny swimming: "He planed up the pool, his shoulders dominating the water while his legs and feet rode so low that I couldn't distinguish them." Dominating! Not even the elements are exempt from Finny's superiority. As he swims, Finny imagines A. Hopkins Parker beside him, and he knows he is going to break the record--which he does, to Gene's astonishment, by 0.7 second. Finny refuses violently when Gene suggests he perform the feat again the next day, with an official timekeeper, school officials, reporters, and photographers present. He broke the record for himself, not for anyone else--or not quite anyone else. For Gene was there, and now Gene must carry the terrible burden of this secret. Finny swears him to it. Gene is overwhelmed by the glamour, the "absolute schoolboy glamour" of what has happened. NOTE: It's worth asking ourselves, in the aftermath of this dramatic episode, whether Finny performed this act of bravado because he wanted to impress Gene, too. Maybe all his wondrous feats are Finny's way of reaching out to Gene, the only way he knows to communicate with him. He'd be uncomfortable looking Gene in the face and saying, "I like you" or "You're my best friend." These words often come out sounding forced even when they are true. Perhaps Finny is the kind of person--and you may have friends like this--for whom actions speak louder than words. Many people have trouble expressing their deepest feelings verbally. And when they try to show their feelings in other ways, we sometimes wonder whether we're receiving the right message. Finny barely gives Gene time to recover from the impact of the broken swimming record before he suggests they go off to the beach. Perhaps he is reaching yet again for some way to draw Gene closer to him through a shared and equal experience. Once more Gene responds in a manner we may have come to expect. He automatically resists, inside, without showing his reluctance to break free from the secure daily pattern he's fighting to preserve. Instead he agrees quietly, pushing down the very fears which cut into his energy even as Finny continues at fever pitch. When they arrive at the beach--after a three-hour bike ride during which Finny maintains his performance by singing, riding backward, and telling stories--Gene is overcome by the immensity of the waves. Finny, exactly the opposite, thrives on their strength: he draws power from their force and dives and swims for an hour in the pounding surf. The sand is too hot and the water too cold for Gene, but Phineas "was everywhere, he enjoyed himself hugely, he laughed out loud at passing sea gulls." NOTE: Finny is closely tied to nature. Gene is cut off from nature. Finny dives into experiences and revels in their effects; he cannot get enough of life. Gene the observer steps back from experiences, keeps a step apart. But without Gene's constant presence, how would we ever find out about the wondrous Finny? As they bed down on a sand dune to sleep beneath the stars, Finny manages to confess, finally and awkwardly, that Gene is his "best pal." We believe him. Gene is the only kind of friend a unique person such as Finny could possibly keep. How different the friendship looks from Gene's side! He cannot answer in kind. "Something held me back," he says. "Perhaps I was stopped by that level of feeling, deeper than thought, which contains the truth." A Separate Peace is very much concerned with the problem of what is truthful, and on many levels: the necessity of shared truth between friends and the problem of keeping to honesty; the overwhelming truth of a war on some distant continent; and the even higher truth that is greater than boys or war, the truth that involves destiny, fate, and the extent to which forces beyond our control could be operating to change our lives. We may not believe in fate, but does that mean it doesn't exist? ^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: CHAPTER 4 Notice the vocabulary Gene uses to describe Finny sleeping on the beach the next morning as dawn breaks: "he looked more dead than asleep... gray waves hissing mordantly... gray and dead-looking... the beach... became a spectral gray-white... Phineas... made me think of Lazarus." John Knowles likes to set a mood by painting a background portrait of nature's face. Sometimes mood is as simple as our feeling cheerful on a sunny day or mournful on a cloudy one. Sometimes it's as obvious as the womblike effect of the old and comforting Devon School buildings, whose walls insulate the boys from the outside. This time Knowles makes us feel a sense of foreboding, only to end it suddenly when Gene remembers an obligation closer at hand: his trigonometry test. Finny insists on one more swim, their bicycle ride back to school wears Gene out, Gene can't think straight and flunks the test--all because of Finny. Blitzball follows, then the required evening leap from the tree over the river, then it's back to studying. As the two boys sit opposite each other in their room, their heads bent over books in a pool of light, we note yet another important difference between them. All along Finny has conceived of Gene as a natural scholar certain to graduate at the head of their class, paralleling Finny's natural ability as the top athlete. In Gene's increasingly confused mind, however, he thinks of his intellectual prowess as a threat to Finny's superiority. Gene convinces himself that Finny is plotting to disrupt his concentration. Was the trip to the beach a part of some grand scheme to interrupt Gene's studies again and again with an unending series of diversions and games? "If I was the head of the class on Graduation Day and... won [the scholarship award], then... we would be even." This is a turning point for Gene, a revelation that transforms in an instant his perception of their friendship. Gene's fearful thoughts run wild, and he fights to keep a calm exterior even as the whole structure of their relationship crumbles in his mind. Gene convinces himself that Finny could never stand the thought of the two of them coming out "even," the one in sports and the other in studies. He convinces himself in moments that he and Finny are the very opposite of friends, that they are bitter rivals to the finish, each out for himself alone. "You did hate him for breaking that school swimming record, but so what? He hated you for getting an A in every course but one last term. You would have had an A in that one except for him. Except for him." The dark thoughts fall like hail. All the doubt and resentment Gene has been suppressing for so long break free to discolor memories of bright summer days passed in innocent play. Suddenly it appears to Gene that their games were all part of Finny's master plan to bring about Gene's downfall: "It was all cold trickery, it was all calculated, it was all enmity." NOTE: Gene's revelations force us to look back and reexamine everything that's happened between the two boys thus far. Can we agree with Gene's interpretation, or is he making it up out of desperation, as a means of escaping Finny's grasp? Is Finny really a devil rather than a saint, a demon rather than an inspiration to all who come in contact with him? Is it fair for Gene to blame Finny's basic strength of character for his own lack of certainty and strength? Can Gene's resolute reversal hold sway for the rest of the story, or is it merely a passing phase, though a dangerous one, on the road of a good friendship that will have its ups and downs but will ultimately, if it is a true friendship, survive adversity? It's interesting to see how Gene, remaining true to Finny's rule about always winning at sports, converts his gloomy interpretation into a positive path for himself. Once he decides to accept in his own mind that he and Finny are "deadly rivals," he plunges into his studies with new vigor. Once again Finny has inspired Gene to action. Isn't this ironic? Gene takes on the same spirit of dedicated competition that Finny lives and breathes by--with one important difference: Gene's competitive edge is sharpened by his need to attack Finny. Gene is a confused young man. On the one hand, as summer deepens, he becomes excited by his newfound power. On the other hand, he frightens himself with his newfound hatred for Finny, especially when, caught up in the day-to-day pleasures of school life, he forgets how he is supposed to feel about his "friend." We wonder how clearly Gene has decided how he feels about Finny. He will tell us confidently, "it didn't matter whether he showed me up at the tree or not," and then he'll become all worked up when Finny tries to distract him from his studies. It's not easy just to love or just to hate another person. For Gene it's not a black-and-white situation. There are more gray areas than he would like to admit, and they cloud the words that pass between the two. The pressure mounts with each passing day. Exam time approaches--Gene's opportunity to establish his superiority once and for all. But it's so often the case that the harder we try to learn from books, the more intensely we focus on the page, the harder it is to absorb the information we find there. Finny, who knows his friend, remarks that he is pushing too hard instead of relying on his natural intelligence. One fateful evening, in the middle of Gene's study session for a French exam, Finny interrupts to announce that "Leper" Lepellier intends to make his first leap from the tree. As a founding member of the Suicide Society, Gene's presence is required. That is the last straw! Gene is on the brink of accusing Finny of distracting him from his work so that he'll ruin his grade, but once again there's a gulf between his inner suspicions and the words he speaks: "Never mind," Gene says, giving in to his friend's guileless questioning, "forget it. I know, I joined the club, I'm going. What else can I do?" NOTE: Read this important conversation between the two boys closely, and you'll find it difficult at first to decide whether or not Finny is being manipulative. Is he trying to bend Gene to his will by acting as though he doesn't really care whether Gene comes along? Is he pretending when he confesses he didn't realize his friend ever needed to study? It's hard for us to tell where Finny stands because we're witnessing the scene through Gene's eyes, seeing only his version of the encounter. Gene agrees to go. Perhaps he didn't really feel like studying and was only looking for an excuse to close the book. (All of us have had that impulse at times!) Perhaps, as he thinks on his way across the fields, "there never was and never could have been any rivalry between us" because Finny cannot be measured against any ordinary person. Finny is a superman. Has Gene's failing all along been his alliance, at this sensitive and vulnerable time in his life, with a person who by his very excellence makes anyone else seem small and insignificant in comparison? Or is the author trying to warn in general of the danger of comparing ourselves to others, whoever they may be? The boys reach the tree, and Finny suggests he and Gene make the leap together, "side by side." As far as he is concerned, they are equals; he accepts Gene on the same footing, and they should now demonstrate their faith and trust in each other by taking the ultimate dare together. This could be the moment when Gene establishes--before the audience of boys gathered on the riverbank--a kind of equality with Finny. NOTE: Gene, standing high above the ground, may not be aware how many streams of doubt, fear, and hope are now coming together. We readers sense that he is at a turning point, and we wonder whether he has the strength to make a decision on his own. Can he go along with Finny's initiative, accept his friend at face value without doubting his motivations, and, most important, try to understand himself a little better? Instead Gene (intentionally, or not?) "jounced the limb," and "Finny, his balance gone... tumbled sideways, broke through the little branches below and hit the bank with a sickening, unnatural thud." Gene, "with unthinking sureness," makes a fearless leap into the river, as if, for the first time, with the fall of Finny, all obstacles to his success have been removed. From this point life will never be the same for anyone in the story; like a drama focused on the rise and fall of a heroic figure, A Separate Peace becomes a tragedy. ^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: CHAPTER 5 Gene is numb in the aftermath of Finny's fall. He loses touch with his feelings, withdraws into himself, spends more and more time alone. He seems never to have socialized much with the other boys, and with Finny now in the school infirmary, Gene has temporarily lost his reason for being, so closely were they tied. Just before his fall Finny might have realized the truth of their closeness and asked Gene to jump with him in that spirit. Now it's too late. In the privacy and quiet of their room, Gene decides to wear Finny's clothes. For a while he thrills to the realization that, in a strange way, he is Finny. He has existed as his friend's ambassador to the world, the medium through which others, like us, came to know him. If Gene cannot continue this role, however tentatively, he will have no practical purpose to serve. NOTE: We ask ourselves whether it's healthy for anyone to suspend his or her own sense of identity to such a degree that it becomes completely incorporated into someone else. You have probably heard the phrase "Know thyself" offered as the key to an understanding of the world around you. Does Gene know himself well yet, or does he need Finny's tragedy to open his eyes? Dr. Stanpole, the school physician, informs Gene that "sports are finished" for Finny. His leg, broken in several places, will never function normally again. Dr. Stanpole places on Gene the responsibility of helping Finny come to terms with this shocking fact, a fact that will be even more difficult to accept for a boy to whom sports represents everything that's wonderful and true about life, the ultimate activity in which there are supposed to be no losers. Gene is now on a new path of his own. He's making the rapid discovery that he's expected to come through, to be someone Finny can literally lean on in his time of rehabilitation. Gene fights guilt, his new enemy on this path, and goes to visit Finny, who lies in bed in a cast, immobilized for the first time in his life. Gene wants desperately to confess to Finny that the accident was his fault. He wants to clear the air and start afresh, yet he knows that he is the only person Finny has asked to see and that his friend maintains faith in him even now. It's an intolerable position. Finny tries to recall what happened by the riverbank. "I just fell," he says, his eyes clouded by drugs, "something jiggled and I fell over." He doesn't want to accuse Gene. He is too noble, or perhaps some shadowy question remains. Each admits to wanting to "reach out" at the last moment: Finny's intention was to grasp for a trusted hand to hold; Gene's thought is that Finny wanted to drag him down too. They remain on opposite sides of the truth, the shadowy, elusive truth of an instant that is already beginning to fade in memory. Gene is about to make a full confession--or he thinks he is--when Dr. Stanpole and the nurse arrive. The following day Finny is sent home to recuperate. The summer session comes to an end, appropriately enough for Gene, for until now summer had represented freedom, sports, and running outdoors, with Finny as the light and life of it all. Now all that has changed. A month later, after a sojourn at home, Gene heads back to school for his senior year. On the way he makes a detour to call on Finny. NOTE: The "surprise" reunion is no surprise to Finny, who appears to have been waiting anxiously in hopes his friend would come. For Finny, their allegiance still thrives. Gene has yet to understand just how much Finny needs him; he is still unable to stop idealizing Finny in one way or another, unable to stop making him into someone he really isn't. Gene's own muddled self-image makes it continually difficult for him to perceive Finny in a clear light. They trade small talk for a while in Finny's living room. Gene is ill at ease in the plush, sedate surroundings. He is out of his element and wishes they were back on campus. "It was there that I had done it," he reflects, sitting opposite Finny, "but it was here that I would have to tell it." A burning need to confess has been smoldering within him for a month. Once again he seizes the time. "I jounced the limb. I caused it," Gene tells Finny. "I deliberately jounced the limb so you would fall off." Finny does not want to believe this, and as soon as the words are out of his mouth, Gene regrets having said them. Gene is still uncertain, and he realizes that in confessing to the deed he has hurt Finny even more deeply. In a subtle, emotional way, he is planting the seed of doubt in Finny's mind at a time when the invalid has no way to distract himself from turning Gene's words over and over in his thoughts. For every step forward he takes--coming to Finny's home, confessing to the crime--Gene takes a step back, regretting his words, finding a way to be off to school in order to escape into his hopes that somehow the situation will resolve itself. But it's not that simple. If you were Gene, what would you do? Every reader of A Separate Peace has to ask himself that question. ^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: CHAPTER 6 The return to school in the fall is always an occasion of mixed emotions. There's the promise of new ideas to be learned and new friendships to be made; at the same time, there's the threat of new intellectual pressures and new teachers who may have higher or different expectations of us. And for seniors there's a question mark; where do I go from here? For the senior boys of Devon School in the 1942-1943 academic year, the question of military service looms large. Hurried into manhood by the war, most of them will have to defer their university plans until after they have contributed in some way to the war effort. Returning to school without having Finny around is especially painful for Gene, We've learned enough about the depth of their connectedness to be able to feel Gene's estrangement from his surroundings, even as the masters strive to maintain continuity and tradition by sitting in their customary pews and singing the same hymns in chapel on opening day. Gene finds something oddly appropriate about singing Dear Lord and Father of Mankind Forgive Our Foolish Ways, as if it had been planned expressly for him. No matter how determinedly we try to hold on to these precious days, summer gives way to fall, 16 gives way to 17 and 18, junior year gives way to senior year, childhood gives way to adulthood. And in wartime these phases have a way of becoming accelerated beyond our control. For Gene this bittersweet time is marked by Finny's absence; the gap a leader has left cannot be filled easily. NOTE: Here the author introduces us in greater detail to some other boys who, while Finny was around, seemed little more than cardboard figures in the background of Finny and Gene's struggles. Now that the picture has been dramatically changed, we turn our attention to this supporting cast of characters. New life is breathed into Leper Lepellier and Brinker Hadley (who rooms across the hall from where Gene now lives alone), and we meet Quackenbush, manager of the crew team. Even as we come to know the other boys in this second phase of the story, the memory of Finny remains vivid. As Gene makes his way to the Crew House to report for his first day of duty as assistant senior crew manager, he pauses by the river to recall the sight, in happier times, of "Phineas in exaltation, balancing on one foot on the prow of a canoe like a river god, his raised arms invoking the air to support him, face transfigured, body a complex set of balances and compensations." His memories of Finny do not torture Gene the way the sight of Finny himself, swathed in bandages, had done. Why has Gene decided not to go out for a sport but to sign on as an assistant manager? Is this his way of doing penance and not violating Finny's sacred position as the ultimate athlete? Quackenbush (no one uses his first name, which is Cliff), the senior crew manager, has already formed a judgment of Gene based on Gene's taking the assistant manager job: clearly the boy's self-image has suffered a shock. But, Gene tells us, "I knew his flat black eyes would never detect my trouble." What sort of trouble do you suppose this is that cannot be seen by the naked eye? And how sincerely do you think Gene wants to escape the atmosphere of competition at Devon? Is it ever possible to avoid competition in school? Gene would prefer to suffer his guilt in silence, to perform the menial tasks of fetching towels and water buckets, gathering oars, helping to bring the lightweight shells onto the shore, without anyone bothering him. Quackenbush, however, will not tolerate such independence. He goads and teases Gene, clearly picking a fight. We all know people who can't get through the day without conflict of some kind, and Quackenbush is one of those types. He presents yet another test for Gene, and it is in meeting rather than avoiding tests that one grows and develops as an individual. John Knowles reminds us of this over and over again in A Separate Peace. The Quackenbushes of this world are at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Finnys. In responding to Quackenbush's taunts--"Go to hell Forrester. Who the hell are you anyway" and "Listen, you maimed son-of-a-bitch"--Gene makes a quick statement about where he stands. He lashes out in anger and, he realizes soon after the fight, in defense of Finny. Imagining Finny's presence, his indomitable spirit and his faultlessly positive attitude, gives Gene the courage to fight back. Gene's action is the "first skirmish of a long campaign," the first step toward a rebuilt sense of self-confidence. Can it be that Finny is an even truer friend when he's not around, when Gene can draw on an idea of him for inspiration without becoming confused by Finny's larger-than-life example in the flesh? Finny is very much on Gene's mind as he straggles damply back to the main campus and runs into Mr. Ludsbury, the teacher in charge of his dormitory. Mr. Ludsbury reprimands Gene for his sloppy appearance and lays down the law about gambling at night--which makes Gene feel even more guilty. He accuses Gene, who as a senior should know better, of "taking advantage" of the relaxed summertime rules. Gene just stands there, reflecting on what might have happened last summer if he had "truly taken advantage of the situation," that is, if he had understood the sincerity of Finny's friendship and not done what he did. A long-distance telephone call awaits Gene in Mr. Ludsbury's study--not bad news from home, as Gene fears, but Finny's cheerful voice welcoming him to the start of a new school year. Evidently his invalid friend has been thinking of him, too. As far as Finny is concerned, he and Gene are still roommates, and he is relieved to hear that his side of the room remains unoccupied and ready for his eventual return to Devon--a sign there's still a place for him in Gene's heart as well. "God you were crazy when you were here," Finny tells Gene. Has he decided once and for all that the incident at the tree must have been an accident? Gene's resolve is shaken. He would like to believe he did not act intentionally. Finny is shocked and dumbfounded to learn that his friend has signed up as assistant crew manager. Gene doesn't tell Finny that he interprets Dr. Stanpole's pronouncement that "sports are finished" for Finny as meaning there will be no more sports for him as well. In this way he denies himself the pleasure of sports and apologizes for what has happened to Finny. But Finny does not accept Gene's position: "If I can't play sports, you're going to play them for me." At that moment it dawns on Gene that the two of them are tied together inextricably. He can no longer distinguish who is Finny and who is Gene. Not even a fall from the tree can tear them apart. ^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: CHAPTER 7 Appearance means a lot at a school like Devon. Clothes play a big part in A Separate Peace, and the way the boys dress gives you clues about their personalities (remember Finny's pink shirt?). Gene is clothes-conscious, mindful of how Finny would respond to something he decides to wear. Appearances mean more than clothes. Brinker Hadley, the self-styled leader of the class in a more conventional way than Finny was, takes on more stature in Finny's absence. Even though he has a two-room suite and a frightened roommate who gives him plenty of elbowroom, Brinker still envies Gene's "solitary splendor." Brinker measures Gene's current status--one boy in a room meant for two--as a threat, and for Gene this means one more battle he must fight in the aftermath of Finny's departure. Brinker stops by, supposedly to chat, but in fact he is bent on questioning Gene's privileges. Brinker even accuses Gene of conspiring to make sure that Finny does not return to school so that he will be able to keep his single room! Brinker's probing questions strike at the core of Gene's abiding sensitivity and guilt about what happened in the summer. Gene tries to change the subject by suggesting a trip to the Butt Room, a dingy place in the dormitory basement where boys are permitted to smoke. NOTE: Brinker refers to the Butt Room as "the dungeon," and this may very well suggest yet another image of Gene's guilty feelings. What will it take to free him? Does he really want to make a confession in front of his peers? It's important to bear in mind Brinker's role here as one of bringing Gene to justice. He thrusts Gene into the Butt Room and announces to the assembled boys, "Here's your prisoner, gentlemen," accusing Gene, half-jokingly, of "fratricide." Now Brinker is driven to find out more about what happened at the tree. He acts partly because he envies Finny, and Gene's ascendancy through him, which makes his own position at the top a little shaky, and partly because competition is the name of the game at Devon. If you don't strike out at others first, they may plot behind your back to advance themselves at your expense. The school may be isolated, but in its social makeup it contains many elements of the "real world." Unfortunately, the boys won't realize this until much later in life; in Gene's case, that realization is the reason for his telling the tale we are now reading. The Butt Room is a sinister place where boys put on suspicious attitudes. Behind their pretended inquisition style there is deadly seriousness. Gene would risk incurring the wrath of the others if he didn't play along with their "game." "We know the scene of the crime," Brinker says, "high in that... that funeral tree by the river." "Tell us everything," a younger boy urges. It is clear that stories and rumors have been circulating at the school in that special way gossip gets passed around, changed, and interpreted. Because of the pecking order we discussed earlier, one boy's fall by a notch can mean another boy's rise by an equal notch. Gene manages to squeeze out of the game by turning the tables fiercely and then breaking off to go study French. Time is on his side. As autumn dispels the last mists of summer, school days become more intensified and the boys turn to immediate and more serious matters--"tomorrow bristled with so much to do." It appears that no one really has the time to dig deeper into the Finny affair. The war and the encroachment of winter likewise serve to dull the memory of that fateful summer, to Gene's relief. The first snowfall, when it comes surprisingly early, is another contribution to summer's obliteration. NOTE: Have you ever thought about the way weather can set a mood? In A Separate Peace the shift of seasons and the change in weather it brings play a very important part. For a sensitive boy like Gene, the turning year means a turn in his mood. He delights in summer, dreads winter; he revels in the temporary suspension of school rules and regulations during summer session, and he regrets the return to routine in the fall session. Summer is a time of outwardness, but winter's snow "clamps" the boys in, allowing them more time to study, think, and reflect. That isn't always helpful for someone like Gene who already spends so much time in his thoughts. Two hundred boys are recruited to help shovel snow from the railroad yards in a nearby town, in aid of "the war effort," and they trudge off to perform their civic duty. Leper Lepellier remains behind, buried in his notebook. Preoccupied as usual with the small happenings of nature, he goes cross-country skiing by himself. Do you see an obvious significance in Leper's name? He is the outcast, a small, shy, introspective boy who often stands apart from the crowd and seems not to care what others think about his reclusive behavior. Gene is on his way to help with the shoveling when he comes across Leper in the countryside and asks him, "Where are you going?" Leper replies, "Well, I'm not going anywhere. I'm just touring around." Leper reminds us that there doesn't always have to be a direct purpose and usefulness to our actions, that some things can be done simply for the sake of doing them. NOTE: Let's bear in mind little Leper's mild presence and the way in which he is so often taken for granted by his classmates, who overlook him time and again. He's there on significant occasions, and sooner or later his presence will figure importantly in the story, when we least expect it. Leper and Gene part. One shoves off on ski poles in search of a beaver dam, the other trudges away "to help shovel out New England for the war." How do you think Gene really feels about his lot in life at this moment? Do you suppose there's a part of him that would rather take Leper's path, to seek and find and do what he really wants, instead of following the herd? How important to Leper are the opinions of others? And how important are they to Gene? At last the boys of Devon free a group of passenger cars that turn out to be troop trains filled with young men of about their age, who cheer as they roll past. The boys have made it possible for one more group of soldiers to continue on their way to war. No one knows what to say about this dubious achievement except that it points up the contrast between being part of the war and not being part of it. The day's work brings the war home to the boys in a new way. Returning to the school, they talk among themselves about the war and its growing distraction for them. Their studying for exams and going out for sports seems suddenly absurd, useless, and downright wrong. For the first time, they begin to talk seriously about enlisting in the armed forces. The option of not waiting out the senior year has presented itself through the sight of those young, enthusiastic troops and through thoughts of older brothers already in service. There is also the thought that the boys of Devon might not have any legacy for following generations if they do not seize the time and become fighters for freedom. Each boy, aware that these are perilous times, must confront the prospect of having to make a great decision. Percolating within Gene is the half-concealed desire to make a sharp break with childhood and the troublesome events of the past few months. To enlist in the army would accomplish that in one stroke. As they approach the dormitory the boys run into Leper. Gene feels responsible for defending Leper's independent actions that day. He understands the worth of Leper's choice, and most likely he envies it; he envies anyone who has the courage of his convictions. Gene believes he does not possess any deeply felt convictions. Can we agree with this harsh self-evaluation? Leper passes on into the night. Brinker is sharply critical of Leper and, by extension, of the school as a whole. He is impatient to make a move. "I'm giving it up," Brinker blurts out to Gene, no doubt inspired by what he has seen that day, "I'm going to enlist. Tomorrow." Brinker's announcement is the spark that sets Gene's resolution on fire, liberating all his half-formed fantasies of escape as a way out of the mess. "Not that it would be a good life," Gene concedes. "The war would be deadly all right. But I was used to finding something deadly in things that attracted me." NOTE: Do you wonder if Gene's immediate realization that this is the destiny he's hungered for all his life is in fact a veiled desire for death, the ultimate punishment for what he's done to Finny? He bears down on the decision under the cold light of a starry winter night sky. It still seems right to him. Gene can think of no earthly reason to persevere on his current path. Life at Devon has been meaningless since the destruction of the summer. Maybe he has nothing to live for: "I... knew that I owed no one anything. I owed it to myself to meet this crisis in my life when I chose, and I chose now." Gene is resolved and at peace in his decision. He has finally taken a step on his own, a step as momentous as a baby's first step, a step toward learning to walk without holding on to anything, independent of aid, single and forthright. Gene returns to his room, filled with a self-confidence and buoyancy he's never had before--and finds that Finny is there, awaiting him with the old, familiar grin. ^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: CHAPTER 8 Finny is overjoyed to see Gene again, desperate to get back into the school routine and pretend nothing unusual has happened. Perhaps Gene's friendship means more to Finny than he thought--more than any of us thought. Sometimes it takes a prolonged absence from another person to permit one to appreciate that person with greater insight. Finny watches with affection as Gene undresses. Gene revels in the spotlight of Finny's unbroken attention. That night Gene says his prayers with exceptional care. What do you suppose he is praying and wishing for? What is he thankful for? Notice Finny's vitality despite his invalid condition: "He was sitting up in bed" the next morning, "as though ready to spring out of it, totally and energetically awake." Yet he reveals his new dependence on Gene when he says, "Hand me my crutches, will you?" NOTE: Gene is more conscious of Finny's disability than Finny is. We've talked about Gene's guilt; he has taken on quite a burden. Despite his joy at Finny's return, he still must cope with his abiding memories of the accident, and he's reminded of it every time he looks at Finny. Suddenly Brinker bursts into the room. The last time he'd seen Gene, in the aftermath of the snow shoveling, the two of them had resolved to enlist together. Now, with Finny's return, Gene's plans waver. Because Brinker is an impulsive person, he tends to barrel ahead with whatever's on his mind, without a care for obstructions. He has convinced himself that Gene conspired to get rid of Finny, and now he sneers that the "plot" has failed. Finny is mystified; an embarrassed Gene tries to clear the air by explaining away and shrugging off his resolution of the previous night. With his support dwindling, Brinker too is relieved to back away from the plan to enlist. At the core of their being, these boys fear the war. Wouldn't you? They grapple with it as a concept they don't quite understand. Seeing a group of young men, like them, packed into troop trains, and cheering them on, is by no means the same as being one of those young men on a train headed for an unknown destination. The best-laid plans are dissipated in an instant as Brinker, Gene, and Finny indulge in early morning schoolboy horseplay. Gene has a revelation, one that springs forth out of a growing instinct: "Phineas was shocked at the idea of my leaving. In some way he needed me.... He wanted me around. The war then passed away from me, and dreams of enlistment and escape and a clean start lost their meaning for me." Can we place Finny and all he represents in direct opposition to the war and all it represents in Gene's mind? So Gene retreats into the sanctuary of Finny's friendship. The accident has brought the two boys even more closely together. NOTE: As we read of Gene's newfound peace of mind, we wonder how much he may have been searching for a way to cut down the competitive tension he had felt during the summer, and whether he thought the only way to reduce that tension was to bring Finny down to a less forbidding stature. As for Finny, we wonder whether he has ever been aware of himself as a threat to Gene simply by virtue of his prowess and natural skill. The story is fascinating because the more we read forward, the more we need to think back, to reevaluate past events in the light of new discoveries. Gene begins to care more for Finny, to serve as his guide, trailblazer, and vigilant companion. Earlier, Gene had said he felt like he was "part of" Finny. His friend's infirmity is his, too; as they walk from building to building, Gene is painfully aware of the traps and pitfalls that wait for a person who can't completely control his movements. And every movement of Finny's reminds Gene of the way his friend used to be, how graceful and easy his steps once were, not so long ago, when he moved "in continuous flowing balance." Finny's stride may have changed, but his old instinct for disrupting routines obviously has not. By appearing at school he has already broken Gene's resolution. Now, on the wintry afternoon of his first day back, he suggests they cut class and go to the gym, the temple of sports, Finny's ideal then and now. On the walk to the gym Gene sees how Finny pushes beyond his limits, suffering with every step, determined not to reveal his pain. Here is yet another reminder that there's a difference between how we see ourselves and how others see us--a theme of central importance to this story. This is a time in life when we're very concerned about our own self-image, and that's just as important for Finny as it is for anyone else. But Gene penetrates Finny's facade because the boys are so much closer now. He sees Finny's weakness because his friend is "a poor deceiver, having had no practice." Why do you suppose Finny wants so much to go to the gym, to sit in the locker room with the sports equipment and dirty uniforms scattered about, the smell of sweat and exertion hanging in the damp air? It must be a bittersweet moment for him as he rests breathless on a wooden bench, surveying the once familiar surroundings. To have been a great athlete and to know in your heart that for you "sports are finished" must be difficult to accept once and for all. "You're going to be the big star now," he says, turning to Gene, as though he were passing the baton to him in a relay race. "You can fill any gaps or anything." What does Finny mean by gaps? Is he talking about Gene as his successor, grooming him to take over the athletic spot he had occupied? NOTE: Finny is fighting with all his being to rebuild his world. He wants Gene to snap out of his guilt and depression, to stop punishing himself, and to take on new motivations. He wants to give Gene a constant pep talk that will turn him away from thoughts of war and the crew team. Because he has suffered, Finny reveals, he now has the right to take on more authority. Just when we think Gene is guiding Finny, Finny turns around and exercises considerable willpower over Gene. Each boy is reaching out with new threads to bind him to the other. Gene grasps a chinning bar, and Finny tells him, "Do thirty of them." Gene obeys as if he were the Finny of the past. Finny informs Gene he's going to coach him for the 1944 Olympics. And why not? Hasn't Finny always been a dreamer, an untiring creator of imaginary worlds, the boy who's never been able to accept things as they are? Gene gives himself over in service to Finny, and Finny in turn applies his influence to raise Gene as if he were his child more than his pal. A comforting aura descends upon the story now that so much agony and tension are gone. Gene and Finny nurture each other; Gene tutors Finny in academic subjects, Finny tutors Gene in athletics. There's a new double direction to their relationship. Gene flowers and grows. One morning, just before Christmas break, the boys are out early for their workout. Finny leans against a tree, supervising Gene's four laps around the quadrangle. For the first time, Gene gets what runners like to call a "second wind," a breakthrough moment when you're feeling tired one second, then it's as if you were just starting to run. Finny notices it too, and he points it out to Gene as a sure sign of self-awareness, not just a matter of physical strength. Up to this point Gene has always been a divided person, concentrating on developing his mental abilities at the expense of his body. Finny, the wise one, knows the importance of strength in both and sees the goal fulfilled now in Gene. Finny is not embarrassed about telling Mr. Ludsbury, who has been secretly observing the boys, that Gene is "aiming for the '44 Olympics." As far as Finny is concerned--and much to Mr. Ludsbury's dismay--the war has nothing to do with their training program. Finny could care less about the war. "He's really sincere, he thinks there's a war on," Finny says in "simple wonder" of Mr. Ludsbury. How much more satisfying life is when all acceptance of war is banished from the mind! A Separate Peace is as much a novel against war as it is a story about friendship. ^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: CHAPTER 9 It is fitting that Leper Lepellier becomes the first boy to enlist, for "No real war could draw Leper voluntarily away from his snails and beaver dams," Gene says. The senior boys are solicited during the winter months by members of the armed forces recruitment teams, and of course Finny persists in joking about fabricated propaganda films that, he says, show "Finnish ski troops," not American combat skiers. But Leper is drawn in. At last he has found a connection. He likes to ski; there's a need for skiers in the war. Before we know it Leper is gone, still several weeks shy of his 18th birthday. Finny will not let Gene indulge in the remotest thoughts about the reality or nonreality of the war, even in the aftermath of Leper's enlistment, when the Butt Room is filled with gossip. Finny, engaged in an all-out campaign to deny war, drags Gene further and further away from accepting it and even from associating with the other boys. It's as if the "separate peace" Finny strives to create in every waking moment is meant for himself and Gene alone and can work only when the two of them are behind it 100 percent. NOTE: All of us have experienced moments in a friendship when we feel that our best friend is the only person who truly understands. Finny is extending that faith to a much greater territory, and he wants Gene to share fully in his exclusive view of the way of the world--a world without war. Games of "let's pretend" are natural to childhood, unheard of in adulthood; Gene and Finny hang on to their games as long as possible because they know what it will mean when they are forced to abandon them. Their desperate fight to keep childhood alive within themselves helps to explain Finny's invention of the Devon Winter Carnival. This is yet another distraction, one that comes as an inspiration on a bleary, gray Saturday in the aftermath of Leper's departure. It's Finny's way of distracting everyone from the encroaching threats of war, of protecting his pals by not allowing them time enough for reflection. Finny discovers it's no longer as simple as it was in the days when his authority held sway. The other boys do not share Finny's ready ability to sink into fantasyland. Nevertheless they go along with him. But Brinker, struggling to maintain his equilibrium, shows signs of giving in to the obsession of the war. "Who wants a Winter Carnival?" he asks. "What are we supposed to be celebrating?" Bit by bit the darkening tenor of the times descends upon Devon. Were it not for Finny's indomitable spirit in fighting his private battle and never conceding its absurdity, the war would have taken a greater toll by now. Boys will be boys. On the Saturday planned, everything is in place, including jugs of hard cider and a classroom table strewn with prizes: Finny's icebox, a dictionary, a set of barbells, a copy of the Iliad, a file of Betty Grable photographs, a lock of hair, a rope ladder, a forged draft card. Despite his seemingly passive position as he sits deep in thought behind the prize table, Finny is still in charge. There is no set schedule for the carnival proceedings. Nobody knows exactly what to do or what is expected. "Twenty boys, tightly reined in all winter," are milling around, waiting for the go-ahead from their leader. Brinker has lost his bravado since Finny's return, and it is increasingly clear that Finny's presence creates difficulty for him, that in some sense he feels usurped. Brinker is paralyzed, probably because he doesn't really think the time is right for frivolity. "What's next? Phineas!" Brinker cries out, in desperation as much as challenge. "You are," Finny finally replies, and, as if on signal, all the boys jump on Brinker. It's a revolution, a riot more than a carnival, a chance to let off the steam that has built up through frustration and powerlessness in the face of world events, day after day of reading newspapers and listening to the radio and wondering what is really going on in the world of "fat old men making decisions" about slender young men who are fighting and dying overseas. With a gush of hard cider, Devon's First Annual Winter Carnival becomes not an organized schedule of competitive events but an all-out drunken brawl, Finny's "choreography of peace." "It wasn't the cider which made me surpass myself," Gene tells us, "it was this liberation we had torn from the gray encroachments of 1943, the escape we had concocted, this afternoon of momentary, illusory, special and separate peace." NOTE: Observe carefully Gene's choice of words. He knows how fragile and transient the atmosphere is, and he knows that his destiny approaches in the guise of a telegram from Leper that will bring home once more a war that simply will not let him ignore its foreboding presence. ^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: CHAPTER 10 We learn about a character in a story by comparing that person with other characters. We've already had ample opportunity to consider how Gene measures up to Finny. And we've observed Gene's new, if shaky, friendship with Brinker--a moody, boisterous fellow who in some ways is more typical of his age than Finny (at one extreme) or Gene (at the other). Now what do we make of Leper Lepellier? Are you surprised to read of his desertion from the army and secret retreat to his home in Vermont, or did you expect this daring action? Why does Leper alert Gene? If you recall the snow-shoveling episode, you'll remember that Gene alone was sympathetic to Leper's choice when he went off on his own to ski and hunt for beaver dams. Gene strikes off into the heart of Vermont to visit Leper. The war's immensity and the true danger of what Leper has done still have not dawned upon him. The beauty of morning in a snow-shrouded Vermont occupies his thoughts: "this Grecian sun evoked joy from every angularity and blurred with brightness the stiff face of the countryside." Gene's first impressions on seeing Leper tell us there is something new and oddly wrong with the boy. On the brink of displaying his anguish and distress, Leper keeps pulling himself back, as if he were wearing a mask. Gene wishes it were all a dream, an illusion, but even Finny's hypnotic fantasies about the war cannot help him here, in isolation with Leper. Gene wishes he had never come. Answering Leper's call carries with it the burden of having to figure out what to do about him. And Gene's sense of responsibility is already overstrained with the burden of Finny. "What do you mean, you escaped?" an incredulous Gene asks his friend. "You don't escape from the army." Leper is furious at himself, for going into the army in the first place; at the army, for its completely unpredictable pressures that were far too great for him to tolerate; at Gene, because he represents all the boys at Devon who have not yet made the great step forward. Leper tells the confused story of what happened to him. It turns out that he was on the verge of being discharged for mental unfitness. Gene doesn't understand (or doesn't want to understand) the depth of Leper's mental torture. Leper admits that part of his reason for joining the army was to please his parents; he was trapped, as so many children of every age are, by that basic need that can never be completely fulfilled. Up to now Gene has, as usual, been a captive audience, attendant ear, and trusted listener. But then Leper lashes out, accusing Gene of being "a savage underneath... like that time you knocked Finny out of the tree." This accusation--does it shock you when you read it?--drives Gene into a fury. He kicks Leper's chair and the boy falls to the floor, giggling incoherently. Gene guiltily accepts lunch with Leper and his mother as "one long and elaborate apology" for what he has just done. He is still consumed with remorse. How close to the surface the memory of that fateful evening at the tree remains! The two boys go for a walk in the snowy, ice-encrusted fields. Gene keeps hoping Leper will be transformed magically into his old self and become again the inquisitive, polite, sensitive lad he used to be. But Leper has been through a terrible time, and his brief sojourn in the army has taken its toll. As Gene strives to carry on some semblance of a normal conversation, he observes that Leper's frail psyche is as vulnerable as the crackling ice surface over which they walk. The natural world--beaches, woods, green fields, rivers--has always offered a refuge for Gene, a place where he can gain solace and peace. His walk with Leper over frozen wastelands does not accomplish the same cleansing purpose. Gene brings up Brinker's name. Leper snaps back, "I'd know that bastard if he'd changed into Snow White." Gene had not realized that Leper harbored hateful thoughts about Brinker. Is this venomous attitude representative of the new "psycho" Leper? Leper tries to explain what happened to him. He describes life in the army: the abrupt transition from sheltering Devon, the horrendous food, the rough-woven uniforms, the brutalizing routine, the illness of those around him. We begin to imagine the disastrous effect of all these elements on a vulnerable boy. Like Gene, we begin to wonder how much it takes to drive a person crazy, and we try to understand--as Leper describes his recurrent fantasy of women's faces on men's bodies--the horror that war has even for someone who did not come close to fighting it. "This has nothing to do with me! Nothing at all! I don't care!" is all Gene can come out with; loud, absolute denial is his sole defense. He runs away, leaving Leper alone with the snow, wind, and cold. And again we ask ourselves what we would have done in Gene's shoes. Is Leper beyond help, beyond hope? ^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: CHAPTER 11 Have you detected an interesting paradox about Gene? We don't know what he looks like, though we imagine an open, receptive face, eyes set wide apart, mouth in thin smile, but obviously there's something about him that people trust, that encourages them to tell him things and confide in him. And yet he doesn't trust himself at all well. He has a knack for getting to the heart of situations that is countered by an equally strong inclination to pull away, or protect himself. And so Gene heads back to the sanctuary of Devon in search of Phineas, the one human being who remains exempt from this horrible, ugly war and who understands only the noble struggle on the field of sport, never that on the field of battle. Gene returns to find a snowball fight in progress, a schoolboy imitation of the real war Gene now knows more about than he cares to. In this winter of 1943 his fantasy of Devon as an "untouched grove" is wearing thin. Gene cannot really keep the dream alive much longer in view of what he has just learned from Leper. Finny is the last major holdout, but he too is losing momentum, even though his wound has healed and he now walks with only the slightest limp. Gene puts off the obligation to report on Leper's condition. He does not want to be the bearer of bad tidings. However, as the only peer witness so far to the boy's deterioration, he has no choice but to respond openly when Brinker and Finny draw him out that evening. "My resentment against having to mislead people seemed to be growing stronger every day," Gene confesses to us as he falters in guarding the story of his Vermont visit and then reveals the truth. Finny and Brinker take the news hard. It's an undeniable confirmation of the war, embodied in someone they know well. It stares them in the face and will not go away. Finny, clutching at straws, tries to shrug off Leper's being absent without leave as a justifiable response to the army; Brinker tries to tough it out, talking of "guys like that," hoping against hope it won't happen to him. (Remember who was the first among their crowd to leap at the chance to enlist.) Jumping to his crippled friend's side when Brinker reminds Gene that Finny would not be eligible for the army because of his busted leg, Gene takes a half-hearted stab at reviving the old story about "this fake war," knowing more deeply than ever how genuine it is. Finny responds with irony, "Sure. There isn't any war," as if he believes the very opposite. Leper has proven to them that there is a war and that it can kill the mind and spirit as easily as it can the body. So much for fantasies. The eagerness to enlist that had rippled through the Devon ranks is replaced by a go-slow policy. Every boy is now looking for the branch of the military that promises the least peril. Representatives of the armed services come to campus, make presentations, and leave. "The thing to be was careful and self-preserving," Gene says. Brinker threatens Gene one morning after chapel. He's still jealous, and he wants to drive a wedge between the devoted roommates. Living across the hall, fighting to make a name for himself in class, and joining numerous extracurricular activities, Brinker devotes every waking moment to establishing himself as a leader. Finny, who doesn't even try, has no agenda or plan of campaign; merely by assembling the boys at the foot of the stairwell and making them sing hymns, or by cracking outrageous jokes, Finny readily attracts the loyalty and devotion of his peers. Brinker resents both Finny's charmed life and Gene's role as Finny's protector. Is that why he threatens Gene so ominously with a kind of blackmail, obliquely referring to the summertime accident and Gene's part in it? Brinker hopes that by instilling fear in Gene he can somehow get closer to the magically attractive Finny, discover the secret of his success, and then gain by it. Brinker's threats do not long deter Gene from returning to Finny's side. The reciprocal efforts continue; he coaches Finny in Latin, "since he had to pass Latin at last this year or fail to graduate." Caesar, like war, is a concept that Finny has had trouble believing in. He's the kind of person for whom secondhand information is not good enough; he must experience life in the raw. Above all, he tells Gene, approaching him in order to be closer when he pronounces it, "I've got to believe you, at least. I know you better than everybody." Finny has seen Leper on campus, and he decides to share this dangerous news with Gene. For a few golden moments in their sunny room, the two boys enjoy shared laughter and fond memories. Their affection for each other is untainted, pure as youth, long awaited and welcome. How close the two boys have become since the beginning of the new school year; how much more natural and giving their friendship seems now. When "Brinker and three cohorts" come to abduct Finny and Gene that night, the two suspect nothing. And why should they? After all, it's spring of senior year, a time of pranks and light-headedness. They sneak over to the First Building--deserted, naturally, after ten at night--and Gene notes the symbolically significant inscription above the door, "Here Boys Come to Be Made Men." Some sort of tribunal has been planned, and with sinister intent. NOTE: We recall Brinker's warning and wonder if the time of trial has come, time for Brinker to take the law into his own hands and push to the heart of the mystery that has been torturing him since summer. But rather than pursue the truth alone, he enlists the help of his classmates. In numbers there is strength. If Brinker cannot combat Gene one-to-one, he'll call on some nameless, faceless boys to dress in black gowns and sit on the stage in the Assembly Room as if they were judges. Brinker says he wants to "get all this out in the open." But is it necessary now to lay bare the truth about Finny's fall? Think of all the healing that's occurred since last summer. Time and friendship have patched over the error of a moment. Finny and Gene's program of mutual help has succeeded beautifully. Brinker is not satisfied. He is jealous and he feels left out of their privileged mutual admiration society. Perhaps Brinker views Finny as the usurper of his rightful place as class leader--as if there weren't room for two leaders with different abilities. But it's too late to turn back now. Finny is genuinely mystified and angry; Gene dreads what may happen if the true circumstances are dredged up. Sometimes it's better to let things lie, to move on with a positive attitude. Brinker is the main inquisitor. Backed up by his shrouded classmates on stage, he questions Finny. "Someone else was in the tree, isn't that so?" "No," Finny responds, "I don't think so." It shouldn't matter any more, we tell ourselves as we read on nervously. What matters is that circumstances were moving toward a happy ending until this nighttime ordeal. Some unnamed force requires that Finny face the truth and accept its consequences, that Finny and Gene not be permitted to escape. "You were down at the bottom, weren't you?" Finny asks his friend, turning to him with a sincere tone of having forgotten--perhaps because he wanted to. Ambiguities multiply. The room is dark. Voices are hard to hear in the echoing acoustics. Memory plays odd tricks. Brinker keeps to his line. Finny clears the cobwebs from his mind as he prattles on, telling the story as it comes clearer and clearer: "and then the two of us started to climb...." The assembled boys are stopped in their tracks; they can go no further because no one can corroborate what Finny and Gene are struggling to articulate. Then Finny breaks the impasse by divulging the fateful secret: Leper, one of the witnesses to the accident, is now on campus. NOTE: Is Finny beginning to see the light and thirsting to learn the truth, or has he decided he must confront his destiny no matter what the cost? It would be out of character for him to do otherwise. He has always been pure, forging his own path regardless of the crowd, on his own without a care for the opinions of others. The boys can't seem to make up their minds whether the trial proceedings are serious or in jest. As soon as emissaries have been sent to find Leper, the atmosphere breaks down into self-conscious horseplay. The question becomes one of how many rules can be broken in one night; but the wheel of fortune has been set in motion. NOTE: In a Greek tragedy--which this story has come to resemble strongly--with the hero still unaware that his deadly path is carrying him near his inevitable fate, Leper's role would be that of deus ex machina, an outside force that arrives to precipitate the final course of action. At last Leper has his moment in the spotlight. An outcast for so long, laughed at by his peers, never taken seriously, he returns to Devon to wreak havoc and gain his revenge. "He looked unusually well," Gene observes, "his face was glowing, his eyes were bright, his manner was all energy." Leper holds the cards. He has a perverse purpose, and because he is "deranged" he feels no hesitation about turning against Gene, who we remember was once Leper's only ally, who visited him in his time of need, and who now must twist and turn in his moment of truth. Leper plunges into a step-by-step description of what took place on the limb overhanging the river. It seems an eternity ago; so much has happened since then, so much has changed for everyone in the drama. "They moved like an engine," Leper says, describing Gene and Finny on the branch. "First one piston sinks, and then the next one sinks. The one holding on to the trunk sank for a second, up and down like a piston, and then the other one sank and fell." How appropriate this description is to describe the way Gene and Finny have interreacted with each other, like two pistons in a machine, neither one able to operate alone, the energy of one by turns driving and feeding upon the other, back and forth and up and down. Gene, responsible for Finny's fall and unable to cope with this knowledge, has likewise been instrumental in Finny's buildup. Finny, by virtue of his unique superiority, has been responsible for Gene's self-effacing behavior, and likewise he has taken charge of Gene's athletic training. Leper tantalizes Brinker by refusing to go on with the story. He and the ringleader engage in one more schoolboy power struggle, still seeming to be unaware of the larger consequences of their actions. Then Finny suddenly and surprisingly withdraws: "I just don't care. Never mind," he says, crying, "shocked into awareness" by a flash of truth he would just as soon not have had. Finny's "separate peace" shattered, his eyes clouded by tears, he rushes from the hall, trips, and tumbles down the flight of marble stairs. ^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: CHAPTER 12 With Finny's second fall an eerie atmosphere of normalcy returns. Boys once again act like schoolboys instead of judges. The proper authorities--the doctor, the wrestling coach--are summoned. Finny, wrapped in a blanket and lifted slowly and carefully onto a chair, resembles "some tragic and exalted personage." Gene, stealthily following the doctor's car to the school, infirmary, remains in character as Finny's faithful disciple. An extension of his friend to the end, committed to watching over him, Gene is a guardian angel of sorts. He tries to eavesdrop outside Finny's room, to hear what the doctor, the coach, and the night nurse are saying. Gene talks to himself, no doubt to keep himself from going over the edge, like Finny. He is gravely frightened; he has a premonition that--even though Dr. Stanpole has advised him otherwise--this accident is worse than the first. Gene crouches below the infirmary window, a pathetic, powerless, helpless figure, unable to do anything for his friend, and cries silently in despair. NOTE: Gene huddles there for a reason: he is apologizing to Finny, not just for the events of the past few hours but for having set the whole crazy panorama in motion. Gene cannot admit to himself that it's too late. He will not let go of Finny, no, Finny will have to release him. Raising himself up onto Finny's windowsill in the darkness, Gene whispers into the room. Finny, torn with anger and frustration, retorts, "You want to break something else in me!" All the progress they had made toward a perfect friendship has come unraveled. Gene tells his friend he's sorry, knowing full well there could never be enough time or space to explain all that has passed between them. The young imagination can encompass only so much; Gene has matured in the past year, but he is still only a boy attempting the difficult task of discovering himself. He walks through the deserted campus, seeing fresh meaning and new ambiguities in familiar sights. The grounds, trees, buildings, and playing fields of Devon, whose images are ingrained in Gene's consciousness, are at the same time alien to him, and he is alienated, cut off from them: "I alone was a dream, a figment which had never really touched anything. I felt that I was not, never had been and never would be a living part of this overpoweringly solid and deeply meaningful world around me." Without Finny as connection, Gene has no grounding in reality. Without Finny as anchor, Gene floats wraithlike through the world. Without Finny--dare we admit it?--Gene does not exist. The next day, filled with remorse, Gene is drawn back to Finny's bedside in the infirmary to deliver his friend's clothes. Both boys are anxious to make amends, each in his own way. Each has had a night of deep reflection in which to measure--and treasure--a friendship ripened and tempered in times of great trial. Below the fear and trembling--Finny's hands are shaking as he looks through his suitcase--there's the calm assurance that they will see the crisis through. It turns out that Finny is in despair because, contrary to his happy face and devil-may-care attitude, he now admits he will never get to serve in the war. How characteristic of Finny it is that war will never be a reality to him until he dons a uniform and goes off to fight: "Then there would have been a war," he confesses. Gene tries to make light of Finny's hidden plan: "You'd make a mess," he tells his friend, "a terrible mess, Finny, out of the war." On his side, Gene admits to "some ignorance" that made him shake the tree limb, "some crazy thing inside me, something blind." Finny, crying, believes Gene and sees truth's heart at last, a truth that cannot come out of mock tribunals or speculation but only from the mouth of his friend. NOTE: Through his actions and his devotion, Gene has "already shown" Finny how sincere a friend he has become. One of the big questions A Separate Peace poses is the extent to which any of us can ultimately be responsible for everything we say and do, the extent to which forces within us and without can and will take over. To what extent are we the masters of our fate? War is something that prep school boys cannot control; Gene, Finny, Leper, Brinker, and the others, each in his own fashion, must encounter World War II, overcoming it or succumbing to it as the case may be. Standing precariously on a tree limb and jouncing it at a crucial moment so that your companion falls and breaks his leg is on the surface an action that can be controlled. But Gene and Finny have been trying to work out the actual event and what motivated it since the day it happened. After all, whose idea was it to climb the tree in the first place? Is Finny the victim of his own daredevil pride? Grappling with these difficult questions increases our understanding and respect for A Separate Peace. Leaving the infirmary, Gene takes refuge in the comforting schedule of the typical school day with its time periods and classes. The limits of his world are American history, trigonometry, lunch, wrestling in he gym, reading Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Time passes quickly; in the late afternoon Gene returns to the infirmary to discover the outcome of Finny's "simple" operation. Without embellishment, Dr. Stanpole gives Gene the news. Finny is dead. "As I was moving the bone," the doctor says, "some of the marrow must have escaped into his blood stream and gone directly to his heart and stopped it." Gene is speechless; the story has already been told. At such an unbearably sad moment, words--and later at Finny's funeral, tears--are impossible, unequal to the event's tragic eloquence. NOTE: Every death is a tragedy to some degree. What gives Finny's death a higher, more permanent tone of tragedy? Why do we feel he has deserted not only Gene but us too? ^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: CHAPTER 13 Senior year draws to a somber close. The war comes full-fledged into Devon in the person of troops from Parachute Riggers' school, who take over the Far Common. Finny's death draws Brinker and Gene closer together. It makes sense; Finny had been like a buffer zone, a barrier between the two boys. Brinker did what he had to do, in the spirit of partial ignorance and irresponsibility, and we have a hard time blaming him now. The two are drawn together on common ground as survivors, without Leper, without Finny. Brinker's father, visiting the campus, represents the old guard, an earlier generation that has already fought its war and now looks forward with gung ho enthusiasm to seeing the new wave take over. "Times change, and wars change. But men don't change, do they?" Mr. Hadley asks. Apparently they do, for Gene and Brinker have no intention of being engaged in what Mr. Hadley calls "the real fighting" if they can help it. Gene is off to the Navy in Pensacola, Brinker to the Coast Guard. Brinker's focus on the war is narrower than Gene's. He sees it as one generation's bad legacy to the next, handed down through history, a contagious epidemic to be suffered by mankind forever. Brinker feels victimized by his father's generation and the mistakes they made, which will force Brinker and his friends to disrupt their lives for no apparent good reason. Gene, however, has a far more intimate and philosophical perspective, as we have come to expect of him. "Wars were made instead," Gene tells us, not Brinker, who would probably not understand, "by something ignorant in the human heart." As usual, Gene finds the middle ground between Finny's sense of absurdity or fantasy and Brinker's extreme realism. Gene is the compromiser. That's why he is the character narrating the story and walking the delicate tightrope. Finny, always on Gene's mind, in death as he was in life, is Gene's touchstone, the standard by which he measures everyone and everything. Finny is his ideal, to such an extent that although Gene admires Finny so highly, we've never believed he could become all that much like him. Perhaps the trait in Gene that Finny came to admire in the end was his sheer individuality. Gene's humility endears him to us. He has found a way to present a fully fleshed portrait of Finny as a hero, a portrait so well drawn that his greatness stays with us long after we have closed the book. NOTE: Reflect on the differences between the Gene we met at the beginning of the novel and the Gene we're listening to now, in the aftermath of Finny's death. He has changed. His constant exposure to Finny, the ordeal of having had to work out a way of communicating with him, has drawn him out. We admired Finny from the outset; now, in the end, we admire Gene for having the self-knowledge to benefit so deeply from Finny's presence. "My schooling was over now," the solitary Gene tells us as he winds his way through Devon, cleaning out his locker (we think of Finny whenever sports enter the picture) and then aimlessly following the troops on to the playing fields to watch their calisthenics from a safe distance. By "schooling," we know, he means far more than academic subjects and book learning. Gene is "ready for the war" because, ironically, he has nothing to fight for; he is not concerned with such abstractions as freedom, justice, and the American way of life. This is not to say that the will to struggle and survive has gone out of him, but that he has already made his personal gesture of anger toward the world--on that day a year ago--when he jounced the tree limb. And his gesture was just as absurd as one nation's pitting itself against another and sacrificing the lives of young men in the process. Gene seems to be trying to work out in his mind what it was ultimately that was Finny's distinguishing characteristic. What was it that made him different from everyone else? Perhaps it was his utter lack of defensiveness, his supreme faith, that prevented him from ever hating anyone. Finny was never consciously on the lookout for himself, he seemed to know he was exempt from harm--except for that one inexplicable action by someone he trusted. Is it a failing to believe you are somehow protected from experience? Does this trait go against the grain of human nature to such a degree that it cannot be allowed to persist in someone's character? ...the real importance of Mr. Knowles's novel does indeed lie in its account of the attempt, made by two powerless individuals, to dissociate themselves from them [Roosevelt, Churchill, the "old men" leaders of war, and authority in general] and the follies for which they are responsible.... But Mr. Knowles makes it plain enough (even if we hadn't guessed already) that quiet common sense is a feeble match for reality and the Generals: they are sure of the last word. -Simon Raven, "No Time for War," 1959 Mr. Knowles's world is the real world where black-and-white character contrasts rarely lie conveniently to hand. Gene and Finny can slip in and out of each other's roles and yet remain entirely themselves while doing so. Their relationship has that subtle elusiveness which is entirely human and which novelists, with good reason, find desperately difficult to convey. -"School Reports," in Times Literary Supplement, 1959, p. 262 Knowles' schoolboy must face the discovery of hatred--a bitter and homicidal knot of hatred in himself.... One of the things the novelist seems to be saying is that the enemy Gene killed, and loved, is the one every man must kill: his own youth, the innocence that burns too hotly to be endured. -"The Leap," in Time magazine, 1960 ...if, as the book shows, Finny is unfit for war, it is because of his fundamental innocence or idealism--his regard for the world not as it is, but as it should be--that renders him unfit.... In Finny's fall from the tree, Gene has violated, or rather surrendered, his innocence, and he learns that any attempt to regain it, to 'become a part of Phineas'... is at best a transient experience, at worst a gesture of despair. -Jay L. Halio, "John Knowles's Short Novels," 1960 Unlike his friends who had sought through some building of defenses to ward off the inevitability of evil, Gene has come to see that his enemy never comes from without, but always from within. He knows, moreover, that there is no defense to be built, only an acceptance and purification of oneself through love. Such a love did he share with a Phineas in a private gypsy summer. And it is because of the purity of this love that he is able to survive his fall from innocence. -James Ellis, "A Separate Peace: The Fall from Innocence," 1964. Although the war touches Devon school only slightly--one of the joys of the summer session is that it seems totally removed from the world of war--it cannot be forgotten or ignored for long; it exists not only as an event that stands between the experience of the novel and Gene's telling, but as an event that, at the very moment of the experience, dominates the life of each character." -Ronald Weber, "Narrative Method in A Separate Peace," 1965 Good and evil, love and hate, involvement and isolation, self and selflessness are not always clearly defined nor their values constant [in A Separate Peace]. Part of growing up is the recognition that the human condition is a dappled one, that the wrong we feel in things is often only some pattern erected by fear and ignorance, some rigidity that divides life into lifeless compartments. -Paul Witherington, "A Separate Peace: A Study in Structural Ambiguity," 1965 A Separate Peace deals with culture, and with the sensibility of the individual as it is formed by a particular culture.... Knowles draws the reader's attention to the individual's efforts to adjust to cultural change, and to the quality of his moral responses as he attempts to cope with the disruption of his formerly stable world. -James L. McDonald, "The Novels of John Knowles," 1967 ...there is more goodness in Gene than he knows. Phineas, in his need, gives Gene the opportunity to do good and unknowingly gives Gene the self-confidence to be free once more. For Gene's act had damaged Phineas' athletic excellence and, worse, threatened the basis for Phineas' humanity; and Phineas uses his remaining days to deny this loss. He proceeds to recreate his world through Gene's friendship and athletic development. In this experience, Gene, freed now of envy and despair, understands himself and Phineas. -Fraziska Lynne Greiling, "The Theme of Freedom in A Separate Peace," 1967 [Gene's] return to Devon in his early thirties and his memoir of Devon's 1942-43 academic year prove that his private struggle has outlasted the public holocaust of World War II. Just as the anvil can break the hammer, the tree incident hurts Gene more than it does Finny. The novel turns on the irony that the separate peace mentioned in its title excludes its most vivid presence--its narrator. -Peter Wolfe, "The Impact of Knowles's A Separate Peace," 1970 THE END