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A Separate Peace

John Knowles

Chapters 2–3

Chapter 1

Chapter 4

Summary: Chapter 2

Mr. Prud’homme, a substitute teacher for the summer session, comes by the next morning to discipline Gene and Finny for missing dinner, but he is soon won over by Finny’s ebullient talkativeness and leaves without assigning a punishment. Finny decides to wear a bright pink shirt as an emblem of celebration of the first allied bombing of central Europe. Gene envies him slightly for being able to get away with wearing this color (which he says makes Finny look like a “fairy,” or homosexual); indeed, Finny seems capable of getting away with virtually anything he wants to do.

Mr. Patch-Withers, the substitute headmaster, holds tea that afternoon. Most of the students and faculty converse awkwardly; Finny, on the other hand, proves a great conversationalist. As Mr. Patch-Withers enters into a discussion with Finny about the bombings in Europe, his wife notices that Finny is wearing the school tie as a belt. Gene waits tensely in expectation of Finny’s reprobation, but Finny manages to talk his way out of the display of disrespect, accomplishing the impossible feat of making the stern Mr. Patch-Withers laugh. For a moment, Finny’s escape from trouble disappoints Gene, but he pushes the emotion aside, and the two boys leave the party together laughing. Finny suggests a jump from the tree and pushes Gene along toward the river. Finny declares that he refuses to believe that the Allies really bombed central Europe, and Gene concurs. They swim for a while in the river, and Finny asks if Gene is still afraid of the tree. Gene says that he is not, and they agree to form a new secret society—the “Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session.” When they get out on the limb, Gene turns back to Finny to make a delaying remark and loses his balance. Finny catches him, and then they both jump. It occurs to Gene that Finny may have saved his life.

Summary: Chapter 3

Thinking back on the near-disaster, Gene decides that while Finny may have saved his life, he wouldn’t have been up in the tree in the first place if it weren’t for Finny. He feels, therefore, that he owes Finny no real gratitude. That night, the Super Suicide Society gets off to a successful start as Finny convinces six other boys to sign on as inductees. Finny invents a list of rather arbitrary rules, including one that requires him and Gene to start each meeting by jumping out of the tree. Gene hates this rule and never loses his fear of the jump. Nonetheless, Gene attends every one of the nightly meetings and never contests the rule. Finny, who loves sports above all else, is disgusted with the summer session’s athletic program, especially the inclusion of badminton, and spontaneously invents a new sport called “blitzball” one afternoon. The game utilizes a medicine ball that Finny has found lying around; competition in the game is not between two perpetually divided teams but rather shifts as the ball is passed from player to player. Whichever boy possesses the ball at a given moment becomes the target for the other players, who try to tackle him; the boy may try either to outrun the others or pass the ball off to another boy. The game produces no real “winner.”

“Blitzball” gains immediate popularity, and Finny himself shows the most skill in it. One day, Finny and Gene are at the swimming pool alone, and Finny decides to challenge one of the school’s swimming records. He breaks it on his first attempt, but only Gene witnesses it. Finny refuses to try again in public and forbids Gene to tell anyone about it. Finny remains uncharacteristically silent for a while before proposing that they go to the beach; the trip, which school rules strictly forbid, takes hours by bicycle. Gene agrees despite himself, and they slip away down a back road. The ocean is cold, the surf heavy, and the sand scorching hot. Finny enjoys himself immensely and tries to keep Gene entertained. They eat dinner at a hot dog stand, and each obtains a glass of beer by displaying forged draft cards. They then settle down to sleep among the dunes. Finny says he is glad that Gene came along and that they are best friends. Gene starts to say the same but holds back at the last moment.

Analysis: Chapters 2–3

Chapter 2 develops Gene’s envy for Finny more fully. Watching Finny talk his way out of trouble, first with Mr. Prud’homme and then with Mr. Patch-Withers, Gene feels “unexpectedly excited” at the idea of his friend getting in trouble and then feels “a stab of disappointment” when Finny wriggles out. Gene tries to justify these emotions, reasoning that he did not want to see Finny punished for the sake of seeing him suffer but simply longed for the spectacle or excitement that the punishment would have brought. But this explanation seems false: when he says, “I just wanted to see some more excitement,” Gene seems to struggle to convince even himself, adding, “that must have been it.”

Moreover, Gene’s excessive insistence that Finny is his best friend and that just being friends with someone like Finny is an honor seems forced. Although Finny clearly is a special person, what Gene doesn’t say speaks as loudly as what he does: his last-second decision not to return Finny’s profession of friendship on the beach betrays his envy. Thus, Gene is divided between admiration and resentment, love and hate—an inner conflict that, like the external conflict in Europe, grows more severe as the story progresses.

Gene’s feelings about Finny point toward Finny’s exceptional nature, and it is in these chapters that we begin to learn more about Finny as a person—though always, it is important to realize, through the perspective of Gene. Still, Finny’s good qualities are obvious: the reader is quickly won over by his sense of fun, clever tongue, enthusiasm, and what seems to be genuine devotion to Gene. Apparent, too, is that he seems to have no need to prove his superiority over other people: he loves sports and physical activities, and he desires to be the best but has no desire to beat anyone else. His refusal to publicize his swimming feat seems to prove his modesty. “Blitzball,” in which nobody wins but everyone competes, perfectly symbolizes Finny’s attitude not only toward athletics but toward life in general.

Finny does have one fatal flaw, however, which becomes clearer later in the book: he exhibits an intense self-involvement and fails to perceive that others might be different from him, with different needs, desires, and fears. This egocentrism is evident in the way he assumes that because he wants to jump every night Gene will want to as well. Similarly, on the trip to the beach, Finny never even bothers to ask himself if Gene might prefer not to skip school to spend a night on the sand; Finny lets his own desires decide for both boys. It is important to note, however, that Gene never attempts to counter this aspect of Finny or to point it out to him: fearful of losing face with Finny, Gene never refuses him. Thus, the tensions latent in their friendship can never be brought out into the open; Finny never expects a “no” and Gene is never brave enough to give one.

The difficulty that Gene has in standing up for himself connects to the larger problem in the novel of Gene’s sense of identity: throughout the book, Gene allows his own sense of self to be subsumed by Finny’s stronger personality. Although this strange codependency is only hinted at in these early scenes, Gene’s struggles to know and assert his own desires initiate a more general exploration in the novel of identity and what it means to be true to oneself.

Meanwhile, the backdrop to all these events is the summer session at Devon, a time when rules seem to be suspended. The summer session, like the war, serves as a large-scale metaphor for the lives of the characters. In practical terms, the session is characterized by a generally lax enforcement of school rules and a less-than-rigorous academic environment. But the resulting liberty that the boys enjoy—almost anarchic at times—represents a final stage of psychological innocence: the greenery and the boys’ unrestricted romps evoke the paradise that preceded the fall of Adam and Eve into knowledge and sin. Like the biblical characters, the boys in A Separate Peace will also experience a fall, both figurative—a fall from innocence—and literal.

Gene and Finny’s initial innocence seems to prevent them from consciously recognizing what may be homoerotic tensions in their relationship. Homosexuality is never mentioned explicitly by any character save when Gene says that Finny’s pink shirt makes him look like a “fairy.” But the relationships in the book are all between boys (we never see them interact with girlfriends or mothers, except for one brief scene with Leper’s mother), and the central relationship contains hints of an almost sexual attraction between Gene and Finny. When the boys go to the beach, for instance, Gene remarks that his friend’s skin “radiated a reddish copper glow of tan, his brown hair had been a little bleached by the sun, and I noticed that the tan made his eyes shine with a cool blue-green fire.” Although the language is not expressly homoerotic, Gene’s words suggest that the connection between him and Finny is, if not sexual, then at least strongly physical: the boys direct their affection toward each other’s whole beings, increasing the intensity of their bond.

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