Skip over navigation

A Separate Peace

John Knowles

Chapter 4

Chapters 2–3

Chapter 5

I found a single sustaining thought. The thought was, You and Phineas are even already. You are even in enmity.

(See Important Quotations Explained)


After he and Finny sleep on the beach, Gene awakens with the dawn. Finny wakes up soon after and goes for a quick swim before they head home. They arrive just in time for Gene’s ten-o’clock test in trigonometry, which he flunks. It is the first time that he has ever failed a test, but Finny gives him little time to worry about it: they play blitzball all afternoon and have a meeting of the Super Suicide Society after dinner.

That night, Gene tries to catch up on his trigonometry and Finny tells him that he works too hard. Finny suspects him of trying to be class valedictorian, which Gene denies. Suddenly, however, he realizes that he does, in fact, want to be valedictorian so that he can match Finny and all of his athletic awards. Gene asks Finny how he would feel if he achieved the honor. Finny jokingly replies that he would kill himself out of envy; Gene feels that the jocular tone is a mere screen, however, and that there is some truth to Finny’s words. Believing that the envy in their relationship is mutual, Gene now perceives a rivalry that he never recognized before. Highly disturbed, he concludes that all of Finny’s overtures of friendship and insistence that Gene participate in all of his diversions are calculated to thwart him in his achievement of academic success comparable to Finny’s athletic success.

Gene works to become an exceptional student and begins to surpass his only real rival, Chet Douglass. Finny cannot compete with Gene academically, but he nonetheless intensifies his own studying. Gene interprets Finny’s hunkering down as merely an attempt to even out the sides of the rivalry, since Gene is an excellent student and a fairly good athlete, while Finny is an excellent athlete but a poor student. Despite Gene’s suspicions of Finny, the two get along well in the weeks that follow.

The masters of the school, meanwhile, give up any pretense of discipline, and one day Gene tells Mr. Prud’homme about his trip to the beach with Finny. To his surprise, the teacher shows no concern about their rule-breaking. Gene continues to attend the nightly meetings of the Suicide Society so as to prevent Finny from suspecting that their friendship might be flagging.

One night, as Gene studies for a French exam, Finny comes into the room and announces that Leper Lepellier is planning to jump from the tree by the river that night and thus become a full member of their society. Gene doesn’t believe that Leper would ever dare the feat and concludes that Finny must have talked him into the attempt in order to interrupt Gene’s studying. Gene complains that his grade will suffer and begins to storm out to the tree when Finny tells him casually that he doesn’t have to come along if he wants to study, as it is only a game. Finny says that he didn’t realize that Gene ever had to study; he thought his academic prowess came naturally. He expresses admiration for Gene’s intelligence and says that he is right to be so serious about something at which he excels. He tells Gene to stay and study, but Gene replies that he has studied enough and insists on going to see Leper jump.

As they walk toward the tree, Gene decides that there must never have been any rivalry between them after all. Moreover, he thinks that this latest interaction has proved that Finny is his moral superior: Finny seems incapable of being actively jealous of anyone. Finny proposes a double jump with Gene, and they strip and ascend the tree. Finny goes out onto the limb first, and when Gene steps out, his knees bend and he jostles the limb, causing Finny to lose his balance and fall with a sickening thud to the bank. Gene then moves out to the end of the limb and dives into the water, suddenly fearless.

Now I knew that there never was . . . any rivalry . . . I was not of the same quality as he.

I couldn’t stand this. . . .

(See Important Quotations Explained)


Finny’s plunge from the tree at the end of this chapter forms the climax of the novel. The events leading up to the fall show us Gene at his most petty and vicious. His resentment manifests itself as a sort of paranoia as he convinces himself that Finny is trying to sabotage his academic success. Ironically, Gene falls prey to the same flaw that afflicts Finny: just as Finny thinks that everyone shares his enthusiasms, so Gene assumes that everyone shares his jealousy and competitiveness. He is competing with Finny, so he assumes that Finny must be competing with him. Gene feels ashamed of the extent to which he is plagued by insecurity and envy; he overcomes this feeling of shame not by trying to improve himself but rather by convincing himself that Finny is just as bad as he himself is.

The dark, angry thoughts that Gene has about Finny contrast sharply with the idyllic, innocent spirit of the summer. The nature surrounding the boys, pure and wild, evokes an Edenic paradise (Gene himself calls the beach on which he and Finny sleep in Chapter 2 “as pure as the shores of Eden”). Gene’s inner life soon shows itself to be the snake in this biblical garden. Gene is well aware of the tension between his mental state and his surroundings. In at least one scene, he actively goes to war with the beautiful weather: he describes how he wakes up on a perfect morning and forces himself to “guard against” the perfection of nature, for it saps his will to hate.

The need to maintain willful hate is one that Gene himself has invented: it is natural neither to this world nor, as Gene finally realizes, to Finny. (Indeed, it may not be natural to Gene, either, as he must force himself when in the face of beauty to persist in his resentment.) Unfortunately, the realization that hate is not intrinsic to Finny makes Gene even angrier than does his previous perception of Finny’s enmity: if Finny does not, in fact, possess feelings of competitiveness and selfishness, this lack only makes him superior to Gene, who does possess them. Whereas Gene earlier envies Finny’s athleticism, confidence, and ability to get away with things, he now envies Finny’s goodness, which he finds too great to bear.

It is this later, deeper envy in Gene that stains all the events surrounding Finny’s fall, raising the question of Gene’s responsibility for the tragedy. Crucial to the novel’s power, the facts of the event remain mysterious—to both the reader and the characters involved. We never know the extent to which the incident is deliberate; the jostling of the branch seems to arise more from Gene’s hesitation than from any committed action. Nonetheless, the fall answers a deep wish in Gene, and there are times when Gene (and the reader as well) cannot help but assign a certain purposefulness—whether conscious or not—to the shaking of the branch. Ultimately, the degree of Gene’s guilt in the incident is never resolved.

Regardless of the nature of the act, however, Gene’s thoughts and behavior in this section create a problem of sympathy that persists throughout the novel. Gene is the narrator: he is the character with whom the reader most closely identifies. Despite his sympathetic qualities, Gene seems almost malicious at times—a corrupt, bitter figure who refuses to explain himself and so, despite our access to his consciousness, remains beyond our understanding and total commiseration. Whether or not we think Gene has deliberately caused Finny’s fall, we begin to feel increasingly alienated from him. Thus, even as we become ever more invested in the story’s outcome, we become distrustful of its narrator. This tension allows the reader to engage with the novel emotionally while still maintaining a critical stance and more freely analyzing the novel’s themes.

Are you ready for the test?
Quick Quiz   →

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us