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A Separate Peace

John Knowles

Chapter 5

Chapter 4

Chapters 6–7

Summary

Finny’s leg has been shattered in the fall from the tree. Everyone talks to Gene about the injury in the following days but no one suspects him of any wrongdoing. No one is allowed to see Finny at the infirmary. Gene spends an increasing amount of time alone in his room, questioning himself. One day, he decides to put on Finny’s shoes, pants, and pink shirt. When he looks in the mirror, he sees himself as Finny, and a wave of relief comes over him. The feeling of transformation lasts through the night but is gone in the morning, and Gene is confronted once more with what he has caused, whether or not deliberately, to happen to Finny.

That morning after chapel, Dr. Stanpole tells Gene that Finny is feeling better and could use a visit. He says that Finny’s leg will recover enough for him to walk again but that he will no longer be able to play sports. Gene bursts into tears and the doctor tries to comfort him, saying that he must be strong for Finny. He notes that Finny asked to see Gene specifically, from which Gene concludes that Finny must want to accuse him to his face. Gene goes in to see Finny but, before expressing any of his own ideas about what happened, asks Finny what his memories of the incident are. Finny says that something made him lose his balance and that he looked over to Gene to see if he could reach him. Gene recoils violently and accuses Finny of wanting to drag him down with him. Finny explains calmly that he wanted merely to keep from falling. Gene then states that he tried to catch hold of Finny but that Finny fell away too fast. Finny tells him that he has the same shocked facial expression now that he did on the tree.

Gene asks if Finny recalls what made him lose his balance in the first place. Finny hints that he had a vague notion that Gene was the cause, but he refuses to accept this idea and apologizes for even considering it. Gene realizes that if the roles were reversed, Finny would tell him the truth about his possible involvement. He rises quickly and tells Finny that he has something terrible to say to him. Just then, however, Dr. Stanpole enters, and Gene is sent away. The next day, the doctor decides that Finny is not well enough to receive visitors; soon after, an ambulance takes Finny to his home outside Boston. The summer session ends, and Gene goes home to the South for a month’s vacation.

In September, Gene starts for Devon by train and is delayed considerably. He catches a taxi at Boston’s South Station, but instead of taking it to North Station for the last leg of the trip to Devon, he proceeds to Finny’s house. He finds Finny propped up before a fireplace with hospital-type pillows. Finny is pleased to see him, though not surprised, and asks about his vacation. Gene recounts a story about a fire back home and then says that he was thinking a lot about Finny and the accident while at home. He now tells Finny that he deliberately shook the limb to make him fall. Finny refuses to believe him and grows furious. Gene realizes that he has injured Finny further with his confession and that he must take back his words, though he cannot do it now. Finny says that he will return to Devon by Thanksgiving.

Analysis

It is significant that the first thing that Gene records himself doing after the tragedy is putting on Finny’s clothes and mimicking Finny’s expressions in the mirror. This bizarre act symbolizes the extent to which Gene has blurred, and continues to blur, the line that separates his own identity from that of his best friend. To alleviate his guilt about his involvement in the fall, he seeks to escape his very self and find refuge in someone else’s clothing, someone else’s identity. Moreover, while becoming Finny allows Gene to escape his own guilty conscience, it also enables him to eradicate the feelings at the base of that guilt. Gene feels guilty about the accident because he knows how envious he was of Finny and cannot help but think that this envy somehow influenced his actions, even if only on a subconscious level. By dressing up as Finny, however, Gene purges himself of this envy by becoming the object of it.

It is again Gene’s desire to be like Finny, or actually to be Finny, that sparks his confession: he admits what he thinks is his wrongdoing after realizing that Finny would have done the same were he in Gene’s position. Ironically, Finny himself has no interest in Gene’s declaration. In a sense, he is in denial; he has suspected a similar version of events—or so we assume from what he says to Gene about his “crazy idea” that Gene himself caused the fall—but he refuses to admit such a possibility. His life altered forever by the accident, Finny seems to need something to latch onto, and he latches onto his friendship with Gene. The relationship becomes the center of his life, especially once he returns to Devon in later chapters. Finny feels an increasing necessity to ignore the relationship’s unpleasant aspects.

While Finny clings to the friendship, Gene makes an attempt to sever it. For while he may wish to mimic or even transform himself into Finny, he finds it too painful to maintain a connection to him as a separate person, to confront Finny and his injury from his guilty position. Structurally, Chapter 5 mirrors each of the two subsequent chapters, in which Gene formulates a plan that would cut his ties with his best friend, only to be thwarted by Finny or Finny’s memory. Here, he wishes to confess to knocking Finny from the tree and thus destroy their friendship once and for all, but Finny refuses to accept the confession. In the next two chapters, Gene first attempts to give up athletics by managing the crew team and then plans to leave school and join the army. In each case, though, Finny—or thoughts of Finny—undercut Gene’s plans. He appears not to realize Finny’s influence; or perhaps, the novel suggests, he is glad that it is happening—glad, on some fundamental level that he cannot ultimately separate himself from his friend. All of Gene’s attempts at severing the relationship fail and the friends sink into complete codependency, a process that begins in this chapter.

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