Listen, pal, if I can’t play sports, you’re going to play them for me . . .
Gene sits at the first chapel service of the school year and observes that the school atmosphere seems back to normal, with all its usual austerity and discipline. He lives in the same room that he shared with Finny over the summer. The room across the hall, which belonged to Leper, now houses Brinker Hadley, a prominent personage on campus. After lunch, Gene starts to go across the hall but suddenly decides that he doesn’t want to see Brinker. He realizes that he is late for an afternoon appointment at the Crew House. On his way, he stops on the footbridge at the junction of the upper Devon River and the lower Naguamsett River. He envisions Finny balancing himself on the prow of a canoe on the river, the way Finny used to do.
Gene has taken the thankless position of assistant senior crew manager and has to work for Cliff Quackenbush, an unhappy, bullying type. After practice is over, Quackenbush pesters Gene as to why he has taken the job: normally boys only tolerate the position of assistant in hopes of becoming manager the following year, but Gene is already a senior. Quackenbush begins to insult him, implying that Gene must be working as a manager because he cannot row; indeed, as Gene knows, disabled students usually fill such positions. Gene hits Quackenbush hard and they start to fight and fall into the river. Gene pulls himself out and Quackenbush tells him not to come back. As Gene walks home, he meets Mr. Ludsbury, the master in charge of his dormitory, who berates him for taking advantage of the summer substitute and engaging in illegal activities: in addition to his escape to the beach with Finny, Gene had participated in late-night games of poker and transgressed the rules in other ways. Gene only regrets not having taken fuller advantage of the summer laxity.
Mr. Ludsbury then mentions that Gene has received a long distance phone call. Gene enters the master’s study and, calling the number written on the notepad there, soon hears Finny’s voice. Finny asks about their room and is relieved when Gene replies that he has no roommate. Finny says that he just wanted to be sure that Gene is no longer “crazy” like he was when he visited Finny and claimed that he jounced the limb. Finny then asks about sports and throws a fit when Gene tells him that he is trying to be assistant crew manager. Finny tells Gene that he has to play sports, for his sake, and Gene feels oddly joyful to think that he must be destined to become a part of Finny.
Brinker comes across the hall to see Gene and congratulates him on getting such a large room all to himself. He jokingly accuses Gene of having “done away with” Finny to get the room. Gene tries weakly to play along with the joke and then suggests that they go smoke cigarettes in the basement “Butt Room.” Upon their arrival, however, Brinker pretends that the Butt Room is a dungeon and announces to the others there that he has brought a prisoner accused of killing his roommate. Gene tries to shake off the comment’s hint of truth by making an overblown, obviously joking confession; he chokes, however, when he begins to describe jolting Finny out of the tree. Paralyzed, he challenges a younger boy to “reconstruct the crime,” but the boy says simply that Gene must have pushed Finny off the branch. Gene ridicules the boy’s conclusion, directing attention away from himself but eliciting the boy’s hatred. He then declares that he must go study his French, leaving without having smoked.
To relieve wartime labor shortages, the boys shovel snow off the railroad and receive payment in return. On his way to the train station to go shovel, Gene finds Leper in the middle of a meadow, cross-country skiing. Leper says that he is looking for a beaver dam on the Devon River and invites Gene to come see it sometime if he finds it. Gene works on the same shoveling team as Brinker and Chet Douglass but finds the work dull and arduous. The boys shovel out the main line and cheer as a troop train, packed with young men in uniform, continues by them on its way. On the train home, the boys talk only of the war and their eagerness to be involved. Quackenbush says that he will finish school before going off to be a soldier, as he wants to take full advantage of Devon’s physical hardening program. The other boys accuse him of being an enemy spy.
When they arrive back at Devon, the boys find Leper coming back from his expedition to the beaver dam. Brinker makes fun of him and, as they walk away, tells Gene that he is tired of school and wants to enlist tomorrow. Gene feels a thrill at the thought of leaving his old life to join the military. That night, after spending some time contemplating the stars, he decides to enlist as well. When he returns to his room, however, he finds Finny there.
The shift in seasons from summer to winter parallels a more general shift in the novel’s mood from the carefree innocence that preceded Finny’s fall to a darker time in which a note of doom, associated with the coming war, grips the school. This shift is given a physical embodiment in the two rivers on campus. The fresh, clear, bubbling Devon River represents the summer session and its naïve carefree character. But this river flows into the salty, ugly, unpredictable Naguamsett, which is joined to the ocean and controlled by the large, global forces of the tides. This river can be seen as a symbol of a dawning era of bitter conflict and disempowerment for the boys. Whereas Finny, with his spontaneity and rebellious spirit, directs the activities of the former era, Brinker Hadley, a stolid, rigid personality and an advocate for authority and order, now succeeds him as the boys’ leader. Indeed, not only does Brinker support order in the classroom and the dormitory, but he also functions as a force for order in the larger moral landscape. It is he who first suspects Gene’s guilt and eventually insists on bringing out the truth and seeing justice done at whatever cost.
Gene’s desire to manage crew seems to be an attempt to escape Finny’s shadow, as it places him far from the central, physical aspect of the school’s athletics program, in which Finny excelled. Yet the reader quickly realizes the irony of this attempt when Gene remarks that the job usually goes to disabled students: Gene, of course, is not disabled, but Finny is. Once again, it seems, Gene proves unable to separate his own identity from that of his friend. When the odious Quackenbush (a minor character whose absurd name suits his role as a much-disliked clod) makes fun of Gene for being “maimed,” Gene responds violently even though he isn’t maimed at all. One can argue that he is fighting for Finny—or, perhaps, that he is fighting as Finny. Gene himself is acutely aware of his increasing identification with his friend, especially when Finny insists that if he, Finny, cannot play sports, then Gene must play them for him. At this moment, Gene understands that he is losing himself and becoming a part of Finny. One might understand the joy that Gene consequently feels as stemming from a deep desire: he may dislike himself so much by now that his dearest wish is to abandon this self altogether.
In these chapters, the war takes on an increased significance in the novel, having lurked in the background thus far. As the title of A Separate Peace suggests, World War II plays a central role in the fabric of the story—yet it does so without ever directly affecting the lives of the characters. None of the boys goes into battle and none except for Leper even joins the army until after graduation. A Separate Peace is a war novel without tanks, guns, or bullets; it is the shadow of war and the knowledge of its approach that affects the characters. Gene, in his unwillingness to play sports, sees the violence of football as mirroring battlefield violence, and he imagines tennis balls turning into bullets. Indeed, his narrative betrays a sudden obsession with war and its images: he compares the snow to an advancing army and thinks of the flakes’ slow accumulation as paralleling the almost undetectable yet steady encroachment of the war on the peacefulness of life at Devon.
Ultimately, the war has only an indirect and insidious effect on the students at Devon. It causes a tense feeling of unsettlement among the boys, disrupting their former lives yet never fully releasing them onto the new horizons at which it hints. The boys know that they will have to join the fighting eventually, but, still young students, all they can do is wait. They stand shoveling snow off train tracks while real soldiers ride on the trains to their assignments. The world is at war, but the Devon boys still exist amid a “separate” illusory peace. Only Leper, eccentric and gentle, seems untouched by the peculiarity of their situation and simply continues with his hobbies of skiing and nature-watching. Leper, in a way, is still in the summer session—still innocent, not yet fallen from grace. But the rest of the boys have moved on psychologically. Thus, Brinker’s desire simply to enlist, to put a stop to the gray and fruitless waiting period, seems perfectly understandable, as does Gene’s decision to join him. When Gene eventually abandons his plans to enlist, he does so based upon his relationship with Finny—not because he has ceased to hate the gloom of waiting or the feeling of uselessness.