A Separate Peace
Finny playfully criticizes Gene’s clothes and grumbles about the lack of maid service. Gene responds that it is no great loss, considering the war, and he makes up Finny’s bed for him. The next day, Brinker bursts in, about to ask if Gene is ready to enlist, when he sees Finny. He starts to make a joke about Gene’s “plan”—to kill Finny and get the room for himself—but Gene cuts him off and explains to Finny about Brinker’s suggestion to enlist. Finny’s unenthusiastic reaction leads Gene to realize that Finny doesn’t want him to leave. Gene now tells Brinker, to Finny’s obvious relief, that he no longer wants to enlist. The roommates begin to make jokes, saying that they wouldn’t enlist with Brinker if he were General MacArthur’s son or even Madame Chiang Kai-shek of China. In the midst of these jokes, Finny tags Brinker with a nickname: “Yellow Peril” Hadley, referring to his supposed double-life as Madame Chiang Kai-shek.
As Gene and Finny make their way over patches of ice to their first class, Finny remarks that winter loves him; he knows this, he says, because he loves winter, and it must return his affection. He then suggests that they cut class to give Finny a chance to look at the school after his long absence. They set out immediately across campus for the gym. Gene worries that Finny is planning to stare at his trophies and brood, but instead they go down to the locker room and Finny asks Gene what team he has joined for the year. Gene tells him that he did not try out for any teams, attempting to defend himself by noting the diminished importance of sports during the war. Finny declares that there is no war, that it is all a conspiracy orchestrated by the adult establishment—by fat, rich, old men—to keep young people in their place. When Gene asks why the conspiracy has not been detected by anyone else, Finny replies that he alone can see it because of the extent of his suffering. His answer amazes both boys. An awkward silence follows, and Gene, wanting to break the tension, goes over to an exercise bar and begins doing chin-ups. Finny tells him to do thirty and encourages him with his tone of voice as he counts them aloud for Gene. Finny tells Gene that he wanted to be an Olympic athlete and that now he will have to train Gene to go in his place. Finny convinces Gene to undertake the training despite his objections that the war will preempt the Olympics in 1944. Finny begins to train Gene and Gene tutors Finny in his classes; they are both surprised by their progress.
One morning, as Gene runs a course around the headmaster’s house under Finny’s guidance, he suddenly finds his stride, running better than he ever has before. Mr. Ludsbury comes out to see what the boys are doing and Finny tells him that Gene is training for the Olympics. Ludsbury tells them to remember that all athletic training should be dedicated to preparation for war, but Finny flatly replies, “No.” This response flusters Ludsbury, who mutters something and leaves. Finny muses that the headmaster seems to believe sincerely in the reality of the war; he concludes that Ludsbury must be too thin to be let in on the hoax run by the fat old men. Gene feels a flash of pity for Ludsbury’s “fatal thinness,” reflecting that he indeed seems to have always had a “gullible side.”
By this point in the book, the reader recognizes the effect of Finny’s fall on his relationship with Gene. Far from driving a wedge between them, the fall has instead resulted in a tightening of the strange bond between the two friends. “He need[s] me,” Gene says to himself, watching his friend hobble into the shower, a realization sufficient to drive away his thoughts of joining the army. Were he to enlist, Gene would join Brinker Hadley in embracing adulthood and responsibility; in many ways, by staying by Finny’s side, Gene inhibits his own development and process of self-discovery.
There are two possible explanations for how the fall can have brought the friends closer even though the events and emotions leading up to it seem to prove Gene undeserving of such a friendship. First, Finny does seem to harbor a genuine love for Gene, and, because he loves his friend, it doesn’t occur to him that Gene might not love him back. As usual, he assumes that other people approach the world in the same way that he does. This attitude emerges clearly in his comments about winter: loving winter himself, he cannot conceive of the season harboring any enmity toward him, though Gene points out that winter is treacherous for someone on crutches. If one loves something enough, he insists, it must return that affection. One can argue that this assumption—that love is always reciprocated—is the foundation of his continued closeness with Gene.
But there may be a darker current underpinning the boys’ closeness, working alongside Finny’s innocent love for his best friend. We have already seen evidence of Gene’s eagerness to lose himself in Finny, to give up his identity and live as a part of his friend. But now, in Finny’s enthusiasm to train Gene for the 1944 Olympics, we observe how Finny, too, contributes to this process, welcoming this sacrifice on Gene’s part. Denied the ability to live life to the fullest by his injury, Finny sets out to live through Gene by attempting to transform him into the athlete that he himself once was. When Gene achieves his breakthrough on the track and becomes a better runner, Finny remarks that Gene has learned something new about himself through exercise. While this statement may be true, it also rings of cruel irony: perhaps all that Gene has learned about himself is how easily he can transform himself into a mirror of Finny.
Finny’s coaching Gene more for his own sake than for his friend’s would not be entirely out of character. As the novel makes clear, Finny has always been self-absorbed, and his injury only cements this aspect of him. This self-absorption manifests itself in his insistence that the war is a hoax created by fat, rich, old men. Finny’s motivations in making this claim are all too apparent: everyone at Devon lives under the shadow of imminent military service, knowing that soon they will be called upon to go off to war—everyone except for the crippled Finny. His injury has placed him in a “separate peace,” one that he doesn’t consider a blessing; rather, he feels that it isolates and alienates him, excluding him from the common experiences of his classmates and the entire world. Finny cannot accept being left out: if the war cannot be a part of his life, then he cannot let it exist for anyone at all. When Mr. Ludsbury challenges this illusion by insisting that everyone must train for war, Finny’s famous charm vanishes and he responds rudely. His curt contradiction of Ludsbury’s statement constitutes one of the few moments in the book when Finny deliberately offends or acts coldly toward another person. His habitual friendliness, it seems, does not extend to those who challenge his self-preserving illusions.
The scene outside Mr. Ludsbury’s residence is also important for the parallel that it sets up between athletics and war. Earlier, Gene compares various athletic events to battlefield combat, describing tennis balls as bullets and football players as foot soldiers. For Finny, however, the conceptual implications of these comparisons make no sense. In his world, athletics are ultimately anticompetitive and embody pure achievement, unconnected to either definitive victory or conclusive defeat. The rules that he devises for blitzball illustrate his notions about what sports are and should be: not one team pitted against another but sheer physical challenge, embarked on together. Knowles’s novel suggests that Finny is singular in his attitude: as becomes apparent by the end, everyone else in the novel is a creature of war, living their lives in constant battle against whatever enemies they have engendered for themselves. These other characters extend their warrior mindsets to sports as well. Finny alone refuses to connect athletics and war because he doesn’t understand the concept of an enemy.
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