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A Separate Peace

John Knowles

Chapter 11

Chapters 9–10

Chapter 12

Summary

Gene returns to Devon from Leper’s house and finds Finny in the midst of a snowball fight, which he has organized. Gene hesitates to join the fight but Finny draws him in. Gene asks Finny, who now uses a walking cast, if he is allowed to participate in such strenuous activities. Finny replies that he thinks he can feel his bones getting better. He adds that bones are often stronger in the places where they have once broken. Brinker comes to visit Gene and Finny in their room and asks about Leper. Gene tells him that Leper has changed dramatically and that he has deserted the army. Although Gene’s words are vague, Brinker immediately surmises that Leper has “cracked.” He then laments having two people in his class already “sidelined,” unable to contribute to the war. Gene realizes that this pair includes Finny and tries to gloss over the implication by saying that there is no war, hoping he can distract Finny by getting him to elaborate upon his conspiracy theory. Finny repeats Gene’s denial but in an uncharacteristically ironic tone; his words seem to Gene to mark the end of his fantastical conception of reality—a perspective that included the possibility of the 1944 Olympic Games being held.

Time passes, and all of the eligible boys, except for Gene, take steps toward enlisting in some relatively safe branch of the military. One day, Brinker takes him aside and tells him that he knows that Gene has decided not to enlist because he pities Finny. He says that they should confront Finny about his injury casually, whenever possible, to make him accept it. He adds that it would be best if “everything about Finny’s accident was cleared up and forgotten”—and that Gene might have a “personal stake” in such an outcome. Gene demands to know Brinker’s meaning; Brinker responds tauntingly that he doesn’t know but that Gene may.

Later that morning, Gene reads Finny part of a Latin translation (from Caesar’s Gallic Wars) that he has done for him. Though Finny doesn’t believe in Caesar, he does finally admit the existence of World War II. He says that he had to accept the reality of the war when Gene told him that it had caused Leper to go crazy. If something can make a person go crazy, Finny says, it must be real. He adds that he did not completely accept Gene’s description of Leper at first but that it was confirmed when he saw Leper hiding in the bushes that morning after chapel. Gene is shocked to hear that Leper is back at Devon. They decide not to tell anyone and begin joking about Gene’s amazing feats at the imaginary 1944 Olympics.

That night, Brinker comes into Gene and Finny’s room with several other boys and takes Gene and Finny off to the Assembly Hall, where he has gathered an audience and a panel of judges for an inquiry into the cause of Finny’s accident. Brinker asks Finny to explain in his own words what happened on the tree, and Finny reluctantly says that he lost his balance and fell. Boys from the makeshift tribunal ask what caused him to lose his balance in the first place and inquire about Gene’s whereabouts at the time. Finny says that he thinks that Gene was at the bottom of the tree and Gene agrees that he was but that he cannot remember exactly what happened. But Finny then remembers that he had suggested a double jump and that they were climbing the tree together. Gene struggles to defend the discrepancy between their stories. Brinker laments that Leper is not there, as he could have remembered everyone’s exact position.

Finny quietly announces that he saw Leper slip into Dr. Carhart’s office that morning; the two boys are sent to find him. Gene tells himself that Leper is crazy and that even if his testimony implicates Gene, no one will ever accept it. After a while, the boys return with Leper, who seems strangely confident and composed. The tribunal asks him what happened and he replies that he saw two people on the tree silhouetted against the sun and saw one of them shake the other one off the branch. Brinker asks Leper to name the people and to say who moved first but Leper suddenly clams up. He becomes suspicious and declares that he will not incriminate himself. As Brinker tries to bring Leper back to his senses, Finny rises and declares that he doesn’t care what happened. He then rushes out of the room in tears. The boys hear his footsteps and the tapping of his cane as he runs down the hall, followed by the horrible sound of his body falling down the marble staircase.

Analysis

The snowball fight that greets Gene upon his arrival constitutes yet another example of what defines Finny: his anarchic vibrancy and his love of pure sport, free of winners and losers. Although the snowy chaos seems to testify to the durability of Finny’s spirit, his power diminishes over the course of the chapter. First, the news about Leper’s madness deals a fatal blow to Finny’s fantasy that the war is a hoax. As long as it did not impinge upon their lives directly, Finny could go on telling himself—and Gene—that the war did not exist. Having seen the disturbed Leper, however, Finny cannot keep up the pretense any longer; the hard fact of Leper’s madness makes the war too real. It is now Gene who tries to keep up appearances and sustain the illusion of the conspiracy theory even after Leper’s madness shatters it. As long as the war lacks reality, Gene knows that he can be with Finny, since the fact that he can join the military while Finny cannot becomes irrelevant. Gene thus clings to Finny’s fantasy until Finny himself destroys it—with a tone of irony all the more shattering in its departure from Finny’s characteristic sincerity.

Brinker’s visit to Gene and Finny’s room occasions a physical description of the bedroom walls for the first time. We learn that Finny has hung a picture of Roosevelt and Churchill, representing, to him, the fat, old men who have created the war. More important, however, the description gives us new insight into Gene. Gene has hung a picture of a southern plantation, which, he notes, constitutes a “bald-faced lie,” part of a false identity that he assumed when he first came to Devon. Although he is from the upper South, Gene recounts that he had initially faked an accent from a state far south of his own and given the impression that the sentimental photograph showed his house. This insight into Gene’s prior deceit puts the reader on the alert; the picture of the plantation becomes a symbol of Gene’s unreliability as a source of information about his own life, a symbol of his inability to come to terms with his own identity. We wonder how accurately Gene has narrated the scene of Finny’s fall and the events surrounding it; like Brinker, we become increasingly suspicious.

The meaning of Finny’s remark to Gene, amid discussion of Leper, that he needs to trust Gene and believe him because he knows Gene better than he knows anyone else is ambiguous. One can argue that Knowles is suggesting ironically how little Finny really knows Gene, that he is completely oblivious to Gene’s earlier pettiness and Gene’s role in his accident. One can also argue that Knowles is implying that Finny knows everything—that he simply chooses to overlook the evidence against Gene because of his extreme dependence on him and need to love him.

The issues touched upon in these scenes now emerge in full force with Brinker’s makeshift trial. The trial scene constitutes the final victory of the winter session over the summer session, of Brinker’s desire for truth and justice over Finny and Gene’s desire to preserve innocence and keep reality at bay. Brinker clearly believes that he is doing the right thing; one can argue that he is serving the interests of an abstractly defined justice. But while justice is supposed to be blind, as Gene notes, the only thing to which Brinker seems blind is Finny’s lack of interest in having the truth extracted. This shying away from discovery is obvious in the way Finny describes the events: he deliberately recounts that Gene was at the bottom of the tree in order to deflect guilt away from his friend. It is left to the half-mad Leper to tell what really happened and finally break down Finny’s wall of denial. Again, we wonder about Leper’s inner psychology and motives: “I’m important too,” he tells the tribunal; in a sense, he seems to be exacting his revenge on Finny and Gene for the closeness of their friendship and for the fact that he was not part of it.

Just as in the initial portrayal of the scene of Finny’s fall, Gene’s narration breaks down at the crucial moments. In the scene of the fall, the reader is given an account of the external steps leading to the disaster but not of the inner processes unfolding in Gene’s mind. Similarly, when Brinker now interrogates the boys, Gene narrates the external facts of the scene but refuses to portray his reactions: we witness neither fear, nor anger, nor even resignation. Except for brief calculations about whether people will believe Leper, Gene treats the terribly important events going on around him with a bizarre lack of emotion. This quality compels us once again to ponder how reliable a narrator Gene is; we must continually question the accuracy of his portrayals and analyze the story for ourselves, reading between the lines.

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