A Separate Peace
In the moments following Finny’s crash on the staircase, the boys behave with surprising presence of mind as they fetch the wrestling coach, who lives nearby, to give Finny first aid; they also send someone to Dr. Stanpole’s house. Dr. Stanpole arrives and has Finny carried out on a chair. Dr. Stanpole tells Gene that Finny’s leg is broken again but assures him that it is a much cleaner break than last time. The crowd of boys breaks up and Gene sneaks off to the infirmary to peek in and try to see what is going on. He sits outside in the dark, imagining Finny saying absurd things to the doctors and nurses, until finally the doctor and the other adults leave, turning out the light in Finny’s room. Gene crawls up to the side of the building and opens the window. Finny recognizes him in the darkness and begins to struggle angrily in his bed, accusing Gene of coming to break something else in him. He falls out of bed, but Gene restrains himself from going into the room to help him back up. Gene tells Finny that he is sorry and then leaves.
All through the night, Gene wanders the campus, thinking that he can see a new level of meaning in everything around him and feeling that he himself is nothing but a meaningless dream, a “roaming ghost.” He falls asleep under the stadium, imagining that its walls can speak, that they can say powerful things, but that he, as a ghost, cannot hear them. The next morning, he returns to his room before class and finds a note from Dr. Stanpole asking him to bring some of Finny’s things to the infirmary. Gene packs Finny’s suitcase and brings it to him. Finny’s voice betrays no emotion, but as he looks through the suitcase, Gene sees that his hands are shaking. Finny tells Gene that all winter he has been writing to various military branches all over the allied world, begging to be allowed to enlist but that all of them have rejected him because of his leg. He says that the reason he kept telling Gene that there was no war was that he could not be a part of it. Gene tells Finny that he would never have been any good in the war anyway because he would have gone over to the other side and made friends and gotten everyone confused about whom they were fighting.
Finny bursts into tears and says that some sort of blind impulse must have seized Gene on the tree those many months ago, that he hadn’t known what he was doing. He asks Gene to confirm that it was some impulse, not some deep feeling against Finny, that took hold of him that day; Gene answers that some “ignorance” or “crazy thing” inside him made him jostle the limb. Finny assures him that he understands and believes Gene. The doctor tells Gene that he is going to set the bone this afternoon; Gene can come back that evening after Finny comes out of the anesthesia. Gene goes about his day mechanically and comes back to the infirmary at the appointed time. Dr. Stanpole finds him in the hall outside Finny’s room and tells him that Finny is dead. As Gene listens numbly, the doctor explains that a bit of marrow escaped from the bone as he was setting it, entering Finny’s bloodstream and stopping his heart. Gene doesn’t cry, not even later at Finny’s funeral. He feels that, in some way, it is his own funeral as well.
Gene’s nighttime wanderings lead him to a tragic realization. As he floats aimlessly, he comes to recognize that he has no sense of himself, no sense of his own identity or being. Gene has spent so much of the novel losing himself in Finny that, once severed from him, he feels himself to be a ghost, departed from the world of the living. This spectral existence renders him deaf to the profound lessons that his world has to teach him; it cuts him off from a meaningful life. Thus, he tells us that the landscape “speaks” to him but that he cannot hear its messages.
It is difficult to know what to make of the interaction between the two friends on the following day. At night, when Gene comes to Finny’s window, Finny lashes out at him; but the next day, Finny is ready to forgive, ready to believe that what happened on the branch arose from a sudden, uncontrollable urge that Gene could not control—that it had nothing to do with their friendship. The reader is left uncertain as to whether Finny really believes this idea or is simply forcing himself to believe. If he were to believe that Gene really harbored some deep resentment toward him, he would have to give up Gene’s friendship, a prospect that he considers too painful. Similarly, when Gene eagerly joins Finny in attributing the jounce to blind impulse, we are left to question the extent to which he believes this idea. Again, Gene, ever the problematic narrator, withholds information: he tells us what he says to Finny, but characteristically, he does not tell us his thoughts.
Ultimately, by refusing to resolve the matter definitively, the novel forces the reader to contemplate the subtleties of the story. That is, unable to determine the truth behind Finny’s fall, we must base considerations of Gene’s seeming guilt on other elements. His mindset prior to the fall—his feelings of rivalry and envy—would seem to render Gene guilty regardless of whether or not he consciously jostled the branch. For example, if he wished for harm to come to Finny, even if not at the specific moment in the tree, then this malevolent intention would cost him our trust and lead us to believe that he might well have been responsible for the accident. Gene’s devotion to Finny after the accident, however, would seem to exonerate him. On the other hand, one can argue that this devotion arises out of Gene’s deep shame, which may itself be considered in various lights. His shame seems to point to his guilt, yet perhaps his intense regret and self-hatred have sufficed as atonement for his misdeed.
The strange manner of Finny’s death seems to suggest a fundamental flaw in the codependency that marks his relationship with Gene. Gene and Finny rely on each other to deal with the anxieties of adolescence and the encroaching war and seem to need each other in order to survive. Their relationship allows them to reinforce for each other the self-delusion that the war is a conspiracy, that the Olympics will take place as usual, that they need never grow up and face reality. The blurring of their identities into a haven of blitheness and Olympic glory against the tribulations that they know await them prevents them from properly navigating the difficulties of adolescence and maturing into adulthood. For Finny, the implications of this failure to gain a more astute understanding of the world are tragic. He is never able to understand that, unlike him, other people do have enemies and are not always content. One can argue that the stray bit of marrow that plugs Finny’s heart symbolizes Gene’s underlying resentment toward the unsuspecting Finny—a resentment that permeates his desire to be a part of Finny.
Gene’s reflections on Finny’s death suggest that, whether or not the friends’ intense bond actually causes Finny’s death, the bond between them will last beyond death. In the moment of Finny’s passing, the boys are symbolically still a part of each other. Gene himself recognizes this fact, as evident from his remark that Finny’s funeral feels like his own. In a sense, the funeral is his own. Gene is merged with Finny to so great an extent that it is difficult to imagine one boy continuing to exist without the other.
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