A Separate Peace | Study Guide

John Knowles

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A Separate Peace | Chapter 10 | Summary

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Summary

Gene takes a long, dismal nighttime train ride to visit Leper in response to his telegram. Gene must transfer from the train to a bus to get to Leper's home in rural Vermont. The adult Gene remembers that he never actually fought in the war, but made many long journeys such as this one as he was "shuttled around America in pursuit of a role to play" in the war effort. Before he could see combat, the Allies were nearing victory.

Gene reaches Leper's small hometown at dawn, wondering what Leper meant in his telegram by saying that he "escaped." Gene knows that a person doesn't escape from the army. There are no taxis in this town so Gene walks the few miles to Leper's house. The morning is beautiful, and the sunrise is a blessing. As he approaches the typical New England house, Gene sees Leper looking at him from a window. Gene enters the house, and Leper asks him to come into the dining room where he "spends most of his time."

The atmosphere is tense, and Gene tries to make a joke. But Leper seems to snarl at him by curling his lips. Gene realizes this is more of a tic than a snarl. Leper explains that he likes the dining room because it's a place he knows "the meals will come in three times a day." When Gene jokes about Leper's mother not being too pleased working to prepare the meals, Leper cries furiously, "I'm pleasing myself." When Leper calms down he looks dull and disgusted. Gene notes that his usual politeness is gone. Gene asks how long Leper's furlough is, but Leper despairingly replies he "didn't get any pass." "I escaped!" he yells furiously. Gene wonders aloud how one escapes from the army because escape is not normal. Leper replies bitterly, "Normal ... You're thinking I'm not normal, aren't you... you're thinking I'm a psycho."

Gene realizes that the army has made Leper crazy. Leper explains that he escaped to avoid getting a "Section Eight discharge ... for the nuts in the service, the psychos, the Funny Farm candidates." Leper didn't want the dishonorable discharge that would taint his whole life so he went AWOL (absent without leave).

Gene takes offense at Leper's yelling at him, but Leper shouts him down, saying, "Why the hell should I think about you? Did you ever think about me?" Leper calls Gene a savage, but before Gene can respond Leper says, "Like that time you knocked Finny out of the tree." Gene jumps up and curses at Leper, who ignores him and continues to relate what he knows about what Gene did to Finny. Only the arrival of Leper's mother prevents the boys from fighting.

Gene wants to leave, but Leper asks him to stay a while. They eat lunch, though Leper eats hardly anything. Gene wonders at Leper's frightening transformation. The extent of Leper's derangement becomes clear when the two boys go out for a walk together.

They crunch across a snow-covered field. Leper admits he was "nervous in the service," but the witticism does little to ease the tension. Suddenly Leper starts crying and admits to having a bizarre image in his head of Brinker with a woman's body. Leper rambles on about how bad army food is and how he couldn't eat. He describes falling asleep during the day but being sleepless at night. Leper says he guesses he's deranged but then wonders if he's the psycho or if it's the army that's psycho. Leper goes on to describe the hallucinations he had in the service, including one of a man carrying a human leg.

Gene and Leper continue their walk. Gene doesn't know what to say to Leper's fearsome rants. Finally Leper says, "Then they grabbed me." But before he can finish telling what happened Gene shouts to him, "Shut up!" Gene is shaken and bellows at Leper that he doesn't want to hear any more. "I don't care what happened to you, Leper. I don't give a damn," he says, turning and running across the snow-covered field. Gene realizes that Leper is still standing in the field "telling his story."

Analysis

The war is paramount in this chapter and is explored through its effect on Leper's identity. Leper has been to basic training, which is just the introduction to war, not the war itself. Yet this experience has destroyed him. He is described as "insane" but today would likely be said to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Leper had enlisted based on the fantasy of a war that would enable him to enjoy skiing in aid of the war effort. His actual experience of war, or more correctly of basic military training, is so antithetical to his fantasy that it unhinges his mind. Leper cannot make the transition from the child he was at school to the adult fighting man he must become to survive in the army. Because he cannot move beyond his childhood identity he has psychotic visions of the horrifying transformations of others and of reality.

Leper's face is "filled with terror" at the reality he was forced to endure. When he is not shaking with fury, he is sobbing in fear and despair. Leper is outraged when Gene asks what's normal in the army because Leper cannot conceive of what he experienced in the army as being part of anything he formerly considered normal. (It's important to note, however, that Leper had enough sanity to recognize how a Section Eight discharge would affect the rest of his life. In a way, then, his escape from the army makes a kind of sense, even if deserting seems like an irrational and desperate act.)

In a crucial sense Leper's insanity has freed him to confront other realities and truths. The reality of army life may have driven him crazy, but it has also freed him from his former inhibitions. Remember that Leper was a shy and quiet boy who shunned sports and sought out the peace and beauty of nature. Now his unhinged mind has opened to the truth about realities he had formerly repressed or been careful not to mention. When Leper confronts Gene about "that time you knocked Finny out of the tree," Gene is outraged, calling Leper a "stupid crazy bastard." Leper is not shy about accusing Gene of "crippling Finny for life." During this scene it is Leper who has a true grasp of reality and Gene who furiously denies it.

Leper's accusations about Gene injuring Finny may be one reason Gene rejects Leper. Another reason Gene abandons Leper is because Gene cannot handle the reality of Leper's experience and, with it, the reality of war. Gene is estranged from reality, but his estrangement is anchored in his determination to maintain his childhood fantasies about war (and his fantasy/denial that he deliberately harmed Finny). The reader should remember that Gene went to visit Leper after Finny had returned to Devon School and Gene had gladly succumbed to Finny's world view of peace, fun, and nonexistent war. Gene clings to Finny's version of reality, and in so doing he denies the war, the reality of Leper's suffering, and his friendship with Leper. In his telegram Leper had referred to Gene as his best friend. But Gene is so horrified at Leper's condition he rejects Leper as a friend, abandoning him to his demons.

For both boys, the motif of change and memory is telling. Leper is a child forced to grow up instantly. He cannot accept the changes that military training demand of him. Leper explains his early hallucinations in the army by saying, "Maybe everybody imagines things like that when they're away from home, really far away, for the first time." In this statement Leper reveals how childish he was when he enlisted—like a child who's away from his mother for the first time. Leper explains to Gene that the army unhinged his mind because "there was food like the kind we throw out here," and his "uniform didn't even smell familiar." These are childish attachments that the army expects recruits to give up. Leper's hallucinations are his response to the trauma of being expected to grow up so abruptly.

Leper and Gene respond to change differently. Leper's insanity comes from his inability to cope with a transformation to adulthood. In contrast, Gene refuses to accept any change. He is appalled by Leper's transformation from a sweet boy to an insane boy-man. Gene sacrifices Leper rather than accepting the way adult experiences have changed and scarred Leper.

The exploration of Leper's nature in this chapter is crucial. Gene is alarmed to see that Leper's previous character, his sweet shyness and "careful politeness," have vanished and been replaced by harshness and aggression. Yet Leper's new nature—his more adult, vicious, even cruel, manner—is fueled by the truth. It's as if a childish veil has been stripped from Leper's eyes and what he sees has not only unhinged his mind but permitted him to speak the harshest truths with brutal forthrightness, as when he confronts Gene about the incident with Finny at the tree. Gene furiously defends himself when Leper calls him a savage. Earlier in the book Gene hinted that he knew he was capable of savagery. Yet here he maintains his juvenile sense of outrage when his true character is unveiled by the more adult Leper.

But memory paints a different picture of Gene's rejection of Leper's experience. The chapter opens with the grownup, mature Gene remembering his noncombat war experience. His description is mainly of his being "shuttled around America" from one military base to another. Yet the sober, even sad tone he uses to describe his time in the military seems to indicate that as an adult he is much more understanding of Leper's trauma.

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