A Separate Peace | Study Guide

John Knowles

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A Separate Peace | Chapter 11 | Summary



When Gene gets back to school he finds Finny and the other boys engaged in a snowball fight. Gene doesn't join in, but when he tries to leave a boy hits him with a snowball. Finny calls to Gene "you're on our side." Finny's injury is much improved. He no longer limps or uses a cane. Instead he wears a walking cast. Finny asks Gene about Leper, but Gene is dismissive: "How would he be? You know Leper—." He's careful not to divulge Leper's real condition. Gene joins in the fight, but then Finny seems to him to change sides. So Gene is now fighting against Finny. The fight ends "in the only way possible," when all the boys turn on Finny, who "cheerfully surrenders."

Later Gene asks Finny if fighting might make his broken leg worse or break it again. Finny replies that when a broken bone heals it gets stronger. So playing physically demanding games is good for it.

Brinker enters Finny and Gene's dorm room and asks about Leper. Gene falters and then says "he's on leave," or actually AWOL (absent without leave). Brinker arrogantly imagines that Leper must be "out of his mind [because] he was too scared" for the army. Gene admits that Leper did, in fact, crack up, but Gene is disgusted when Brinker seems delighted by this news. Now Leper joins Finny in "being out of [the war]." Gene regurgitates Finny's idea that there's really no war to be out of. Finny smiles and agrees in a rather ironic way.

The war effort has taken hold at Devon School, especially with senior boys enlisting or being recruited. But among Gene and Finny's friends "there was no rush to get into the fighting." One day Brinker confronts Gene to tell him that Finny is preventing Gene from enlisting because Gene pities Finny, a charge Gene vehemently denies. Brinker explains that if everyone pities Finny he'll soon start pitying himself. His friends must admit that Finny is crippled, and he must accept it too. Brinker says his interactions with Finny will include references to his injury. Gene says Brinker better not talk to Finny that way. As Brinker and Gene argue, Brinker mentions that it's in Gene's interest to have "Finny's accident ... forgotten." Gene feigns bewilderment, but Brinker hints that Gene knows what he means.

Back in their dorm room Gene is doing Finny's Latin homework for him. It's a translation about Julius Caesar fighting the Gallic Wars. Here again Finny denies that there ever was a "Gallic War." He doesn't even believe Caesar ever existed, and the boys joke about war for a while. Then Finny acknowledges that Leper's insanity has convinced him World War II is real. Only a real war can "drive somebody crazy" that way. Finny confesses, "Oh I guess I always knew, but I didn't have to admit it" until now. Gene is shocked that Finny knows about Leper's condition because he saw Leper himself. It seems that Leper is secretly hiding and hanging out around the school. Gene and Finny try to hide their unease with jokes.

At ten o'clock one night Brinker comes to take Gene and Finny out of their room and to the Assembly Hall. The large Assembly Hall has a "blank ... deadened look" about it. There are ten senior boys seated on the hall's platform. Gene thinks it's all a practical joke until he hears Brinker address the ten boys (seemingly, judges) about an inquiry. Finny is confused when asked to tell what happened to him during this "investigation [into] Finny's accident." Gene is alarmed: this is not a prank but a trial. Gene's voice is shaking as he tries to undermine the proceedings, but Brinker insists the inquiry is to dispel "any stray rumors and suspicions" about what happened.

Brinker keeps asking Finny to tell what happened, and Finny keeps replying, "There's nothing to tell ... I fell out of a tree." Finny admits to losing his balance but balks when Brinker suggests that maybe he "didn't just fall out of that tree." Finny replies that maybe the "tree did it by itself." Finny claims to have forgotten if someone else was in the tree with him. A "judge" on the platform asks Gene if he was there too, and he admits he was "down at the bottom" of the tree. Gene says he didn't see the tree "shake ... or anything like that." A "judge" says he thought Gene was in the tree. Gene becomes defensive, and Brinker says, "No one's accusing you of anything." Finny tries to re-create the scene but really seems not to remember it correctly. When he remembers suggesting he and Gene do a "double jump" Finny suddenly stops speaking. Finny seems confused about him and Gene climbing the tree. When Finny admits that Leper was there too, the others wish he was at school because he remembers details well. Then Finny says he's seen Leper around the school. Gene almost panics, until he remembers that Leper is deranged and no one would believe what he says.

Two boys leave to find Leper and soon return with him. Leper's face is "glowing ... his manner all energy." Brinker asks Leper to describe what happened at the tree. To Gene, Leper's story sounds hallucinatory and insane. Leper describes the scene and says the two boys on the tree limb moved "like an engine ... [that] has two pistons ... first one sinks, then the next one sinks." Leper describes how the boy holding on to the tree trunk (Gene) sank first "for a second" and then the second boy farther out on the limb "sank and fell." When the "judges" ask Leper to identify the boy who fell, he refuses, saying, "I'm no fool."

Finny gets up from his chair and announces, "I don't care." As Finny walks out of the Assembly Hall, Brinker calls to him to wait. Finny turns around and Gene sees he's crying. Finny tells Brinker, "You get the rest of the facts," and then Finny "plunges out the door." The boys in the hall can hear Finny rushing away. Then they hear the sound of "a body falling clumsily down the white marble stairs."


The contrast between reality and fantasy dominates this chapter. In some sections this contrast intersects with the theme of war, as when Finny and Gene joke about the nonexistent Gallic Wars and Finny's belief that Julius Caesar never existed. Later when the boys are in their dorm room, Finny insists that a healed broken bone is "supposed to be stronger" than the original, unbroken one. Finny says, "I can feel it getting stronger," although this is surely fantasy or wishful thinking on his part.

The snowball fight at the beginning of the chapter hints at the theme of rivalry. Gene sees Finny's changing sides as a "betrayal" and a "disorder [of] loyalties." It's not clear from the text if Finny changes sides because he recognizes Gene's envy of and rivalry with him, or if it's just an unthinking act to even up the sides during the game. The effect of Finny's so-called betrayal is that neither side wins or loses the fight. Perhaps this is Finny's way of preventing the snowball fight from too closely resembling war.

The chapter also explores the Finny's maturation. Finny's relationship with reality undergoes an important change. When Finny sees Leper lurking around the school, he finally admits the war is real. Finny says Leper "looked at me like I was a gorilla or something." Leper's insanity has convinced Finny the war is real. Only a real war could transform Leper so drastically.

It is implied that Finny's identity may also be challenged. Brinker is no doubt right when he warns Gene to stop pitying Finny. Brinker understands that Finny will come to identify himself as an object of pity if people (especially Gene) persist in denying the lifelong effects of his terrible injury. Brinker will treat Finny based on the reality of his injury. However, it's unclear if Finny is truly in denial about his disability. What is clear is that Gene is adamant about maintaining the fiction that Finny will one day regain his athletic ability. Of course, Gene is also determined to deny his culpability in causing Finny's accident.

Finny's nature and acceptance of reality are tested later during the "trial" in the Assembly Hall. At first it seems that Finny truly does not remember exactly what happened at the tree. But it's also not clear how much credence he gives Leper's testimony about what happened. When Finny tells Brinker to "collect every f—ing fact there is in the world" for the trial, is Finny accepting or rejecting the validity of facts? Or is he using the ambiguity of the incident at the tree—and the unreliable statements of the deranged Leper—as a way to avoid facing reality? Remember that Finny had refused to hear Gene's confession in Boston. Is Finny still clinging to his fantasy of goodness and innocence? Or is he being protective of and loyal to his best friend, Gene?

Gene continues to maintain his innocence and to deny his part in the incident. Despite his earlier protestations that he is now a more mature person, Gene cannot admit his guilt to the assembled students. His attempts to deflect their so-called evidence only serve to implicate him further. His guilt and the gravity of what he'd done are so appalling to him Gene can't openly admit that envy and savagery are part of who he is. He may somehow admit it to himself, but he cannot allow it to become part of his public persona. He resorts to embarrassing and immature bald-faced lies ("[I was] down at the bottom [of the tree], yes") when confronted by his accusers.

In some strange way Leper's new identity has heightened his grasp of reality (despite his psychosis). Leper is now described as confident. At the "trial" Leper will use his newfound confidence to stand up for himself ("I'm important. You've never realized it, but I'm important too") and to curse Brinker ("You be the fool now. Bastard"). Leper's account of what happened at the tree paints a highly accurate picture of what actually occurred. It is curious, though, that Leper's account is told in a decidedly hallucinatory way that might lead the "judges" to discount his testimony. Yet his bizarre description of the event shows that reality and truth can be revealed through the lens of insanity. Because of his experience Leper uses war imagery to describe what he saw: "The rays of the sun were shooting past them ... like golden machine gun fire." He says that Gene and Finny "looked as black as death standing up there with this fire burning all around them." The author may be juxtaposing sanity and derangement, fantasy and reality to explore how tenuous the line is that separates them. Truth may be revealed through madness. Sanity may cling defensively to falsehoods and fantasy.

Leper's testimony also removes the humanity from the event: the boys are represented as "pistons" in a machine that move in response to one another. The horrifying conclusion of one piston's response to the other is left out.

The symbol of the tree undergoes some changes in this chapter. Earlier in the story it represented a place of innocence and youthful fun and adventure. At the "trial" the tree is referred to in rather ominous terms. It becomes an object of ambiguity. At the "trial" Finny even says, "I've had a feeling that the tree did it by itself," repeating, "almost as though the tree shook me out by itself." Characterizing the tree as having evil intentions seems a bizarre way for Finny to exculpate Gene. Remember that Gene had tried to confess to Finny in Boston, but Finny would not listen to or accept Gene's confession. So on some level Finny must have some suspicions about Gene's role in what happened, but he still tries to blame the incident on the tree. This accusation may represent Finny's loss of innocence, his growing up. For Finny at the "trial" the tree no longer represents the innocence of youth, or its symbolism has to be sacrificed in order to preserve a more important element of Finny's world: his friendship with Gene.

Memory is important at the "trial." Finny seems truly unable to remember any details of what happened at the tree. Finny flounders from one false memory to the next, especially concerning where Gene was when Finny fell. Slowly, as he fumbles for the truth, Finny begins to remember things about that day—but his memories never approach the truth about Gene. It is unclear if Finny truly doesn't remember the sequence of events that led to his fall. Yet the fact that he breaks off his account each time he comes close to placing Gene in the tree with him seems to suggest that deep down he does remember what really happened. It is only Leper who, through his apparently psychotic hallucinations, actually remembers the incident in detail.

The symbol of marble is further developed in this climactic chapter. As the boys are taken to the Assembly Hall, Gene thinks their "footsteps fell guiltily on the marble floor" and notices as they go "up a flight of pale marble steps." In a foreshadowing of the climactic scene, Gene "thought that any prank was bound to fall flat" in the marble-floored building. At the "trial," Brinker (the accuser and seeker of truth) and Finny (the fantasy-bound victim) are the only boys "isolated on the wide strip of marble floor" between the seats and the platform. It is on this hard, unforgiving material that the painful search for truth will play out.

Leper's footsteps are heard against the marble floor and stairs as he's brought into the Assembly Hall. Like the marble, the truth Leper tells will be unyielding and hard. When Leper gets too close to the truth Phineas gets up and "starts across the marble floor toward the doors." The boys in the Assembly Hall hear Finny's steps—and the clack of his cane (which he hadn't been using earlier in the chapter)—as he hurries across the marble-floored corridor and down the marble stairway. It's almost as if Finny is trying to escape the hardness (reality) of the implacable marble. Then Finny "clumsily" tumbles down the "white marble stairs." Finny, once the embodiment physical prowess and grace, is made "clumsy" by the hard, slippery marble. The marble, which represents the hardness of the real world, trips Finny up and destroys him—similar to the way real facts destroy immature fantasies and ideals.

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