A Separate Peace | Study Guide

John Knowles

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A Separate Peace | Chapter 12 | Summary

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Summary

The boys rush to help the fallen Finny. They call the wrestling coach, who is an expert at first aid. Some boys call the school doctor. Gene longs to help Finny but worries to himself, "Phineas might begin to curse me." Dr. Stanpole arrives and has a chair brought in for Finny. Finny is lifted up and carried to the infirmary in the doctor's car. Finny is in pain but remains calm as they carry him out. Gene approaches Dr. Stanpole who states simply, "It's the leg again. Broken again. But a much cleaner break."

Mr. Ludsbury arrives and tells Gene to return to his dorm. Instead Gene takes a circuitous route to the infirmary. Gene finds a lighted window in the infirmary and jumps up to see through it. He sees the wrestling coach, the doctor, and the nurse in the room talking. Gene cannot hear what must be the boring things they're saying, but he imagines what each is saying. He amuses himself by coming up with "bright remarks" about what each might say. He thinks he's being "quite a card tonight." Gene's mind cannot stop generating silly jokes. He imagines Finny sassing the doctor, nurse, or wrestling coach ("Dr. Stanpole, you're the most long-winded licensed medical man alive"; "Miss Windbag, you're rotten"). He imagines Finny spouting Latin (from his homework) to mystify the people in the room (the Latin translates as "Gaul is divided into three parts"). Gene is so overwrought he can't stop himself from laughing aloud, though he covers his mouth with his hand to stifle his hilarity. He laughs so hard "it [hurts his] stomach." When he bites his fist to stop his laughter he realizes his hand is covered with tears. Then the light goes out in the Infirmary room.

Gene hoists himself up to the infirmary room window, opens it, and whispers Finny's name. Finny replies, "Who is it?" and then recognizes Gene. Gene is shocked to see that Finny's leg is bound to the bed so he cannot move. "You want to break something else in me! Is that why you're here?" Finny says. Finny thrashes and groans in bed, but Gene isn't alarmed because he knows Finny can't get to [him]. "I want to fix your leg up," Gene says. Finny is so upset he twists his body until his hands are flat on the floor while his legs are bound to the bed. Gene is certain this hasn't hurt him. Then Gene says, "I'm sorry." Finny struggles back up into bed, and Gene leaves.

Gene goes for a walk but sees Devon School as if with "double vision." Nothing seems the same; all the buildings seem unknown with a "deeper significance" than they'd ever appeared to have before. The trees Gene passes "were intensely meaningful," but it's a meaning Gene cannot fathom. Everywhere he looks things appear to have "meanings upon meanings" which his superficial sight cannot decipher. Gene feels like a "roaming ghost" and his time at the school a dream.

Gene approaches the clear Devon River. As he passes the sports stadium he thinks it is speaking to him but he can neither hear nor understand what it is saying. Gene falls asleep and awakens lying on a stadium ramp. Gene walks back, eats breakfast, and heads for his dorm room. On the door is note from Dr. Stanpole asking Gene to bring some of Finny's things to the infirmary. As Gene packs a bag he feels he's done all this before: Gene is not as shocked now as he was the first time Finny was injured. Gene attributes this to the pervasiveness of war news. He thinks that compared to war casualties Finny's leg was just a mishap. His thoughts of war actually calm Gene down.

As Gene approaches Finny's room he feels a kind of "fatal exhilaration," thinking, "This is it" about confessing to Finny. Finny is sitting up in bed reading a magazine. When Finny speaks, his voice reveals neither "friendliness [nor] unfriendliness." Gene is desperate to leave but feels powerless to do so. But when Gene sees Finny's hands shaking, somehow he's released from his paralysis of inaction. Gene reminds Finny that he'd tried to tell him about his role in the tree incident back in Boston. Finny says he remembers that. Then Finny says, "I don't know if I can take this with a war on." Gene is confused until Finny explains that he's been writing to the various branches of the armed forces to enlist. But all need a medical report. In his current condition, Finny would never pass a medical and be accepted into the military. Finny tells an astonished Gene, "I [would keep] saying there wasn't any war ... until two seconds after I got a letter" of acceptance into the military.

Gene tells Finny that his temperament makes him totally unsuited to war in any case. In a lull in the fighting he'd be "with the Germans or the Japs, asking if they'd like to field a baseball team against our side." Gene tells Finny he's just too playful and innocent to be a fighter. At hearing this Finny begins to cry, and he tells Gene he knows about the "blind impulse" that made Gene do what he did in the tree. Gene agrees, but still says to Finny, "How can you believe that? I can't even make myself" believe that. But Finny has convinced himself that what Gene did to him in the tree was not deliberate or malicious, that it "wasn't anything personal." Gene supports Finny's notion by stating, "It was just some ignorance inside me, some crazy thing" that made him do it. The scene ends with Finny crying and saying, "I believe you."

As he's leaving the infirmary, Gene meets Dr. Stanpole, who says he'll be operating on Finny's leg to set the bone later that day. Gene should come back at five o'clock. Gene spends most of the rest of the day going to classes. He occupies his mind with trivialities, such as details of his lunch. He returns to his dorm room and reads. Later he goes to the gym and wrestles with another student. Gene showers, returns to his room, and reads. At 4:45 p.m. Gene leaves the dorm for the infirmary, where he sits to wait for Dr. Stanpole. The doctor enters the waiting room, sits next to Gene, and tells him, "Your friend is dead." Gene finds the doctor's words "incomprehensible." It seems most likely that while setting the bone some marrow escaped, traveled through Finny's bloodstream, and stopped his heart. The doctor wonders if he should have sent Finny to Boston for more sophisticated surgery. But, the doctor reminds Gene that "there are always risks" in surgery. Gene reports that he did not cry then or ever over Finny's death.

Analysis

Marble is an important symbol in this chapter. When the hall lights are turned on, "all the marble blazed up under full illumination." This represents the full exposure of the merciless harshness of reality, of life and death, and the consequences of actions. It also indicates the illumination and revelation of hard truths.

Freedom versus conformity is also briefly addressed near the beginning of this chapter. When Mr. Ludsbury tells Gene to go back to his room, Gene deliberately ignores him and instead spends the night wandering around the school grounds. Previously Gene's tendency to conform and to obey rules might have prevailed. But after this night's trauma Gene is no longer bound by rules.

Dr. Stanhope's diagnosis of a "clean [and] simple" break in Finny's leg may foreshadow more serious consequences ahead. It's possible that this type of clean break refers to death, which is the cleanest break there is; it is certainly not the first time the text connects Finny's broken leg with a metaphorical death. The newly broken leg also puts the lie to Finny's earlier insistence that a broken leg, once healed, is stronger than the original unbroken leg. If the initially shattered leg represents Finny's separation from Gene, this second break may augur a more drastic and final separation.

This chapter demonstrates the tension between Gene and Finny as they experience the pain and dislocation of struggling to coming to terms with their separate identities. Certain aspects of Gene's and Finny's characters are both challenged and solidified after Finny's terrible accident. When Gene sees Finny being carried in the chair he thinks he looks like "some tragic and exalted personage." This image may reinforce Gene's sense of Finny's "royal" persona and Gene's status as a "subject" who adores his idol. It seems only when Finny is tragically brought low that Gene allows himself to see Finny's true, exalted nature. At the same time Gene remarks that "Phineas had thought of me as an extension of himself." Perhaps Gene is deluding himself about this. Considering what he has done to Finny it is unlikely they are now—if they ever were—united in a single identity. The notion of twinning is undermined, or challenged. Rivalry, harmful action (at the tree), and this terrible fall after the "trial" all indicate that their united sense of identity might never have truly existed. Yet at the end of the chapter Gene says that he never cried over Finny's death because he "could not escape a feeling that this was my own funeral, and you do not cry in that case."

Finny's character is surprisingly broadened when he cries about not being able to fight in the war because of his leg injury. It's not clear if Finny believed in the war all along or if he made up this story about trying to enlist only after his leg was shattered. In either case it seems wholly out of character for Finny to seek combat. That Finny is not serious about enlisting is underscored by his response to Gene's telling him why he's unfit for military service. Finny does not respond by defending his war-readiness. Instead he immediately starts talking about Gene's motivation during the incident at the tree. For Finny, then, there's a connection between his fall from the tree and his newfound attraction to military service. The fall ruined his life. Now that his shattered leg makes military service impossible he speaks of wanting to serve. He is no longer an athlete and is unfit for military service. What is left for him?

The contrast between fantasy and reality is explored in Gene's thoughts after Finny's accident. Gene's uncontrollable hilarity as he sits under the infirmary window is another example of his fantasizing about what is happening inside the infirmary room. This time, though, Gene is already "lapsed into nothing." He uses his inane fantasies to shield his mind from the reality of the horrible event he caused.

Gene's sense of identity undergoes a change during his walk. He no longer feels like himself but instead he thinks he's a "roaming ghost." Everything he'd done at Devon School was unreal because in some vital way he hadn't been truly present. "All the people there were intensely real; wildly alive and totally meaningful, and I alone was a dream," Gene thinks, continuing, "I was not ... a living part of this overpoweringly solid and deeply meaningful world around me." Is Gene's experience born out of temporary emotional trauma, or does it emerge from his realization that he has hidden his true identity from the world (and himself) since he's been at Devon? Or is he a "ghost" because he's identified himself with the now fatally injured Finny? In any case, the Gene wandering around the school grounds now seems much closer to the adult Gene the reader encountered at the beginning of the novel.

Fantasy distorts reality for Gene as he wanders through the school grounds. Everything he sees looks "innately strange" to Gene, who sees things "as though there had always been an inner core ... which I had never perceived before." Again, is what Gene sees a result of his emotional trauma? Or is he seeing the underlying truth of concrete reality with his "double vision?" Although this scene seems to hearken back to Leper's hallucinations, Gene is rational and his visions reveal an aspect of truth. Gene recognizes that what he sees now is "much deeper and far more real than any[thing] I had noticed before." Everything seems "intensely meaningful" but simultaneously "indecipherable." Gene thinks his formerly "superficial eyes and cluttered mind had been blind" to the profound reality he now sees. This section is almost phantasmagorical but at the same time deeply real. Gene's vision seems to encompass a duality in what he sees and feels: he experiences reality in a type of fantasy world; he recognizes beauty and goodness in things he'd previously thought malign. Are Gene's revelations profoundly true or simply the result of his devastated emotions?

The war is significant in this chapter. Part of Gene's feelings of unreality arise from "the faint odor" of words such as "plasma," "psycho," and "sulfa" (a type of antibiotic) he senses in the air. He thinks of "newsreels and magazines choked with images of blazing artillery" and "bodies half sunk in the sand of a beach somewhere." As Gene and the other boys mature, the war becomes an increasingly intrusive and menacing presence for them. Gene even uses his awareness of the war to belittle Finny's injury as "minor" in comparison. He also uses his ideas about the war to calm [him]self as he brings Finny his suitcase of belongings. At this point war is more manageable to Gene than facing his guilt. Imagining "whole city blocks exploding into flame" is one way Gene can distract himself from his personal terror.

Finny's identity and view of the war seems to be transformed. As he enters Finny's room, Gene uses the "wartime phrase ... this is it" in the same way that soldiers do when they think they might die in battle. But Finny astonishes Gene when he says, "Why do you think I kept saying there wasn't any war all winter?" He reveals that he was going to keep up the charade until he had enlisted and been accepted. Has Finny really been sending letters to various militaries seeking to enlist? This would be a total contradiction of everything the reader (and Gene) knows about him. Is Finny more mature and grounded in reality or is he instead devious and a liar? Has all he's done and said before simply been a smokescreen to hide his desire to fight in the war? If his desire to fight—if all those letters were written—it must have been since his fall from the tree. If Finny did write those letters it had to be after his shattered leg would prevent his passing a military medical exam and fighting in the war.

Finny becomes distraught when Gene tells him that his personality would make him totally unfit for the military. "During a lull in the fighting," Gene says, "you'd be sitting in one of [the enemy's] command posts, teaching them English." Finny's natural friendliness would prove disastrous: "You'd get things so scrambled up nobody would know who to fight any more." When he hears Gene say these words Finny starts to cry, even though they correctly sum up his true, peaceful nature.

Here, rivalry and identity meld with the issue of war. When Gene tells Finny how unfit he is for war, Finny does not respond by explaining why he is fit to fight. Instead Finny immediately starts talking about the incident at the tree: "It was just some blind impulse you had in the tree there ... Was that it?" Gene assures him that was it. Then Finny says, "It wasn't some kind of hate you've felt all along. It wasn't anything personal." Gene confirms this view, though the reader knows it is false. Finny is anxious to believe in their undying friendship. Yet the rivalry between the boys—Gene's envy of Finny—has bled over into Finny's supposedly new goal of fighting in the war. The rivalry and the war are intertwined, and both defeat Finny because of Gene's action. Finny seems to mourn the loss of his earlier exuberant and peaceful self. It's as if he's been robbed of all possibility of inhabiting his own nature. Yet in a way he is being true to himself by being unable to accept Gene's malicious feelings and actions.

Gene's sense of rivalry is also evident when he speaks to Finny through the infirmary window. When Finny harshly demands, "Who is it?" Gene is relieved to see that Finny's legs are bound to the bed. Gene thinks this will hinder Finny, who "was struggling to unleash his hate against me." Gene may or may not be right in thinking this. Finny tries to get out of bed but manages only to fall partly off the bed with his hands on the floor. Finny seems truly angry—a reaction he's never shown before—when Gene says he's come to "fix your leg." Gene then repeats "I'm sorry" several times as Finny twists and struggles to get his body back up on the bed. Gene is sure "[Finny] had not hurt himself" by twisting his body off the side of the bed while his legs were bound. Yet the question remains: Did Gene's unwanted intrusion upset Finny so much that he tried to leave the bed? And did the arching and twisting of Finny's body somehow worsen the break in the bone, contributing to Finny's death? The reader must consider the relationship, if any, between Gene's actions at the infirmary and earlier at the tree. Did Gene deliberately, if subconsciously, seek to harm Finny in both cases?

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