A Separate Peace | Study Guide

John Knowles

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A Separate Peace | Chapter 13 | Summary

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Summary

The chapter opens with Gene describing the areas of Devon School, with the Center Common considered the real Devon School. The Far Common, a gift from a rich woman, is less popular and less identified as an integral part of the school.

It is early June and Gene stands at his dorm window watching "the war move in to occupy" the Far Common with military Jeeps, trucks, and, finally, troops. Gene and Brinker are amazed that the trucks are carrying sewing machines—likely to be used in sewing parachutes. Brinker wonders if Leper would have been all right if he'd enlisted in the Parachute Riggers' school. Gene asks Brinker not to talk "about what you could not change." As the headmaster addresses the assembled troops, Gene notes, "Peace lay on Devon like a blessing." The troops then carry the sewing machines into a school building.

Brinker's father has arrived and he wants to meet Gene in the Butt Room. Mr. Hadley is a "distinguished-looking man [with a] healthily pink" complexion. Mr. Hadley derides the arrival of troops with sewing machines. He asks Gene what branch of the military he's enlisting in, hoping he'll choose something "doggone exciting." Gene says he was going to wait to be drafted but decided against it because he didn't want to be in the infantry. Instead Gene has joined the navy; he'll soon be leaving for training in Pensacola, Florida. Mr. Hadley scowls when Gene informs him that Brinker has signed up for the Coast Guard. Clearly Mr. Hadley is disappointed in Brinker because, he says, "People will get their respect for you" from your service in the military. Hadley senior warns the boys not to seek too cushy a posting. Then he tells them that he's jealous of their opportunity to fight a war. When Brinker says, "we'll do what we have to," his father blusters that they should be "proud [to do] a lot more." Mr. Hadley tells Brinker and Gene to polish their shoes and then he leaves.

Brinker rails against his father for his overly gung-ho attitude toward the war, claiming that "He and his crowd are responsible for it." Gene has a different opinion. He understands that wars are started because of human ignorance, not some malign conspiracy.

Gene heads for the gym to clean out his locker. He sees that the Far Common quad is almost unrecognizable with all the equipment and troops swarming over it. He realizes that the troops' high morale is totally different from the happiness he and Finny felt as students.

Finny "is present in every moment" for the boys at the school, yet nobody speaks of him. Gene can't speak of Finny because his personality "endured so forcefully" still. Gene sees Finny's ability to "accept ... only as much as he could assimilate without a sense of chaos and loss" as one of Finny's greatest strengths of character. Gene understands that this slow assimilation of reality now applies to his acceptance of the personal consequences of the war. "Nothing," Gene knows, "had broken [Finny's] harmonious and natural unity. So at last I had." Gene admits his guilt in destroying Finny and his innate goodness.

After emptying out his locker Gene realizes that "my schooling was over now." He walks outside past an instructor overseeing troops doing calisthenics and thinks that soon he will face similar regimentation. Gene feels "ready for the war now that ... [his] fury is gone." He says that Finny has taken his anger with him to the grave.

A few weeks later Gene is training for the navy where he easily "falls into step." Gene tells the reader that he never "killed anybody" during the war and never felt "hatred for the enemy." He "killed his enemy" while at Devon School. Gene reflects on the fact that "only Phineas was never afraid ... never hated anyone." Finny was not like other people, who "constructed ... these Maginot Lines against the enemy they thought they saw across the frontier."

Analysis

War dominates this chapter in which the war comes to Devon School. The physical reality of the war arrives in the form of trucks, troops, and sewing machines—a prosaic and every day, rather than heroic, appliance. The psychological reality of the war has been accepted by the senior boys. Gene and Brinker have enlisted in different branches of the armed forces.

The symbol of summer term as peaceful and joyous contrasts with the arrival of the military, but summer colors Gene's experience and memories. Gene celebrates this summer day when "peace lay on Devon like a blessing, the summer's peace." Gene wonders if summer joy is something only he and Finny were able to experience. With Finny dead, Gene thinks, "now [this feeling] might be true only for me."

Brinker Hadley's father approaches the war as a fantasy, albeit in a different way from how Finny did. For him the war is "romantic" in the sense of soldiers bravely fighting for their country; it's not surprising that he seems displeased by the sewing machines. He also believes that one's role in the war constitutes part of one's identity for a lifetime. He is right when he says "Your war memories will be with you forever," but he seems to deliberately ignore the fact that those memories might be more of death and bloodshed than of glory.

Brinker apologizes for his father's attitude to the war. Then Brinker reveals his own version of Finny's war fantasy. Like Finny, Brinker believes old men like his father's crowd are responsible for starting a war that "we're going to fight." Brinker's fantasy is "generational" and built on resentment. Gene notes that Brinker's fantasy conspiracy differs from Finny's in that Finny saw the war conspiracy "comically, as a huge and intensely practical joke played by fat and foolish old men." In contrast to them both, Gene has developed a mature understanding of the real cause of war: "something ignorant in the human heart."

In a practical sense, Gene, Brinker, and the other senior boys have accepted the reality of the war. Yet there seems to be a tacit agreement to conceal what they know about Leper and Finny. The fate of these two students is never discussed or even mentioned. Regarding Leper, Gene states, "I had to be right in never talking about what you could not change," which is Leper's insanity. No one speaks about what happened to Finny because "they could not believe it or else they could not understand it." Gene says he would have explained what happened to Finny but no one else wanted to hear it. Is this true, or is Gene still trying to hide the truth of what he did?

Gene has matured. He can now enlist, he says, because "I was ready for the war, now that I no longer had any hatred to contribute to it." He says that "Phineas had absorbed [his fury] and taken it with him." Gene has worked through parts of himself—his anger at and envy of Finny—he previously could not face. Unlike Leper, Gene is able to move through training unscathed, and the war does not actually reach him completely—he is never forced into battle.

Gene states that no one and nothing could break Finny's "harmonious and natural unity. So at last I had." This statement not only clarifies Gene's acceptance of his guilt for ruining (and ending) Finny's life, it also implies that Gene had to harm Finny at the tree in order to become his own person and let his individuality emerge. The text implies that Gene knew he was not "even" with Finny in the purity of his character, so he had to destroy Finny to fully become himself.

Other students at the school could not escape their psychological and emotional limitations. Gene explains that they could not assimilate the real world, as Finny did, in a way that left them whole. Instead they felt world events (like the war) as "overwhelmingly hostile" things they violently "pitted themselves against." This outlook creates an enemy out of the "other" and "reality."

At the end of the book Gene remarks that only Finny refused to build barriers between himself and others and the real world. Others reacted "against this enemy they thought they saw across the frontier." He references the Maginot Line, which was a line of concrete fortifications built by the French to hinder a German invasion of France. Here Gene is talking not only about people in general or Devon boys in particular, but about himself. He is, in a sense, admitting that he'd built a barrier between himself and Finny, thinking Finny was an enemy who sought to attack or undermine him. Now the more mature Gene understands that this view is a fantasy. The reality is that Finny never saw anyone—especially not Gene—as an enemy.

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