A Separate Peace | Study Guide

John Knowles

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A Separate Peace | Chapter 3 | Summary

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Summary

Gene understands that Finny likely saved his life, but also recognizes that he wouldn't have been on the tree limb if not for Finny. Still, several boys in the dorm sign up for potential membership in the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session, which will meet at the tree every night. Finny makes up the rule that at the beginning of each meeting he and Gene will jump from the tree. Then the initiates will attempt the jump. Gene notes that Finny loves only those rules he makes up himself. Gene resents the straightjacket of the daily meeting but ignores his intuition, which tells him not to go. He goes anyway.

Sports are a perfect beauty for Finny, who insists, "Everyone always wins at sports." Just playing sports makes you a winner. Yet Finny is disgusted by some sports—badminton in particular—that he feels fall short of the true spirit of sport. So instead of badminton Finny dreams up his own sport, called blitzball, using a medicine ball and rules he makes up as he goes along. Blitzball seems to be based on a weird combination of various types of football but with its own set of strange rules. There are no teams and every player is every other player's enemy. Amazingly, blitzball becomes the sports rage of the summer. Playing blitzball allows Finny to exhibit his sublime athleticism: he outshines everyone else in the school.

Gene then reflects on the war (World War II) and its effect on the lives of the boys at Devon School. The war was a reality for him and marked him for life. Gene recalls the people and things that dominated American life during 1942. Every aspect of life at that time was shaped by the war and the war effort at home. He says that "life in America is a dull dark green called olive drab ... most other colors risk being unpatriotic." It is this America that will be the real America throughout Gene's life.

Finny's athletic prowess, which did not involve killing in battle, was appreciated only by his group of friends. Finny breaks the school swimming record but doesn't care that no one (except Gene) is there to witness it and make it official. Finny is so indifferent he even tells Gene not to tell anyone about the record-breaking swim. Gene can't understand Finny's reasoning but keeps the record secret. Finny had already won a number of athletic honors at Devon School, but Gene is mystified by his indifference to his stunning swimming record.

Finny states that swimming in a pool is screwy and the only real swimming is in the ocean. He suggests that he and Gene go to the beach, which is hours away by bike. The beach is forbidden territory for students, but Gene agrees to go. He and Finny bike to the beach, with Finny regaling Gene with entertaining stories and jokes. It's late afternoon by the time they arrive. The boys dive into the powerful waves. Gene stays in for a short while, but Finny swims for far longer, coming out of the surf from time to time to talk to Gene. Finny is intoxicated by the sea, sand, and wind. He laughs out loud at his total pleasure and freedom.

The boys go to the boardwalk and eat hot dogs for dinner. The sky darkens into a pure, deep, starry blue. As they stroll the boardwalk Gene notices people looking at Finny, admiring his radiant beauty and vibrancy. But Finny says that everyone is staring at Gene because he's showing off again. When it's dark Gene and Finny find a sand dune and lie down to sleep. Before he sleeps Finny calls Gene his best friend, a comment Gene finds brave because teenage boys rarely if ever "expose a sincere emotion" like that. Gene thinks he should respond in kind, but says nothing.

Analysis

Gene's subservience to Finny is the ultimate conformity. Gene detests Finny's made-up rule that he and Gene open the meetings of the Super Suicide Society by jumping out of the tree together. Yet Gene feels impelled by friendship and admiration to conform to Finny's arbitrary rule even though he feels "a flash of disbelief that I was doing anything so perilous." His true self longs to be free of Finny's freewheeling tyranny, but he is subservient and insecure. Gene goes along with Finny's rule about daily meetings of the Society even though he feels it's a straightjacket that is "against every instinct of [his] nature." On some level Gene recognizes his weakness and subordination to Finny, but he seems powerless to assert himself.

Gene's resentment of Finny is revealed when he describes how great Finny was at playing blitzball. Gene attributes Finny's prowess to a character flaw in himself and the other boys, who let Finny make up all the rules. Gene says, "It served us right for letting him do all the planning." Gene resents Finny's leadership and the fact that he, Gene, is always a follower. But Gene cannot acknowledge his resentment. He couches his resentment in oblique compliments ("Finny could shine with everyone, he attracted everyone he met") as well as in self-delusion ("I was glad [about Finny] too. Naturally. He was my roommate and my best friend.") Perhaps it is a growing maturity that sows the seed of resentment in Gene and intensifies the boys' rivalry.

Finny's ability as an athlete is on full display in his blitzball play. Everyone admires his athleticism and physicality. Yet Gene resents Finny's talent. He thinks that Finny invented blitzball to showcase his own athletic skills. Gene sees Finny's creativity as a deliberate act intended to diminish and undermine Gene and the other boys. This poisons the boys' rivalry and feeds Gene's envy and resentment.

Finny's control of blitzball reveals a contradiction. There is a tension between freedom and conformity in the arbitrary rules Finny enforces in the game. Finny is being imaginative, even "anarchic," in devising blitzball on the fly. Yet he's also the referee who makes sure the players follow each new rule he dreams up and imposes on them. He is the free thinker and rule breaker when it comes to others' rules. Yet Finny expects absolute adherence and conformity from his friends to his own rules.

When Finny breaks the school swimming record, he is nonconformist in his disinterest in having his record officially recognized. Most athletes would demand their accomplishment be noted in the record books. But Finny's identity is not defined by other people. He excels to please himself, not to impress others. Gene, in contrast, is again shown to be the conformist. He craves recognition, so Finny's indifference to it rankles. Gene also resents Finny's indifference because it belittles Gene's envy of him. Gene thinks "[Finny's] accomplishment took root in my mind and grew rapidly in the darkness where I was forced to hide it." The "darkness" in Gene's mind will fester and grow, foreshadowing sinister events to come.

Gene's acquiescence to Finny's every whim contrasts with the self-confident identity of Leper Lepellier. Leper may be a nerd, but he behaves in accordance with his true (nerdy) nature—he has no interest in impressing others. Leper is not ashamed to refuse to play blitzball. He won't conform to others' expectations of who he should be. He doesn't care that others may ridicule him for being afraid or unathletic. (In this way, his nonconformist manner mirrors Finney's attitude toward his swimming record.) Finny seems to respect Leper for his honest individuality. Finny names a blitzball play the "Lepellier refusal," when a player refuses a pass.

Rivalry, as well as maturity, is explicitly introduced in this chapter. Gene is shocked by Finny's refusal to make his record-breaking swim known to others. Finny's secretiveness seemed "too unusual for—not friendship, but too unusual for rivalry." Gene explains that "few relationships among us at Devon [are] not based on rivalry." That there is a rivalry based on Gene's envy of Finny has been intimated before. Here it is overt. The question arises: Does Finny's indifference to recognition reveal his maturity, or is Gene being more mature in his understanding that people (mature adults?) need public recognition of their greatest accomplishments?

Sports are presented as an ultimate good, as well as a sign of immaturity. For Finny, "Everyone always won at sports. When you played a game you won ... it inevitably and naturally followed." Gene is wise enough to recognize Finny's idealization of sports: "Finny never permitted himself to realize that when you won they lost."

If sports are a symbol of war—of a contest in which (in reality) someone wins while another loses—then Finny's notion of sports as an "absolute good" is nonsense and an example of his immaturity. War cannot be an absolute good, no matter how justifiable it may seem to be. This is similar to Finny's absurdly idealized conception of a bombing raid in Chapter 1: he feels it is an absolute good so long as no one is hurt. That's not war as it occurs in the real world. Even in his blitzball rule-making Finny explains that each player must regard all other players as the enemy, or someone who must be defeated (who must lose). Finny even explains, "Since we're all enemies, we can and will turn on each other all the time." The relationship to war is unmistakable. This statement also foreshadows actions and enmities in later chapters.

Gene's memories about life during World War II make that grim time in America more personal and show how great a life-long impact they had on the mature, adult Gene. He says, "The war was and is reality for me," from his school days through his sober adulthood. On the other hand, Finny lived for fun and pleasure even during the height of the war. Is Gene somehow criticizing Finny for pursuing freedom and pleasure during this grim period when so many others suffered? Or does Gene view Finny's pursuit of innocent pleasure as a welcome antidote to the grim reality that the schoolboys were trying to ignore?

Homoeroticism is implied in the time Gene and Finny spend at the beach. It is not stated if they swim naked, but later their clothes are in fine condition. Gene states that "[Finny] did everything he could think of for me," though he doesn't say what. That night Gene and Finny sleep (near or next to each other) on a sand dune. Finny is not ashamed to reveal his emotions when he tells Gene he's his "best pal." Gene, on the other hand, wants to reciprocate but "something held [him] back" and he could not express similar feelings. The last line of the chapter foreshadows changes in their relationship as Gene muses, "Perhaps I was stopped by that level of feeling, deeper than thought, which contains the truth." Are Gene's true feelings those of attraction or of envy and perhaps even hatred for Finny?

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