A Separate Peace | Study Guide

John Knowles

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A Separate Peace | Chapter 4 | Summary

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Summary

Gene awakens on the beach. He notices that the ocean appears dead, as does the sleeping Phineas. The sky turns white as the sun rises, and Gene thinks that Finny looks "pure ... [like] Lazarus brought back to life by the touch of God."

Gene realizes it's time for them to head back to school. He has an important math test to take. Yet when Finny awakes he takes time for one more swim. Then they ride their bikes back to Devon School. Gene tells the reader that he ended up flunking the math test—the first and only time he had ever failed a test. A game of blitzball after lunch takes Gene's mind off the test. After dinner the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session meets at the tree.

That evening Gene tries to catch up on his studies. Finny insists that Gene studies too much math. Gene reminds Finny that he has to pass math in order to graduate. Finny is dismissive, stating that graduating is a sure thing for Gene; it's just that he wants to be "head of the class." At first Gene denies this but then he admits it to himself.

Gene suddenly decides that if he is valedictorian then he'd be "even" with Finny, who was number one in athletics. Gene asks Finny if he would mind if he, Gene, were head of the class academically. Finny responds with a joke that he'd be so "jealous he'd kill [himself]." Gene interprets the joke as a screen masking the truth of Finny's jealousy. Gene is so astounded by what he thinks this means that his "brain explode[s]." He can't digest the supposed fact that Finny would be jealous of his, Gene's, success. Gene realizes that if Finny's jealousy is real they can no longer be best friends, and there is no one in the school that he can trust.

Gene has a kind of panic attack. He thinks that he and Finny are enemies and have been "even" for a while now. Gene admits he hated Finny for breaking the swimming record, but Gene also thinks Finny hates him for doing so well in his studies. Gene then convinces himself that the trip to the beach (Finny's idea) was a deliberate attempt to sabotage Gene's math test. By not getting an A in math, Gene would no longer be "even" with Finny. Gene believes that Finny's creation of blitzball and the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session were simply his way of undermining Gene and his academic goals—a way to keep Gene from being "even" with the perfect Phineas. Gene's thoughts spin nearly out of control as his paranoia about Finny's motives convinces him that Finny's actions were deliberate and fueled by enmity.

Gene thinks he's figured things out now. He buckles down to his studies and becomes an exceptional student. Only Chet Douglass challenges Gene for the honor of top student, but Gene is more focused. Gene describes how Finny "slouches" in classes that probably bore him. Finny is able to spin clever-sounding answers when called upon in class, but "written tests were his downfall." He could not use his charm to excel on tests. Thus, Finny's grades were pretty poor.

Despite Gene's competitiveness and paranoia about Finny, the roommates get along in the weeks following Gene's so-called revelation. Gene sometimes "[forgets] whom he hated and who hated [him]." Finny's beauty and free-spiritedness repeatedly seduce Gene into joyous appreciation of Finny and life.

In August, Gene intensifies his studying for their upcoming examinations. Yet he continues to participate in Finny's games and the Suicide Society that meets at the old tree each evening. Gene does these things to mask his new understanding of Finny; to make sure Finny does not suspect that Gene had "detected ... Finny's ... lonely, selfish ambition" to undermine Gene's accomplishments.

Finny disrupts Gene's studying for a French test by announcing that Leper Lepellier has said he would try to jump from the tree that very evening. Finny insists that he and Gene be there to see Leper overcome his fear and join the secret society. Gene is angry at Finny for interrupting his studies, but he agrees to go. As they leave Finny suddenly realizes why studying is important for Gene. Finny candidly, and seemingly truthfully, explains that he thought Gene was so smart he didn't need to study. But if Gene must study then he should not go. After all, Finny says, the Society's tree-jumping is just a game. Gene is stunned and begins to question his paranoid judgments about Finny. Gene is confused but accompanies Finny to the tree. As he walks Gene realizes that he'd been wrong, that Finny "had never been jealous of [him]."

At the tree Finny suggests that he and Gene begin the meeting by jumping from the branch together, simultaneously. Finny climbs first and moves out onto the high branch. Gene is close behind but near the tree trunk. While holding the tree trunk Gene takes a step toward Finny. Then his "knees bent and [he] jounced the limb." The movement of the branch causes Finny to lose his balance and "tumble sideways." Finny hits the riverbank "with a sickening, unnatural thud." Gene reflects that "it was the first clumsy physical action" he had ever seen on Finny's part. Then Gene moves out onto the branch and jumps into the river.

Analysis

Rivalry and identity are significant in this chapter. When Gene flunks his math test his mind fixates on Finny as someone who seeks to undermine his success. Gene sees Finny as a rival and an enemy, someone whose "cold trickery was calculated."

Gene views the rivalry as Finny's determination to prevent Gene from being "even" with him in their success at school. Gene is stricken with the notion that Finny is so selfish he does everything he can to undermine Gene's becoming the top student academically. Gene thinks Finny is determined not to let this happen. When Gene asks, Finny says he'd "kill himself out of jealous envy" if Gene became the top academic student. Finny is joking, but Gene takes the remark seriously. Finny is a great athlete but "a poor student," whereas Gene is a great student and a "good athlete." So Gene sets himself higher than Finny (more "even"), and this pleases him. Being recognized as a top scholar seems to be essential to Gene's self-esteem, and thus to his identity—his sense of self.

Gene's rivalry with Finny unravels when Finny expresses surprise that Gene has to study. Finny thought that doing well academically came as effortlessly to Gene as athletics came to him. Gene is stunned when Finny then tells him with total sincerity that if he needs to study he should.

These revelations about (Gene's imagined) rivalry transform how each boy understands the other. Finny had mistakenly identified Gene as an effortless academic wonder. He now understands that Gene must study to do well academically. Gene is astonished by what he learns about Finny. When Finny says "I didn't know you needed to study," Gene looks at him as if Finny was a "total stranger." Gene must jettison his paranoid notions of Finny's nature and intentions: "Now I knew that there never was and never could have been any rivalry between us." Gene also realizes that Finny is a better person than he is. While Gene nurtured paranoid fantasies (and hatred) for Finny, once Finny better understands Gene he has Gene's best interest at heart. Finny's friendship for Gene is shown to be deep and heartfelt. Gene had only wanted to harm and outshine Finny—he completely lacked Finny's generosity of spirit. "I was not of the same quality as [Finny]," Gene realizes. This too will feed Gene's envy of Finny.

Gene's identity, his self-worth, cannot accommodate Finny's generosity in light of his own fierce enmity toward Finny. Gene may feel he must do something to re-establish his self-esteem and justify his feelings and actions by denigrating (or destroying) Finny. When the boys are out on the tree limb together Gene "jounces" the branch; it is not clear, to the reader or perhaps even to Gene, whether he did so deliberately. Finny loses his balance and falls onto the riverbank. Gene distances himself from what happened by thinking of it in terms of Finny's unexpected clumsiness.

(Readers should note that in the numerous interviews the author gave about this book he consistently refused to say if Gene deliberately or accidentally "jounced" the branch that led to Finny's fall. It's up to the reader to decide what really happened.)

Other themes are developed in this key chapter. Gene is again revealed to be more of a conformist than Finny in his dedication to the study requirements of school. This shows that Gene is also more of a realist because he understands that for most people excelling requires effort. Finny cannot be blamed for not understanding that because his athletic prowess comes easily and naturally to him. Yet Finny accepts the reality that he'll never be more than a "C" student—and that does not bother him in the least. Gene, on the other hand, wants to be like Finny in his effortless perfection, even though he resents Finny for just this quality. Gene measures his identity against Finny's, but Finny does not bother about measuring himself against anyone else. He is who he is, and he's fine with that.

The fact that this chapter's events take place in August—at the end of the summer term—represents the waning of the carefree period (summer) during which the boys flouted the rules, were great friends, and enjoyed themselves as much as possible. The summer term is ending and with it the innocent, good times. The mood of the chapter is one of anger, hostility, and enmity. These negative emotions arise as the grimmer winter term looms on the horizon.

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