A Separate Peace | Study Guide

John Knowles

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A Separate Peace | Chapter 5 | Summary

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Summary

Finny is taken to the infirmary, where his shattered leg is treated. Finny's injury is seen as especially unfair because it happened to a boy "who could be free and happy in the summer of 1942."

Gene spends most of his time in his room to evade questions from other students about what happened to Finny. Gene is numb with shock. One evening as he's getting dressed, Gene puts on Finny's clothes—even his pink shirt. Wearing the pink shirt makes Gene feel like a nobleman. Yet his image in the mirror is that of Finny, not Gene. Gene feels relieved at looking so much like Finny.

The next day Gene learns that Finny is doing better. Dr. Stanpole, the school physician, asks Gene to go see Finny, although Gene is worried that his visit might upset his friend. The doctor says that seeing his friend will be good for Finny. Gene is shocked when the doctor says that "sports are finished for [Finny]." Gene had no idea Finny's injury was so serious and life-altering. Gene rejects the fact that Finny will no longer be able to play sports. Dr. Stanpole tells Gene that "As a friend you ought to help him face that and accept it." Gene is so upset at the news he begins crying. The doctor tells him to be cheerful when he visits Finny, noting, "You were the person he asked for." "That stopped my tears," Gene tells the reader. Gene is afraid that Finny wants to see him to accuse him of causing the accident.

Dr. Stanpole walks Gene to the infirmary, and Gene enters Finny's room. Finny jokes that Gene "look[s] worse" than he does. Gene thinks Finny looks weak and diminished. When Finny asks, "What are you looking so sick about?" Gene begins to blunder into a confused account of what happened at the tree. Gene babbles about cutting down the tree (to punish it) and asks Finny, "How could you fall off like that?" Finny's reply is that he simply fell. The boys discuss what they remember about what happened at the tree when Finny fell. Gene is defensive; Finny is confused—especially since Gene is wearing the same shocked expression now that he had on the tree limb. Finny says he had an intuitive feeling on the tree limb but he "can't say anything for sure" about what happened. Gene is relieved because he realizes Finny won't accuse him, a friend, of a crime if he only had "a feeling he did it." Gene suddenly realizes that if the tables were turned Finny would tell the truth about what he did on the limb. This idea upsets Gene so much he jumps from his chair and tells Finny there's something he's got to tell him. Gene intends to tell Finny the truth about his condition, but he cannot. The doctor comes in and Gene leaves.

Summer session is over and the boys go home. Gene returns to his home down South. His month at home seems unreal to him. At the end of September Gene heads back to Devon School. On the way he decides to visit Finny at his elegant family home in Boston. Finny looks pleased to see Gene. Finny talks to Gene in the rambling and charming way he had before the accident. Gene is silent, shocked by Finny as an invalid "propped by white hospital-looking pillows in a big armchair." Finny wants to hear about Gene's school break down South. Gene tries to be cheerful and funny in describing a grass fire behind his house. The tale breaks the ice a bit, and Gene wonders if he should tell the truth about the accident now. He decides against it: it's not the right time or place. Yet all at once Gene tells Finny that he was thinking about him and then he blurts out, "I caused the accident."

Finny is disbelieving, but Gene explains "I deliberately jounced the limb so you would fall off." Finny replies "Of course you didn't." Gene says he did, Finny again refuses to believe it and calls Gene a fool. Finny is so angry at Gene's confession he says "I'll kill you if you don't shut up." "You see ... Now you know what it is!" Gene says, thinking that Finny now feels as hateful toward him as he had felt toward Finny. Finally, Finny tells Gene to leave. Gene realizes his confession has injured Finny perhaps more severely than the broken leg. Gene begins to wonder whether he really did jounce the tree limb on purpose. Gene leaves after Finny says he'll probably be back at Devon School by Thanksgiving.

Analysis

Issues of identity dominate this chapter. When he holes up in his dorm room, Gene "forgets ... even who [he] was." He feels numb, and the only thing that brings his feelings to life is putting on Finny's clothes. When he's wearing Finny's pink shirt, Gene is "excited [by] a sense of strangeness and distinction." Here Gene becomes twinned with Finny by wearing his distinctive shirt. Gene's identity is further confused with Finny's when he looks in the mirror and sees himself as Finny. Gene is "Phineas to the life," and he feels relieved to feel at one with Finny. It's as if taking on Finny's identity is the only identity Gene can live with; once again, the boys are twinned. Curiously Gene thinks being Finny means that he "would never stumble through confusions of [his] own character again." Yet when Dr. Stanpole says, "Oh, you know Finny," Gene thinks "I was pretty sure I didn't know Finny at all." So what identity is Gene assuming when he wears Finny's clothes and becomes "Phineas to the life?" What "confusion" is lifted from him when he becomes this friend he admits he doesn't know at all?

The motif of homoeroticism is suggested here. Gene is his best self when he feels Finny's "rich material against [his] skin," which also made him feel "excited ... [and] strange." Perhaps Gene comes alive not just when he identifies as Finny but when he feels at one with Finny. This may hint at a homosexual attraction between the boys. In an earlier chapter Finny grabs and throws on some of Gene's clothes. But Finny does not seem to react or take much notice—they're just any old clothes to him. In this chapter, Gene does notice. It might also be the case that Gene created his imagined rivalry between him and Finny to mask or destroy that attraction.

Gene's character is further revealed when he speaks with Finny in the infirmary. Finny says he turned around on the tree limb and tried to reach for Gene's hand to steady himself. Gene is convinced that Finny tried to reach out to him "to drag [him] down too." Finny is astonished at Gene's reaction and explains he reached out "to get hold of you, so I wouldn't fall off." Gene refuses to believe this. Gene's envy and enmity still dominate his relationship with Finny. Gene cannot let go of his notion of Finny as a rival, or enemy. On the tree limb Finny notes that he saw Gene looking "very shocked ... personally shocked ... like it happened to you or something." What Finny says is true: something shocking did happen to Gene. It's likely that Gene was shocked at learning that part of his character was so violent and hateful. On some level Gene did not realize this about himself.

Finny's identity is changed forever by his fall. Gene is stunned to learn that while Finny will probably walk again he will never again be able to engage in sports. Sports—and Finny's effortless physical prowess—define Finny in a deeply significant way. Although earlier in the chapter Gene felt relief at assuming Finny's identity, that identity is now radically changed. And Gene knows he's responsible for that tragic change. Yet Gene is surprised at himself when he weeps over Finny's tragedy. Gene realizes he has kindness in his nature—a characteristic he shares with Finny.

That Finny is a loyal and kind friend is evident when he refuses to believe that Gene had anything to do with his fall. "I just fell," is all Finny will say. Although he "had a feeling" that "something happened" on the tree, we don't know exactly what that something looks like from Finny's point of view.

The reader learns that Finny is from a wealthy Boston family, which may in part account for his always doing just what he wants to do (perhaps he's been spoiled and has a sense of entitlement). The reader also learns that Gene is from the South and not from an upper-class family. When Gene is at Finny's house he feels "like a wild man who had stumbled in from the jungle to tear the place apart." Gene clearly feels out of place in Finny's house, so he imagines his physical presence could have this effect; but he also knows the confession he feels compelled to make would tear Finny apart emotionally.

The theme of rivalry is revealed in a new light. When Gene sees Finny in the infirmary bed, he thinks Finny looks "physically diminished." This bothers rather than pleases him. The reader might think that Gene would be glad his rival is now diminished because Finny's decline would raise Gene above him (Gene would be more "even"). But that is not the case. Gene is visibly upset and feels guilty about what he has done and how it has diminished Finny. Gene's distress may arise, in part, from his close identification with Finny. He may envy Finny because he wants to be like him, yet a diminished Finny implies a diminished Gene as well. The idea of twinning is challenged by the drastic change Finny has suffered.

Gene comes to understand that the rivalry is all one way: it's his envy of Finny. At the infirmary Finny actually apologizes for having a feeling that something strange happened. Gene is shaken by the realization that Finny would never accuse him, because Gene was his friend. "And I thought we were competitors! It was so ludicrous I wanted to cry," Gene thinks. Gene's emotion comes from his understanding that the rivalry he thought existed and the enmity he projected onto Finny were just figments of his paranoid imagination. The rivalry does not exist outside his head.

Seasons are significant symbols in this chapter. The boys meet at Finny's house in September, the beginning of the winter term when a darker reality predominates. The winter term represents loss of innocence, and in a way Gene loses his innocence when he confesses what he did to Finny on the tree branch. Yet Finny seems to retain his innocence. He fights against truth and reality to insist that Gene could never have done such an evil, hurtful thing.

Freedom versus conformity is an issue that arises at the end of the chapter. As Gene leaves Finny's house to head back to New Hampshire, he mentions he's already a day late getting back to Devon School. Finny half-jokingly responds, "You aren't going to start living by the rules, are you?" Gene laughingly assures Finny he won't. Yet as he says this he thinks "that was the most false thing, the biggest lie of all." Gene knows that he is a conformist and rule follower. But he still feels that he must hide this part of himself from Finny.

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