A Separate Peace | Study Guide

John Knowles

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A Separate Peace | Chapter 6 | Summary

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Summary

It's the winter term and "peace [has] deserted Devon [School]." The easygoing, fun time of the summer term is over. The student body gathers in the chapel on the opening day of school. Gene notes that the same hymns are played, the exact same sermon given. Everything is the same as it has always been on the first day of the winter term. Only Gene recognizes that in some subtle way the freewheeling summer term has changed Devon School. And for Gene the incident at the tree has somehow broken and changed him.

After chapel the students head for their classes. Gene compares the obedient students of the winter term to the carefree band of summer students. Now students' lives are more regimented, and the students follow the rules. The leaderless carefree summer has given way to the control of the winter term.

Gene has the same dorm room, but he's alone in the room until Finny returns to school. Across the hall, Brinker Hadley, the dominant student leader, holds court in his dorm room. Leper has been moved to a room in another building.

Gene starts to go into Brinker's room, but does not. Gene realizes that Brinker's "steady wit and ceaseless plans" hold no attraction for him. On some level Gene misses Leper, with his collection of snails and other eccentricities. So Gene heads for the Crew House, where he's taken on the role of assistant. His path takes him past the two Devon School rivers: the clear, clean Devon River (where Finny was hurt) and the ugly, dirty Naguamsett River that flows into the ocean. Gene meets Cliff Quackenbush, the crew manager, at the Crew House. Quackenbush is generally disliked by students because he's too mature and arrogant. Quackenbush admonishes Gene for being late. He sets Gene to work as assistant crew manager, a lowly, thankless job that was usually taken "by boys with some physical disability." But since all students must take part in some sport, Gene opts for this low-status job.

Later the bossy, arrogant Quackenbush berates Gene for being so disinterested in managing a sports team—something that's expected of seniors. As they argue Gene realizes they always will be "pitted against each other." Gene understands Quackenbush will bully him to make up for all the humiliation he's suffered as an unpopular student. Quackenbush calls Gene a "maimed son-of-a-bitch" and this enrages Gene because it feels like an insult to Finny. Gene is so angry he hits Quackenbush across the face. The boys fight and eventually tumble into the water. Quackenbush tells Gene not to return to Crew House.

As the wet and cold Gene heads back to his dorm he meets Mr. Ludsbury. Mr. Ludsbury asks Gene why he's so wet, and Gene says he fell into the river. Mr. Ludsbury then chastises Gene for the gaming in the dorm during the summer term. Gene remembers the games, invented by Finny, which the boys had played then. Mr. Ludsbury says gaming is against the rules and he will no longer tolerate it, nor will he tolerate the leaky icebox Gene has in his room. Mr. Ludsbury bemoans the flouting of rules and unacceptable behavior that occurred in the dorm during the summer term. Then Mr. Ludsbury tells Gene there's a long-distance call for him. Gene can return the call from Mr. Ludsbury's office.

Gene returns the call—it's to Finny at his home in Boston. Finny wishes Gene a "happy first day" at school. Finny is delighted to hear that the school is saving his old dorm room with Gene. Gene is delighted to hear the "simple outgoing affection" in Finny's voice. Finny then says he's called to make sure that Gene has gotten over the craziness he exhibited when he'd visited Boston. Gene assures him he has. Again Finny apologizes for thinking that something strange had happened on that tree limb. Finny asks what sports Gene is going out for, and he's shocked at Gene's lowly job at the Crew House—not so much by the lowly position but by the fact that he's managing rather than playing sports. Instead of explaining how he feels, Gene says he's too busy for sports. Finny will have none of it. Finny says that if he can't play sports then Gene will play sports for him.

Analysis

Memory and change are motifs that open this chapter as Gene remembers the freedom and fun of the summer term and compares it to the rigid obedience of the winter term. Gene reflects on Devon School's emphasis on "tradition" and "continuity." Yet he is keenly aware that in some vital way Devon School's "rules [had] been forgotten" during the summer term. Gene revels in memories of Finny and his joyful freedom, his "exaltation ... like a god ... encompassing all the glory of the summer." In summer term Finny was "perfection."

Summer and winter terms are contrasted in terms of their atmosphere and the students' experience. Summer term was "easygoing," but the "coolness" of winter term now predominates. During the summer term "traditions had been broken [and] the standards let down ... [during] those bright days of truancy." Winter term is the time of "control" and conscious dominance by head students. Whereas the summer term was defined by Finny's "supreme fantas[ies]" and joy, the winter term is dominated by Brinker Hadley's "steady wit and ceaseless plans." Brinker is far more prosaic and rules-based than Finny could ever be. That is why he dominates the joyless, more controlled winter term. The dismal control of winter term is also embodied in the figure of Mr. Ludsbury, who chastises Gene for the gaming and other transgressions that occurred during the summer term. Ludsbury makes it clear that such freedom is against the rules and will no longer be tolerated.

Winter and summer are also contrasted in terms of sports. In summer sports were imaginative competitions conjured by Finny. Winter sports are degraded, at least for Gene who is to be assistant manager of the rowing team—a form of drudgery. For Gene winter sports do not symbolize beauty and fun but soul-crushing regulations and an insufferable overseer. Winter sports therefore represent a type of reality, the drudgery of real-life work under a harsh and vindictive boss.

The symbol of the two rivers that border Devon School is introduced in this chapter. In summer the boys had their adventures by the tree whose branches overhang the clear, clean waters of the Devon River. The Devon River is kept pure by a dam that separates it from the real-world ocean. The purity of this river mirrors the purity and innocence of that time and the boys' separation from the hard realities of the real world.

The rowing team and Crew House are located on the foul and dirty Naguamsett River, which also borders Devon School. This "ugly, saline [river] fringed with marsh mud and seaweed" represents the real world—the loss of purity (and innocence) that is often associated with the end of childhood. This dismal river empties into the ocean—the real big, bad world. It is here, at the Naguamsett, that Gene confronts the reality of the hard-nosed and pugnacious Quackenbush, who exemplifies a real-world type of demanding boss. Both the river and the team manager represent reality's harshness. Further, that Devon School "was astride these two rivers" indicates its role as a place of transition from innocence to reality-based experience.

Finny's fall has broken Gene's spirit in some way. Gene reveals something of this change by wanting to be an "automaton" working for the rowing team. Numbness has replaced whatever joy he'd experienced during the summer. Numbness also protects Gene against the guilt he feels about Finny's injury.

Yet Gene's depression is quickly dissipated during his phone conversation with Finny. Gene's "sense of freedom" is revived by what he thinks is the new "purpose" he's found for himself: "to become a part of Phineas." Here again the notion of twinning is implied. Gene's identification with Finny was presaged in his fight with Quackenbush. When Gene fights Quackenbush for calling him maimed, he recognizes that "I fought [this] battle, that first skirmish of a long campaign, for Finny." Gene took on the role of "Finny's defender," but then he states, "It felt as though I had done it for myself." Here, Gene realizes that to some extent he has taken on parts of Finny's identity and made them his own. His fight for Finny was a fight for himself because in some way the two boys are one. The idea that the two boys are twinned, or two parts of the same person, becomes clear.

By the end of the chapter Gene's desire for emotional numbness is quickly abandoned when Finny states emphatically, "If I can't play sports you're going to play them for me." Hearing this, Gene "lost a part of [himself] to [Finny], and a soaring sense of freedom revealed" itself. Twinning is implied in Gene and Finny's close identification as almost one person. (The reader should note, however, that Finny's statement also shows that Gene was too cowardly [or guilty] to tell Finny that he'd never play sports again. The doctor had asked Gene to tell Finny this terrible news, but Gene could never bring himself to do it. Obviously someone else has revealed to Finny the truth about his condition.)

War imagery should be noted: Gene compares a tennis ball to "a bullet." He explains "This didn't seem completely crazy" in 1942, when "jumping out of trees stood for abandoning a torpedoed ship." Even the Devon School sports curriculum is slightly altered to accommodate the war. In swimming class the students are taught "after you hit the water you made big splashes with your hands, to scatter the flaming oil which would be on the surface" of the ocean.

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