A Separate Peace | Study Guide

John Knowles

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A Separate Peace | Chapter 7 | Summary

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Summary

Gene showers off the "sticky salt" of the dirty Naguamsett River. He puts on some pants that Finny also wore, and begins thinking about sports. Brinker enters Gene's room and interrupts his thoughts. Brinker has the dress and manner of a quintessential prep school student. Brinker accuses Gene of fixing the dorm-room assignments so that he would have a room to himself. Brinker says Gene knew that Finny would not be returning to the school for the winter term, but Gene denies this. Then the pair goes down to the dungeon-like Butt Room for a smoke.

Brinker shoves Gene into the Butt Room and asks the boys sitting there to judge Gene for "doing away with his roommate so he could have a whole room to himself." The atmosphere becomes tense when Brinker says, "You'll have your day in court ... So you killed him, did you?" Gene must respond to these accusations, so he jokes by saying "all I did was drop a little pinch of arsenic in his morning coffee." Brinker laughs but says that he knows about what happened at the tree. Again, Gene tries to ease the tension and deflect the accusations by making up outlandish things he did to undermine Finny. But he cannot manage to joke or say anything about the incident at the tree. Another boy says he (and likely everyone else) thinks Gene pushed Finny off the tree. Gene uses a joke to dismiss this charge, and then he leaves. As weeks pass and no one says anything, he figures they've forgotten all about it.

Gene and the other students are busy with classes. They are also becoming increasingly aware of the war, which is intruding more into their daily lives. The local apple crop is starting to rot because the pickers have joined the armed forces or munitions factories. So the Devon School students work at harvesting the apples. It starts snowing early that winter. The students again are set to work, this time clearing the snow from railroad tracks that are important to the war effort. Everyone works to clear the snow except Leper, whom Gene sees on a hillside sketching birds. Leper looks like a scarecrow on skis. Leper says he's touring the area on his skis (cross-country skiing). Gene suggests a steeper hill where Leper can ski quickly. But Leper says, "Skiing isn't supposed to be fast," because then you never get to see the area you're skiing through—and, he notes, because "you can break a leg with that downhill stuff." Leper is looking for a beaver dam and must ski slowly to find it. Gene is tempted to make fun of Leper's love of nature, but he refrains.

Gene and the other students spend days clearing snow from the tracks. Soon the work becomes difficult and monotonous. By late afternoon enough track is cleared for one train to pass through. The boys realize it's a troop train, and they cheer as the new troops yell back. The sight makes Gene think of the students as "children playing among heroic men."

On the way back to the school, the boys talk about aviation training. Then they joke with Brinker about his supposed German ancestry. They pass Leper moving slowly along on his skis. Gene asks and Leper says that he found the dam and it was fascinating. The boys tease Leper about having found the beaver dam. Brinker sarcastically demeans Leper by calling him a "naturalist." Then Brinker astonishes everyone by stating that the next day he is going to enlist.

The idea of enlisting thrills Gene, especially because it's such a drastic break with the past. He recognizes that fighting in the war is deadly, but doesn't have a problem with that. That evening as he walks to his dorm, Gene thinks about the war and the huge decision he must make about enlisting. He's still attached to the peace of the summer and wonders if he's ready to give that all up to join the military. He determines that he will be the one to decide what he will do, and when.

When Gene gets to his dorm room he sees a light coming from underneath the closed door. Finny is back.

Analysis

The two rivers are symbols that open this chapter. The clean, clear Devon River is pure because a dam separates it from the roiling ocean—the real world. The dam, like the school, protects the boys from the harsh realities of the real world. The Naguamsett River flows into the ocean and so contains some foulness and dirt—some reality. It is telling that the first thing Gene does when he gets back from this river is wash off the coating of "sticky reality" the real-world Naguamsett has left on him.

Freedom versus conformity is an important theme as is the symbol of winter term as the grim, joyless time of rules and regulations. Brinker Hadley is described as looking like a "standard preparatory school" student. Both his dress and behavior identify Brinker as the ultimate conformist, and as the leader of the senior boys Brinker stamps his conformity on the winter term. Brinker begins to take charge of the goings-on in his dorm and to monitor—and criticize when necessary—actions that flout school rules.

The war plays a significant role in this chapter. The boys discuss the war and the military, but early on Brinker refers to the war as a "bore" even though he's privately considering enlisting. The war becomes more real to the students when they harvest apples because the pickers are now fighting men; everyone, even those who aren't fighting in the war, have to make sacrifices. Even the weather is described in martial terms. The first snowfall is said to be an "invasion" of the school, as if it were "commandeered as [winter's] advance guard."

By clearing snow from the railroad tracks the boys get a taste of adulthood and real-world work. When the troop train goes by Gene thinks that the men on it appear to be "having a wonderful time." It may be that Gene misinterprets what he sees, or it may be that the troops are trying to experience all the joy they can before they're in combat. Gene realizes that he and the other boys were "nothing but children playing among heroic men." Simply having the guts to enlist to fight is heroic in Gene's eyes. Later, when Gene contemplates what role he'll have in the war he reveals his self-absorption. He thinks, "[I] knew that I owed no one anything. I owed it to myself to meet this crisis [the war] in my life when I chose." Gene then decides that he "chose now." He decides to enlist—but Finny's unexpected return to school derails that plan.

Leper is true to his identity. He knows who he is and remains true to himself despite the taunting of the other boys. Leper is described as being in his own world. He does not work alongside the other boys in clearing the railroad tracks. Instead he pursues his own peaceable interests. Leper is a lover of nature and, as such, may represent the antithesis of war, which destroys nature through combat and bombing. He is wise in wanting to truly experience the natural world. Gene is all for high-speed downhill skiing, but Leper explains why thrills are trivial. Moving slowly and immersing yourself in nature are far more satisfying. Gene, like most boys, finds this almost laughable. But in his core understanding of what it means to have truly lived immersive experience, Leper is revealed as being far deeper than Gene realizes.

Gene explores his own identity when he contemplates what it means to enlist to fight. He understands that enlisting would "break the pattern of [his] life ... [which was] a conventional background of domestic white and schoolboy blue." He "yearn[s] to take giant military shears" to this unrealistic, youthful life he's been living. Gene recognizes the unreality of his existence at Devon School and, on some level, longs to have the military change his identity to that of a real-world adult.

The war brings out other aspects of Gene's personality—particularly what seems to be a latent attraction to danger. Gene knows that "the war would be deadly," but he admits to being attracted to deadly things. "I was used to finding something deadly in things that attracted me," he says, "and if it wasn't there, as for example with Phineas, then I put it there myself." This section reveals remarkable self-knowledge on Gene's part. Yet it is not entirely clear what Gene means. Is he saying that he was attracted to Finny because he knew their games would be potentially deadly? Or is he admitting that he jounced the tree limb not out of envy and rivalry with Finny but because he needed to add an element of deadliness and danger to their exploits? There is also the question of "deadly" to whom? Could Gene be saying that he sought things that might be deadly to himself? Is he admitting that what he did to Finny was, in a way, destroying a part of himself? If this last is true, perhaps Gene wanted to destroy the part of himself that was identified so closely with Finny—to undo the implied twinness of the boys. This would also free Gene from Finny's dominating personality and allow him to become his unique, individual self.

The author uses foreshadowing to hint at grim resolutions to come. Brinker semi-jokingly accuses Gene of deliberately hurting Finny to have his dorm room to himself. Gene denies it, but Brinker replies that "the truth will out." The scene in the Butt Room foreshadows the judgment of others regarding what Gene did to Finny at the "funereal" tree. Gene turns the boys' scarcely veiled accusations into a joke to protect himself and promulgate the lie that he had nothing to do with the incident at the tree. Yet Brinker assures Gene that he'll "have his day in court"—and he will.

In the scene in the Butt Room, Brinker also compares Gene's supposed "killing" of Finny to "fratricide," or the murder of a brother. While Finny is obviously still alive, the accusation has a ring of truth: perhaps in destroying Finny's athletic ability, the skill that most defined him, he has symbolically killed him. The fact that he will soon begin doing sports on Finny's behalf suggests that he has in some way usurped Finny's role in the world.

When Gene sees Finny in his room he feels that "everything that had happened throughout the day faded like that first false snowfall of the winter" and his sense of joy returns. The winter, too, seems to be gone and replaced by the one boy who is the embodiment of innocent summer. Gene feels his brush with adult reality is gone, his youthful identity restored.

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