A Separate Peace | Study Guide

John Knowles

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A Separate Peace | Chapter 8 | Summary

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Summary

Gene and Finny talk in their dorm room. When Gene tells Finny the boys have been shoveling snow off railroad tracks, Finny seems detached and even dismissive of the school's role in aiding the war effort. Gene tries not to be upset at the sight of Finny using crutches.

Finny gets annoyed when he learns that because of the war, the school no longer employs maids to clean students' rooms. Gene says, "After all, there's a war on," to which Finny replies, "Is there?" Even when Finny gets up the next morning, the first thing he says is a complaint about not having a maid.

Brinker barges into the boys' room and is astounded to see that Finny has returned. Brinker snidely says to Gene, "So your little plot [to have the room to yourself] didn't work so well after all." Gene insists there was no plot, but Finny is in the dark about what they're talking about. Finally, Gene lies and says that Brinker wants to know if he, Gene, will enlist with him. Finny is flabbergasted. He cannot comprehend why Gene would even consider enlisting in the army. Gene realizes that Finny is shocked at the idea of Gene leaving. Gene abandons all thoughts of enlisting. "What a nutty idea," he thinks. At this, Finny breaks "into a wide and dazzled smile." Gene realizes that now that Finny is back "summertime ... peace" had returned to his life. Gene is relieved that the inescapable war now seemed remote because of Finny.

Gene describes how dangerous for Finny the winter environment at the school is. There's snow and slippery ice covering walkways and stairs. Finny could easily fall or slip while using his crutches. The opulent design of building interiors is, or seems, less hazardous to Finny on his crutches. Gene describes the luxurious and expensive materials and designs of the old school buildings. Gene is rather distressed to see that Finny has lost his former gracefulness and instead "hobble[s]" along on his crutches.

On the way to class Finny suggests they skip school and instead go to the gym. Finny is exhausted after hobbling the quarter-mile to the gym. Finny looks at the gym equipment. Then he tells Gene, "You're going to be the big star now." Finny has determined to train Gene to be a first-class athlete. Finny is shocked when Gene tells him he's not gone out for any sports because "there's a war on." Finny then states his conviction that there is no war; that it's all a conspiracy by the powerful to prevent young people from having fun—to "keep them in their places." When Gene challenges him, asking why he's the only person who knows about this evil plot against the young, Finny says he knows about it because he's suffered. Both boys are subdued by this, and Gene breaks the awkward silence by chinning on an exercise bar. Finny tells Gene to do 30 chin-ups. To his own amazement, Gene does.

Finny then admits that before his injury he'd been "aiming for the Olympics." Now, of course, that dream is beyond reach. Instead, Finny says he will train Gene to qualify for the 1944 Olympics. When Gene tells Finny that there won't be any Olympics in 1944 because of the war, Finny dismisses the idea. Yet Gene agrees to let Finny train him in Olympic athletics.

Slowly Gene seems to internalize and accept Finny's conspiracy theory that there really is no war on. But another part of him does not believe Finny's conspiracy theory; practically, he knows that the war really exists. Meanwhile the boys are busy tutoring each other: Gene helping Finny with his classwork and Finny training Gene in athletics. One morning while running laps around a track, Gene makes a breakthrough. He exerts himself to the limit but then feels his body surpass that limit. The breakthrough makes Gene feel magnificent. All exhaustion leaves his body; his running becomes effortless. He finds transcendence in the act of running. When he's done all his laps, Gene is "not even winded." Finny recognizes that Gene found his rhythm.

When the boys meet Mr. Ludsbury, Finny tells him that Gene is training for the 1944 Olympics. Ludsbury chuckles and reminds the boys that "all exercise today is aimed ... at the approaching Waterloo [the war]." Finny simply replies, "No." Mr. Ludsbury is so abashed he hurries off. Finny is amazed that Ludsbury really believes there's a war on.

Analysis

War is the driving theme here. Much in the school has changed as it directs its activities toward the war. Its concessions to the war "betrayed the divided nature of the school," which caters to rich boys but tightens its belt to help the war effort. Gene likens this divided nature to the "two rivers that [the school straddled]." The symbol of the rivers—one kept separate, pure and peaceful; the other dirty and contaminated by the sea—represents this division between innocent youth and harsh reality; between war and peace.

The divided nature of the school is mirrored in the conflicting visions of the war as real or as fantasy. Finny insists that the war is not real. Finny denies the war, explaining that "fat old men ... have made it all up" to destroy the young and carefree. He is determined to believe that peace is the true reality of the world, and states that he has the right to deny the war because he's suffered." In Finny's denial is also the selfishness of childhood: on a worldwide scale, the war was a horrific event that caused suffering for many millions of people, suffering far worse than a broken leg. For Finny, this suffering seems much less significant than his own loss of fun.

The symbol of sports and athletics intersects with Finny's fantastical ideas about the war. For Finny athletics may be a benign substitute for war. While others prepare for war Finny prepares Gene for an Olympic games that will not take place. Finny is living in his own separate reality of peace, and he will not abandon his commitment to it.

The war and the return of the hobbled Finny affect the identities of both boys. Finny's physical identity is altered by his fall. Before, Finny used to "move in continuous flowing balance ... He hobbled now." Finny will never be able to play sports, but his nature as a carefree youth is largely maintained. He is still fun-loving and charming. Finny's character, as exemplified by some of his ideas, is perfectly consistent with his pre-injury self. For example, Finny still blames the war on a conspiracy by the fat old men (those who make rules for others) who can't bear to see the young be free and happy. Yet Finny's personality has changed somewhat because of the physical damage of his fall. This becomes clear when he expresses his "bitterness," stating that his suffering gives him the right to deny the reality of war. Finny had never before expressed bitterness or admitted to suffering. Obviously it has been hard for Finny to adjust to the limitations imposed by his injury. He transforms some of that pain into his project to make Gene a star athlete.

Gene's nature is changed more dramatically. On some level he is torn between recognizing the reality of the war and the attraction of Finny's youthful, fantastical denial of it. Gene was ready to enlist until Finny returned and reinstated their lives of youthful fantasy. Perhaps Gene's greatest transformation is his breakthrough as an athlete, in surpassing himself and finding his rhythm. Gene's and Finny's identities become joined, or twinned, in an important way. Finny will experience athletics vicariously through Gene. Gene has achieved his personal best athletic performance—and this personal accomplishment unites Gene even more closely with Finny. Earlier in the chapter Finny admits that before his injury he'd been training for the Olympics himself. There is a question, then, whether Finny is training Gene for Gene's sake or his own. It's also likely that Finny is training Gene for the Olympics as another way to deny the war. By turning Gene into a star athlete Finny reasserts his idea that sports are a peaceful substitute for war and an "ultimate good."

There is a brief and sidelong reference to homoeroticism when Gene and Finny are in the locker room. They don't get out of their clothes, but the locker room is redolent of "bodies battling against each other." The locker room had "the smell of the human body after it had been used to the limit, such a smell as has meaning and poignancy for any athlete, just as it has for any lover." The author compares the spent athletes to "lovers," though there is nothing overt that occurs between the boys.

The symbol of marble as a hard material of potential real-world danger is mentioned several times in this chapter. Gene and Finny walk through school buildings whose floors are made out of slippery marble. Marble stairs are described as "steep," and marble floors pose a danger to the hobbling Finny. This attention to the marble surfaces will become significant later on.

The author foreshadows future events in his use of an ocean wave as a metaphor for war and reality. Gene says that "by a word from Phineas I had simply ducked ... and the wave's concentrated power had hurtled harmlessly overhead." But he notes that at the time he didn't realize how "one wave is inevitably followed by another even larger and more powerful, when the tide is coming in." The tide is the reality of the war that is rushing in and will wash over the boys later in the story.

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