A Separate Peace | Study Guide

John Knowles

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A Separate Peace | Chapter 9 | Summary



Gene is immersed in Finny's fantasy of peace, and he is happy. Even the enlistment of Leper Lepellier does not spoil the sense of well-being Gene feels. In some ways Leper's enlistment makes the war seem more remote, because no one is as ill-suited to war than the mild nature-lover. Yet Leper has been seduced by a recruiter for ski troops. Leper loves to ski (slowly), so he enlists with the hope that he'll be accepted into the military's skiing force. Leper becomes unusually voluble, explaining that now he understands the value of speed (downhill) skiing and why it might be useful in the war. Leper tells Gene that he sees the war as a kind of evolutionary test (can he successfully evolve into a speed skier?), and Gene wonders how Leper's view applies to him and Finny. Within a week, Leper is gone from school.

The boys make light of Leper's departure by inserting him into nearly every news story they read about the war (Leper attempted to assassinate Hitler!). Joking aside, the boys hope that Leper will be a hero. Only Finny refuses to participate in the jokes about Leper. He dampens the jovial atmosphere by countering each joke with a truth about Leper (If he tried to shoot Hitler he'd miss). Finny stays away from the Butt Room, where most of the joking occurs.

Gene contemplates the dreariness and boredom of late winter, when the gray sky seems to "destroy everything ... and sap vitality." All the boys feel depressed—except Finny. "All weathers delighted Finny," Gene states. To enliven the boys' mood, Finny comes up with an idea for a Winter Carnival. He and the other boys in his dorm begin planning the events (and treats) the carnival will offer. There will be jugs of cider. The main attraction will be a mini-ski jump the boys will build, as well as snow statues they'll sculpt (caricatures of the headmaster and teachers). Brinker is cynical about it, but the other boys in the dorm become eager to take part. Eventually Brinker chips in as well.

The Saturday of the Winter Carnival is dull and gray. The carnival is held in a park on the banks of the Naguamsett River. Hard cider is plentiful and gets everyone in the mood for fun. There are silly prizes for the best ski-jumper. Finny and Chet Douglass preside over the games. Finny begins to refer to the games as the Olympics and sets fire to one of the prizes as a stand-in for the Olympic torch. The boys are exhilarated and slightly drunk. Finny climbs onto the Prize Table and dances exuberantly. Finny's "inner joy at life" creates an infectiously joyful atmosphere among the boys. Finny has Gene undertake an Olympic-style decathlon, which earns him a crown made of evergreen twigs. Gene is ecstatic, not at winning but at his freedom from reality and thoughts of the war.

The mood of the carnival is ruined when a telegram comes for Gene. It is from Leper, who says he's "escaped." (Leaving without permission is legally considered desertion.) Leper pleads with Gene (his "best friend") to come and see him immediately, as his safety depends on it.


It is the depth of winter term, the symbol of grim reality. However, Finny's return somewhat alters the seasonal symbol. Finny's irrepressible desire to create and live in joy, at least for a while, transforms winter from a dismal into a rather joyous time.

The Winter Carnival is a perfect reflection of Finny's making real his fantasies of peace. Finny dreams up the Winter Carnival as an alternate reality to the war. Again Finny uses sports and games as a peaceful form of competition to undermine the war. Toward the end of the carnival Finny's "droll dance" on the Prize Table reestablishes his joyous nature and his commitment to a life of beauty and joy. Gene states that in his dance Finny displayed his "inner joy at life ... as it should be."

Another aspect of Finny's fantasy is his continued obsession with the Olympics. When he trains Gene for the (nonexistent) 1944 Olympic Games, Gene enters "into a world inhabited by just [Finny] and me, where there was no war at all." The Olympics, like sports in general, are a way to deny reality and war.

Conformity as an aspect of reality is explored briefly and humorously in the figure of Brinker Hadley. At first the uptight Brinker turns his nose up at the idea of Finny's Winter Carnival. Gene says Brinker likely opposes the carnival because "there's never been a Winter Carnival here. [Brinker must] think there's probably a rule against it." In the end Brinker does go to the carnival.

Finny's nature is firmly reestablished in this chapter. He emerges as his usual creative and ebullient self. When he dances on the table at the carnival Gene notes that it was his "wildest demonstration ... of himself in the kind of world he loves; it was his choreography of peace."

Gene's identity is once again merged with that of Finny. In this chapter Gene again "lapse[s] into Finny's vision of peace." Yet Finny's pull on Gene compromises Gene's separate identity. Previously Gene had admitted he really didn't believe in Finny's conspiracy theory of an unreal war. When Leper enlists, Gene recognizes hidden parts of his own nature. He thinks, "I did not know everything there was to know about myself, and knew that I did not know it."

In contrast, it is Leper Lepellier's identity—and his astonishing action—that is startlingly revealed. For Gene, Leper's enlistment "makes the war seem more unreal than ever" because Leper is so unsuited to the military. At the same time Leper's enlistment gives the war "a recognizable and friendly face." No matter how unimaginable Leper's enlistment seems, the fact that he enlists voluntarily keeps the reality of the war in Gene's mind. As Gene and the other boys (but not Finny) joke about Leper's surprising act, they wonder, "whether [they themselves] would measure up to the humblest minimum standard of the army." The boys joke about Leper's exploits in the war mainly to defuse their concern about fighting in it.

Leper's identity changes somewhat when he realizes he can alter his outlook on skiing by joining the military. Leper rationalizes his future transformation into a downhill speed skier as a type of evolution. He even says that he's almost glad for the war, because "it's like a test ... and the people who've been evolving the right way survive." This is in keeping with Leper's fascination with biology and nature. Whereas in the past his interest in nature separated him from the activities of the other boys, he now approaches his own evolution as something inclusive; something that will make him an important part of a world war. But once again, this is childish: war is an ugly and harsh reality, not an opportunity to improve one's skiing or to try to evolve.

The Winter Carnival is held in a park on the banks of the Naguamsett River. This is the dirty river that flows into the sea, so it symbolizes the underlying reality of the war. Finny creates a pure, peaceful carnival, but it is significant that these games take place alongside the world-contaminated Naguamsett River (and not the pure, separate Devon River). The real world is encroaching on the boys even as they play at peace.

The war is referenced rather obliquely in parts of this chapter. The day of the Winter Carnival is described as being "battleship gray." One carnival prize is a "forged draft registration card." Leper's enlistment places the greatest emphasis on the war, but the boys make jokes about it. Yet by the end of the chapter Leper's urgent telegram brings the boys back down to earth. The urgency and pain contained in the telegram make the war real again.

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