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Barron's Booknotes-A Separate Peace by John Knowles

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CHAPTER 2

One of Finny's great thrills, a part of his daredevil personality, is getting away with such acts of defiance as tree-jumping. But authority wins out time and again. Gene's natural way is to bend with the rules-and school days are full of rules. Thus, when Mr. Prud'homme, one of the summer substitute teachers, stops by their room the next morning to reprimand the boys for missing dinner again, Finny is ready with a breathless speech of excuse. Gene keeps silent and reports to us.

Finny's natural charm and zest for life, "his voice soaring and plunging in its vibrant sound box, his eyes now and then widening to fire a flash of green across the room," win Mr. Prud'homme over. At times like this, when most boys would be intimidated and fearful of punishment, Finny triumphs because he is always searching for common ground in another person, no matter how old he or she may be. Finny recognizes none of the conventional boundaries between people, such as usually exist between teacher and student. He's too full of energy and the simple faith that what he's doing is right.

The Devon faculty had never before experienced a student who combined a calm ignorance of the rule with a winning urge to be good, who seemed to love the school truly and deeply, and never more than when he was breaking the regulations.



Finny manages to convince Mr. Prud'homme that he leaped from the tree for the war effort, to bring himself "that much closer to manhood." We find this explanation is especially significant and touching when we realize the boys are still only 16.

It's an important age. You're far from childhood and tantalizingly close to many of the rights and privileges of adulthood. You're also close to draft age. Because A Separate Peace takes place during World War II, we will observe the gradual and inevitable invasion of the war into these boys' lives. In Chapter 2 this war has no immediate danger for Gene and his friends; they feel protected by their familiar surroundings, the old buildings and sentimental teachers who do not want to lose touch with them. They are still more concerned with Latin assignments, trigonometry tests, and wrestling matches than they are with bombs and bullets.

And "Phineas was the essence of this careless peace." Phineas represents the flower of boyhood turning ever so slowly into manhood, and that makes his eventual tragedy all the more difficult to accept, both for Gene and for us, the readers who come to know and love him.

Finny continues his outrageous but good-natured defiance of school tradition by appearing at afternoon tea in the headmaster's cottage dressed in a shocking pink shirt, his school tie around his waist in place of a belt. If any boy other than Finny had done this, Mr. Patch-Withers, the substitute headmaster, would have sent him packing. But Finny's intentions are simple and heartfelt. He wears a pink shirt to "celebrate the bombing of Central Europe"; he wears his tie as a belt because he was in such a hurry to dress.

NOTE: Perhaps there's another significance here. Do traditions need to be broken from time to time? And are only certain people capable of breaking them successfully without being put down as rebels or revolutionaries?

Finny alone is relaxed and at ease sipping tea in the headmaster's cottage. The environment doesn't faze him; he is always himself, first and foremost, wherever he happens to be. This ability to "get away with" things begins to make Gene a little jealous. But is getting away with things all Finny is attempting? Can that be too simple an interpretation?

When Mr. Patch-Withers, despite his buttoned-up manner, enjoys a good, hearty laugh over Finny's outfit, Gene feels "a sudden stab of disappointment." Gene really wants to be proud of his best friend, yet he can't fight down a growing sense of resentment. Somehow, perhaps, Finny's uniqueness makes Gene look less important.

"This was my sarcastic summer," Gene admits. "It was only long after that I recognized sarcasm as the protest of people who are weak." Do you agree with Gene? What does this confession tell you about Gene's character?

Breaking the expected pattern once more, Finny proposes a jump in the river. Time and again he's the initiator, the one to come up with an odd suggestion. It's a way of keeping Gene on his toes, confused, defensive; but Gene goes along. Finny's power is so strong sometimes that we wonder whether the only reason for Gene to be around, his main purpose in life, is to serve as describer of the wondrous Finny.

At this early point in the story, we may find ourselves thinking that the balance in their friendship is tilted pretty oddly in one direction. Gene follows along passively, noticing in his sensitive, perceptive way the "permanent and never-changing" elm trees and the Devon School woods, which he imagines as the beginning of an unbroken stretch of forest extending all the way to Canada. He wants to hide in the knowledge of security and protectiveness the school offers, like shelter from the storm. Maybe the inner awareness that he's on the brink of growing up makes him fight all the harder to keep from growing up.

But we can't have it both ways. Finny urges Gene to make a move by jumping out of the tree first. Gene would never volunteer to do this, and he tries to stall for time. Then he loses his balance and nearly falls off the limb onto the riverbank. Finny, his quick reflexes in action, reaches out and saves Gene. Then they jump successfully.

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Barron's Booknotes-A Separate Peace by John Knowles
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