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Barron's Booknotes-A Separate Peace by John Knowles

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CHAPTER 3

You'd think Gene would be grateful, but he isn't. He realizes it was Finny's fault in the first place that once more he found himself out on a limb. It's worth considering that expression as a description of a risky state of being, in addition to its literal meaning. Finny thrives at being "on the edge." He loves to be tested by every situation. Part of his friendship for Gene is based on his urge to draw Gene into the same kinds of tests.

When we met Finny, Gene said he "almost always moved in groups the size of a hockey team." The crowd acts as a chorus for Finny, boosting him up and making him appear even more different than he is. So it's no surprise to us when their Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session, created for the sole purpose of tree-jumping, begins with just the two of them as members but quickly expands to include more and more boys.

As founding members, Gene and Finny are required to jump first. It is a nightly event. "I hated it," says Gene. "I never got inured to the jumping.... But I always jumped. Otherwise I would have lost
face with Phineas, and that would have been unthinkable."

It is just as much in character for Finny to make tree-jumping a part of his daily life as it is for Gene to resist it with every fiber in his being while continuing to go along out of sheer desperation and the need for Finny's respect. How long, we wonder, can one person accumulate more and more power over another before something happens to break the flow?



Gene begins to observe another unique characteristic of his friend Finny. Not only does he "march to the beat of a different drummer," he goes yet a step further, making up his own rules to live by and then declaring them to everybody else: "Never say you are five feet nine when you are five feet eight and a half." "Always say some prayers at night because it might turn out that there is a God." And the most important rule is, "You always win at sports."

How should we interpret this last rule? Perhaps it means that Finny always seeks the positive side of an experience. He believes that even if something bad happens to you, such as being on the losing side in a baseball game or a tennis match, you'll learn from it.

Walking on the sunny playing field one afternoon with Gene, Finny demonstrates his latest rule by expressing his scornful opinion of badminton. He picks up a shuttlecock from the grass and tears it apart, casting the pieces to the wind. Then his eye alights on a large medicine ball, and in a flash he invents the entirely new sport of blitzball. It's as if, in dismissing badminton, Finny makes light of all official sports and games in one fell swoop. The only sport that really makes sense is the one he creates himself. As usual, the other boys go along with Finny, playing the game according to rules he announces from moment to moment. Once more he is in complete control.

The only boy who appears to resent Finny's latest triumph is Gene. The new game is well suited to Finny's endlessly active personality, and every time Finny asserts himself, Gene takes it to heart and sinks a little lower in his own self-esteem. He wants to measure up to his friend, but Finny is always a step ahead of him. Gene can't make a move without Finny, and Finny knows it. When Gene tells us in so many words that he is proud of Finny, we begin to doubt his sincerity, especially once he has admitted that this is his "sarcastic summer." Gene behaves more and more the way he thinks a friend is supposed to behave, and less and less the way he honestly wants to act toward Finny the spellbinder and magician.

NOTE: We are now being reminded with greater frequency of the war going on in the larger world outside the school. Devon, we have seen, is a sheltered and nurturing place where boys have traditionally been allowed to grow, free from outside interference. But it is not always possible to prevent a greater reality from invading our lives. We watch TV, listen to the radio, read newspapers and magazines. In time of war close friends and family members may be sent off to fight. These circumstances bring thoughts of the conflict home to us.

Resist as they might, the boys at Devon are influenced by the war even though they do not fully understand the effect it has on them from day to day.

Fighting to ward off the war, Finny exerts more and more energy in pushing himself to greater heights of achievement. Wasn't he the first to announce the "bombing of Central Europe"? We suspect that part of the reason for his frenetic activity may lie in some deep fear of that other conflict, a fear so deep in the summer of 1942 that he can't express it in words, only in actions.

With Gene his sole witness, Finny tries to break the school swimming record for the "100 Yards Free Style," competing with a name and a time posted on a board above the swimming pool: "A. Hopkins Parker-1940- 53.0 seconds." This simple notice is a direct challenge to Finny. He won't accept any threat to his prowess, no matter how distant; he never knew A. Hopkins Parker, yet he responds as if the boy were standing there thumbing his nose, daring Finny to action. Notice how Gene describes Finny swimming: "He planed up the pool, his shoulders dominating the water while his legs and feet rode so low that I couldn't distinguish them." Dominating! Not even the elements are exempt from Finny's superiority. As he swims, Finny imagines A. Hopkins Parker beside him, and he knows he is going to break the record-which he does, to Gene's astonishment, by 0.7 second.

Finny refuses violently when Gene suggests he perform the feat again the next day, with an official timekeeper, school officials, reporters, and photographers present. He broke the record for himself, not for anyone else-or not quite anyone else. For Gene was there, and now Gene must carry the terrible burden of this secret. Finny swears him to it.

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