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Barron's Booknotes-A Separate Peace by John Knowles

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CHAPTER 7

Appearance means a lot at a school like Devon. Clothes play a big part in A Separate Peace, and the way the boys dress gives you clues about their personalities (remember Finny's pink shirt?). Gene is clothes-conscious, mindful of how Finny would respond to something he decides to wear.

Appearances mean more than clothes. Brinker Hadley, the self-styled leader of the class in a more conventional way than Finny was, takes on more stature in Finny's absence. Even though he has a two-room suite and a frightened roommate who gives him plenty of elbowroom, Brinker still envies Gene's "solitary splendor."

Brinker measures Gene's current status-one boy in a room meant for two-as a threat, and for Gene this means one more battle he must fight in the aftermath of Finny's departure. Brinker stops by, supposedly to chat, but in fact he is bent on questioning Gene's privileges. Brinker even accuses Gene of conspiring to make sure that Finny does not return to school so that he will be able to keep his single room!



Brinker's probing questions strike at the core of Gene's abiding sensitivity and guilt about what happened in the summer. Gene tries to change the subject by suggesting a trip to the Butt Room, a dingy place in the dormitory basement where boys are permitted to smoke.

NOTE: Brinker refers to the Butt Room as "the dungeon," and this may very well suggest yet another image of Gene's guilty feelings. What will it take to free him? Does he really want to make a confession in front of his peers? It's important to bear in mind Brinker's role here as one of bringing Gene to justice. He thrusts Gene into the Butt Room and announces to the assembled boys, "Here's your prisoner, gentlemen," accusing Gene, half-jokingly, of "fratricide."

Now Brinker is driven to find out more about what happened at the tree. He acts partly because he envies Finny, and Gene's ascendancy through him, which makes his own position at the top a little shaky, and partly because competition is the name of the game at Devon. If you don't strike out at others first, they may plot behind your back to advance themselves at your expense. The school may be isolated, but in its social makeup it contains many elements of the "real world." Unfortunately, the boys won't realize this until much later in life; in Gene's case, that realization is the reason for his telling the tale we are now reading.

The Butt Room is a sinister place where boys put on suspicious attitudes. Behind their pretended inquisition style there is deadly seriousness. Gene would risk incurring the wrath of the others if he didn't play along with their "game."

"We know the scene of the crime," Brinker says, "high in that... that funeral tree by the river." "Tell us everything," a younger boy urges. It is clear that stories and rumors have been circulating at the school in that special way gossip gets passed around, changed, and interpreted. Because of the pecking order we discussed earlier, one boy's fall by a notch can mean another boy's rise by an equal notch.

Gene manages to squeeze out of the game by turning the tables fiercely and then breaking off to go study French. Time is on his side. As autumn dispels the last mists of summer, school days become more intensified and the boys turn to immediate and more serious matters-"tomorrow bristled with so much to do." It appears that no one really has the time to dig deeper into the Finny affair.

The war and the encroachment of winter likewise serve to dull the memory of that fateful summer, to Gene's relief. The first snowfall, when it comes surprisingly early, is another contribution to summer's obliteration.

NOTE: Have you ever thought about the way weather can set a mood? In A Separate Peace the shift of seasons and the change in weather it brings play a very important part. For a sensitive boy like Gene, the turning year means a turn in his mood. He delights in summer, dreads winter; he revels in the temporary suspension of school rules and regulations during summer session, and he regrets the return to routine in the fall session. Summer is a time of outwardness, but winter's snow "clamps" the boys in, allowing them more time to study, think, and reflect. That isn't always helpful for someone like Gene who already spends so much time in his thoughts.

Two hundred boys are recruited to help shovel snow from the railroad yards in a nearby town, in aid of "the war effort," and they trudge off to perform their civic duty. Leper Lepellier remains behind, buried in his notebook. Preoccupied as usual with the small happenings of nature, he goes cross-country skiing by himself.

Do you see an obvious significance in Leper's name? He is the outcast, a small, shy, introspective boy who often stands apart from the crowd and seems not to care what others think about his reclusive behavior. Gene is on his way to help with the shoveling when he comes across Leper in the countryside and asks him, "Where are you going?" Leper replies, "Well, I'm not going anywhere. I'm just touring around." Leper reminds us that there doesn't always have to be a direct purpose and usefulness to our actions, that some things can be done simply for the sake of doing them.

NOTE: Let's bear in mind little Leper's mild presence and the way in which he is so often taken for granted by his classmates, who overlook him time and again. He's there on significant occasions, and sooner or later his presence will figure importantly in the story, when we least expect it.

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Barron's Booknotes-A Separate Peace by John Knowles
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