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Barron's Booknotes-A Separate Peace by John Knowles

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With Finny's second fall an eerie atmosphere of normalcy returns. Boys once again act like schoolboys instead of judges. The proper authorities-the doctor, the wrestling coach-are summoned. Finny, wrapped in a blanket and lifted slowly and carefully onto a chair, resembles "some tragic and exalted personage."

Gene, stealthily following the doctor's car to the school, infirmary, remains in character as Finny's faithful disciple. An extension of his friend to the end, committed to watching over him, Gene is a guardian angel of sorts. He tries to eavesdrop outside Finny's room, to hear what the doctor, the coach, and the night nurse are saying. Gene talks to himself, no doubt to keep himself from going over the edge, like Finny. He is gravely frightened; he has a premonition that-even though Dr. Stanpole has advised him otherwise-this accident is worse than the first. Gene crouches below the infirmary window, a pathetic, powerless, helpless figure, unable to do anything for his friend, and cries silently in despair.

NOTE: Gene huddles there for a reason: he is apologizing to Finny, not just for the events of the past few hours but for having set the whole crazy panorama in motion. Gene cannot admit to himself that it's too late. He will not let go of Finny, no, Finny will have to release him.

Raising himself up onto Finny's windowsill in the darkness, Gene whispers into the room. Finny, torn with anger and frustration, retorts, "You want to break something else in me!"

All the progress they had made toward a perfect friendship has come unraveled. Gene tells his friend he's sorry, knowing full well there could never be enough time or space to explain all that has passed between them. The young imagination can encompass only so much; Gene has matured in the past year, but he is still only a boy attempting the difficult task of discovering himself.

He walks through the deserted campus, seeing fresh meaning and new ambiguities in familiar sights. The grounds, trees, buildings, and playing fields of Devon, whose images are ingrained in Gene's consciousness, are at the same time alien to him, and he is alienated, cut off from them: "I alone was a dream, a figment which had never really touched anything. I felt that I was not, never had been and never would be a living part of this overpoweringly solid and deeply meaningful world around me." Without Finny as connection, Gene has no grounding in reality. Without Finny as anchor, Gene floats wraithlike through the world. Without Finny-dare we admit it?- Gene does not exist.

The next day, filled with remorse, Gene is drawn back to Finny's bedside in the infirmary to deliver his friend's clothes. Both boys are anxious to make amends, each in his own way. Each has had a night of deep reflection in which to measure-and treasure-a friendship ripened and tempered in times of great trial. Below the fear and trembling-Finny's hands are shaking as he looks through his suitcase-there's the calm assurance that they will see the crisis through.

It turns out that Finny is in despair because, contrary to his happy face and devil-may-care attitude, he now admits he will never get to serve in the war. How characteristic of Finny it is that war will never be a reality to him until he dons a uniform and goes off to fight: "Then there would have been a war," he confesses. Gene tries to make light of Finny's hidden plan: "You'd make a mess," he tells his friend, "a terrible mess, Finny, out of the war."

On his side, Gene admits to "some ignorance" that made him shake the tree limb, "some crazy thing inside me, something blind."

Finny, crying, believes Gene and sees truth's heart at last, a truth that cannot come out of mock tribunals or speculation but only from the mouth of his friend.

NOTE: Through his actions and his devotion, Gene has "already shown" Finny how sincere a friend he has become. One of the big questions A Separate Peace poses is the extent to which any of us can ultimately be responsible for everything we say and do, the extent to which forces within us and without can and will take over. To what extent are we the masters of our fate? War is something that prep school boys cannot control; Gene, Finny, Leper, Brinker, and the others, each in his own fashion, must encounter World War II, overcoming it or succumbing to it as the case may be. Standing precariously on a tree limb and jouncing it at a crucial moment so that your companion falls and breaks his leg is on the surface an action that can be controlled. But Gene and Finny have been trying to work out the actual event and what motivated it since the day it happened.

After all, whose idea was it to climb the tree in the first place? Is Finny the victim of his own daredevil pride? Grappling with these difficult questions increases our understanding and respect for A Separate Peace.

Leaving the infirmary, Gene takes refuge in the comforting schedule of the typical school day with its time periods and classes. The limits of his world are American history, trigonometry, lunch, wrestling in he gym, reading Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Time passes quickly; in the late afternoon Gene returns to the infirmary to discover the outcome of Finny's "simple" operation.

Without embellishment, Dr. Stanpole gives Gene the news. Finny is dead. "As I was moving the bone," the doctor says, "some of the marrow must have escaped into his blood stream and gone directly to his heart and stopped it." Gene is speechless; the story has already been told. At such an unbearably sad moment, words-and later at Finny's funeral, tears-are impossible, unequal to the event's tragic eloquence.

NOTE: Every death is a tragedy to some degree. What gives Finny's death a higher, more permanent tone of tragedy? Why do we feel he has deserted not only Gene but us too?

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Barron's Booknotes-A Separate Peace by John Knowles

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