A Separate Peace Summary Chapter 1
The first chapter introduces the frame in which the novel is to take place. The setting is Devon School, a prep school in New Hampshire. Gene Forrester, our narrator, returns to look at the school grounds fifteen years after he was a student there. Since his last year as a student was in 1943, the present time must be 1958. A very important transformation has occurred for Gene during the fifteen years since he has last seen Devon: “I could see with great clarity the fear I had lived in, which must mean that in the interval I had succeeded in a very important undertaking: I must have made my escape from it” (2). Gene also admits to experiencing fear’s accompaniment, joy, during his days at Devon.
Aside from being shinier, Gene doesn’t find the school much different from when he was a student. He, of course, has changed, being now bigger and with “more money and success and ‘security'” (3). On his nostalgic trip around the grounds, Gene witnesses the beautiful harmony that still exists at Devon, even on this particular gray and blustery day.
Gene’s destination is a particular tree alongside the Devon River that appears to hold a special significance for our narrator. The tree seems smaller to Gene, like “the giants of your childhood, whom you encounter years later and find that they are not merely smaller in relation to your growth, but that they are absolutely smaller, shrunken by age” (6). This sight confirms Gene’s belief in the old adage: “So the more things remain the same, the more they change after all. . . Nothing endures, not a tree, not love, not even a death by violence” (6). Changed by this encounter with his past, Gene heads back across the wet fields.
At this point, the narrative jumps back to the summer of 1942, the point from which the rest of the novel will take place, making the entire course of events to come to appear as a flashback from Gene’s revisitation in 1958-a flashback that starts in the summer of 1942 and ends in the summer of 1943. Gene, sixteen years old, is at the tree again, which is now “tremendous, an irate, steely black steeple beside the river” (6). We learn that Gene is sarcastic and scared and in the process of being dared to climb the tree and jump into the river by his best friend, the daredevil athlete and central focus of the narration, Phineas (for more character information, see the Character Profile section). Gene and Phineas (called Finny by his friends) are Upper Middlers, one year younger than the seniors. While the seniors are being drafted and preparing to enter World War II, Gene and Finny’s class “were still calmly, numbly reading Virgil and playing tag in the river downstream” (7). So it is that Gene and Phineas find themselves in the last year of reprieve and schoolboy freedom before the fearsome responsibility of war claims them, as it did their elder classmen.
But brave Phineas is not content to remain unchallenged simply because he is too young for the war. He suggests the tree jump as practice for jumping out of a military ship that has been torpedoed. Finny climbs and jumps first, successfully, and Gene is forced into following his example. After much fearful hesitation, Gene jumps as well. The two are witnessed by three of their classmates, among them a character who will gain importance only later in the novel-Edwin “Leper” Letellier. Leper and the other two boys are too frightened to jump, despite Finny’s pressuring of them.
The six o’clock bell rings and the boys head back across the common for dinner. Finny says that he “shamed” Gene into jumping and when Gene denies it, Finny responds: “Oh yes I did. I’m good for you that way. You have a tendency to back away from things otherwise” (10). Gene and Finny wrestle playfully on their return to the dining hall and decide to skip dinner. They return to their shared room, study for the remainder of the evening, and prepare for bed with the rest of their schoolmates. Phineas, forever the rebel, doesn’t wear pajamas like everyone else because he has heard that they are “unmilitary” (13).
A Separate Peace Summary Chapter 2
The next morning Mr. Prud’homme, the substitute Master for the school’s summer term, attempts to reproach the two boys for missing dinner the night before. But Finny, possessed with irresistible charm and charisma, talks their way out of punishment so that “as Mr. Prud’homme looked at him and listened to the scatterbrained eloquence of his explanation, he could be seen rapidly losing his grip on sternness” (14). That summer marked a term of relaxed authority by the Masters in contrast to the strict regulations imposed during the fall and winter terms. Gene attributes the tolerance to two factors: Finny- “The Devon faculty had never before experienced a student who combined a calm ignorance of the rules with a winning urge to do good, who seemed to love the school truly and deeply, and never more than when he was breaking the regulations” (16); secondly, the sixteen-year-old boys reminded the faculty of the peace that “the war was being fought to preserve” (17).
The boys attend a tea given at the Headmaster’s house and Phineas wears a pink shirt, proclaiming it as an emblem for the Allied bombing of Central Europe, and, because of this, once again escapes being reprimanded for his bold actions. During the tea, Finny talks at great length, but without much knowledge, of the war and it is discovered that he is also wearing a school tie for a belt. To Gene’s astonishment, Finny talks his way out of punishment for this transgression as well: “I wore this, you see, because it goes with the shirt and it all ties in together-I didn’t mean that to be a pun, I don’t think they’re very funny, especially in polite company do you?” (20). After Finny escapes punishment, Gene is surprised to feel a bit disappointed. He tries to rationalize it: “That was because I just wanted to see some more excitement; that must have been it” (21).
They leave the tea, Gene feeling proud to have Finny for his best friend, and Finny suggests they jump from the tree again. Finny admits that he doesn’t believe that Central Europe was bombed and Gene agrees: “Bombs in Central Europe were completely unreal to us here, not because we couldn’t imagine it-a thousand newspaper photographs and newsreels had given us a pretty accurate idea of such a sight-but because our place here was too fair for us to accept something like that” (23). Finny suggests that the two jump from the tree together, forming the “Suicide Society of the Summer Session” (24). On the limb over the water, Gene loses his balance and nearly falls, and Finny grabs him to keep him from tumbling to the bank below. They jump together (rather than separately, as at the end of the first chapter) and later, after dinner, Gene is shaken by the fact that Finny had practically saved his life.
A Separate Peace Summary Chapter 3
The third chapter begins with Gene disavowing any gratitude he might owe to Phineas for saving his life: “I wouldn’t have been on that damn limb except for him. I wouldn’t have turned around, and so lost my balance if he hadn’t been there” (25). But their Super Suicide Society is formed and attracts members. They meet every night and Phineas decrees that each meeting is, to begin with Gene and Phineas jumping together from the tree. Gene hates the meetings because he is unable to overcome his fear of jumping from the tree, but he does so because “otherwise I would have lost face with Phineas, and that would have been unthinkable” (26).
Gene notices that Finny lives by a certain set of rules, some of which include: “Never say you are five feet nine when you are five feet eight and a half,” “Always say prayers at night because it might turn out that there is a God,” and “You always win at sports” (26-27) indicative that Finny is unwilling to acknowledge defeat.
Disgusted with the prospect of playing badminton for the school’s summer athletic program, Finny decides to ignore what he should be doing and invent his own game, using a medicine ball. Finny, whose athletic prowess and rebelliousness win the confidence of his cautious classmates, explains the rules (that he invents) while the game is going, much to the confusion of Gene and the others. The game is dubbed “blitzball” (29), a sport in which there are no teams, everyone is for himself, and everyone is against the ball carrier. Finny excels at his own game.
Gene says that “everyone has a moment in history which belongs to him. . . when you say to this person ‘the world today’ or ‘life’ or ‘reality’ he will assume that you mean this moment” (32). For Gene, the moment is the war. He thinks of America in terms of war-time America, and he gives a long description of the America that he will always envision: “Nylon, meat, gasoline, and steel are rare. There are many jobs and not enough workers. The war will always be fought very far from America and it will never end. Sixteen is the key and crucial and natural age for a human being to be, and people of all other ages are ranged in an orderly manner ahead of and behind you as a harmonious setting for the sixteen-year-olds of this world” (32-33).
While fooling around in the school swimming pool, Finny decides to try to break the school record for the one hundred yard freestyle. Gene times him on a watch and, soon enough, Finny is the new unofficial record holder. Gene wants to call attention to the feat and make it official, but, to his surprise, Finny urges him to keep it between the two of them: “I just wanted to see if I could do it. Now I know. But I don’t want to do it in public” (35). Amazed, Gene states: “It made Finny seem too unusual for-not friendship, but too unusual for rivalry. And there were few relationships among us at Devon not based on rivalry” (37).
The chapter concludes with the two friends sneaking off of school grounds to spend an afternoon and a night at the beach. Although risking expulsion if they are discovered, Gene and Finny enjoy themselves immensely on that warm summer evening. Before falling asleep in the dunes, Finny tells Gene that he is his best pal. But Gene cannot say the same in return, claiming that he was “stopped by that level of feeling, deeper than thought, which contains the truth” (40).
A Separate Peace Summary Chapter 4
On the next day, in the gray light of dawn, the sleeping Phineas looks dead to Gene. They both rise later on and make it back to Devon undiscovered and in time for Gene’s trigonometry test, which he flunks. Finny tells Gene: “You never waste your time. That’s why I have to do it for you” (43). Gene feels competitive and wants to be had of the class so that his accomplishment would balance out Finny’s athletic achievements. Suddenly cast into doubt and distrust, Gene suspects Phineas of being a bitter rival: “He minded, despised the possibility that I might be head of the school” (44). Gene’s doubt and insecurity destroy his confidence in their friendship: “Up like a detonation went the idea of any best friend, up went affection and partnership and sticking by someone and relying on someone absolutely in the jungle of a boys’ school, up went the hope that there was anyone in this school-in this world-whom I could trust” (44-45). He suspects Finny of intentionally keeping Gene from his studies all along, with his blitzball and his trips to the beach and his Suicide Society meetings: “That way he, the great athlete, would be way ahead of me” (45).
Gene becomes a determined, excellent student thereafter, though remaining detached and uninterested in what he learns. He studies for competition’s sake and finds solace in the idea that he is “ahead” of Finny because he is a better athlete than Finny is a student. There are moments during those summer days, however, when Gene finds himself “slipping back into affection for him again” (47). But for the most part, Gene maintains distrust for Phineas: “I had detected that Finny’s [heart] was a den of lonely, selfish ambition. He was no better than I was, no matter who won all the contests” (48).
Tensions come to a head for Gene one evening when Phineas asks Gene, who is studying, to come to the tree because Leper has declared that he will jump. Gene is furious at Finny’s interruption but lacks the courage to accuse of the surprised Finny of hindering his studies. Finny, realizing that Gene wants to study, shrugs and says: “Don’t go. What the hell, it’s only a game” (50). When Gene asks him what he means, Finny says, innocently: “I didn’t know you needed to study. I didn’t think you ever did. I thought it just came to you” (50). Gene is shocked and humiliated, feeling isolated by having distrusted his best friend: “He had never been jealous of me for a second. Now I knew that there never was and never could have been any rivalry between us. I was not of the same quality as he” (51).
Gene refuses Finny’s insistence on him staying and studying and follows him to the tree, a familiar chapter-ending place by this point in the novel. Finny suggests that they jump together again. While the two are on the overhanging limb, Gene intentionally jounces the branch, causing Finny to lose his balance. Finny “swung his head around to look at me for an instant with extreme interest” (54) and then tumbles out of the tree to the bank below. His fear of jumping forgotten, Gene jumps, alone, into the river.
A Separate Peace Summary Chapter 5
After the fall, Phineas is in the infirmary with a shattered leg. Gene
avoids the endless discussions of the wounded Finny and nobody suspects him of acting maliciously. He states: “I spent as much time as I could alone in our room, trying to empty my mind of every thought, to forget where I was, even who I was” (53-54). One evening he decides to put on Finny’s clothes and, standing in front of the mirror, he proclaims: “I was Phineas, Phineas to the life. . . it seemed, standing there in Finny’s triumphant shirt, that I would never stumble through the confusions of my own character again” (54).
The school doctor, Dr. Stanpole, urges Gene to go visit Phineas in the infirmary. Gene is horrified at the news that Finny will never be able to play sports again. He begins to cry and Dr. Stanpole urges him to be hopeful and to go console Phineas, who needs assistance in facing the consequences of his injury. Gene learns that Finny has asked to see him, which scares him as well.
Gene musters the nerve to go visit Phineas. Feigning innocence, he
nervously asks Finny what happened at the tree: “How did you fall, how could you fall off like that?” (57). Finny simply says that he fell and Gene lies, saying that he tried to reach for him but could not grab Finny in time. Gene asks him if he remembers what caused him to fall and Finny says he must have just lost his balance, but admits to having a strange feeling: “I did have this idea, this feeling that when you were standing there beside me, y- I don’t know, I had a kind of feeling. But you can’t say anything for sure from just feelings. And this feeling doesn’t make any sense. It was a crazy idea, I must have been delirious. So I just have to forget it” (58). Finny then apologizes for having his suspicions of what Gene did, indicating that he would never accuse Gene because he would never believe that Gene would do something so awful. Gene, feeling terrible, is about to confess when Dr. Stanpole enters the room.
The Summer Session ends and Gene goes home for a month’s vacation. Before returning back to Devon, he travels to Finny’s home in Boston. Finny, in his bedroom and still in a cast, is pleased to see him. Under great emotional duress, Gene confesses to causing the accident. Finny doesn’t believe him and tells him to shut up. He becomes so bothered by Gene’s insistence that he says he will kill Gene if he doesn’t shut up, to which Gene frantically responds: “You see! Kill me! Now you know what it is! I did it because I felt like that! Now you know yourself!” (62). Finally, in a weary voice, Finny tells Gene to go away. Gene states: “It struck me then that I was injuring him again. It occurred to me that this could be an even deeper injury than what I had done before” (62).
Gene leaves, trying to cover up his confession by citing the long train ride as the reason for his strange behavior. Finny, who will not be returning to Devon for a while, asks Gene if he is going to start living by the rules. Gene tells Finny that he would never do that, but admits to the readers that his statement “was the most false thing, the biggest lie of all” (63).
A Separate Peace Summary Chapter 6
Gene returns to Devon to discover that the peaceful and carefree spirit of the summer has disappeared. Winter Session marks a return to rules and discipline. Without Phineas, Gene has their old room to himself. And across the hall, where Leper once lived with his trays of collected snails, a new character, Brinker Hadley, has moved in and displaced Leper to a distant room in an old building. Brinker is a class leader, a strong student and organizer of many school organizations, and Gene is not excited about his new neighbor. He also misses Finny and the glorious presence that he held that previous summer.
Athletically, Gene has gone from a vigorous blitzball participant to assistant senior crew manager. He is under the direction of Cliff Quackenbush, a mature fellow classman who is unknown to Gene, except that there “was something wrong about him” (68). We immediately perceive that the two don’t get along and Gene doesn’t take kindly to Quackenbush’s gruff orders. They begin to argue and Gene realizes that Quackenbush is simply disliked by everyone and states: “I didn’t want to add to his humiliations; I even sympathized with his trembling, goaded egotism he could no longer contain, the furious arrogance which sprang out now at the mere hint of opposition from someone he had at last found whom he could consider inferior to himself” (70-71). Quackenbush, however, continues to argue and goad Gene until the two begin wrestling and both fall into the river. Gene claims that he fought Quackenbush partially in defense of the absent Finny, whom Quackenbush could never equal, and partially for himself.
Soaking wet, Gene then encounters Mr. Ludsbury, the Master for the Winter Session, who accuses Gene of taking advantage (along with the other boys) of the situation during the Summer Term and attempting to get away with breaking the rules while the normal faculty was on vacation. Gene remains speechless (unlike Finny) to the reprimand, and Ludsbury informs him that he has a long-distance call. It is Phineas who has called and Gene speaks to him over the phone, detecting only friendliness in the voice of his old friend, who has called to see how the school is going. Finny is dumbfounded to hear that Gene’s only involvement with sports is as assistant crew manager. But Gene says that he is too busy for sports to Phineas, and he writes: “They were barred from me, as though when Dr. Stanpole said, ‘Sports are finished’ he had been speaking of me” (76). Phineas, angry, says “Listen, pal, if I can’t play sports, you’re going to play them for me” (77). At the chapter’s end, Gene writes: “I lost part of myself to him then, and a soaring sense of freedom revealed that this must have been my purpose from the first: to become part of Phineas” (77).
A Separate Peace Summary Chapter 7
Brinker Hadley, whom Gene likes in spite of his being the hub of student activities, enters and jokingly accuses Gene of arranging the situation so that Finny wouldn’t come back and Gene would have the room to himself. Gene grows uncomfortable at this and tries to change the subject by suggesting that the two go to the Butt Room, Devon’s dungeon-like smoking chamber. But Brinker is relentless in his mock accusation and he turns the Butt Room into a courtroom and conducts an interrogation, with the assistance of the other students already in the room. Gene grows tense and defensive, finally trying to lighten the situation with a false confession: “I-all I did was drop a little bit. . . a pinch of arsenic in his morning coffee” (81). But his attempt fails as Brinker says: “We know the scene of the crime, high in that. . . that funereal tree by the river” (81). Gene continues to mask his nervousness and guilt by joking around and finally escapes the trial by intimidating a younger student who was trying to take part in the interrogation.
Aside from this schoolboy ruse, no one suspects Gene of his deed. Thus far, the students’ only war-related duties involve harvesting apples at a nearby orchard because the regular harvesters have gone into the war. Snow comes to Devon. Volunteers are needed to shovel out the railroad yards of the major Boston and Maine line. Gene, Brinker, and others volunteer. On their way to the railroad yard, Gene encounters the eccentric Leper, who has not volunteered, on touring skis in the middle of a field. Leper prefers cross-country skiing to the downhill variety: “I just like to go along and see what I’m passing and enjoy myself” (87). Today, he is in search of a beaver dam, unlike his classmates who are all eager to be involved in the war.
Gene and the others dig a train line out of the snow and watch as a trainload of army recruits passes, men not much older than Gene. The students and soldiers cheer at each other. Gene writes: “Stranded in this mill town railroad yard while the whole world was converging elsewhere, we seemed to be nothing but children playing among heroic men” (89).
Quackenbush, another volunteer snow digger, is teased for saying that he will enter the army “step by step” (90). On their way home, the students encounter Leper again, who has found the beaver dam. Brinker is disgusted by Leper’s dreamy ignorance of the war and declares that he will enlist tomorrow. Gene is excited by the prospect of enlisting and entertains the thought: “The war would be deadly all right. But I was used to finding something deadly in things that attracted me; there was always something deadly lurking in anything I wanted, anything I loved. And if it wasn’t there, as for example with Phineas, then I put it there myself” (92). After much deliberation, Gene decides to enlist. “Why go through the motions of getting an education and watch the war slowly chip away at the one thing I had loved here, the peace, the measureless, careless peace of the Devon summer?” (93) he asks himself. Excited at having decided, Gene rushes back to his room and all the events fade upon his discovery that Phineas is back.
A Separate Peace Summary Chapter 8
Phineas is disgruntled by the absence of maids in the rooms and Gene disapproves of his attitude, reminding him that there is a war on. Gene falls asleep that night to the sound of Finny talking. Brinker rushes into the room the next morning to ask Gene if he is ready to enlist. Phineas, who is in the habit of being stupified by many of Gene’s independent actions, is once again shocked when Gene tells him that he was planning to enlist. Gene deduces, from Finny’s reaction, that Finny doesn’t want him to enlist: “He wanted me around. The war then passed away from me, and dreams of enlistment and escape and a clean start lost their meaning for me” (100).
Now that he has abandoned the thought of enlisting, Gene perceives that the peace of the summer has come back to Devon for him. By avoiding enlisting, Gene makes the analogy that he has simply ducked a wave but then gives the foreshadowing prophecy that “one wave is inevitably followed by another even larger and more powerful, when the tide is coming in” (101).
Finny says that he loves winter “and when you really love something, then it loves you back, in whatever way it has to love” (103). Gene disagrees. Gene notices that Finny would never walk with his natural, easy grace, as he did before his injury. Finny suggests that they cut class and go to the gym. Gene follows, suspecting that Finny wants to mull over his old athletic glories. Finny is horrified to learn that Gene is still not playing any sports, and has even abandoned his duty as an assistant crew manager. Gene claims that “sports don’t seem so important with the war on” (106). Finny’s shock is returned by Gene when Finny suddenly reveals that he doesn’t believe that there is a war on. The war, according to Phineas, is one conspiracy in a long chain of conspiracies, designed to keep the younger generations from crowding the “fat old men” (107) from their jobs and their power: “There isn’t any real food shortage, for instance. The men have all the best steaks delivered to their clubs now” (107). When Gene asks how Finny has come by this information, Finny says it is because he has suffered, revealing for the first time his bitterness at his injury. Gene writes of this incident: “Phineas I know had been even more startled than I to discover this bitterness in himself. Neither of us ever mentioned it again, and neither of us ever forgot that it was there” (109). Neither should the reader.
Confused, Gene goes to the pull-up bar and does thirty pull-ups while Finny counts them out. Finny tells Gene that he used to be aiming for the 1944 Olympics, but since he no longer is able to compete, he will coach Gene instead. Gene goes along, as usual, with this idea: “There was no harm in taking aim, even if the target was a dream” (109).
Although Gene doesn’t believe Finny’s conviction that the war doesn’t exist, Gene often feels that it might as well be unreal because he and the other students never saw anything real of it. One is forced to imagine fighting in distant lands with names like Guadalcanal, and it was just as easy to do that as it was to imagine “President Roosevelt and my father and Finny’s father and numbers of other large old men sitting down to porterhouse steak in some elaborate but secluded men’s secret society room” (110).
Gene begins to train for the Olympics of 1944, with Phineas as his coach. One morning, while running around the school grounds, he reaches a Zen-like exhilaration of mind and body: “Buoyed up, I forgot my usual feeling of routine self-pity when working out, I lost myself, oppressed mind along with aching body; all entanglements were shed, I broke into the clear” (110). Finny perceives this and congratulates Gene. Mr. Ludsbury notices the boys and urges Gene to keep his exercise directed not at the Olympics but at the “approaching Waterloo” (113). Phineas, angered, turns and says “No” (113), stammers something unintelligible, and walks off. Gene follows him. Finny claims that Ludsbury is too thin to be a part of the elite group who are aware that there is no approaching Waterloo.
A Separate Peace Summary Chapter 9
Gene’s own happiness deceives him from believing in the war: “peace is indivisible, and the surrounding world confusion found no reflection inside me. So I ceased to have any real sense of it” (115). To everyone’s surprise, Leper enlists in the war, making it seem even more unreal to Gene. Leper’s transformation is visible as he speaks of his new love for downhill skiing rather than cross-country: “It’s all right to miss seeing the trees and the countryside and all the other things when you’ve got to be in a hurry. And when you’re in a war you’ve got to be in a hurry. Don’t you? So I guess maybe racing skiers weren’t ruining the sport after all. They were preparing it, if you see what I mean, for the future. Everything has to evolve or else it perishes” (116-17). Leper now sees the war as a test for those who have been evolving correctly.
Leper, having left, becomes a mock hero at the school: “We were all at our funniest about Leper, and we all secretly hoped that Leper, that incompetent, was as heroic as we said” (119). Phineas is not part of the Leper fan club, however, and he draws Gene away from it, encouraging him to focus on his Olympic training.
Finny, always full of ideas that create interesting developments in the plot, suggests that they organize a Winter Carnival next weekend, with sports as the main attraction. During the dreary winter months, Finny’s plan seems to the others an exciting break in the routine. They begin to prepare for it. Brinker, whom we learn has not enlisted because Gene didn’t, takes some convincing, but finally agrees to participate in the Carnival. We learn that Brinker has grown disillusioned, withdrawing from many of his positions as president and organizer of, as well as a participant in several school functions-his reasons being that if he isn’t going to be in the war, he at least should not be so “civilian” (121).
The day of the Carnival arrives. Finny has arranged the multifarious collection of prizes, ranging from Finny’s icebox to a forged draft registration card, to be set on a table that has been dragged outside. The opening ceremonies become rambunctious as the participants imbibe in hard cider and Gene forces some down the throat of the resisting Brinker. The games begin and Gene, who has been training, is crowned champion after excelling at the decathlon. “It wasn’t the cider which made me surpass myself,” he writes, “It was this liberation we had torn from the gray encroachments of 1943, the escape we had concocted, this afternoon of momentary, illusory, special and separate peace” (128).
The celebratory atmosphere is interrupted when a classmate comes outside to deliver a telegram to Gene. The telegram is from Leper, who writes that he has escaped the war and needs help, asking Gene to come at once.
A Separate Peace Summary Chapter 10
Gene makes the journey through an unknown countryside on his way to Leper’s house. He writes that this traveling would mark the dominant routine of the following year when he is in the army. We flash forward briefly as Gene tells us that after he enlisted he never saw combat, but just traveled from training camp to training camp in preparation for the invasion of Japan. But because of the bomb, those in Gene’s recruiting class never reach the combat that they have been told would kill many of them.
Finally, he reaches Leper’s abode in Vermont, full of curiosity and concern as to what has happened. Gene finds Leper much changed: “The careful politeness he had always had was gone” (134). Leper is emotionally on edge and furious at Gene’s attempts to make small talk. “You’re thinking I’m not normal, aren’t you?” he asks Gene, “I can see what you’re thinking-I see a lot I never saw before. You’re thinking I’m psycho” (135). Leper tells Gene that he almost received a Section Eight discharge, given to the psychologically afflicted recruits. Gene becomes scared upon realizing what the army has done to Leper, and his fear makes him defensive and angry. But Leper is not daunted or intimidated: “You always were a savage underneath,” he tells Gene, “like that time you knocked Finny out of the tree” (137).
Gene is horrified and outraged and knocks Leper, who continues laughing and crying hysterically, out of his chair. Leper’s mother enters the room and Gene, embarrassed, apologizes. Surprisingly, Leper begs Gene to stay for lunch and, more surprisingly, Gene, out of a sense of guilt, agrees. Leper is subdued and untalkative during lunch, averting his eyes from his mother. But as the two go walking after lunch, Leper’s hysteria returns. After a fit of sobbing, Leper tells Gene of his miserable time in the service and how he began to suffer from hallucinations such as seeing a broom as a severed leg and women’s faces on men’s bodies. The hallucinations drove him to scream and as he continues describing his mania, Gene, who is horrified, tells him to shut up: “I don’t give a damn! Do you understand that? This has nothing to do with me! Nothing at all! I don’t care!” (143). Gene turns away and leaves Leper alone in that snow-covered field, just as he left him three chapters earlier, when Leper was telling him of the beaver dam.
A Separate Peace Summary Chapter 11
A disturbed Gene returns to Devon and yearns to see Phineas: “With him, there was no conflict except between athletes” (144). He finds Finny and his other classmates in the midst of a snowball fight and joins in the fray. All loyalties are betrayed until everyone begins to throw at Finny. Afterward, when asked about the danger of playing around on his leg, Finny says he can feel it getting stronger, and Gene is relieved.
Gene, who has long treated his southern background mockingly, claims: “now I was acquiring, I felt, a sense of my own real authority and worth, I had had many new experiences and I was growing up” (148). Brinker enters Gene’s room and asks about Leper. Gene tries to avoid the question, saying that Leper is Absent Without Leave. Brinker and Phineas are curious, and press further. Brinker ponders: “He must be out of his mind to do a thing like that. I’ll bet he cracked up, didn’t he?” Gene concedes that, indeed, that is the case. Upon hearing about Leper, Finny can no longer persist with the fantasy that the war doesn’t exist. Gene writes: “Now the facts were re-established, and gone were all the fantasies, such as the Olympic Games for A.D. 1944, closed before they had ever been opened” (150).
The war and its necessary preparations consume Devon, on whose campus it is now a common sight to see a recruiting officer. Many of Gene’s classmates become involved. Brinker comes up with plans that would connect him to the army, but would keep him from the actual fighting. One day Brinker pulls Gene aside and accuses him of not enlisting because he pities Finny. “He’s crippled and that’s that,” Brinker says, “He’s got to accept it and unless we start acting perfectly natural about it, even kid him about it once in a while, he never will” (152). Gene disagrees. Brinker then says: “it wouldn’t do you any harm, you know, if everything about Finny’s accident was cleared up and forgotten,” the third (the second from Brinker) allusion to Gene’s being responsible for Finny’s accident. Disturbed and defensive, Gene asks what he means, but Brinker shrugs and says that nobody knows what he means, “unless you know” (152).
While being helped with his Latin, Phineas tells Gene that he doesn’t believe in Caesar: “Naturally I don’t believe books and I don’t believe teachers, but I do believe it’s important after all for me to believe you. Christ, I’ve got to believe you, at least. I know you better than anybody” (154-55). He continues to say that he didn’t completely believe Gene about Leper’s condition until he actually saw Leper hiding in the bushes outside of the chapel: “He didn’t say a damn word. He looked at me like I was a gorilla or something and then he ducked into Mr. Carhart’s office” (155). This confirms Finny’s belief and the two laugh about it.
Later that night Brinker and three cohorts enter Gene and Finny’s room and hustle them half-roughly to the empty Assembly Hall. Ten other members of the senior class await them there, dressed in graduation robes. Gene suspects some prank and is annoyed until it is discovered by both Gene and Finny that this is a trial to determine what happened at the tree, a more serious interrogation than Brinker’s previous attempt in the Butt Room. Phineas is questioned and he seems to be protecting Gene, saying: “ever since then I’ve had a feeling that the tree did it by itself” (161). Finny and Gene confuse the details of whether or not Gene was in the tree when Finny fell.
Brinker realizes that Leper was watching on that day and could be a potential witness. Phineas informs Brinker that Leper is at Devon, that he saw him this morning, and Leper is immediately sent for. He is brought back, looking energetic. Leper describes the scene in a voice that Gene perceives as falsely confident. Leper says that the two boys were silhouetted against the sun on that evening and that they were both dark figures on the limb one of them holding the trunk of the tree: ” The one holding on to the trunk sank for a second up and down like a piston, and then the other one sank and fell” (168). When Brinker asks if the one who fell first was Finny, Leper refuses to implicate himself in the matter any further: “You always did take me for a fool, didn’t you? But I’m no fool anymore. I know when I have information that might be dangerous” (168).
Brinker continues to press Leper, who continues to refuse to say anymore until Finny interrupts everyone by saying that he doesn’t care. He heads toward the door and Gene and Brinker call to him, Brinker saying that they haven’t got all the facts yet, upon which Finny, now crying, shouts: “You get all your facts! You collect every f–ing fact that there is in the world!” With this, he leaves the empty hall and everyone hears him fall down the staircase.
A Separate Peace Summary Chapter 12
Doctors, coaches, and teachers are summoned to the side of wounded Phineas. They carry him from the hall in a chair. Gene writes: “Once again I had the desolating sense of having all along ignored what was finest in him. . . I didn’t think he knew how to act or even how to feel as the object of help. . . My aid alone had never seemed to him in the category of help. . . Phineas had thought of me as an extension of himself” (171). Dr. Stanpole tells Gene that Finny has re-broken his leg.
Gene sits outside of the Infirmary room window on that cold night while Dr. Stanpole, Phil Latham (the wrestling coach), and a nurse sit up with Finny. Waiting alone in the darkness, Gene feels goofy and laughs at the train of his thought. When everyone leaves, Gene climbs through Finny’s window. Finny, upon realizing that it is Gene, is furious: “You want to break something in me! Is that why you’re here!” He struggles to get out of bed so that he can attack Gene, but, unable to, he collapses to the floor. Gene can only repeat that he is sorry, and climbs back out the window without helping Phineas back into his bed.
Gene walks back across the campus at night, feeling that the familiar landscape is inscribed with an indecipherable message: “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” (178). He sleeps beneath the stadium ramp.
The next morning Dr. Stanpole tells Gene to bring some of Finny’s clothes and toilet things to the Infirmary. Gene musters his nerve and re-visits his friend. As Finny goes through his things, Gene notices that his hands are shaking. Gene tells Finny that he tried to confess to his deed when Finny was in Boston and Finny says he remembers, but changes the subject, asking why Gene came last night. Gene says “I thought I belonged here” (181). Phineas then confesses to Gene of his tireless efforts during the past year to get recruited with a broken leg. But nobody wanted him, which is why he maintained the illusion that there wasn’t any war. Gene tells Phineas that he would be no good in the war even if he didn’t have a busted leg: “you’d get confused and borrow one of their uniforms, and you’d lend them one of yours. Sure, that’s just what would happen. You’d get things so scrambled up nobody would know who to fight anymore” (182).
Finally, Phineas confronts Gene about what he did at the tree: “It wasn’t anything you really felt against me, it wasn’t some kind of hate you’ve felt all along. It wasn’t anything personal” (183), he half asks and half tells himself. Gene answers: “It was just some ignorance inside me, some crazy thing inside me, something blind, that’s all it was” (183). Phineas, crying, says he believes him.
Gene leaves and goes through the motions of a typical school day at Devon. He returns to the Infirmary to see Phineas and is confronted by a grim Dr. Stanpole, who says to him: “This is something I think boys of your generation are going to see a lot of, and I will have to tell you about it now. Your friend is dead” (185). Stanpole struggles to tell Gene that during the setting of the bone, some marrow must have gotten into Finny’s bloodstream and stopped his heart. Gene writes: “I did not cry then or ever about Finny. I did not cry even when I stood watching him being lowered into his family’s strait-laced burial ground outside of Boston. I could not escape a feeling that this was my own funeral, and you do not cry in that case” (186).
A Separate Peace Summary Chapter 13
In the final chapter, it is once again June, as it was in the first chapter, a year earlier. The Army Parachute Riggers have now set up operations in the Far Common of Devon’s campus. It is a peaceful summer’s day and Gene writes: “There could be no urgency in work during such summers; any parachutes rigged would be no more effective than napkins” (189). After Finny’s death, no one accuses Gene of being responsible for what happened “either because they could not believe it or else because they could not understand it” (189).
In the Butt Room, Gene meets Brinker’s father, a gruff World War One veteran. He tells Gene: “times change, and wars change. But men don’t change, do they? You boys are the image of me and my gang in the old days” (190). Mr. Hadley is jealous of the boys’ opportunity to fight and displeased to find out that neither Gene nor his son wants to be where the combat is. “Your war memories will be with you forever,” he tells the boys, ‘if you can say that you were upfront where there was some real shooting, then that will mean a whole lot to you in years to come” (191). Mr. Hadley leaves, trailing cigar smoke, and Brinker tells Gene: “It gives me pain, personally. I’m not any kind of hero, and neither are you. And neither is the old man, and he never was, and I don’t care what he says he almost did at Chateau-Thierry” (193).
Brinker blames his father’s generation for World War II. Gene realizes that Mr. Hadley is not the cause of the war, but rather the cause of his son’s own disillusionment and resentment. Gene compares Brinker’s blame for the war with Finny’s created fantasy and disagrees with both of them: “it seemed clear that wars were not made by generations and their special stupidities, but that wars were made instead by something ignorant in the human heart” (193).
With the arrival of the Parachute Riggers, Gene claims that the happiness that once existed at Devon has disappeared. Although he never talks about Finny, he continues to feel his presence, claiming that even Finny’s death could not quench his vitality. Gene tries to live as Phineas did, by assimilating the world “without a sense of chaos and loss” (194). Of Finny, he writes: “Nothing as he was growing up at home, nothing at Devon, nothing even about the war had broken his harmonious and natural unity. So at last
I had” (195).
Gene, having used all of his hatred against Finny, is now ready to join the war. During the war he never killed anyone, and never detested the enemy. He writes: “I was on active duty all my time at school; I killed my enemy there” (196). Gene details how everyone else at Devon had responded to the enemy by constructing defenses, everyone except Phineas. The final paragraph runs thus: “All of them, all except Phineas, constructed at infinite cost to themselves these Maginot Lines against this enemy they thought they saw across the frontier, this enemy who never attacked that way-if he ever attacked at all; if he was indeed the enemy” (196). And so the novel ends with Gene in the final year of the war, the narrative not quite returning to its original starting point in 1958. For all we know, our thirty-two-year-old narrator is still trudging across that muddy field.