|BARRON'S BOOK NOTES
A SEPARATE PEACE
JOHN KNOWLES: THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
John Knowles was only 33 years old when A Separate Peace was published, in 1959, in England (see The Critics section at the end of this book for a good idea of how popular the book was there) and then, in 1960, in the United States. The book was an immediate and stunning success, receiving the William Faulkner Foundation Award and the Rosenthal Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
But John Knowles had begun writing seriously a decade before the success of A Separate Peace enabled him to abandon full-time employment. He was assistant editor for the Yale Alumni Magazine where he'd attended college, he worked as a reporter and drama critic for the Hartford Courant, and then he wrote his first novel, Descent into Proselito, while living in Italy and France. That novel was never published; his friend and teacher, the playwright Thornton Wilder, felt it was not good enough.
Knowles was born in Fairmont, West Virginia, on September 16, 1926, the third of four children. At age fifteen, during World War II, he went away to boarding school, the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. The pressures of this environment at such a dire and impressionable time laid the foundation for A Separate Peace--and, even before that novel, for a short story called "Phineas," which takes us through the events of the first half of the novel.
Like so many writers before and since, John Knowles found his way to New York City, renting an apartment in the Hell's Kitchen area of the West Side, where he applied himself rigorously to his craft in the mid-1950s. Determined to make a name for himself, he busily turned out drama reviews, short stories, and freelance articles. A story about Phillips Exeter Academy published in Holiday magazine received wide acclaim, and Knowles moved to Philadelphia to work for the magazine from 1957 to 1960.
Once again he was able to travel abroad, and he tied two more books directly into his life experience, a travelogue called American Thoughts Abroad and Morning in Antibes. Then he tried his hand at teaching for several years, at the University of North Carolina and at Princeton.
Since 1970, he has lived in Southampton, Long Island, where he focuses his attention on novel writing.
When we take a sweeping look at John Knowles' work, we understand him as a writer involved in a continuous autobiography through fiction. One major theme occurs over and over again: the inner struggle we all must endure between the "civilized" and "savage" parts of ourselves; and that struggle--or "battle," as Gene Forrester calls it in A Separate Peace--in the larger sense of man versus his environment.
His years as a travel and magazine writer gave John Knowles a knack for describing the atmosphere of places, as you'll notice immediately when you begin to read A Separate Peace. A Vein of Riches (1978), another novel, takes place in a West Virginia mining town similar to Fairmont, where John Knowles grew up. The Devon School (modeled after Phillips Exeter) returns in the guise of Wetherford Country Day School in Indian Summer (1966); Yale University figures strongly in The Paragon (1971); and the sultry atmosphere of the French Riviera, where Knowles spent so much time traveling and writing, is captured vividly in Spreading Fires (1974).
Gene Forrester feels sometimes hemmed in, at other times protected by the close-knit setting of the Devon School. In the same way, many of John Knowles' major characters fight to achieve an understanding with where they are, testing themselves constantly against their current situations. Knowles' novels express his own unresolved conflicts, conflicts that every serious writer must feel inside himself to some degree: Who am I? What shapes me? What is the true extent of my power, and how successfully can I shape my own future? To what degree do I represent "the American Character" (Knowles' term), and to what degree do I represent myself alone?
None of John Knowles' subsequent novels has achieved the peak of popularity that A Separate Peace has reached (in 1982 it was in its 55th printing). But readers and critics agree that he possesses a sensitive awareness of human nature--of what makes us tick--and that he is a craftsman of prose style who has produced an enduring classic: the novel you're about to read.
^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: THE PLOT
Fifteen years after graduation, Gene Forrester, the narrator of A Separate Peace, returns to his old high school in New Hampshire, pursuing the roots of a memory that has left an indelible mark. As Gene walks around the deserted campus of the Devon School, we realize that something tragic and terrible happened there. When he comes to rest at the foot of a huge tree overhanging a riverbank on the edge of campus and pauses to reflect, our story begins in a flashback to the summer between Gene's junior and senior years.
We quickly meet the main character of the story and its hero, Gene's best friend, Phineas (called "Finny"). Finny is a boy who stands out from the crowd. He's brave to the point of foolhardiness, outspoken, athletic, bright, funny--yet, in his own quirky way, Finny is an enigma. He challenges the other boys to make a leap from the fateful tree on the riverbank into cold waters. This challenge, repeated throughout the book, ultimately proves to be Finny's undoing.
We follow Finny and Gene through their daily summertime routines: tea at the headmaster's cottage, frolicking on the playing fields, and more and more tree-jumping. One day Finny saves Gene's life when he's on the verge of toppling from the branch. It seems as if Finny always has to be in control, even to the point where he invents bizarre games with no rules except those he makes up as he goes along; the other boys are drawn into "blitzball," as Finny calls one such competition, because they cannot resist falling under his spell. He frees them from the cares and worries of school life.
But the boys cannot remain immune to the threat of war and the possibility of enlistment that hangs over their heads. Finny is the only holdout; he insists the war does not exist.
The friendship of Gene--shy, retiring, and modest--and Finny--outgoing, brazen, brilliant--becomes the central theme of the book. The turning point arrives when the two boys take an impromptu excursion to the beach and Gene is late for a math test, which he fails. Gene is soon convinced that Finny, far from wanting to look out for his best interests, in fact wants Gene to fall behind in his studies so that Finny will be number one in everything. Gene manages to drive himself into a frenzy over what he views as Finny's traitorous nature.
One evening, in the midst of studying for a French exam, Gene is again distracted by Finny into a jumping session by the river. This time he follows with sinister intent. The two boys mount the tree, inch out on the limb, and then, suddenly, Gene "jounces the branch" and Finny tumbles backward onto the riverbank, breaking his leg. The whole course of the story changes after this pivotal incident.
Sports--Finny's pride and joy--are now a thing of the past for him. His life appears to be ruined. Gene is numbed, not quite certain any more of his own nature and motivations. Ironically, without Finny he's adrift and lost and seems to have no reason for being. Gene makes a few feeble attempts to confess to his act in hopes Finny will forgive him, but his friend--like a true friend--cannot accept the apology. Confusion reigns.
Back at school in the fall term, with Finny absent, the other boys, who had once been overshadowed by him, move into the foreground: "Leper" Lepellier, the eccentric, withdrawn fellow who loves to ski and to go off by himself into the hills in search of beavers; Brinker Hadley, the class politician and Gene's rival for Finny's affections; and Quackenbush, the manager of the crew team, who gives Gene a hard time at the slightest provocation. Gene now has to struggle with the legacy of Finny's accident and the suspicion of the other students about how it was caused. It is a time of growth for Gene as he fights their antagonism.
Winter comes, and with it the encroaching shadow of war. The boys are called out to help shovel free a troop train trapped by snow-blocked tracks. The experience "brings the war home" for all of them, and they realize they'll have to face a crucial decision very soon. Maturity leaps upon them, whether they're ready for it or not, at the tender age of seventeen.
Gene resolves that he has nothing more to offer his present surroundings, that his life hasn't come to much, and that the army might be just the place for him at such a despondent time in his life. He resolves to enlist the next day and get it over with. Then Finny's return to campus, his leg in a cast, changes all that in a flash.
With the reunion of the two boys, the story takes a positive turn. Gene's peace of mind is rekindled at the sight of Finny, and he begins to serve as Finny's guide and helper around the school. And Finny dedicates himself seriously and intensely to getting Gene into shape for the 1944 Olympics. A Separate Peace now becomes as much a novel that is for human achievement and against war as it is a novel about the complexity of friendship.
Leper Lepellier is the first to enlist, and he doesn't last long. The Devon Winter Carnival--a devilish, crazy, free-for-all outdoor event invented by Finny to relieve the midwinter doldrums--is interrupted by a desperate telegram from Leper, summoning Gene to his home in Vermont. There Gene discovers a seriously disturbed Leper, his spirit broken by a few weeks in basic training. Gene retreats, fearful--if this is what war is all about--for his own fate and the future of his pals.
Just as the stress of war has proved to be too much for Leper, it has had a souring effect on Brinker. Perhaps out of his own sense of powerlessness over not being able to follow through on his noble intention to enlist, Brinker turns on Gene and threatens him with his determination to find out what "really happened" the day Finny fell from the tree. Gene's friendship with Finny is a sanctuary Brinker would like to enter, but it just isn't that easy.
Brinker and his friends resort to coercion. One night in the late spring of senior year, just when Finny and Gene have healed their wounds and established that special "separate peace" between them, the two are spirited away to the First Building for a mock trial spearheaded by Brinker. His vengefulness knows no bounds, though it is disguised as the pursuit of truth. The two boys are cross-examined until late into the night. It turns out that Leper, who witnessed the accident, has crept back to campus. Summoned to the trial, he testifies that Gene shook the tree limb. Finny, crazed with confusion and sadness, leaps up, bounds out the door, and falls down a flight of marble stairs, breaking his leg again.
After a long night and day of agony, Gene and Finny have their final, brief moment together and reach an understanding. "Something blind" made Gene cause the fall, but that no longer seems to matter to Finny. He believes his friend is truly his friend. That's the most important thing.
Finny dies during the operation to reset his leg.
Senior year draws to a close. Through Finny's death, Gene comes to possess a far deeper view of war and mankind's fate. He understands something about the more pervasive fallibility of human beings far, far beyond the intimate confines of the Devon School. Gene has changed.
We had admired Finny all along; now, in the closing pages of the story, with the army setting up a training base at the school and the noises of war in the air, we admire Gene for coming to terms with Finny's greatest gift: he had no enemies; therefore he had no defenses. To be his friend was to know friendship at its purest. To be his friend was to enjoy a truly "separate peace" unlike any other in the world.
The characters in a novel must be believable to the point where we are allowed insights into the reasons why they do the things they do (their motivations). Characters must also be able to carry ideas and themes without appearing unnatural. You don't want to find yourself saying, "Oh, so-and-so represents such-and-such an idea" or "John Knowles created so-and-so to stand for such-and-such a concept." Rather, the ideas and themes should become apparent to you bit by bit, as you begin to understand the characters as people interacting with each other. The more you find yourself asking what you would do in a given situation, the more successfully the characters are playing their parts.
Interacting is the key concept in this book because it's about a group of boys in a confined place, where they eat together, share rooms, play and study together, and are always open to the same overriding threat of war. None of the boys, no matter how individualistic he may be, is living in an isolated world. The Devon School is like a theater in which each boy is both an actor and a member of the audience.
In some ways A Separate Peace may be easier to relate to than other books you've read, because the characters are close to you in age. You might want to think about whether that assumption proves true as you're reading.
We don't want to tell you too much about the characters at the outset because the sheer pleasure of seeing them develop so effortlessly as the story unfolds is one you can't afford to miss. John Knowles introduces detail after detail about each person so that you receive a building up of character--in much the same way it would happen if you were actually getting to know someone over time. And, as you will see, it's often dangerous to trust first impressions and hasty judgments.
^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: GENE FORRESTER
Gene is the narrator of the story. He tells us what is going on; we see everything through his eyes. But because he is telling us what is happening, step by step, he must be the kind of person who has the ability to get involved in situations and then to step back from them and view them impartially. Gene is observer as well as participant, and that dual role can create problems for him. Occasionally, as when his friend Finny is in trouble, Gene comes across as confused and unable to act.
When we meet him, Gene is a thoughtful young man, innocent, soft-spoken, a follower rather than a leader--the perfect foil for Finny, his best friend. Gene's the kind of boy you wouldn't notice immediately in a crowd; he's usually around the fringes rather than at the center. He isn't much of a self-starter either, and he lacks initiative. You wonder sometimes if he has any ideas of his own, and then he surprises you by coming out with sharp pronouncements and judgments. Following the progression of his friendship with Finny, we begin to notice Gene emerge from his shell, drawn forth by the magnetism of another.
Is it being too harsh on Gene to say that he's a goody-goody? You know the type: someone who'd never take a chance by breaking the rules or doing anything outrageous. No, there's a glimmer of the adventurer inside Gene Forrester, waiting for someone like Finny to set the spark going. Gene is like a butterfly emerging from his cocoon, gradually unfolding and spreading his wings.
Gene is an empathetic boy. That means he's strongly in touch with other people's feelings. Because he's sensitive, he possesses the rare ability to feel along with others. Sometimes this capacity gets him into hot water. It's always dangerous to empathize too deeply; you're bound to get swept away.
No doubt you'll notice a touch of envy breaking to the surface now and again. Close friendships like Gene and Finny's often suffer from one person's comparing himself to the other. This is inevitable when two people do so many things together. Gene is often looking to see how Finny is getting along--better, usually, despite his injury.
Like so many young people in a group, Gene has the easily recognizable problem of not being able to decide whether to go along with the crowd or to follow his own instincts. He doesn't want to lose the respect of his peers, but also he doesn't want to sacrifice his values just for a little more popularity.
Gene is torn in many ways. That's probably why we like him so much. He is unsparing in admitting to confusion: whether to laugh or cry in harsh situations; to jump from a tree or not; to go into the army or not; to study for a test or not. He's only human. We wouldn't want to follow the path of an overly self-confident narrator because we wouldn't be able to identify with him. Gene characterizes many fears and hopes we all possess.
Finally, the most appealing part of Gene's character is his idealism. Right to the end, despite the trials and tribulations he's subjected to, including the most painful of all, the loss of his dearest friend, Gene maintains a deeper faith. We know he's going to turn out all right because, if nothing else, he's a survivor.
^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: PHINEAS (FINNY)
Finny, Gene's best friend through good or ill, rests securely at the center of the story. Right from the start we know Finny is unlike any other person we've met, or rather, he's an extreme form of the most incredible person we've ever met.
Like a tragic hero, which Finny certainly is, the boy is daring. Finny's daring is as natural to him as breathing. He thrives on challenges, and when none presents itself, he invents one: the tree-jumping ritual is the first--and ultimately the most costly.
What are the characteristics of a true leader? A leader must be able to inspire others to confidence, then convince them to follow in assurance that no harm will befall them. A leader must be vigilant--because leaders have a way of being toppled when they are not careful. Even while he's scaling new heights, Finny casts sidelong glances. We wonder if he's too trusting of the other boys.
A true leader must stand for something, a set of principles or ideals. What are Finny's principles? He never seems to take anything all that seriously; he is always capable of a good laugh at his own expense. Sports are beyond reproach to Finny. The playing field is sacred ground, the gym is a holy temple. To him, sportsmanlike prowess and athletic ability far outweigh the ability to give the right answers on a test.
You've heard the expression, "Pride goeth before a fall." Think, as you read A Separate Peace, about whether this maxim describes accurately what happens to Finny. Heroes are often brought down by excessive, blind self-confidence. They go through too many situations in which they are tested and succeed, and their triumphs intoxicate them, go to their heads, make it hard for them to maintain an accurate perspective.
On the other hand, we certainly can't say that Finny is selfish. There's nothing guarded in his nature. What you see is what you get. Gene finds this side of Finny disarming; indeed, it is difficult to accept a person on his own terms in a world where there's so much suspicion. Finny serves to remind us of the greater forces of goodness and peace in the world, and his fall reminds us how rare these forces have become. In this respect A Separate Peace goes beyond the boundaries of a schoolboy story and into John Knowles' vision of the human condition.
Finny has a sense of humor. Perhaps that doesn't strike you as unusual. But think for a moment how rare a truly fine sense of humor is these days. And the greatest humor of all is found in the person who can laugh at himself. Many of us are so close to our own problems, so wrapped up in the little things of daily life, that we can't see the bright spots. Finny, with all naturalness, can make himself the object of the funniest jokes without losing any of his self-esteem.
Finny's "steady and formidable flow of energy" often overwhelms his schoolmates when it does not inspire them. It's a double-edged quality that stems no doubt from his endless need to be in control, to be a guiding, steering force. He likes to keep moving. Even when his leg is in a cast he seems to radiate a kind of dynamic force field around himself. When he isn't running, he's talking. When he isn't swimming, he's playing blitzball or riding a bicycle backward. And he's always thinking. Imagine what a different story A Separate Peace would be if Finny, instead of Gene, were the narrator!
In the end, why do we weep for Finny? Because we will miss him, as we would miss anyone of such vitality and honesty who passed from our lives. The author has set Finny up in an idealized way; in other words, he has made the boy larger than life so that he embodies important truths beyond himself.
^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: ELWIN "LEPER" LEPELLIER
Gene is the commentator, Finny the transcendent leader; Leper is the tagalong--with a twist. How incredibly wrong first impressions can prove to be! When we meet him, Leper's one of the boys standing at the base of the tree, refusing to jump into the river, "bidding for an ally." He wants to be liked, but he doesn't want it badly enough to move an inch from his rooted, stubborn disposition. Gene gives a hint of the general opinion of Leper when he refers to him as "inanimate," someone who is simply there, for no particularly good or bad reason.
During blitzball this observation is borne out when Leper refuses to take possession of the ball. He exists to prove a point rather than for any exemplary act he is capable of performing. He's very good at denying and rejecting ideas, throwing them into relief. He threatens to make the leap, to join the Suicide Society, but he never comes through. Of all the characters, Leper is most nearly the opposite of Finny.
That is not to say Leper doesn't possess the courage of his convictions. He marches to the beat of a different drummer, that's all. While all the other boys are shoveling snow for the war effort, Leper is in the countryside skiing. He has no personal objection to what the others are doing; he simply possesses his own, very personal agenda, and he sticks to it unfailingly.
Leper is a fascinating character because you don't want to think he's important, and then he turns out to be crucial. A lot is going on beneath the surface, and you find yourself watching and wondering about him. Why is he the first to enlist? What is the cause of his emotional breakdown? Why does he summon Gene to his home in Vermont to confess to him? Why does he return to Devon? Why does he feel the need to report on the events at the tree when Finny fell?
It's easier to pity Leper than to hate him for what he does. You are tempted to condemn him for seeking revenge; then that feeling is followed by the overwhelming desire to feel sorry for him--"There but for the grace of God go I," you think. The army was clearly no place for a boy like Leper, but how can anyone know anything about an experience, especially one of such magnitude, without having undergone it?
Leper's bravery, unwitting though it may be, and his motivation for enlisting, the naive expectation to ski his way through the war--appeal to us. His cry for help does not go unanswered, but even Gene can do nothing to aid him. After all, Gene too is struggling through the same difficult period in his own life.
^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: BRINKER HADLEY
Brinker beautifully balances out the other three boys' extreme characteristics. He seems the most "typical," the most representative of the Devon students we meet. He goes out for extracurricular activities; he's good in sports and average in the classroom; he's big and personable and popular, in the best sense of that word, the kind of guy you're bound to like immediately, not too smart, not too crafty.
Brinker's room is just across the hall from Finny and Gene's, so he is in on much of what passes between them. He bears witness to their friendship and probably wants to be more a part of it, but it's an exclusive little mutual admiration society. That knowledge is frustrating for Brinker; his affable, tolerant mood eventually turns self-righteously sour.
"Brinker, with his steady wit and ceaseless plans," as Gene presents him to us after the summer, lacks the exotic appeal of Leper, who'd occupied the same room during the idyllic summer session. Leper's interest lay in his oddness; Brinker is decidedly different, always looking for another way to score points.
But Brinker's labored attempts at leadership cannot measure up to Finny's inborn lust for life. People are attracted to Finny no matter what he does; he doesn't have to go out and lobby for himself in the way Brinker often carries on.
Brinker knows Gene and Finny have no pressing need to check in with him, to be part of his circle, as the other boys in the class do. At first he pretends not to care much, but gradually he becomes unable to suppress his jealousy. He turns into a self-appointed detective in search of the answer to the question of what really happened on the riverbank during summer session, while he was away from school. Brinker seems to have decided that if the only way he can make inroads into Gene and Finny's microcosm is by destroying it, so be it.
As in the case of Leper, we cannot simply condemn Brinker for his feelings. It's natural to react this way, isn't it, when you sense the action has passed you by? Brinker appoints himself a Sherlock Holmes, a searcher after truth, but he doesn't have the stature to carry the investigation off gracefully. Too outspoken and blunt, he's unconscious of the implications of his actions.
Brinker shows his true colors, too, when he "talks up" the idea of enlisting in the army but doesn't follow through until the last possible moment. His instinct for self-preservation is much stronger than his patriotism. So, finally, we see something of ourselves in Brinker.
It is an indication of John Knowles' skill as a storyteller that he makes all his characters distinctly different from one another, each with his own distinguishing features. Although they are fictional characters in a novel, we feel that we know them as living persons.
We'll also meet Chet Douglass and Bobby Zane, Cliff Quackenbush and Brownie Perkins--some of the other boys at Devon. They're the "chorus" of the story, providing background action and competition for games and studies, moving against a backdrop of nameless and faceless students who stride across the common between classes, dash across the playing fields, crowd around outside the dining hall, indulge in horseplay and late-night card games in the dormitories, and file into chapel on Sundays.
Gene and Finny, Leper and Brinker do not exist in a vacuum. Their context is vital to an understanding of the story. A prep school, like any school, is made up of cliques, groups of people who socialize together, and A Separate Peace focuses on just such a small group. But life goes on for the rest of the school as well, and the energy that arises from all that other activity comes through in the story.
In much the same way, the teachers (called masters), Mr. Pike, Mr. Patch-Withers, Mr. Prud'homme, and Mr. Ludsbury, exercise their dubious authority over the boys in a typically proprietary, benign, iron-hand-in-a-velvet-glove manner. The school is permissive but traditional, encouraging free expression within a structure that says certain things must be learned in a certain way.
The boys laugh at their teachers and imitate them behind their backs; how could they not? The boys are meek and respectful to their teachers' faces--except, of course, for Finny. On their part, the teachers know that boys will be boys, and they are aware of their role as disciplinarians, guardians, passers-along of the legacy: what it means to be a gentleman at all times.
Dr. Stanpole, the school physician, is a caring, generous man who tries to do his best for Finny and who feels deeply the agony of losing a generation to war. He cannot bring himself to accept the fact that many of the boys must face combat. Phil Latham, the wrestling coach, seeks to develop healthy bodies for the fine minds in his charge; he is called to the scene when Finny has his last accident. Brinker's father makes a cameo appearance at the end of the story, just in time to remind Gene and Brinker of the true meaning of patriotism and the importance of fighting for democracy.
The adult characters in A Separate Peace are treated with the finest balance of reverence and humor. They all treasure the precious time of youth--but whose youth are they thinking of. Do they make the mistake of projecting onto the boys of Devon a concept of youth based on the way life once was for them and is no longer? And does this misconception add a heightened dimension to the ultimate tragedy?
^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: SETTING
The setting of a novel is, quite simply, where and when the story takes place. Another way of describing it is "spirit of place," the atmosphere generated by descriptions of the environment and the characters' relationship to it. In Devon School, John Knowles has created a setting rich in evocative detail. The school figures almost as if it were another personage in the story, coming to life when Gene encounters it, existing while he's there, "blinking out like a candle" when he leaves.
By sketching the school's boundaries right away, Knowles presents it to us as a confining, even womb-like place, and everything that occurs within the school takes on a clear focus. You'll note that except for a few brief forays outside the school--Gene's trip home for vacation, his visits to Finny convalescing and to Leper after he has escaped from the army--the entire story unfolds within it. The school is a microcosm, a miniature world in and of itself. Perhaps your school is like that, with its intrigues, sets of friends, classes that stick together, members of clubs and teams, the senior lounge off limits to everyone else, the faculty lounge (where you may wonder what conversations go on).
In any school, such protectiveness can be a dangerous insulation from the world outside. Have you ever heard someone say that "real" learning doesn't take place in the classroom but rather in the day-to-day setting of natural events? Whether you agree with this statement or not (it is often made by people who have been out of school for a few years), there can be no doubt that the Devon School is a rarefied place, one where a small number of boys (no girls) with privileged backgrounds are sent to cultivate their characters as gentlemen. You'll have to decide how well their years at Devon prepare them for the subsequent tests of manhood.
Flip through the pages of A Separate Peace after you've read it a couple of times, and you'll discover the multiple moods of the Devon School, conditioned by seasons and the weather. In gray mist, shrouded and still, there's a somber feeling to the story. On golden summer days, when the boys are carefree, the fields welcome them and the story takes on a lighter tone--so that Finny's accident is thrown into violent relief. In the fall, when all the boys return to school, there's a crispness in the air--we all know it--in the waning days of summer, an inevitability you can't avoid, signaling the need to return to work. There's a quickening in your step and a bit of fear about what the new year will bring. As winter descends on Devon, so does boredom; more time must be spent indoors over books, and you wait with hope for the first signs of spring and release. A Separate Peace centers on the effects of these seasonal changes in the Devon School setting, and it uses them to demonstrate the place's variety of spirit.
Its exposure to the elements in an isolated area of New England that has great natural beauty makes Devon appear at times like a prison of sorts, one where the boys' "freedom" to come and go as they please is a grand illusion. Class follows class. Chapel leads into first period. Dinner is at a set time, and if you're not there, you'll be penalized. Lights go out at a set time, and if it's rumored that you were playing cards or talking afterward, a master may reprimand you. This general atmosphere of enforced routine lends a tinge of fear and tension to the story, and this is just as much a part of the setting as any physical characteristic of the school buildings or playing fields.
At the end of the book, we realize how familiar the place has become in our mind's eye: just enough to give the story a grounding, not enough to distract from the characters' movements and motivations.
^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: THEMES
The themes in a novel are the main issues and ideas the author grapples with and addresses, the questions posed by the actions of the characters, the concerns raised in our minds as we read. Some themes are easily identified, perhaps even articulated by the characters themselves, so we can't miss them. Others are presented more subtly and may be open to a wider variety of interpretation. Still others may form themselves within you, regardless of the author's intent.
Here, then, are some of the themes we find in A Separate Peace. You may very well discover others.
^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: FRIENDSHIP
Friendship, in all its complexity, is certainly a major theme of the book. Friendship is often based on mutual need, on people seeking each other out to fill gaps they feel inside themselves. You often hear friends spoken of as much for how they differ as for how much they have in common. A Separate Peace explores the ins and outs of a relationship between two teenagers hovering between childhood and adulthood. Although the story is told from the perspective of fifteen years after the events, innocence and naivete figure deeply. Gene and Finny are victims of circumstance, and that makes their friendship all the more poignant. They are drawn to each other for reasons they don't entirely understand.
Throughout the story you'll notice that the balance of power of their friendship, so to speak, tips one way and then the other--and with each shift, their friendship is tested anew. It's sad when their affection for each other survives one final test, for then Finny is lost forever.
^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: CONFORMITY
Following close behind friendship in importance is the theme of conformity. The book poses important questions about the hard choices young people have to make between going along with the crowd (bowing to peer pressure) and pursuing their own paths (preserving a sense of individuality). Finny is a force of continuous pressure on the other boys, especially on Gene. He's a rebel to the core of his being, flamboyant and careless. But most schoolboys can't afford to compete the way Finny does. Can you imagine what Gene's life would have been like if he had never met Finny? We've all encountered at least one person who has changed our lives by showing us another possible road to take, one we would never otherwise have considered.
In his steadfast disbelief in the existence of "the War," Finny contradicts every value the Devon School represents. This skepticism, crazy as it sounds, serves to point out the importance of the test every boy must pass: how to face the question of enlisting. Gene's inclination is to go along with the crowd, represented here by Brinker, until he sees Finny again and his best laid plans are shattered. And Leper, the person everybody least expects to make the plunge, enlists first and finds his concept of conformity sorely tried within hours of arriving at basic training. Certainly the whole issue of who will and will not jump from the infamous tree is a primary example of this theme. Can you find others?
^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: TRUTH AND FALSEHOOD
Truth and falsehood may sound a touch abstract and lofty, but it's a theme that permeates the story insofar as it relates to the way we perceive ourselves, the way others see us, and our frustrating inability to get to know another person completely. Because we are always subjected to what is going on inside Gene's head (we'll explore this issue more carefully when we take up Point of View), we're often left short of the mark when we want to find out more about Finny from Finny. Imagine all the instances where we'd be so much better served if we could know what Finny was truly thinking, say at the headmaster's tea party, or when lying on the beach with Gene saying his prayers, or while distracting Gene from his studies. The only justifications we hear for Gene's turnabout from friendship to entirety are his own, based on what he sees as Finny's duplicity. We all know when we're presenting to someone else a self--a persona, or mask--that's truly us, and when we're playing a part in order to get our way or to be manipulative.
The ultimate test of this theme is the episode on which the whole story turns, that moment when Gene jounces the branch of the tree. Why does he do it? Many pages later he confesses, the last time he sees Finny, "to some crazy thing" inside himself, and Finny "believes" him. Are we satisfied? Will we ever know the truth of that moment, or for that matter (the author may be asking), of any moment?
^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: GROWING UP
Growing up is a broad theme that encompasses many subthemes in the book. No story focusing on adolescence could avoid this issue and still be effective. A Separate Peace poses many questions about the nature and extent of maturity, what it means to be responsible for yourself and your actions, to what extent this responsibility can be delegated, and to what extent can be delegated, and to what extent it falls upon you whether you seek it or not. How mature are you, when one day you're being chastised for coming late to dinner and the next you're watching a film about training for the army ski patrol? One set of superiors (teachers) subjects you to the rule of punctuality; another (army recruiters) implies you can make a choice about your destiny because you're approaching the magical age of eighteen. What does chronological age signify, and why has it taken on such intensified meaning in our society?
The senior boys at Devon cannot continue to have the best of both worlds. They want to preserve freedom, to run free and compete with each other until graduation day; but as that day approaches they sense a new and even more obvious destiny that is too large to stave off. The touchstone of their maturity resides in how they cope with the threat of war. Meanwhile, we all know that a high school diploma doesn't automatically make you an adult. Boys may yearn for that certification and their liberation from school, but the fact that they're going straight into the army tempers their enthusiasm. We see this in Brinker's early resolution, his wavering, and then his compromise in front of his father.
^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: STYLE
Another word for an author's style is his voice, and that's an appropriate term when you think of an actual person telling a story, unfolding it before you, speaking to you one-to-one. Thus the style of A Separate Peace is most simply characterized as the fictional person of Gene Forrester, created by John Knowles, talking to us through the pages of the book.
Gene has a low-key, almost diffident manner. Because he is subtle in his observations, we are welcomed immediately. There's no problem entering the story and walking with Gene through the damp fields. He wants companionship, and his style, his manner of presentation, expresses that need admirably.
We might also say the book possesses a confessional style; in other words, the narrator has some burden he needs to cast off upon us. Anyone who reads the book automatically takes on that burden. Gene has done something too painful to bear in solitude, and he wants to believe that his sharing it will make the weight less heavy for him. (Is this necessarily so?) Again, the style helps get the message across because it accumulates in gradual stages, in an unhurried manner, as if it were sneaking up on us.
The book further possesses a deferential style; in other words, the narrator keeps himself out of the forefront of the action. Notice how sparingly Gene interjects himself. Often he'll quote Finny for pages and pages, while he just stands there, a transmitter, a transparent vehicle for carrying the main event to us. He tries to keep his opinion out of the foreground too, and he succeeds until Finny becomes his "enemy." At that point the style of the book changes and flares up into a more vivid, determined, focused language, as if it were hacked from stone, where before it had been ever so gently molded.
You'll notice another interesting aspect of the book's style if you compare the spoken words (in quotes) with the exposition, the descriptions and passages that tie the dialogue together. Gene, Finny, and the other boys speak with the vocabulary of teenagers of the 1940s, and the teachers also seem true-to-life for the period. The Gene who narrates, however, is the adult Gene, and his insights are those of someone in his middle to late thirties. Thus the book encompasses beautifully the simplicity and directness of young people speaking and acting in tune with their time of life as well as the more mature voice of an older person looking back to that time in retrospect.
^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: POINT OF VIEW
We think of point of view as the angle from which the story is told, the perspective from which we receive information. Sometimes an author will use the third person "he" or "she" throughout a book; this tends to remove us from the work rather than draw us in, to put and keep us outside it. In A Separate Peace, where one of the central characters is the narrator, we see everything through his eyes.
Gene Forrester happens to be a quiet, shy, self-effacing person whose point of view does not overwhelm anyone. He's the kind of person you wouldn't notice immediately if you walked into a crowded room; he'd be off to the side, arms crossed, with a clear, steady gaze and an attentive air. He'd speak little unless spoken to, and he'd weigh his words carefully. He'd be forthcoming with observations about people, and you'd probably be surprised at first by his accuracy, until you understood that Gene spent most of his time watching and listening, a participant in his mind more than through any physical action.
This sensibility brings the story to us, allowing us to absorb it without feeling threatened or intimidated. The power of A Separate Peace resides in the subtle way it conveys very emotional material. This is a book about the rise and fall of a heroic figure who happens to be all of seventeen years old--as seen through the eyes of his dearest friend, who, in a bizarre and finally inexplicable way, is responsible for the final, painful tragedy. It is a book about youth fading to premature age through exposure to death. It is a story told with measured, consistently dampened tones, no shock value, no cheap thrills--and this makes it all the more rewarding, especially in a time when we are in danger of becoming insensitive under a daily barrage of exaggerated sensations. A Separate Peace is a brief novel that gives the gift of time to breathe as we read it. This is what the leisurely, fair-minded point of view of Gene Forrester provides unwaveringly--except at those severe points of stress when his friend Finny falters, falls, suffers, rises up, admits his love, discovers their shared secret, and falls again for the final time.
^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: FORM AND STRUCTURE
The form of A Separate Peace can best be described as cyclical. The book begins with the narrator's revisiting the scene of the story after 15 years, retracing his steps for us, preparing us for the sequence of events to follow.
From the words "The tree was tremendous" (middle of Chapter 1), we are back in high school days during the summer between Gene's junior and senior years. Each succeeding chapter is chronologically arranged, moving through the fall term, winter vacation, spring term, graduation, and summer again--12 months, from mid-1942 to mid-1943, recounted in 13 chapters. There are no tricks here, no attempts to put the reader off guard, as you might find in more experimental novels.
The transitions from the end of one chapter to the beginning of the next are smooth and expected, each new chapter picking up the narrative thread from the old one. The shift from the end of Chapter 2 to the beginning of Chapter 3 is a good example. Gene has almost fallen from the tree, Finny grabbing him at the last moment. The last sentence of Chapter 2 is, "Finny had practically saved my life." And the first sentence of Chapter 3 is, "Yes, he had practically saved my life." We are reassured by the narrator's constant efforts at giving unity and coherence to the story.
Look at the end of Chapter 10, where Gene runs out on Leper. Gene tells us, "I didn't care because it had nothing to do with me. And I didn't want to hear any more of it. Ever." He's trying so hard to deny the effect on himself of seeing Leper in decline, and he beats a hasty retreat to the school's protective environment. Filled with turmoil, we turn the page to the beginning of Chapter 11 and read, "I wanted to see Phineas, and Phineas only. With him there was no conflict except between athletes." Gene's switch from trying vehemently to shut out an image of Leper to seeking desperately the comfort of Phineas and his "separate peace" tells us a lot about the relationship between the boys.
We talked about how the reassuring tone of Gene's narrative voice draws us into the story. The straightforward structure of the book, A leading to B leading to C without interruption, also serves to draw us in because we never have to stop to try to figure out where the author is taking us. He wants us to stay with the plot, the course of events, because sheer, unelaborate depiction--deceptively simple when you read it, but quite difficult to accomplish--finally packs quite a wallop.
Remember, the structure of the book is also conditioned by the fact that the point of view is through the eyes of one person. We have to be everywhere Gene is. As he moves and thinks, so must we, as readers, move and think.
^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: CHAPTER 1
Have you ever in your life gone through an experience so intense, so joyful, so painful, or just so important at the time, that you could only understand much later what truly happened? Isn't it a fact that when we're in the middle of an experience, we are often unable to think clearly about it because we're too busy feeling the moment's thrill or sadness to stop and come to sensible conclusions?
Our high school years are just such a time: of quick growth and self-discovery, of forging as well as breaking friendships, of proving ourselves to others, in the classroom and on the sports field, and a time when we want very much to be individuals and to stick to our own principles. Meanwhile, we're also getting used to being told what to do and what to learn.
The hunger to understand a significant period 15 years earlier in his life brings Gene Forrester, the narrator of A Separate Peace, back to his old high school in New Hampshire, the Devon School, on a wet and cold November day.
We meet Gene as he approaches the school through the streets of the surrounding town. He is struggling to conquer his fear at returning to the old place, trying to let enthusiasm carry him along: "I felt fear's echo, and along with that I felt the unhinged, uncontrollable joy which had been its accompaniment and opposite face, joy which had broken out sometimes in those days like Northern Lights across black sky." We already know that something significant and life-changing must have happened to him a long time ago. He prepares us by building up an atmosphere of suspense as he nears the school that is familiar to him in appearance but also different--because he himself has changed, grown older and wiser.
Gene wants us to notice first "a long white marble flight of stairs" inside the First Academy Building. The stairs are hard and forbidding. He turns away quickly. We'll have to let the story unfold quite a bit before we find out what took place there fifteen years earlier.
NOTE: As Gene walks on, toward his second destination on campus, he remarks about the "scholarly and athletic" nature of the school. Aren't most high schools divided like this, whether they're public, private, or parochial, located in cities or in rural areas? Our minds are tested in the classroom, our bodies in the gym. And our friends often judge us on the basis of how well we do in one area or another. This double nature is a constant theme throughout the story, and we want to take note of it here, at the beginning.
Farther and farther beyond the confines of the immediate campus, Gene trudges through a fog and dampness that add to the sad and nostalgic mood he establishes.
Finally his quest is over. He finds a special tree, one long branch extending over the river, "not only stripped by the cold season, it seemed weary from age, enfeebled, dry."
"Nothing endures," he tells us, "not a tree, not love, not even a death by violence."
Did someone die at Devon 15 years ago? Is that the reason for Gene's solitary, melancholy quest on this damp November day? Preoccupied with his mission, he has failed to notice until this moment how soaked through he is, and now he decides to turn back.
A little break in the text--a larger space between the paragraphs--alerts us to the flashback. If we were watching a movie, we'd see Gene as a young man in his early 30s standing by the riverbank, wearing a raincoat and a broad-brimmed hat, looking up at this special tree with a wistful and knowing smile on his face. Perhaps he'd nod slowly in understanding. Then there'd be a slow fade-out and fade-in, and now we'd be seeing Gene as a boy of 16, standing on the same spot, looking up at the same special tree--only now he is accompanied by several pals.
The story moves back in time. It is now the summer of 1942. We are about to get some clues to the mystery of the tree at Devon and what happened there.
With Gene by the tree is his roommate and best friend, Phineas. As we come to know Gene better, we'll discover he's a shy, introspective boy, the kind who doesn't have a very high opinion of himself. Phineas is just the opposite. We are told right away that his voice is "the equivalent in sound of a hypnotist's eyes," that his green eyes have "a maniac look," that his wide mouth is often twisted into a "smirk."
NOTE: Friendships can come about just as often between people who don't seem to have anything in common as between people who seem to enjoy and care about many of the same things. The comradeship of Gene and Phineas, or Finny, is based on opposites. Keep this in mind as you watch their relationship grow.
Finny challenges Gene and the other three boys, Elwin Lepellier ("Leper"), Chet Douglass, and Bobby Zane, to climb the tree, step out onto the overhanging limb, and leap into the river. Senior class boys do this all the time; Finny wants to break tradition by doing it a few months early.
He jumps, and we discover his daring, his need to create tests for himself and others to rise to meet. Finny is Gene's hero, and he quickly becomes ours. He's cut from different cloth than the rest of us; in a way, he's superhuman.
Gene follows Finny's lead, plunging frightened into the cold waters, as he will do time and again as the story progresses. Why does he act against his true nature in this way? Because he wants so much to please Finny? Because Finny has "some kind of hold" over him? Because Finny "shamed" him into it? The other boys make excuses and back off. Their not jumping, their not taking risks or breaking rules, draws Finny and Gene even closer together.
As the boys head toward the dormitories on that warm summer evening in wartime (the war itself has not yet touched their lives), Gene and Finny become involved in their own personal combat. When Finny trips Gene, he shows he has to keep the upper hand until Gene in turn trips Finny--then Finny is "definitely pleased." They thrive on competition that lies always beneath the surface, where it must be in any deep friendship.
^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: 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.
^^^^^^^^^^A SEPARATE PEACE: 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.
Gene is overwhelmed by the glamour, the "absolute schoolboy glamour" of what has happened.
NOTE: It's worth asking ourselves, in the aftermath of this dramatic episode, whether Finny performed this act of bravado because he wanted to impress Gene, too. Maybe all his wondrous feats are Finny's way of reaching out to Ge