Complete Chapter Summaries for "A Separate Peace" by John Knowles: A Study Guide

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Chapter One

In chapter 1, Gene talks about the changes he has been through in his lifetime. When he was a student, he felt fear all the time; ghosts walked the stairs with him. Now, as an adult, he sees that he has broken free of that fear, but there are still things about his life at the Devon School that he is afraid to remember.

Gene says that The Devon School was very academic and very athletic. Its emphasis on decorative architecture shows that it wanted to be impressive. Its location in New England suggests wealth (like Ivy League universities do). Its emphasis on sports shows that it wants to create well-rounded, physically fit students. Also, it appears they are training the boys to become good soldiers.

Foreshadowing abounds in this chapter. Examples can be found in Gene’s description of the fear he felt at school; the “crucial fact” that the stairs are very hard; the change the school has undergone and Gene’s hope for his own transformation; his reference to a violent death after visiting the tree; and the implication of Phineas’s influence over Gene.

Consider the effects of the War on the events and characters in this novel. You should understand the background of the war in order to understand how the boys feel throughout most of the book. The seniors at Devon took rigorous courses in first aid and physical fitness; even the simple, playful act of jumping off the tree is preparation for future jumps out of aircraft.

The relationship between Gene and Finny is just beginning to show its significance in this chapter. Gene looks up to Phineas in many ways. Phineas is just a little bit bigger, stronger, and wittier than Gene. There are several references to this throughout the chapter.

Chapter Two

Notice Finny’s relationship with adults in this chapter. Finny wants the teachers to treat him as an equal; he wants them to be friendly toward him, and he doesn’t want to feel like he’s under their authority.

Finny’s personality begins to shine here. He has charm, wit, and a ready-made excuse for everything. His answers are always smart as well as entertaining, and they can hardly discipline him because they’re so busy laughing at him or shaking their heads in disbelief.

Notice how Devon during the summer is a different place than it will be when fall returns. The teachers are less strict during the summer; they see the boys as the embodiment of peace which has become a rare commodity in the world at that time.

In this chapter, you should be able to see the resentment brewing in Gene. He wants to believe that even Finny isn’t perfect, or above the law. He is jealous of Finny’s ability to get out of everything.

Consider the act of jumping out of the tree. Why do you think the boys are so intent on defying death by forming this suicide society at this time in their lives?

Chapter Three

Finny wants to make his own rules instead of living by the rules of others. He enjoys being in control, taking the lead, etc. He does this with Blitzball, with the school rules/dress code, the trips to the beach, etc. Gene, on the other hand, doesn’t like it when Finny is in charge. He feels like he’s always in Finny’s shadow, and like he will never live up to Finny’s reputation. He goes to the society meetings, though, because if Finny wasn’t his best friend he would lose his identity.

Sports are very important to Finny. Overall, Finny has a positive outlook on life. He likes sports because they are recreational, fun, and they have clear rules. He likes the aspect of sportsmanship, the element of leadership on a team, the camaraderie. He feels badminton takes away most of that, and also that there isn’t as much physical skill involved because it’s not a contact sport like the ones he normally plays. Blitzball is the perfect sport for Finny because he makes up the rules, and he is completely in charge while others are at his mercy. He gets to show off his best skills and outshine the other guys, while exercising his creative juices.

In this chapter, Finny breaks a school record for swimming, with Gene as his only witness. Why doesn’t he want Gene to tell anyone about his accomplishment? It could be he is only showing off for Gene, or that he doesn’t want to have to repeat the act in case he can’t break the record again in front of a real audience. Or maybe he just wanted to know he could do it, and he doesn’t care if anybody else knows. Consider here what you think Finny’s motivation is, and also how Gene reacts to this situation.

Toward the end of the chapter, Finny opens himself up to Gene and admits that Gene is his best friend. The Devon School is an all-boys’ establishment during a time when “men didn’t cry.” To show emotion was to be too feminine in a time when men had to be strong and defend the nation. Gene is either too ashamed to be as brave as Finny and acknowledge their friendship in return, or he has begun to realize that his resentment of Phineas overshadows his feelings of friendship.

Chapter Four

In this chapter, Gene refers to Finny as Lazarus. This Biblical allusion could be a sign that Finny will die (to be coupled with the idea of him looking dead in the beginning of the chapter), or that he is able to come back from tragedy.

Finny seems to think that Gene is too stuck-up and studious, and it’s his job as Gene’s best friend to make sure Gene has fun sometimes. This is the cause of a lot of conflict for Gene, who doesn’t understand why Finny keeps trying to take him away from his studies.

In this chapter, Gene has begun to recognize the hatred that fills him. He cannot even enjoy fun days because he’s so consumed with hating Finny, and he can’t let himself have fun when he believes Finny hates him, too. He works very hard to convince himself in this chapter that Finny is just as devious and hateful inside as he is. He makes several attempts to get the upper hand over Finny wherever possible.

Chapter Five

The teachers have a particularly hard time dealing with Finny’s injury. It is hard on them because they know the dangers in the adult world waiting for these kids, and it seems really unfair that a young man who still has some freedom left would lose it like that.

In chapter five Gene wants to fully embody Phineas, now that he has gotten rid of him. It makes him feel like he can be Finny, and that he won’t ever have to worry about being himself again.

Gene realizes that he wanted Finny to fall, just to prove Finny wasn’t perfect. But he never meant for Finny’s life to be ruined. Gene is devastated, while Finny remains positive. It is similar to the way they always look at life; Gene the pessimist and Finny the optimist. This could be due in part to the fact that Finny believes the whole thing was an accident, whereas Gene knows it was intentional.

Gene confesses the truth to Finny in this chapter. At first, Finny doesn’t believe Gene. Then he starts to yell at Gene to go away, not wanting Gene to mess with him anymore. It’s like he doesn’t know whether to believe the truth, or to believe that Gene is lying to him; both outcomes are bad for Finny.

Back at school, Gene reverts to his old self. Now that Finny is gone, Gene won’t have his influence. He will do everything “by the book” because he is too cowardly to do anything else on his own. But he still wants Finny to believe that he can be the kind of guy who would break rules and have fun, like Finny always was.

Chapter Six

The maid service is gone at Devon this year so the school can make cut-backs in order to support the war efforts. “For the duration” was a phrase used to mean that it would be that way until the war was over. Other changes show through at Devon as well. The rules are stricter, the teachers have all returned, chapel services resume daily, the regular students/class leaders have all come back to resume their leadership of the school. Gene feels nostalgic, wishing for summer to come back.

The two rivers are very symbolic in this chapter. One is positive, one is negative; one clean and rambling, the other filthy and stagnant. It represents the two sides of Gene’s experience at Devon, or even the two sides of his personality.

Gene won’t play any sports any more. He feels too guilty to play them; since Finny can’t enjoy sports any more, he shouldn’t either. He ends up doing the crew job to avoid this, and that leads him to conflict and the realization that he has allowed his anger toward Finny to consume the last days of youth and freedom he might have had.

At times, Gene starts to behave like Finny again. He has always felt like he had to live up to Finny’s image, but now he can just absorb himself into Finny’s persona and stop worrying about being himself.

Vocabulary Review

The following terms will be essential to your understanding of chapters 1-6:

a) tacit b) capaciousc) convalescence d) specters

e) ramshackle f) salient g) mire h) suitors i) artillery

j) grandeur k) drolll) prodigiousm) inveiglen) consternationo) galling

p) seigneurs q) deigning r) emblem s) inane

t) venerable u) catacombed v) perilous w) haphazard

x) dictates y) inevitably z) cordial aa) insidious bb) blitzkrieg

cc) inebriating dd) suppleness ee) effulgence ff) paganism gg) denuded

hh) curtly ii) haltingly jj) reverberating kk) denounce

ll) transfixed mm) decalogue nn) ludicrous oo) irresolutely

pp) reverie qq) erratic rr) navess) invalid

tt) stopgap uu) sultriness vv) apseww) exhorted

xx) idiosyncratic yy) emissary zz) exaltation aaa) infinitesimal

bbb) turbid ccc) sinecure ddd) maimed

Chapter Seven

Gene falls into the “dirty” river. Gene is at the point where he is reveling in his guilt, and in the negative thoughts he has been having. Now that Phineas is gone, the joy is gone from Gene’s life, so it’s only fitting that he gets into a fight AND gets thrown into the filthy river as punishment for what he has done.

Throughout the chapter, Gene is terrified of being found out, even though it is highly unlikely that anyone truly suspects anything.

Leper provides contrast to the other boys at the beginning of this chapter. Leper seems to be actively involved in living in the moment, while the rest of the boys are so anxious to move forward. He enjoys “stopping to smell the roses,” so to speak, while everyone else is training to be a soldier. He misses a lot of “important news” because he’s too busy enjoying nature and the world around him. The other boys don’t take too kindly to his attitude. Essentially, they mock him for not being patriotic enough. They claim that he is an enemy of the state just because he wants to get his education before he enlists. Nowadays, soldiers have to finish high school before they can enlist; or at least they have to pass the GRE. But back then, to hold back was to show cowardice.

When they actually see soldiers going off on a train toward the war effort, the Devon students realize that all they’ve been doing up until that point has been futile. They can pretend they’re training, but the men in uniform are the ones who are really doing something for the war. It makes them feel like they’re just little boys again, surrounded by “real men” who are ready to fight. It puts a face on the war for them.

Gene is driven to enlist by the incident at the train yard, as well as by Brinker’s confession that he is ready to enlist. Gene wants to join the war, where the dangers will be real and not just in his head. He wants to make a solid decision to do something, rather than waiting to be told (enlisting now vs. being drafted later). He sees the war as an inevitable part of his future, and he would rather face it head-on than wait for it to come to him. Gene wants to defend the freedom he enjoyed that summer at Devon. He wants to protect his country and the freedom he has felt there.

Finny’s return changes Gene’s persona. During this chapter, he has made his own decisions. He chose to punch Quackenbush; he chose to help with the snow shoveling; he chose to enlist. Now that Finny is back, he realizes that he will go back to deferring to Finny for all of his choices.

Chapter Eight

When Finny returns, Gene feels conflicted because of Finny’s attitude toward the war. Gene has begun to take on the unselfish attitude expected during the war, but Finny is still selfish; this makes Gene feel that Finny isn’t being patriotic enough. Finny represents that unknown/fantasy element that encompasses prayer, dreams, games, and goals of winning the Olympics. This stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the world that Gene knows.

Finny needs Gene to be with him. Partially, he needs Gene’s help to maneuver physically; also, if Gene weren’t there, Finny would lose his audience and his biggest fan. Finny truly seems to feel that he and Gene are best friends, and that Gene is the one person who gets him. Gene decides not to enlist after Finny returns to Devon. He feels too guilty to leave Finny; also, the war seems less important now that Finny is back with him.

Finny symbolically represents that peace that Gene felt in the summer; the peace of being free and young, for a few more precious months. Yet we notice in this chapter that Finny’s strength isn’t what it used to be. Periodically, Finny pauses while walking to gather strength, but he pretends to be thinking about something or looking at something instead.

Finny refuses to believe in the reality of the war. He says that there is no war, but it’s just a farce created by fat old men to keep the younger, fitter men in check. Finny needs to have a lofty, unrealistic goal in mind to keep his spirits high. This is why he intends to train Gene for the Olympics. Gene thinks it’s ridiculous at first; but as he always does, he gives in to Finny’s needs over his own rational thoughts.

Chapter Nine

Gene is still having fun at Devon, so it’s hard for him to see through that enjoyment to the horrors of the war outside Devon’s walls. Leper’s enlistment helps to keep the war close to home and also far away. Leper isn’t a typical soldier; his enlistment seems like it really MUST be a fake war, because no real war would ever get Leper to join it.

Saying you were going to enlist was the cool thing to do during that time; it made you sound like a patriot and a courageous soldier. But in reality, very few had the courage of their convictions so they never actually enlisted. The rest of them turn Leper into the face of the war. Whenever they talk about major battles or victories, they pretend that Leper was at the front lines through all of it.

Phineas wants to continue to pretend that the war isn’t happening, and he wants Gene to do it too. He doesn’t want Gene to hang out in the Butt Room, where all they ever talk about is the war. Finny wants to hold a winter carnival; he is able to con his way into it the way he cons everything else. Brinker has gotten bitter and turned into a rebel, so he is attracted by the rule-breaking elements of the carnival. The carnival is a brief moment of happiness in the midst of a war; it is an example of the kind of freedom and peace the boys were able to maintain just before growing into the adult world and joining up with the horrors of war.

Leper’s telegram ends the fun. His abandonment of the war breaks down all their previous theories of his heroism. Just like with every other bit of enjoyment during that time, the war found its way in and took away the peace.

Chapter Ten

Gene gives us a little look into the future in this chapter when he explains his own eventual involvement with the war. When Gene finally entered the war it was after the bomb was dropped, and at that point there wasn’t much action left. So he was lucky not to have to be in the thick of the fighting. He was just young enough not to enter the war until after the majority of the fighting was over. There wasn’t much left to do by the time he enlisted.

Leper represents the future for all of them. He went where they will have to go one day (the war). So they all want to believe that things will work out for Leper; because if they work out for Leper, they’ll work out for everyone else, too. Gene wants to believe that Leper was captured by spies and escaped from the enemy captivity rather than escaping, or defecting, from his own Army. It is hard for Leper to be home, to acknowledge that he has left the responsibility of the war and his role in it. The living room in his mother’s house is a place to sit around and think, with nothing to do but face up to what has happened. The dining room is a useful room where you can expect three meals a day, so it is easier for him to sit there and wait for the next meal than to sit somewhere else and face the reality of his situation. Leper used to be one to let life pass him by, content with his own little pleasures. Now, he has become an active participant, an angry and bitter ex-soldier who has been changed by his military experience.

Gene’s visit with Leper shakes him. Leper presents a possible glimpse into Gene’s own future. He can see how Leper’s moments of insanity mirrored his own moments of hatred toward Finny, the incident in the tree, etc. Also, if Leper is a shadow of what Gene might become, he doesn’t want to face the full reality of that situation yet.

Chapter Eleven

In this chapter, Brinker takes on a tough-love attitude toward Finny. Brinker has forced Finny to realize that he can’t be part of the war. His leg injury will never let him enlist. Once this happens, it becomes clear by the look on Finny’s face that he isn’t going to keep up the charade of the fake war any longer. Brinker thinks that everyone tiptoes around the issue of Finny’s leg, and tries to hide the truth. But he believes that Finny needs to face reality and move forward, finding out how to live with a bum leg rather than pretending he won’t have to.

When Finny realizes that Leper really has gone crazy, he understands that only a real war could make a real person change like that.

The Devon motto is, Here Boys Come to Be Made Men. Throughout the novel, the boys do a lot of growing up. This happens through the incident in the tree, Finny’s other fall and death, Leper’s enlistment and defection, and the reality of the war that invades their lives slowly but surely as the novel wears on.

Brinker says that they need to find out the truth of the situation at the tree because a soldier in their class has been taken out of the war before he even got a chance. He acts as if it is their patriotic duty to find out how this has happened. He also mentions that bringing out the truth will be the best thing for Finny, and for Gene. Finny knows that Leper’s appearance will finalize the truth of the situation; that Leper will tell everyone that Gene caused Finny to fall. Finny doesn’t want to hurt Gene, even now, but he also wants to know the truth and he can’t seem to stop the proceedings from snowballing where they will go.

After Finny really comes to understand the truth, he can’t stand to be there any longer. His best friend has betrayed him; this is deeper than any other emotion he has had to face. He can’t face his loss there, in front of all of the witnesses; he has to leave. He is angry with Brinker for forcing him to deal with this reality.

Chapter Twelve

Gene desperately wants to do something to help after Finny falls down the stairs. It would have made him feel better, would have soothed his guilt, if he could help Finny recover from the fall. But he doesn’t do it because he’s afraid Finny will scream at him in front of all the other people there.

Gene is devastated by Finny’s re-injury. Gene has always looked up to Finny, as someone who was inherently good. Finny is supposed to be the one supporting everyone else, not needing support.

Gene sees now that he just watched the world go by, copying the movements of others but never truly living it like he should have, like Finny wanted him to.

Gene tries to play off the incident at the tree, to help himself feel less guilty over the situation. He says that his indiscretion pales in comparison to the major violence in the war. He tries to use the war to make his own violent act less significant.

Finny finally explains his reason for inventing his war conspiracy theory. He wanted desperately to be able to enlist, but since he couldn’t do it, he wanted to pretend that there wasn’t a war. If there wasn’t a war, then it wouldn’t be leaving him behind. Gene feels that Finny wouldn’t have made a good soldier anyway. Finny is too good to go off and kill people. He is too independent to follow orders. Too special to be one of a million.

Gene doesn’t cry when he hears that Finny has died on the operating table. He feels like Finny’s death is like his own, and you aren’t supposed to cry when you die.

Chapter Thirteen

Brinker’s father represents the ideas of the adult world. Mr. Hadley thinks they should jump head-first into the fighting, whereas Brinker and Gene want to hold back and avoid the big battles. He comes from an earlier generation where it was more important to join the fighting and have war stories to tell than it was to live through the war without serious injuries.

Happiness has been replaced with high morale in this chapter. The difference is that happiness comes from a good feeling, whereas high morale means you try to make yourself feel good despite a bad situation.

Gene still tries to use Finny’s perspective on life as he looks at the world around him; Finny has finally helped him to see the world as Finny always did. Gene says that his hatred for the war died with Finny; Finny took that from him so he won’t have to feel it any longer. This is what finally enables him to make the decision to enlist in the war.

Vocabulary Review

These vocabulary terms will be essential to your understanding of chapters 7-13:

a) derision b) genial c) impinge d) insinuate

e) rank f) treachery g) fratricide h) sanctity i) eluding

j) burlesque k) opulent l) reticent m) gait

n) aphorism o) sententiousness p) indivisible q) vagaries

r) multifariously s) disillusioned t) browbeaten u) cacophony v) vitality

w) eunuch x) infantile y) deluded z) torpidly aa) assent

bb) incarnate cc) pontiff dd) thronging ee) impervious

ff) laden gg) parody hh) saltpeter ii) pungent jj) benefactress

kk) bellicose ll) cogitation mm) cordial nn) portliness

oo) emphatically pp) qualms qq) Maginot Lines