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Barron's Booknotes-A Separate Peace by John Knowles

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CHAPTER 4

Notice the vocabulary Gene uses to describe Finny sleeping on the beach the next morning as dawn breaks: "he looked more dead than asleep... gray waves hissing mordantly... gray and dead-looking... the beach... became a spectral gray-white... Phineas... made me think of Lazarus." John Knowles likes to set a mood by painting a background portrait of nature's face.

Sometimes mood is as simple as our feeling cheerful on a sunny day or mournful on a cloudy one. Sometimes it's as obvious as the womblike effect of the old and comforting Devon School buildings, whose walls insulate the boys from the outside. This time Knowles makes us feel a sense of foreboding, only to end it suddenly when Gene remembers an obligation closer at hand: his trigonometry test.

Finny insists on one more swim, their bicycle ride back to school wears Gene out, Gene can't think straight and flunks the test-all because of Finny. Blitzball follows, then the required evening leap from the tree over the river, then it's back to studying.



As the two boys sit opposite each other in their room, their heads bent over books in a pool of light, we note yet another important difference between them. All along Finny has conceived of Gene as a natural scholar certain to graduate at the head of their class, paralleling Finny's natural ability as the top athlete. In Gene's increasingly confused mind, however, he thinks of his intellectual prowess as a threat to Finny's superiority. Gene convinces himself that Finny is plotting to disrupt his concentration. Was the trip to the beach a part of some grand scheme to interrupt Gene's studies again and again with an unending series of diversions and games? "If I was the head of the class on Graduation Day and... won [the scholarship award], then... we would be even." This is a turning point for Gene, a revelation that transforms in an instant his perception of their friendship.

Gene's fearful thoughts run wild, and he fights to keep a calm exterior even as the whole structure of their relationship crumbles in his mind. Gene convinces himself that Finny could never stand the thought of the two of them coming out "even," the one in sports and the other in studies. He convinces himself in moments that he and Finny are the very opposite of friends, that they are bitter rivals to the finish, each out for himself alone. "You did hate him for breaking that school swimming record, but so what? He hated you for getting an A in every course but one last term. You would have had an A in that one except for him. Except for him."

The dark thoughts fall like hail. All the doubt and resentment Gene has been suppressing for so long break free to discolor memories of bright summer days passed in innocent play. Suddenly it appears to Gene that their games were all part of Finny's master plan to bring about Gene's downfall: "It was all cold trickery, it was all calculated, it was all enmity."

NOTE: Gene's revelations force us to look back and reexamine everything that's happened between the two boys thus far. Can we agree with Gene's interpretation, or is he making it up out of desperation, as a means of escaping Finny's grasp? Is Finny really a devil rather than a saint, a demon rather than an inspiration to all who come in contact with him? Is it fair for Gene to blame Finny's basic strength of character for his own lack of certainty and strength? Can Gene's resolute reversal hold sway for the rest of the story, or is it merely a passing phase, though a dangerous one, on the road of a good friendship that will have its ups and downs but will ultimately, if it is a true friendship, survive adversity?

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Barron's Booknotes-A Separate Peace by John Knowles
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