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Barron's Booknotes-A Separate Peace by John Knowles

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It's interesting to see how Gene, remaining true to Finny's rule about always winning at sports, converts his gloomy interpretation into a positive path for himself. Once he decides to accept in his own mind that he and Finny are "deadly rivals," he plunges into his studies with new vigor. Once again Finny has inspired Gene to action. Isn't this ironic?

Gene takes on the same spirit of dedicated competition that Finny lives and breathes by-with one important difference: Gene's competitive edge is sharpened by his need to attack Finny.

Gene is a confused young man. On the one hand, as summer deepens, he becomes excited by his newfound power. On the other hand, he frightens himself with his newfound hatred for Finny, especially when, caught up in the day-to-day pleasures of school life, he forgets how he is supposed to feel about his "friend." We wonder how clearly Gene has decided how he feels about Finny. He will tell us confidently, "it didn't matter whether he showed me up at the tree or not," and then he'll become all worked up when Finny tries to distract him from his studies. It's not easy just to love or just to hate another person. For Gene it's not a black-and-white situation. There are more gray areas than he would like to admit, and they cloud the words that pass between the two.



The pressure mounts with each passing day. Exam time approaches-Gene's opportunity to establish his superiority once and for all. But it's so often the case that the harder we try to learn from books, the more intensely we focus on the page, the harder it is to absorb the information we find there. Finny, who knows his friend, remarks that he is pushing too hard instead of relying on his natural intelligence.

One fateful evening, in the middle of Gene's study session for a French exam, Finny interrupts to announce that "Leper" Lepellier intends to make his first leap from the tree. As a founding member of the Suicide Society, Gene's presence is required. That is the last straw! Gene is on the brink of accusing Finny of distracting him from his work so that he'll ruin his grade, but once again there's a gulf between his inner suspicions and the words he speaks: "Never mind," Gene says, giving in to his friend's guileless questioning, "forget it. I know, I joined the club, I'm going. What else can I do?"

NOTE: Read this important conversation between the two boys closely, and you'll find it difficult at first to decide whether or not Finny is being manipulative. Is he trying to bend Gene to his will by acting as though he doesn't really care whether Gene comes along? Is he pretending when he confesses he didn't realize his friend ever needed to study? It's hard for us to tell where Finny stands because we're witnessing the scene through Gene's eyes, seeing only his version of the encounter.

Gene agrees to go. Perhaps he didn't really feel like studying and was only looking for an excuse to close the book. (All of us have had that impulse at times!) Perhaps, as he thinks on his way across the fields, "there never was and never could have been any rivalry between us" because Finny cannot be measured against any ordinary person. Finny is a superman. Has Gene's failing all along been his alliance, at this sensitive and vulnerable time in his life, with a person who by his very excellence makes anyone else seem small and insignificant in comparison? Or is the author trying to warn in general of the danger of comparing ourselves to others, whoever they may be?

The boys reach the tree, and Finny suggests he and Gene make the leap together, "side by side." As far as he is concerned, they are equals; he accepts Gene on the same footing, and they should now demonstrate their faith and trust in each other by taking the ultimate dare together. This could be the moment when Gene establishes-before the audience of boys gathered on the riverbank-a kind of equality with Finny.

NOTE: Gene, standing high above the ground, may not be aware how many streams of doubt, fear, and hope are now coming together. We readers sense that he is at a turning point, and we wonder whether he has the strength to make a decision on his own. Can he go along with Finny's initiative, accept his friend at face value without doubting his motivations, and, most important, try to understand himself a little better?

Instead Gene (intentionally, or not?) "jounced the limb," and "Finny, his balance gone... tumbled sideways, broke through the little branches below and hit the bank with a sickening, unnatural thud."

Gene, "with unthinking sureness," makes a fearless leap into the river, as if, for the first time, with the fall of Finny, all obstacles to his success have been removed.

From this point life will never be the same for anyone in the story; like a drama focused on the rise and fall of a heroic figure, A Separate Peace becomes a tragedy.

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Barron's Booknotes-A Separate Peace by John Knowles
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