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Barron's Booknotes-A Separate Peace by John Knowles

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CHAPTER 8

Finny is overjoyed to see Gene again, desperate to get back into the school routine and pretend nothing unusual has happened. Perhaps Gene's friendship means more to Finny than he thought-more than any of us thought. Sometimes it takes a prolonged absence from another person to permit one to appreciate that person with greater insight.

Finny watches with affection as Gene undresses. Gene revels in the spotlight of Finny's unbroken attention. That night Gene says his prayers with exceptional care. What do you suppose he is praying and wishing for? What is he thankful for? Notice Finny's vitality despite his invalid condition: "He was sitting up in bed" the next morning, "as though ready to spring out of it, totally and energetically awake." Yet he reveals his new dependence on Gene when he says, "Hand me my crutches, will you?"



NOTE: Gene is more conscious of Finny's disability than Finny is. We've talked about Gene's guilt; he has taken on quite a burden. Despite his joy at Finny's return, he still must cope with his abiding memories of the accident, and he's reminded of it every time he looks at Finny.

Suddenly Brinker bursts into the room. The last time he'd seen Gene, in the aftermath of the snow shoveling, the two of them had resolved to enlist together. Now, with Finny's return, Gene's plans waver. Because Brinker is an impulsive person, he tends to barrel ahead with whatever's on his mind, without a care for obstructions. He has convinced himself that Gene conspired to get rid of Finny, and now he sneers that the "plot" has failed.

Finny is mystified; an embarrassed Gene tries to clear the air by explaining away and shrugging off his resolution of the previous night. With his support dwindling, Brinker too is relieved to back away from the plan to enlist.

At the core of their being, these boys fear the war. Wouldn't you? They grapple with it as a concept they don't quite understand. Seeing a group of young men, like them, packed into troop trains, and cheering them on, is by no means the same as being one of those young men on a train headed for an unknown destination.

The best-laid plans are dissipated in an instant as Brinker, Gene, and Finny indulge in early morning schoolboy horseplay. Gene has a revelation, one that springs forth out of a growing instinct: "Phineas was shocked at the idea of my leaving. In some way he needed me.... He wanted
me around. The war then passed away from me, and dreams of enlistment and escape and a clean start lost their meaning for me."

Can we place Finny and all he represents in direct opposition to the war and all it represents in Gene's mind?

So Gene retreats into the sanctuary of Finny's friendship. The accident has brought the two boys even more closely together.

NOTE: As we read of Gene's newfound peace of mind, we wonder how much he may have been searching for a way to cut down the competitive tension he had felt during the summer, and whether he thought the only way to reduce that tension was to bring Finny down to a less forbidding stature. As for Finny, we wonder whether he has ever been aware of himself as a threat to Gene simply by virtue of his prowess and natural skill. The story is fascinating because the more we read forward, the more we need to think back, to reevaluate past events in the light of new discoveries.

Gene begins to care more for Finny, to serve as his guide, trailblazer, and vigilant companion. Earlier, Gene had said he felt like he was "part of" Finny. His friend's infirmity is his, too; as they walk from building to building, Gene is painfully aware of the traps and pitfalls that wait for a person who can't completely control his movements. And every movement of Finny's reminds Gene of the way his friend used to be, how graceful and easy his steps once were, not so long ago, when he moved "in continuous flowing balance."

Finny's stride may have changed, but his old instinct for disrupting routines obviously has not. By appearing at school he has already broken Gene's resolution. Now, on the wintry afternoon of his first day back, he suggests they cut class and go to the gym, the temple of sports, Finny's ideal then and now.

On the walk to the gym Gene sees how Finny pushes beyond his limits, suffering with every step, determined not to reveal his pain. Here is yet another reminder that there's a difference between how we see ourselves and how others see us-a theme of central importance to this story. This is a time in life when we're very concerned about our own self-image, and that's just as important for Finny as it is for anyone else. But Gene penetrates Finny's facade because the boys are so much closer now. He sees Finny's weakness because his friend is "a poor deceiver, having had no practice."

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Barron's Booknotes-A Separate Peace by John Knowles
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