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Barron's Booknotes-A Separate Peace by John Knowles

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CHAPTER 9

It is fitting that Leper Lepellier becomes the first boy to enlist, for "No real war could draw Leper voluntarily away from his snails and beaver dams," Gene says. The senior boys are solicited during the winter months by members of the armed forces recruitment teams, and of course Finny persists in joking about fabricated propaganda films that, he says, show "Finnish ski troops," not American combat skiers.

But Leper is drawn in. At last he has found a connection. He likes to ski; there's a need for skiers in the war. Before we know it Leper is gone, still several weeks shy of his 18th birthday.

Finny will not let Gene indulge in the remotest thoughts about the reality or nonreality of the war, even in the aftermath of Leper's enlistment, when the Butt Room is filled with gossip. Finny, engaged in an all-out campaign to deny war, drags Gene further and further away from accepting it and even from associating with the other boys. It's as if the "separate peace" Finny strives to create in every waking moment is meant for himself and Gene alone and can work only when the two of them are behind it 100 percent.



NOTE: All of us have experienced moments in a friendship when we feel that our best friend is the only person who truly understands. Finny is extending that faith to a much greater territory, and he wants Gene to share fully in his exclusive view of the way of the world-a world without war. Games of "let's pretend" are natural to childhood, unheard of in adulthood; Gene and Finny hang on to their games as long as possible because they know what it will mean when they are forced to abandon them.

Their desperate fight to keep childhood alive within themselves helps to explain Finny's invention of the Devon Winter Carnival. This is yet another distraction, one that comes as an inspiration on a bleary, gray Saturday in the aftermath of Leper's departure. It's Finny's way of distracting everyone from the encroaching threats of war, of protecting his pals by not allowing them time enough for reflection.

Finny discovers it's no longer as simple as it was in the days when his authority held sway. The other boys do not share Finny's ready ability to sink into fantasyland. Nevertheless they go along with him.

But Brinker, struggling to maintain his equilibrium, shows signs of giving in to the obsession of the war. "Who wants a Winter Carnival?" he asks. "What are we supposed to be celebrating?"

Bit by bit the darkening tenor of the times descends upon Devon. Were it not for Finny's indomitable spirit in fighting his private battle and never conceding its absurdity, the war would have taken a greater toll by now.

Boys will be boys. On the Saturday planned, everything is in place, including jugs of hard cider and a classroom table strewn with prizes: Finny's icebox, a dictionary, a set of barbells, a copy of the Iliad, a file of Betty Grable photographs, a lock of hair, a rope ladder, a forged draft card. Despite his seemingly passive position as he sits deep in thought behind the prize table, Finny is still in charge.

There is no set schedule for the carnival proceedings. Nobody knows exactly what to do or what is expected. "Twenty boys, tightly reined in all winter," are milling around, waiting for the go-ahead from their leader. Brinker has lost his bravado since Finny's return, and it is increasingly clear that Finny's presence creates difficulty for him, that in some sense he feels usurped. Brinker is paralyzed, probably because he doesn't really think the time is right for frivolity.

"What's next? Phineas!" Brinker cries out, in desperation as much as challenge. "You are," Finny finally replies, and, as if on signal, all the boys jump on Brinker. It's a revolution, a riot more than a carnival, a chance to let off the steam that has built up through frustration and powerlessness in the face of world events, day after day of reading newspapers and listening to the radio and wondering what is really going on in the world of "fat old men making decisions" about slender young men who are fighting and dying overseas.

With a gush of hard cider, Devon's First Annual Winter Carnival becomes not an organized schedule of competitive events but an all-out drunken brawl, Finny's "choreography of peace."

"It wasn't the cider which made me surpass myself," Gene tells us, "it was this liberation we had torn from the gray encroachments of 1943, the escape we had concocted, this afternoon of momentary, illusory, special and separate peace."

NOTE: Observe carefully Gene's choice of words. He knows how fragile and transient the atmosphere is, and he knows that his destiny approaches in the guise of a telegram from Leper that will bring home once more a war that simply will not let him ignore its foreboding presence.

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Barron's Booknotes-A Separate Peace by John Knowles
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