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Barron's Booknotes-A Separate Peace by John Knowles

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Brinker says he wants to "get all this out in the open." But is it necessary now to lay bare the truth about Finny's fall? Think of all the healing that's occurred since last summer. Time and friendship have patched over the error of a moment. Finny and Gene's program of mutual help has succeeded beautifully.

Brinker is not satisfied. He is jealous and he feels left out of their privileged mutual admiration society. Perhaps Brinker views Finny as the usurper of his rightful place as class leader-as if there weren't room for two leaders with different abilities. But it's too late to turn back now.

Finny is genuinely mystified and angry; Gene dreads what may happen if the true circumstances are dredged up. Sometimes it's better to let things lie, to move on with a positive attitude.



Brinker is the main inquisitor. Backed up by his shrouded classmates on stage, he questions Finny. "Someone else was in the tree, isn't that so?" "No," Finny responds, "I don't think so." It shouldn't matter any more, we tell ourselves as we read on nervously. What matters is that circumstances were moving toward a happy ending until this nighttime ordeal.

Some unnamed force requires that Finny face the truth and accept its consequences, that Finny and Gene not be permitted to escape. "You were down at the bottom, weren't you?" Finny asks his friend, turning to him with a sincere tone of having forgotten-perhaps because he wanted to.

Ambiguities multiply. The room is dark. Voices are hard to hear in the echoing acoustics. Memory plays odd tricks. Brinker keeps to his line. Finny clears the cobwebs from his mind as he prattles on, telling the story as it comes clearer and clearer: "and then the two of us started to climb...."

The assembled boys are stopped in their tracks; they can go no further because no one can corroborate what Finny and Gene are struggling to articulate. Then Finny breaks the impasse by divulging the fateful secret: Leper, one of the witnesses to the accident, is now on campus.

NOTE: Is Finny beginning to see the light and thirsting to learn the truth, or has he decided he must confront his destiny no matter what the cost? It would be out of character for him to do otherwise. He has always been pure, forging his own path regardless of the crowd, on his own without a care for the opinions of others.

The boys can't seem to make up their minds whether the trial proceedings are serious or in jest. As soon as emissaries have been sent to find Leper, the atmosphere breaks down into self-conscious horseplay. The question becomes one of how many rules can be broken in one night; but the wheel of fortune has been set in motion.

NOTE: In a Greek tragedy-which this story has come to resemble strongly-with the hero still unaware that his deadly path is carrying him near his inevitable fate, Leper's role would be that of deus ex machina, an outside force that arrives to precipitate the final course of action.

At last Leper has his moment in the spotlight. An outcast for so long, laughed at by his peers, never taken seriously, he returns to Devon to wreak havoc and gain his revenge. "He looked unusually well," Gene observes, "his face was glowing, his eyes were bright, his manner was all energy." Leper holds the cards. He has a perverse purpose, and because he is "deranged" he feels no hesitation about turning against Gene, who we remember was once Leper's only ally, who visited him in his time of need, and who now must twist and turn in his moment of truth.

Leper plunges into a step-by-step description of what took place on the limb overhanging the river. It seems an eternity ago; so much has happened since then, so much has changed for everyone in the drama. "They moved like an engine," Leper says, describing Gene and Finny on the branch. "First one piston sinks, and then the next one sinks. The one holding on to the trunk sank for a second, up and down like a piston, and then the other one sank and fell."

How appropriate this description is to describe the way Gene and Finny have interreacted with each other, like two pistons in a machine, neither one able to operate alone, the energy of one by turns driving and feeding upon the other, back and forth and up and down. Gene, responsible for Finny's fall and unable to cope with this knowledge, has likewise been instrumental in Finny's buildup. Finny, by virtue of his unique superiority, has been responsible for Gene's self-effacing behavior, and likewise he has taken charge of Gene's athletic training.

Leper tantalizes Brinker by refusing to go on with the story. He and the ringleader engage in one more schoolboy power struggle, still seeming to be unaware of the larger consequences of their actions. Then Finny suddenly and surprisingly withdraws: "I just don't care. Never mind," he says, crying, "shocked into awareness" by a flash of truth he would just as soon not have had. Finny's "separate peace" shattered, his eyes clouded by tears, he rushes from the hall, trips, and tumbles down the flight of marble stairs.

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Barron's Booknotes-A Separate Peace by John Knowles
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