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Barron's Booknotes-A Separate Peace by John Knowles

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CHAPTER 13

Senior year draws to a somber close. The war comes full-fledged into Devon in the person of troops from Parachute Riggers' school, who take over the Far Common.

Finny's death draws Brinker and Gene closer together. It makes sense; Finny had been like a buffer zone, a barrier between the two boys. Brinker did what he had to do, in the spirit of partial ignorance and irresponsibility, and we have a hard time blaming him now. The two are drawn together on common ground as survivors, without Leper, without Finny.

Brinker's father, visiting the campus, represents the old guard, an earlier generation that has already fought its war and now looks forward with gung ho enthusiasm to seeing the new wave take over. "Times change, and wars change. But men don't change, do they?" Mr. Hadley asks. Apparently they do, for Gene and Brinker have no intention of being engaged in what Mr. Hadley calls "the real fighting" if they can help it. Gene is off to the Navy in Pensacola, Brinker to the Coast Guard.



Brinker's focus on the war is narrower than Gene's. He sees it as one generation's bad legacy to the next, handed down through history, a contagious epidemic to be suffered by mankind forever. Brinker feels victimized by his father's generation and the mistakes they made, which will force Brinker and his friends to disrupt their lives for no apparent good reason.

Gene, however, has a far more intimate and philosophical perspective, as we have come to expect of him. "Wars were made instead," Gene tells us, not Brinker, who would probably not understand, "by something ignorant in the human heart." As usual, Gene finds the middle ground between Finny's sense of absurdity or fantasy and Brinker's extreme realism. Gene is the compromiser. That's why he is the character narrating the story and walking the delicate tightrope.

Finny, always on Gene's mind, in death as he was in life, is Gene's touchstone, the standard by which he measures everyone and everything. Finny is his ideal, to such an extent that although Gene admires Finny so highly, we've never believed he could become all that much like him. Perhaps the trait in Gene that Finny came to admire in the end was his sheer individuality.

Gene's humility endears him to us. He has found a way to present a fully fleshed portrait of Finny as a hero, a portrait so well drawn that his greatness stays with us long after we have closed the book.

NOTE: Reflect on the differences between the Gene we met at the beginning of the novel and the Gene we're listening to now, in the aftermath of Finny's death. He has changed. His constant exposure to Finny, the ordeal of having had to work out a way of communicating with him, has drawn him out. We admired Finny from the outset; now, in the end, we admire Gene for having the self-knowledge to benefit so deeply from Finny's presence.

"My schooling was over now," the solitary Gene tells us as he winds his way through Devon, cleaning out his locker (we think of Finny whenever sports enter the picture) and then aimlessly following the troops on to the playing fields to watch their calisthenics from a safe distance. By "schooling," we know, he means far more than academic subjects and book learning. Gene is "ready for the war" because, ironically, he has nothing to fight for; he is not concerned with such abstractions as freedom, justice, and the American way of life. This is not to say that the will to struggle and survive has gone out of him, but that he has already made his personal gesture of anger toward the world-on that day a year ago-when he jounced the tree limb. And his gesture was just as absurd as one nation's pitting itself against another and sacrificing the lives of young men in the process.

Gene seems to be trying to work out in his mind what it was ultimately that was Finny's distinguishing characteristic. What was it that made him different from everyone else? Perhaps it was his utter lack of defensiveness, his supreme faith, that prevented him from ever hating anyone. Finny was never consciously on the lookout for himself, he seemed to know he was exempt from harm-except for that one inexplicable action by someone he trusted. Is it a failing to believe you are somehow protected from experience? Does this trait go against the grain of human nature to such a degree that it cannot be allowed to persist in someone's character?

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