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CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
The novel is told from the first person point of view of Gene Forrester. He returns to Devon, the preparatory school that he attended fifteen years earlier, during World War II. He discovers that his school looks strangely newer, and he does not like the glossy new appearance that makes it seem like a museum. As Gene walks around the school campus, he recalls his fear when he was a student at Devon. He was particularly bothered by the First Building and a tree by the river, the two places that he has really come back to see.
After lunch at the Devon Inn, Gene walks towards the school in the rain crossing the wide yard called the "Far Commons". He approaches the First Academy Building and notices that it has not really changed. Then he walks towards the river, where a light fog hangs over the water. He searches for one particular tree, but has difficulty locating it. He finally finds it when he sees the small scars rising along its trunk and its one limb extending over the river. In contrast to the First Building, the tree has changed tremendously. It now seems dry and weary from age. He then thinks, "Nothing endures - not a tree, not love, not even a death by violence."
Gene then begins his flashback to his school days, when he was fifteen years old and an Upper Middler at Devon. He remembers how he, his friend Phineas (Finny), and other students had come down to this same tree. The brave, spontaneous, and athletic Finny suggests that they all jump into the water from the limb of the tree, a dangerous feat requiring that the jumper leap far out and away from the limb in order to land in the river. No one in their class had ever dared to make the jump. After making the suggestion, Finny quickly undresses, climbs the tree, steps out on the branch, and jumps into the water. When he emerges from the river, he says that the jump was the most fun that he has had all week. Not to be outdone, Gene then undresses, climbs the tree, and jumps into the water, feeling a great deal of fear. When the others refuse to follow them, Finny says to Gene, "It's just you and me." Through most of the remaining novel, it does seem to be just the two of them.
As they return towards the dormitory, Finny and Gene playfully wrestle for a while. Finny easily wins each time, since he is the best athlete in school. Their friends urge them to stop playing around, telling them to hurry so they will not get in trouble for being late to dinner. Gene deliberately delays and jumps on Finny for another bout of wrestling, for he has no interest in heeding the dinner bell. Finny joins in, not complaining about missing dinner. Back in their room, they study before going to bed.
From the first chapter of the book, it becomes apparent that the novel will be a story of initiation -- the attempt of an adolescent to come to grips with himself and his world. Gene Forrester, the narrator of the novel, returns to Devon, his high school alma mater, after fifteen years. He wants to reflect on his school days and to come to grips with two fearful places on and near campus: the First Building and a tree by the river.
As he begins his flashback to a time when he was sixteen years old, Gene's style is imaginative, as if he relishes those early teenage memories at Devon. He pictures his first weeks at Devon as carefree and fun, as seen in the river scene and the playful wrestling. As the book progresses, however, this style will dramatically change to a more hardened and realistic tone because of Gene's experiences and fears. By looking back, the adult Gene (the narrator) hopes to understand the significant influence that the fear has had upon his life.
Gene admits that he has come back to Devon to visit two places that he learned to fear while at Devon. One is the First Academy Building, where the investigation into Finny's accident was held. The second place is the tree beside the river, from which Finny had fallen and broken his leg. When Gene sees the tree again after fifteen years, he says, "It seemed to . . . resemble those men, the giants of your childhood whom you encounter years later and find that they are not merely smaller in relation to your growth but that they are absolutely smaller, shrunken by age." But the tree has also changed physically; it is now weary and feeble in appearance. The change in the tree becomes symbolic of the changes in Gene himself. He has learned that "nothing endures, not a tree, not love, not even a death by violence."
The most significant event in this first chapter and the beginning of the rising action is the jump from the tree. For Finny, it is an easy, fun, and exciting feat; for Gene, it is a terrifying experience. As he jumps, he has the feeling that he is throwing his life away. When he lands in the water, it is his baptism into a new life, away from the conformity and regulations of his old existence. Ironically, he is baptized into a new life controlled and directed by Finny.
In this first chapter, it becomes obvious that Gene begins to worship Finny, his roommate, almost like a hero. He describes him as a well-built young man, who moves with grace and harmony. As a result, he is the best athlete in the school. Gene also states that Finny possessed exceptional courage, daring to do or face anything; it was this characteristic in his friend that Gene most admired. Finny was also rebellious, fighting the rules and regulations of Devon. Because of his feelings for Finny, Gene always tried to emulate him, even though Gene was much more timid and traditional than his friend. As a result, when Finny jumped into the river, Gene soon followed, not wanting to be outdone by his roommate.Gene's relationship with Finny will be disastrous later in the book.