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Leper, who has been strictly a secondary character thus far, suddenly takes center stage in the novel, first by joining the army and then by deserting. Although Leper’s classmates react with surprise, his decision is quite understandable. The war is the great unknown for the students at Devon, one that they will all have to face at some point. Leper, who is the oldest boy in the class, will have to enter it sooner than anyone else. The film about the ski troops gives him a chance to enter the war and the unknown through something he knows well—skiing. His proactive decision to enlist also offers him a sense of control and empowerment that would be absent if he waited to be drafted into the service.
Leper’s decision affords the reader several insights into his classmates, as the boys react in telling ways. First, they respond with disbelief, and because they find the idea of Leper in the army so unimaginable, the war becomes to them more distant and alien than ever. Later, however, when they do begin to consider Leper’s enlistment as a possibility, they turn the issue into a joke. Led by Brinker, they mockingly envision Leper as a war hero. Gene himself notes that by talking and laughing about Leper’s heroics, he and his classmates are able to personalize the war. When they imagine one of their peers involved in grand historical events, the war suddenly seems more on their level, less intimidating; after all, if Leper can be a hero, then anyone can. Thus, the boys’ anxieties about wartime failure, about being “the Sad Sack, the outcast or the coward,” can be set aside.
That only Finny refuses to join in the joking is significant. He has no insecurities about being a coward or a poor soldier because he cannot be a soldier at all. Furthermore, to join in the make-believe about Leper’s impending achievements would be to admit that the war is actually real—that it is not an invention of the fat old men, as Finny would have it. He prefers to remain instead in his separate world of sport, training Gene for the 1944 Olympics. The winter carnival that he organizes is part of this world; with its good-natured games, races, and meaningless prizes, it embodies the spirit of noncompetitive athletics that Finny cherishes. Indeed, it is at the carnival that we again witness Finny’s spontaneous vibrancy. With the “winter carnival” he does not so much celebrate winter as transfer his earlier summer realm, in which his spirit of freedom and innocent jubilance dominates, into the colder season, interrupting and supplanting it. This supplanting is most evident when Brinker, who embodies the winter session and the rigid order that accompanies it, proves unable to stand up to Finny and his anarchic force. In a symbolic scene, Brinker tries to make the games proceed in an orderly fashion, only to be tackled by all of the other boys at Finny’s command. At this moment, the spirit of whimsy and frolic overcomes the spirit of rules and duties; for now, if only for a day, Finny is the master of Devon, and Brinker must simply follow his lead.
The carnival is cut short, however, by the arrival of the telegram from Leper, just as the war, or news of the war, has interrupted the boys’ youth and innocence. Leper has addressed the message to Gene and signed it “your best friend,” which gives the reader pause: after all, Gene has only mentioned Leper occasionally. It is possible that Leper is simply deluding himself in closing his telegram this way and making a bid for Gene’s sympathy. Nevertheless, the unexpected phrase serves to remind the reader that there are areas of Gene’s life that he simply neglects or refuses to illuminate for us; his relationship with Leper may be one of them. With the words “your best friend,” Leper also invokes Finny, who has seemingly come to monopolize Gene’s affections in recent chapters. Indeed, when Leper writes these words, he may be thinking specifically of Finny and consciously trying to displace him. Perhaps Leper, desiring Gene as his best friend, envies Finny and wants to disrupt their relationship. His anger toward Gene during Gene’s visit and his unexpectedly violent verbal assaults can be explained, in part, by the obvious mental breakdown that he has suffered while in the army. But these outbursts also suggest a possibility that Gene never discusses—namely, that Leper feels excluded from Gene and Finny’s friendship. This notion is further supported by Leper’s later revelation of what he thinks happened on the tree the day that Finny fell.
Leper’s account of his madness, which takes place against a backdrop of pristine Vermont snow, constitutes one of the book’s darkest moments. Gene decides that Leper cannot possibly be “wild or bitter or psycho” when walking through the beautiful outdoors that he loves so much. Gene, however, is deluding himself—Leper soon launches into terrifying descriptions of the hallucinations that he suffered in the army. In light of Leper’s torment, Gene’s comment emphasizes the contrast between the loveliness of the natural world and the inner lives of the characters. Most of Leper’s visions involve transformations of some kind, such as men turning into women and the arms of chairs turning into human arms. In a sense, then, Leper’s hallucinations reflect the fears and angst of adolescence, in which the transformation of boys into men—and, in wartime, of boys into soldiers—causes anxiety and inner turmoil. Indeed, when Gene runs away from Leper declaring that the visions have “nothing to do with [him]” and that he “[doesn’t] want to hear any more of it,” he proves just how close to the bone Leper’s visions have cut him: the nightmarish metamorphoses are a dark reflection not only of the transformations that he and his classmates face but also of Gene’s own attempts to become Finny—to don Finny’s clothes and lose himself in Finny’s identity.