A Separate Peace Summary and Analysis
by John Knowles
Chapter 4 Summary:
Gene wakes up at sunrise on the beach; he watches dawn break for the first time, while Finny is still sleeping. Gene realizes that he has a math exam in three hours, exactly the amount of time it will take to get back to Devon from the beach; he makes it back in time, but fails the testit is, according to him, the first test he has ever failed.
Gene, an academic perfectionist, laments his poor performance on the test to Finny; Finny mocks Gene's ambition to be first in their class, and Gene begins to believe that Finny doesn't want him to do well in school, so that he will come out ahead. Finny excels in athletics, and is definitely the best in the school; Gene knows that he can be the best in the school in academics, but thinks that Finny's high-jinks and his attempts to take up Gene's time are Finny's attempts to make sure that he comes out ahead in the relationship. Gene's jealousy, whether merited or not, begins to take him over; he decides that he cannot trust his "friend," and Finny's statement, that had been so touching the previous evening, of Gene being his best friend, Gene now believes to be false.
Gene soon skips his merrimaking with Finny in favor of studying very hard; he begins to overtake Chet Douglas, Gene's only academic equal, and is proud that he is doing so well in his war against Finny. Finny also begins to study more, but Gene says that Finny is weak academically because he is unable to relate to the kinds of tests they have to take. But Gene finds it hard to keep on hating Finny, because everything is so beautiful and relaxed that summer; he has to make himself feel resentment, which proves to be very hard to do.
When Finny asks Gene to come see one of their club friends jump from their famous tree the evening before their French exam, Gene vehemently objects, and asks Finny if this is his way of trying to sabotage Gene's grades. Finny is not so bleakly competitive as Gene imagined him to be; Finny naively thought that Gene was naturally good at school work, like Finny is at sports, and never needed to study to get good grades. Finny insists that Gene needs to study if he thinks he does; but Gene decides to defy Finny's advice, and, against his better judgment, goes to the jumping tree with Finny.
To start off their meeting of the Super Summer Suicide Society, they decide to do jump off the tree together. Once they are on the tree, Gene "jostles" the limb, and Finny loses his balance and falls; Gene, unshaken, jumps into the river, seemingly without remorse or concern for his friend.
Chapter 4 begins with Gene watching the sunrise on the beach; the sunrise is a symbol denoting many things, including the impending change in Gene's feelings toward Finny and in how he treats his friend, and Gene's coming change in his attitudes toward school and competition. The sunrise is not what Gene expected it to be, just as it symbolizes something different than expected; usually a sunrise means rebirth or enlightenment, but in this case it is used to describe a more negative, though no less dramatic, change that comes suddenly to Gene. Also, the sunrise describes Gene's progress through this chapter, and how he realizes that his ideas about Finny's competitiveness and backstabbing are completely incorrect, and that Finny's character is more beautiful than he could have expected.
The appearance of the beach, as the sun rises, is more descriptive of Finny, and of his way of being. Gradually, it becomes "totally white and stainless," as Finny's character turns out to be (41); though Gene expects that there is a gray area in Finny's nature, as the beach appears to be when the sun begins to come up, his incorrect ideas are soon dispelled, and he sees clearly Finny's innocence and faith in Gene. The sunrise and the beach metaphorically represent many of the changes and realizations that are so important in this chapter, and they also describe the progress of these friends' understanding of each other.
Gene's misunderstanding of Finny's intentions are laden with irony; Gene believes that Finny is trying to keep him from excelling, and that Finny is engaged in some sort of competition with him, are as far from the truth as they possibly can be. Gene's misgivings about Finny taint his usually keen perceptions of what Finny means, and Gene's jealousy of Finny helps him to create an utterly unflattering portrait of Finny to believe in. Gene misconstrues Finny's remark about Gene wanting to be head boy at the school as meaning that Finny does not want him to achieve; Finny is really just conveying his disregard for school hierarchy and position.
Gene also abandons his usually right-on interpretations of Finny's tones of voice; when Finny tells Gene, in a mocking tone, that Finny would be jealous if Gene was first in his class, Gene disregards everything he knows about Finny's sarcasm and takes the comment completely seriously. Gene's jealousy and ill-will lead him to see in Finny whatever traits he wants to find; his characterization of Finny is strongly determined by his own feelings, and can be incorrect because of this emotional influence.
Gene's "realization" of Finny's allegedly competitive behavior "broke as coldly and as bleakly as dawn at the beach" (44); the simile repeats the imagery at the beginning of the chapter, suggesting daybreak as a motif and metaphor suitable to describe many aspects of the story. Gene's language and tone become increasingly more dramatic, perhaps even melodramatic, as he describes the influence that this false realization had on him at the time. He says he was "despairingly in search of something" to cling to, blowing his mental separation from Finny up into something life-shattering, in a way (45). Yet, these words definitely seem added in retrospect; Gene says he does not act differently than normal in the face of this dramatic "deadly rivalry," gets on well with Finny, and devoted himself to his studies (46). Gene's social life remains much the same, as does his outward manner; he does not act as destroyed as he claims to be, but rather he is very much intact, but vengeful. Gene finds the "truth" that he alluded to at the end of Chapter 3, but it is not a truth at allit is a dangerous falsehoodand in this confusion, he also misrepresents his destructive anger as genuine despair.
In Chapter 4, a dark side to Gene's character is finally revealed, and allowed to work its mischief. In this section of the book, especially with the revelation that Gene is completely wrong about Finny's alleged sabotage of his grades, Gene and Finny become even more diametrically opposed; Finny seems more pure and good-hearted than before, while Gene moves into the gray area that he saw on the beach, and that he thought Finny to inhabit. Gene, unlike Finny, has a nature that is corruptible through envy and suspicion; and, once inflamed, the bad side of Gene's nature takes him over, and causes him to harm his friend in a terrible way. The end of the chapter, with Gene causing Finny to fall from the tree, casts them almost as good vs. evil; Finny is cleansed of blame and shown to be pure of heart in this chapter, while Gene's character is revealed as being more pernicious than previously imagined.
Just as Gene's characterization of Finny has been dependent upon and influenced by his particular feelings about his friend, Gene's anger at Finny causes him to bring up Finny's weaknesses and shortcomings, and also colors his characterization of Finny as a competitive, jealous person. Gene projects his own feelings into Finny, which gives him excuses to be swept away by his own negativity, and indulge his less-than-complementary views about his friend as well. Gene states that Finny is full of "lonely, selfish ambition"; it's not Finny who has any of these qualities, but Gene, as shown by his determination to beat Finny, and not let his friend know of the competition (49). Naturally, Gene has problems with holding a grudge against his friend; he finds himself "slipping back into affection for him again," at least showing that Gene's vindictive qualities don't exactly come naturally (47).
Even the summer works to dull Gene's feelings of betrayal; the "heady and sensual clarity of these mornings" helps to calm him down, and contrasts sharply with Gene's stormy mood (48). Just as Gene's jealousy and competitiveness peak, the surroundings of Devon undergo a "second spring"; the landscape and beauty of the place grow as Gene's vitriol increases.
Also inversely related are Gene's tone and Finny's in their confrontation at the end of this chapter. As Gene becomes more and more bitter and sarcastic toward his friend, Finny's tone gets more and more honest and sincere, shaming Gene for his ill-will. Gene's judgment of Finny is finally exposed as being completely ironic, since he completely misjudged his friend and only he was guilty of the things of which he accused his friend. But, even more ironic is that this revelation doesn't really affect Gene's behavior or attitude toward his friend; he still causes Finny to fall from the tree, after Finny reveals that he is totally unaware of any competition.
Chapter 5 Summary:
Gene learns that one of Finny's legs had been "shattered" in the fall from the tree; the accident becomes an issue of great concern, among Gene's classmates as well as among the school's headmasters, who are very sorry about the accident as well. Gene grows very guilty about the accident, though no one suspect that he was responsible for what happened. In Finny's absence, Gene compensates by becoming very much like Finny; he dons Finny's trademark pink shirt, and notes how his manner has become more and more like Finny's since they have been apart.
Gene gets the news that Finny has finally gotten better, and can have Gene to visit him in the infirmary. Gene also learns that Finny's leg suffered a nasty break, and that he will no longer be able to play sports while at school; Gene cannot believe the news, and bursts out crying. The doctor urges Gene not to be sad in front of Finny, and to help him face the truth about his injury once he is out of the infirmary.
Gene goes into the infirmary to see Finny; Gene immediately reacts out of guilt for what happened, asking how the fall could happen, and Finny notes how shocked Gene seems at the whole thing, as if it were Gene that fell. Finny comes close to telling Gene that he had an inkling that Gene was somehow responsible for his fall; but, unlike Gene, he does not accuse his best friend, and immediately apologizes and closes the subject. Gene realizes that if he were in Finny's place, and Finny was responsible for the accident, that Finny would confess the truth; but Gene realizes he doesn't have the strength and nobility in his nature that Finny has, and this upsets him very much. Gene gets ready to tell Finny the truth, however much he doesn't want to. But, he doesn't get the chance to speak, as the doctor comes back in; and, before he can see Finny again, Finny is sent home to recuperate.
Summer Session ends, and Gene returns home for a month of vacation. Finally, he has to go back to Devon; and on his way, he stops in Boston, and goes to Finny's house to see how he is doing. This visit disturbs Gene, because Finny seems weak, and like an invalid; he is not used to seeing his friend in such proper, manicured surroundings, and he feels that he won't be able to talk to Finny about the accident in such a place.
Gene finally just brings up the subject of the accident to his friend; he tells Finny that he did it, perhaps even on purpose, and Finny tells him not to talk of it, and that it can't be true. Gene believes that he is causing another injury to Finny in telling him this, he tries to reduce the blow by talking around it. Gene decides he'd better be getting back to the station, since he's a day late, and lies to Finny, telling him that he won't be playing by the rules any time soon.
Although Gene is of a jealous, competitive nature, he reveals in this chapter that he is not truly bad at heart; he cannot believe the bad aspects in his nature, and remains in denial about causing Finny's fall and about the fall itself. Gene becomes very guilty, and out of this guilt he becomes suspicious that maybe his classmates know the truth about the accident, and that he will be revealed for the wrong that he has done. He is amazed to learn that no one thinks that he played any negative part in what happened, but he also knows that Finny will be aware of what exactly happened up there on that limb.
Gene declares in this chapter, after dressing himself in Finny's clothes, that he "would never stumble through the confusions of [his] own character again" (54). However, confused is exactly what Gene is; at this point, he is still in denial about his responsibility for the accident, and also in denial that he could have committed such a malicious act in such a callous way. The statement is thoroughly ironic, because it trumpets a realization that needs to take place, but has not yet; also, it is ironic because Gene claims to be finding himself through making himself look like Finny, which would denote an even bigger identity crisis at work. Gene already knows that he and Finny, though they get along, are inherently different in nature; Finny is clean and pure and is neither competitive nor jealous, while Gene is by nature insecure, and this major flaw causes him to be suspicious and deceitful toward his friend.
When Gene dresses in Finny's clothes, he assumes Finny's look and manner of confidence, thinking that it suits him and describes who he has become; this is also ironic, since Gene's insecurity defines his differences from Finny, and since the clothes and the look belie Gene's character and his true feelings. However, the growing resemblance between Gene and Finny not only shows their differences, but also foreshadows their becoming like one person. Finny asking Gene to continue Finny's athletic pursuits and adopt that part of his history is the first step in their melding together; Gene adopting Finny's clothes and looks in this chapter shows Gene's willingness to surrender himself to Finny, and foreshadow the coming developments in their relationship.
The issue of Gene's conscience becomes important from this chapter on; it determines how he acts and reacts to his friend, and also determines his feelings toward the friend he has wronged. Gene struggles to see himself as an essentially good person at heart; as much as he condemns himself in retrospect for his flaws, at the time, he still cannot see himself for everything that exists in his character. Gene's denial and naivete also come into play when he is told that Finny will never be able to play sports. Gene never states straight-out that he is responsible for the end of Finny's athletic days, and that perhaps he wanted this to be so in order for Gene to come out on top in the relationship. It is clear to the reader that this could well have been Gene's motive in making Finny fall from the tree; but Gene, even as an adult writing of his past, is at this point in the novel unable to examine his guilt and his unconscious motivations for Finny's tragedy. Denial and guilt play off each other in Gene's personality, to alternately bring him to some realization of his character, then shield him from self-exploration; in any case, the past is still painful for Gene fifteen years later, showing that while he may be ill-natured in some respects in comparison to Finny, that he is still not completely corrupt at heart.
In this chapter, Finny and Gene become divided by their differences; at the end of the next chapter, they will begin to pull together again, and become more alike in terms of character. Here, at the peak of their separation, Gene reveals a great number of differences between himself and Finny, especially in the way both of them handle the situation they are in. If Finny was in his place, Gene knows that Finny would be completely honest about what happened; if Gene were in Finny's place, he might just accuse his friend, which is something that Finny is much too loyal to do. When Finny says that he reached out for Gene before he fell from the tree, Gene, who is still not trusting of Finny, takes that to mean that Finny meant to drag Gene down too; Finny says he just meant to steady himself.
This exchange again highlights the character differences between Finny and Gene, especially as Gene tries to rationalize what happened and talk around the truth in a way that obscures his guilt, and Finny addresses his thoughts in a careful way that conveys the truth of the situation, without misleading or maligning his friend in the process. Finny uses understatement in introducing his thoughts, that Gene might be responsible; "awfully funny expression you hadlike you have right now," he tells Gene, getting his point across without causing any disturbance. While Finny is very calm and speaks quietly, cautiously, and with understatement, Gene is frantic, desperately trying to rationalize things, and forced to speak out of a lingering guilt; the contrast between the two is furthered by their opposing demeanors during the infirmary visit.
Like the characters of the book, who often seem too flat and too purely literary to be real, some of the events of the book are also more symbolic and representative than they are literal or realistic portrayals. The incident on the limb, during Gene and Finny's conversation, becomes one of these symbolic events; the limb symbolizes the common ground on which Gene and Finny's relationship rests, and Finny falling from the limb symbolizes the growing personal divide Gene feels between them. There is an almost metaphoric relation between Gene's sudden mistrust of his friend and his jouncing Finny from the tree; both involve the interplay of the exact same themes and make the same points about Gene's character, and the limb incident seems to be just a literal enactment of Gene's jealousy and his competitiveness.
In Chapter 5, Gene finally repents of his competitiveness toward Finny. He realizes how ironic it was that he pinned the fault on Finny for being competitive, when it was Gene's fault all along for creating such false, one-sided competition. But even this realization doesn't soothe Gene's guilt and sorrow; though it does allow Gene to put aside his miguidedly ill feelings for Finny, and paves the way for their incredible closeness to develop over the next few chapters. Still, by the end of the chapter, and the end of Gene's confession of responsibility to Finny, some things remain fundamentally unchanged. Though Gene asks himself whether he intentionally hurt his friend, he cannot bring himself to consider the issue any longer than it takes him to ask the terrible question. Gene's guilt remains, and still weighs upon him; and he is still unable to overcome his naivete about the flaws in his nature, and his denial surrounding the accident.
Chapter 6 Summary:
Gene is finally back at school, without Finny who will come back later in the term; the peace of the summer session has finally been shattered by the return of the rigorous traditions of the Devon school, and the influence of the war on the students and faculty. All seven hundred students are back, and the spirit of the summer session is swamped by the excess of students; Gene was lucky enough to get the same room he had during the summer, although all of his friends have been moved around. Gene doesn't want to come to terms with the change of school sessions; Brinker, Gene's main academic rival, now lives across the hall, and Gene isn't especially pleased with this.
Gene goes to crew practice, which is run by Quackenbush, the uniformly disliked crew captain. Gene is assistant captain, and not on the team; Quackenbush immediately challenges him, not trusting Gene because of his non-participation in school sports other than to manage and help out. They have a fight, and both tumble into the water; Quackenbush tells him to get lost, and he does.
The house masters aren't being lax like they were during the summer; Mr. Ludsbury, Gene's house master, berates him for being irresponsible and taking advantage of the summer house master, Mr. Prud'homme, which Gene didn't really do. Gene escapes from the lecture by getting a long-distance call; Gene expects that it is bad new from home, but Finny is on the phone, to wish him a happy first day of fall term.
Finny calls because he was worried that Gene would replace him by getting a new roommate; however, Gene is in their old room alone, and won't have another roommate before Finny comes back. Finny is very relieved to hear this, and also dismisses Gene's confession of responsibility for the accident by saying Gene must have been crazy during his visit to Finny's house. When Gene tells Finny that he isn't participating in sports, as a sort of show of sympathy with Finny, Finny gets upset; he tells Gene that Gene has to participate for him since he no longer can, and Gene decides to grant Finny this request.
According to Gene, the new session "scattered the easygoing summer spirit like so many leaves"; the simile reinforces the shock of the rigorous, crowded fall session, after the ideal languor of the long summer. In the hustle and the renewed conservatism and law-enforcing of the fall session, Finny and Gene's glorious summer already seems like a thing of the past. The contrast between the summer and the fall, like the contrast between the winter when Gene revisits the school and the summer he describes, reinforces the rarity of the days they had, and reiterates another theme, of how fleeting the past, and the best days, can be. The change of seasons also foreshadows a change in Gene's life, and in his and Finny's relationship; with the passing of time, they will not be able to regain what they had in their ideal summer together, and their relationship when Finny comes back will most definitely be changed.
The theme of change and of time passing is also present in the scene in the chapel, with the gathering of students and teachers that begins the fall session. Gene knows that "traditions had been broken, the standards let down, all rules forgotten" because of the summer; change has finally come to Devon, and the place will never be the same to him or to any of the boys. The place has finally been touched by time, so many of the traditions been rendered meaningless, at least for Gene. He continues to have affection for the place; but as he has changed and grown up, the school has changed entirely for him, and cannot regain the old glory it had for him. He mentions Finny falling from the tree as being the event that marked old Devon's death; Finny's accident now becomes a symbol of the changing of the guard, representative of the beginning of Gene's adulthood and disillusionment.
Another theme in the book is formality vs. freedom; this theme is represented in the struggles between Finny's rebelliousness and Gene's rule-abiding sensibilities, but is also in the contrasts in conditions between the summer and the fall sessions at the school. "We had been an eccentric, leaderless band," Gene says of the boys of the summer session; "now the official class leaders and politicians could be seen taking charge," as the hierarchy of Devon returns for another school year. This change is also a foreshadowing of the change between childhood and adulthood; Gene's summer was the last time of free, unchecked childhood, and starting the school year with all its traditions is a change similar to the one he will undergo in changing from school to the adult world. The overwhelming of their carefree summer by the tradition-bound school year signifies the defeat of freedom by formality for Gene; Gene himself admits that he is very much bound by rules, and outside of Finny's chaotic influence, his own tendencies toward rebellion fall to the wayside.
Finny is more a perfect image and a representation than a reality-based character, and the imagery used to describe Finny in the novel tends to portray him as more of a golden god than a human being. Gene remembers Finny "balancing on one foot on the prow of the canoe," a difficult task, and all the while looking "like a river god," according to the simile Gene employs (67). In addition, Gene describes "his whole body hanging between earth and sky as if he had transcended gravity," yet another god-like feat (67). Finny usually appears as some kind of Apollo-like figure, standing in the sunshine, with radiant bronzed skin and sun-kissed locks; he represents, among other things, "all the glory of the summer," and is a figure constructed in looks and in traits to fulfill that purpose successfully.
Again, Gene is seen as identifying with Finny to the point of taking on Finny's struggles and sympathizing with him by sharing Finny's physical limitations. Gene feels that in his argument with Quackenbush, he is somehow defending Finny, though Finny is in no way involved; Gene feels that he has become "Finny's defender," and seems to take the role very seriously. Perhaps out of guilt for hurting Finny, Gene sympathizes with him by not participating in sports, as if he had a shattered leg as well. Perhaps Gene wants to take on Finny's burdens, out of guilt for wronging his friend; and perhaps it is part of Gene's denial of his wrongdoing, another theme of the book. After the accident, Gene's jealousy and suspicion disappear almost completely, as he begins to bond himself to Finny; and, also out of a sense of guilt-born obligation, Gene agrees to serve as Finny's surrogate in the realm of sports, and participate as best he can in place of his friend. Gene confesses that his purpose in hurting Finny might well have been "to become a part of Phineas"; however, this may be another distraction from Gene's real issue of his malicious actions, as Gene has continued to ignore such a serious question in his denial after the accident.
A Separate Peace Essays and Related Content
- A Separate Peace: Major Themes
- A Separate Peace: Essays
- A Separate Peace: Questions
- A Separate Peace: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- John Knowles: Biography
- A Separate Peace Summary
- About A Separate Peace
- Character List
- Major Themes
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 1-3
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 4-6
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 7-9
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 10-11
- Summary and Analysis of Chapters 12-13
- Related Links on A Separate Peace
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Author of ClassicNote and Sources