A Separate Peace By John Knowles Summary and Analysis Chapter 12

Summary

After Finny's second fall, Dr. Stanpole arrives to take charge. He tells Gene that Finny has broken his leg again, but that it appears to be a simpler fracture — "much cleaner" than the original injury.

Against orders, Gene follows the doctor's car taking Finny to the infirmary. There Gene spies through a window, calling to Finny. In fury, Finny struggles to rise from his bed but falls out of it instead. Apologizing, Gene leaves quickly, and spends the night wandering through the campus. Next morning he awakens in a corner of the ramp beneath the stadium.

Returning to his room, Gene finds a note from the doctor, asking him to bring clothes to Finny in the infirmary. He packs a suitcase and takes it to Finny, who speaks calmly but unpacks the clothes with trembling hands. Suddenly Finny slams his fist on the suitcase and tells Gene that he has been trying desperately to enlist in the military, but no one — not even the Canadians and Chinese — will take him because of his injury.

Gene tells Finny he would never have been any good in the war anyway, because he would have wanted to play baseball with the enemy instead of fighting. Brought to tears by this, Finny asks if Gene's part in the fall was just "blind impulse," and not a deliberate expression of hate. Gene assures him, and Finny gratefully accepts the explanation.

Gene spends the rest of the day in school activities, but returns to the infirmary at five o'clock to check on Finny after the surgery to set his leg. There he learns from Dr. Stanpole that marrow from the broken bone had leaked into the bloodstream during the operation and traveled to Finny's heart, killing him. Although he is overwhelmed by the news of Finny's death, Gene does not cry, not even at the funeral, because he feels as if it is actually his own funeral.

Analysis

The events following the second fall emphasize the separation between the roommates now that Finny knows Gene's responsibility in the original accident. While Finny can no longer believe in his friend, breaking the unity between the two boys, Gene, in turn, understands his guilt, and that knowledge nearly drives him crazy.

The night of the second fall, Gene suffers a kind of emotional breakdown that recalls Leper's hysterical hallucinations. For example, as Gene lurks outside the infirmary trying to see Finny, he resists an irrational impulse to steal the doctor's car. Later, when he spots Finny and the doctor inside the room, he imagines absurd conversations and weirdly comical remarks that bring him — like Leper in Vermont — to laughter and tears.

Later that night, Gene suffers from "double vision" — a kind of hallucination that also recalls Leper's breakdown. The gym, for example, seems familiar, yet "innately strange," a "totally unknown building" with a significance that Gene cannot fathom. The whole world, in fact — and especially the gym which he associates with Finny — seems apart from Gene, as if everything around him is real, but he is a dream.

Clearly, Gene's nightmare vision of himself comes from the knowledge of his guilt — and the separation that he now feels from Finny. Indeed, Gene fears that he no longer exists, and so can never be a part of Finny's world again. Even his attempt to visit Finny that night in the infirmary room seems to prove this beyond a doubt. Angry at the sight of Gene, Finny tumbles out of bed.

Even in good faith, it seems, Gene cannot help but cause Finny to fall. Yet, ironically, Gene now finally (if obliquely) offers Finny the apology he should have given in the summer — "I'm sorry, I'm sorry."

Like Leper, who must retreat into the delusional safety of his Vermont dining room, Gene seeks refuge for the rest of the night in the "sheltered" corner of a stadium ramp. On his way to the infirmary the next morning, Gene tries to regain his emotional balance by comparing his own "brief burst of animosity" with the enormous atrocities of war. But his rationalizations break down as he nears the room — and the reality of Finny.

Still, Gene's last conversation with Finny in the infirmary expresses all that has so far gone unspoken between them. In anguished disappointment, Finny confesses his efforts to enlist, and, in turn, Gene finally says the truth he feels about his friend — that Finny would be no good in the war, because his natural impulses point him always toward friendship and sports, not animosity and fighting.

This insight about Finny seems to have been hidden within Gene's consciousness throughout the novel, and only the open revelation of his own guilt — the truth about himself — can bring forth the truth about Finny. As Gene speaks the words, then, he knows their importance as the proof of his friendship — the expression of his deep understanding of Finny, and even his love for him.

Gene's admiration — and his total lack of hatred — challenges Finny to return the trust of his friend. The question about Gene's guilt has always gnawed at Finny, despite his reluctance to admit it, even to himself. Gene's two earlier attempts to admit his guilt ended badly, but now Gene's openness and vulnerability enables the subject to emerge fully, without defensiveness or anger.

Note that Finny does not ask: "Did you make me fall?" Leper's statement, after all, has already established that fact. Finny does not even ask: "Why did you make me fall?" Instead, he offers his trust, asking, in tears, whether Gene acted out of "some kind of blind impulse," rather than hatred.

Finny frames the question carefully as the offer of an explanation, not the demand for one. When Gene accepts it gratefully, adding his own admission of "some ignorance inside," the reconciliation restores the boys' unity.

And this unity survives even Finny's death. Doctor Stanpole broods over his responsibility as the attending physician, but it is Gene, finally, who understands the meaning behind Finny's unexpected death, caused by the marrow from his leg traveling fatally to his heart. The broken leg has, in effect, broken Finny's heart, and so Gene senses his own responsibility for his friend's death.

Yet, even as he grieves for Finny, Gene does not cry, because he feels as if he himself is dead. Since he is now at one with Finny, Gene feels as if a fundamental part of himself has died with his friend.

Glossary

"Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres" Latin phrase meaning "Gaul is divided into three parts;" the beginning of Caesar's Gallic Wars.

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