Summary and Analysis
As the last chapter opens, the war has come to Devon in the form of the Parachute Riggers' School. The School occupies the Far Common, with jeeps, trucks, and sewing machines.
Gene goes with Brinker to the Butt Room, where they have a talk about military service with Mr. Hadley, Brinker's father. Mr. Hadley sneers at the soldiers learning to sew and cheerily asks Gene which branch of service he prefers. Gene explains that he is planning to join the Navy in order to avoid being drafted into the infantry, while Brinker, too, has made a careful choice, deciding on the relative safety of the Coast Guard. This disgusts Mr. Hadley, who urges them to think about how their military service will sound when they talk about it in the future. The safest choice may not be the wisest choice in the long run, he explains.
Afterward, Brinker complains of his father's hearty enthusiasm for war service, especially since the older generation will not face any risk in the war that Brinker insists they caused. Brinker's thinking reminds Gene of Finny's theory about the fake-war conspiracy of "fat old men." But for himself, Gene decides that the war arose from something "ignorant" within humanity itself.
As Gene empties his locker to leave Devon for military service, he thinks of Finny and their friendship, which still remains a vital part of his life. Later, from his adult perspective, Gene believes that his war actually ended before he ever entered military service. He sees now that he killed his "enemy" at Devon, while Finny, always unique, never saw anyone or anything as his enemy.
After Finny's death, war (and the conspiracy Finny envisioned behind it) come finally to Devon. But Gene has learned from Finny, and from Finny's death, to take both in stride. The final chapter makes clear that Gene is ready to enter the wider world of the war and his own adulthood.
The arrival of a military unit at Devon is almost comic in its understatement, as months of sermons about high-risk service culminate in the headmaster's welcoming a Parachute Riggers' School — soldiers armed with sewing machines rather than machine guns. Still, the regulation uniforms, the maneuvers, the strident voice of the commander, form a sharp contrast with the scholarly, New England surroundings. Devon and the military really are meeting now, and the clash underscores the fact that the boys will be going off to war soon.
Ironically, the mission of the unit seems ideal — although a little late — for the tragedy that has occurred at Devon. Parachute riggers, after all, work to make falls safe for young men. The outcome of Finny's fall emphasizes the importance of their job, despite the domestic connotations of the sewing machines. The vision of thousands of Finnies falling to the ground and surviving brings an unexpectedly optimistic angle on the war.
Mr. Hadley, Brinker's father, also arrives, representing in his pink-cheeked "portliness" the fat and foolish old men that Finny once imagined as the conspirators of the fake war. Appropriately for the flesh and blood model of the boy's fantasy, Mr. Hadley speaks on only one subject — war service — and his remarks make clear that he sees young men as either adventurers — like him — or else worthless cowards. The insensitivity of his talk, his condescending bullying of Gene and Brinker, gives a human voice to Finny's fat old men in their stuffy clubs.
Mr. Hadley sees himself differently, of course. He proudly stands on his World War I experience — which is sketchy, according to his son — and advises the boys to choose a high-risk service, to ensure an impressive collection of stories to tell. For Mr. Hadley, the reality of war rises to its greatest importance years afterwards, in competitive talks with other men. He urges his son toward dangerous war service, therefore, just as he would advise him to choose a prestigious college, to ensure respect and position in later years. In effect, for him, a man's war service becomes his resume.
Gene's response to Mr. Hadley dramatizes how the acceptance of his own guilt has made him more accepting of others' weaknesses. Brinker's resentment of his father rises from his anger at the older generation who caused the war but now face no threat from it. But Gene views Brinker's father with less anger, and even some compassion. In fact, unlike Brinker or Finny, Gene does not blame the war on the older generation, but on "something ignorant in the human heart" — the same incomprehensible feeling that prompted him to jounce the limb and make Finny fall.
The conclusion makes clear that Gene acknowledges both his guilt in Finny's death and Finny's enduring power in his life. At Devon, Gene recalls, "I killed my enemy" — the uncertain, angry self that caused Finny's accident. Drained of fury and fear, Gene accepts the challenge of service and lives through the war without the burden of hatred, falling into conventional military step "as well as my nature, Phineas-filled, would allow."
In his life and death, then, Finny gives Gene a part of his own vital spirit — a natural gift for friendship, humor, and peaceful harmony — that sees his friend through the war that awaits him, and adulthood, too.
doughboys United States infantrymen, especially of World War I. Here, Brinker's father uses the word to describe the World War II recruits he sees at Devon.
foxhole a hole dug in the ground as a temporary protection for one or two soldiers against enemy gunfire or tanks. Here, it represents the infantry fighting Gene hopes to avoid.
Maginot Line (after A. Maginot [1877-1932], French minister of war), a system of heavy fortifications built before World War II on the eastern frontier of France; it failed to prevent invasion by the Nazi armies. Here, Gene uses the term to describe the barriers people put up to defend themselves against a perceived threat.