A Separate Peace By John Knowles Summary and Analysis Chapter 2

Summary

The morning after the boys first jump from the tree, Mr. Prud'homme, a substitute Master for the summer, scolds Gene and Finny for missing dinner. Finny tells Mr. Prud'homme that they were late because they were jumping out of the tree to prepare for military service — a far-fetched excuse he weaves into a long, funny explanation. Finny's friendly chatter charms Mr. Prud'homme, and the Master lets the boys off without punishment.

That day Finny wears a very un-Devon bright pink shirt, and its unconventional color draws Gene's attention. The shirt, Finny insists, is an "emblem" — a celebration of the first Allied bombing of Central Europe. Later, at a formal tea, Finny wins over the strict Mr. Patch-Withers with his "emblem." Finny even gets an appreciative laugh from the faculty and their wives when they see that he has also used his Devon tie as a belt, a gesture of disrespect for which anyone else would have been punished.

After the tea, Gene and Finny walk across the playing fields talking. Finny declares that he does not believe the Allies bombed Central Europe, and Gene, surrounded by the peace and serenity of the elms, agrees. Bombs in Central Europe, Gene reflects, seem unreal to a boy at Devon.

As they approach the river, Finny dares Gene to jump out of the tree again. When Gene accepts, Finny offers to jump at the same time, to "cement" their "partnership." They also decide to form the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session, in which all members will have to jump from the tree.

On the limb, Gene turns to talk to Finny and suddenly loses his balance. Instantly, Finny grabs Gene's arm, steadying him, and then both jump successfully into the river. Only later, after dinner, does Gene realize that Finny's quick response may have saved his life.

Analysis

As this chapter illustrates, Finny enjoys getting himself into tight (and sometimes dangerous) situations, and he relies on his natural charm and often illogical view of the world to extricate himself. While military service overtakes the older students, only the 16-year-old boys remain careless and happy in this peaceful world. For the masters of Devon — and Gene, too — Finny comes to represent the "essence of this careless peace."

While Finny likes to defy authority, play games, and jump out of trees — all of these essentially childish activities — Gene, by contrast, wants to become an adult and feels that he should learn how to live in the grown-up world. His basic nature points him in the direction of conventionality and conformity, and his instincts make him fear Finny's youthful spontaneity as dangerous — and yet also dangerously attractive.

As the chapter unfolds, Gene feels more and more caught in the irresistible pull of Finny's spontaneous nature, as well as his charismatic power to inspire people by creating his own imaginative world out of nothing more than his own whims. But Finny's ease at convincing others of his ideas also secretly galls Gene, who finds himself "unexpectedly" wishing to see his friend punished for his easy, winning ways of escaping trouble.

Finny's pink shirt stands as the central symbol of the chapter, the expression of his unique gift for making things mean what he wants them to mean. He chooses the pink shirt carelessly, as he does all his clothes, but once he puts it on, his inventive mind conjures up a reality for it that defies challenge, even when Gene offers his own typically conventional interpretation that people will think Finny is a "fairy." Finny calmly rejects Gene's objection and proposes instead his own eccentric idea, bridging the gap between reality and his whim with effortless grace. The pink shirt, he declares, is an "emblem" to celebrate the beginning of the Allied bombing of Central Europe.

At Mr. Patch-Withers' tea party, Finny's pink shirt — with the emblematic nature he ascribes to it — becomes his passport into the formal adult club that excludes and terrifies other students. While the other boys worry about making fools of themselves at this rather stiff and formal occasion, Finny proves himself calm and glib, his zany explanations coming from a sheer delight in talking freely, as a friend, with anyone, including the masters and their wives. In fact, his winning conversation, marked by casual grace and natural wit, charms everyone into accepting not only an unconventional piece of clothing, but his freely offered views on the war. Audaciously, Finny even talks his way out of a potentially disastrous situation when he casually reveals — to the horror of the headmaster's wife — that he is wearing his school tie as a belt.

But Finny's gift for talking himself out of trouble also arouses a strange spitefulness in Gene, who unconsciously desires to see his friend fail, and even, significantly, to fall. For example, Gene secretly delights at the prospect of Finny getting into trouble for wearing his school tie disrespectfully, but Gene's spirits deflate when the master laughingly accepts Finny's comical excuse. Even though it does not harm or even affect Gene, Finny's imaginative freedom seems to him an affront — an excess that must be punished.

Despite his resentment, though, Gene succumbs to Finny's charismatic power and persuasiveness. When Finny, in an imaginative reversal, declares his belief that there is no bombing in Europe, Gene comes to share in Finny's vision of a world set apart from conflict. As the two boys cross the forested campus on their way to the river, Gene gazes up at the sheltering elm trees, which seem to him to extend endlessly into the heavens and northward almost indefinitely. For Gene, at this moment, Devon — the "tame fringe of the last and greatest wilderness" — becomes a kind of Eden, where the thought of war seems impossible, even absurd.

But in the midst of this Eden, there already lurks deep in Gene's heart a type of original sin — his growing envy and resentment of Finny. Finny, though, remains unaware of his friend's true feelings and proposes that they climb the tree again and make the jump together. He means this double jump as a ritual act of friendship — a way of sealing the bond of their "partnership."

What happens next, on the limb before the boys jump, foreshadows the central dramatic event of the novel (in Chapter 4). Suddenly, Gene loses his balance — physically, of course, but symbolically, too — and Finny instinctively grasps his friend's hand to balance him and save him from falling.

Finny's action clearly reveals his true feelings for Gene; without even thinking, he reaches out to save his friend. Only later, after dinner, does Gene fully realize the danger from which Finny has saved him. The rush of gratitude and affection Gene feels seems to wash away the resentment about Finny's controlling influence.

As the novel progresses, though, Gene will move continually between these two emotions, further complicating his relationship with Finny — because, ironically, Gene has, in a sense, already fallen from Eden.

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