A Separate Peace By John Knowles Summary and Analysis Chapter 3

Summary

As this chapter opens, Finny is recruiting the other boys for the Suicide Society. Every night, Gene and Finny jump from the tree and then watch their friends jump in order to join the club. This nightly meeting is the only scheduled activity Finny never misses. Gene goes along every time, but secretly he hates it.

Early in the summer, Finny becomes dissatisfied with the school sports program — badminton, in particular — and decides the boys should make up their own game (blitzball). He hurls a heavy medicine ball at Gene and challenges him to do something with it. Gene runs wildly with it, is tackled by the other boys, while Finny calls out plays, improvises rules on the run, and generally makes up the game as the boys play it. Chaotic blitzball turns out to be the hit of the summer, and Finny, naturally, proves to be the best player.

In the next section of the chapter, Gene remembers the time Finny broke the school swimming record. The two boys are alone in the pool when Finny notices a record from 1940 and decides to try to break it. With Gene as his timekeeper, Finny beats the record by .7 seconds, but there are no witnesses so the time will not count. When Gene encourages his friend to try again the next day to make it official, Finny refuses and asks Gene not to speak about it to anyone.

Finny then proposes a trip to the beach. Gene feels he should be studying for a trigonometry test, but agrees anyway. In violation of school rules, the boys ride their bicycles to the shore, where they swim in the ocean, eat hot dogs, drink beer, and sleep that night among the sand dunes. Just before falling asleep, Finny confides to Gene that he considers him his "best pal." Gene realizes that he should tell Finny he feels the same about him, but says nothing.

Analysis

In this chapter, Gene observes that Finny lives his life according to "inspiration and anarchy." But Gene, cautious and conventional, cannot finally abide such freedom.

Always the true innocent, Finny sees no difference, really, between his philosophy of life and his philosophy of sports. Sports, he paradoxically believes, produces only winners and never losers — and so it is with life, he assumes. Such radical innocence, as charming as it may be, threatens Gene and finally turns him away from Finny.

As the chapter opens, Gene begins to reconsider his double jump with Finny at the end of the previous chapter. Yes, Gene thinks, Finny saved his life, but it was because of Finny's insistent risk-taking that they found themselves in such a dangerous situation in the first place. Finny did not so much save his life, Gene concludes, as nearly get him killed.

Finny's inspired idea to form the Super Suicide Society simply compounds Gene's growing fears about their friendship, because the "suicide" here seems to suggest Gene's own possible self-destruction. According to the rules of the club, Finny and Gene must now jump from the tree every night, and Gene "hates" it. For Gene, the Suicide Club represents a kind of slow psychological suicide — the gradual loss of himself, as he sees his own identity eclipsed more and more with each evening's jump by Finny and his idea of life-threatening fun.

Like the Suicide Club, blitzball emerges as another physical manifestation of the anarchy inherent in Finny's nature. With blitzball, Finny playfully defies Devon authority (and its apparent affection for badminton), but at the same time the game also provides another source for Gene's growing jealousy and resentment of his friend. As Finny spontaneously invents the rules of the game on the run, blitzball seems to revolve mostly around Gene getting hit with a heavy medicine ball and repeatedly pummeled by the other players (appropriately called "enemies"). In contrast, Finny excels at blitzball, because he plays the game the same way he plays at life — by "reverses and deceptions and acts of sheer mass hypnotism."

Ironically, Finny invents the game of blitzball as a means of keeping the war at a distance during Devon's peaceful Summer Session, but the game — in an example of Finnian logic — paradoxically seems to have the reverse effect. The game's very name derives from the German blitzkrieg ("lightning war"), Nazi Germany's brutally swift attacks with aircraft and tanks in the early years of World War II. And one of blitzball's famous maneuvers — "Lepellier's Refusal" — foreshadows Leper's nervous breakdown and desertion from basic training later in the novel.

The war, in fact, casts its "olive drab" shadow across the world of Devon, but it is Gene's inner conflict — his jealousy and resentment of Finny — that finally darkens this chapter. Even in those moments when the two boys are closest, Gene finds himself threatened by Finny — by his athletic ability and natural grace, by his rebelliousness, and by his essential innocence.

For example, Gene cannot understand Finny's insistence on secrecy when the natural athlete suddenly breaks the school's swim record. Like his jumps from the tree and blitzball, Finny's feat at the pool embodies his idea of true sport — physical achievement for its own sake, uncompromised by adult authority. Finny breaks records — and rules — as a way of creating a world apart from the adults who serve the war. Indeed, in his various acts of defiance and athletic prowess, he conjures up an imaginative world where his own rules of freedom (and even anarchy) become the only rules.

Finny's disregard for official records or even keeping score baffles Gene and makes him worry about their friendship, since most relationships at Devon are based on rivalry. In contrast to Finny, Gene seeks the approval of authority and desires its formal acknowledgements — he wants to become valedictorian, after all.

Conventional in his thinking, Gene sees school and sports as formal competition — a public form of rivalry with clearly defined rules and expectations. As a result, he begins to wonder how he can be friendly rivals with someone who will not play by the rules, who stands so clearly superior to him, and who remains unassuming as well.

Tellingly, Gene flinches when Finny declares his friendship. This occurs on a forbidden trip to the ocean that Finny proposes in yet another example of his rebelliousness. Gene reluctantly goes along, although he resents the disruption in his ordered life and worries that it will mean that he will fail his trigonometry test (which he does).

When they arrive, Finny (as his name suggests) frolics effortlessly in the ocean, at one with its untamed force. But Gene finds himself thrown roughly about by the waves and retreats to the beach, where he worries that he will be expelled for this breach of the rules. Clearly, Finny's fun — a physical and mental state of being — remains beyond Gene's instincts and abilities.

The concluding scene at the ocean recalls the end of Chapter 2, when Finny grabs Gene's hand on the limb to steady him and also looks forward, darkly, to Gene's part in the fall that occurs at the close of Chapter 4. On the beach before sleep, in a moment of spontaneous candor, Finny offers Gene proof of his friendship when he calls him his "best pal." Although Gene realizes that he should reciprocate with his own profession of friendship, he doesn't reply, stopped "by that level of feeling, deeper than thought, which contains the truth."

At this moment, Gene realizes that his feelings for Finny are so bound up in jealousy and resentment that he cannot truly be friends with him. The results, dramatized in the next chapter, prove to be tragic.

Glossary

blitzkrieg sudden, swift, large-scale offensive warfare intended to win a quick victory, used by the Nazis. Here, the boys adapt the term for "blitzball," a game that emphasizes high energy and surprise manuevers..

Winston Churchill (1871-1947) British statesman and writer; prime minister (1940-45; 1951-55). Here, the boys refer to Churchill in his role as prime minister of Great Britain during World War II

Josef Stalin (1879-1953) Soviet premier (1941-53); general secretary of the Communist party of the U.S.S.R. (1922-53). Here, the boys refer to Stalin in his role as leader of the Soviet Union during World War II.

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