A Separate Peace By John Knowles Summary and Analysis Chapter 4

Summary

The boys ride back from the beach to Devon, arriving just in time for Gene's trigonometry test — the first examination Gene fails. Blitzball and the Suicide Society occupy the rest of the day and evening, and Gene begins to suspect that Finny is deliberately keeping him from studying. Instead of a "best pal," Gene begins to see his roommate as a deadly rival.

Finny already stands unchallenged as the best athlete at Devon, and Gene hopes to even up their status by becoming the best student. He sees Finny's games and rule-breaking — and even Finny's occasional studying — as a rival's sneaky attempts to make him fail.

The night before an important French examination, Finny announces that Leper is finally going to jump from the tree and so become a member of the Suicide Society. Unconvinced that Leper will jump and suspicious that Finny is really using this as an excuse to keep him from studying, Gene bursts out angrily at his roommate. Surprised and concerned, Finny tells Gene to stay and study, if that is what he wants to do.

But Gene goes to the tree, confused by thoughts that perhaps Finny is not his jealous rival after all. When they arrive at the tree, Finny proposes a double jump. Both boys climb the tree and stand on the limb above the river. Close to the trunk, Gene jounces the limb and watches Finny lose his balance and fall heavily to the bank. Then Gene walks out onto the limb and jumps easily into the river.

Analysis

Chapter 4 opens with the gray dawn and closes with a gray dusk, suggesting the symbolic unity of a single day (although a much greater time actually elapses). It begins, too, with Finny coming to life as Lazarus and ends with the tragic fall that destroys his life.

The chapter opens with the promise of the dawn over the ocean, with images of death gradually yielding to life as the sun rises to bring color to a gray world. As the Biblical allusions make clear, the sleeping Finny seems like Lazarus returned to life, and the white sand that surrounds the awakening boys recalls Eden.

Finny responds to this idyllic morning with characteristic action, proposing a quick swim. But in the dawn, by the roaring ocean, Gene can only think about limits and rules. A look at the rising sun tells him it is 6:30, and he worries that he will be late for his trigonometry test at 10:00.

For Gene, the meaning of the morning emerges not from the beauty of the dawn and the excitement of the waves, but from his worries and disappointments. He and Finny have lost their money, and they must now bicycle back to Devon without breakfast. In fact, they arrive at the school just in time for Gene to fail his examination.

By now, Gene suspects that Finny's innocent rule-breaking and time-wasting may serve a darker purpose. Inwardly, Gene hopes to become the best student in the school in order to make himself equal with Finny, who shines as the best athlete. This ambition invigorates Gene and allows him to think of his friendship with Finny as just another Devon rivalry. But when Finny teases him about studying and tries to get him to desert his books for fun, it seems to Gene that Finny secretly wants to see him fail.

Gene now decides that Finny must be his deadly rival, and that his playful roommate plans a deliberate plot to undermine the studying that Gene requires to become the best student in the school. But to keep this dark insight secret, Gene continues to go along on Finny's outings, including the nightly meetings of the Suicide Society, until one evening when Finny asks him to come to see Leper finally jump from the tree. Sullenly, Gene agrees to go, but he tells Finny angrily that it will ruin his chances for a good grade in French. Astonished that his friend must work to succeed at school, Finny tells Gene that he should stay and study, if he needs the time.

Finny's reaction, in its innocence and simplicity, overwhelms Gene, because he recognizes that Finny regards excellence in academics as a natural ability, just like his own agility and strength in sports. Finny does not mean to be his rival, Gene realizes, but is, instead, beyond the pettiness of rivalry.

And so, in Gene's view, Finny proves himself to be the better person. Paradoxically, by not playing the game of rivalry, Finny wins — or so it seems to Gene. This bitter knowledge goads Gene, and provokes him finally to violence against his friend.

The conclusion of the chapter, in which Finny falls from the tree, forms the dramatic center of the novel, because it expresses the truth of the boys' relationship — especially Gene's deepest feelings about Finny. While Finny helps Gene instinctively, in a moment too quick for thought, Gene, standing literally in the same place, hurts Finny grievously, in a response to a comparable, unconscious instinct. As Gene and Finny stand together on the limb, the scene recalls their earlier double jump, when Finny's quick action saves Gene from falling. But this time the boys' positions are reversed — Finny stands far out on the branch, while Gene stays safely near the trunk — and now Gene's knees bend (or so he remembers it), and he jounces the limb. Startled, off-balance, Finny falls heavily to the bank.

Fatefully, Gene's conflicted feelings find expression in a moment's gesture that destroys Finny's life. Temporarily relieved of his anger and jealousy, Gene jumps from the tree with confidence for the first time. The destruction of his deadly rival, it seems, liberates Gene to behave as Finny does — freely, easily, with unconscious grace.

This re-playing — yet reversal — of the earlier scene (from Chapter 2) makes clear the essential difference between the two boys. The tree reveals each boy's inner nature, and thus shows Gene the real difference between Finny and himself. This bitter knowledge, even more than the memory of Finny's injury, later makes the tree a "fearful site" for Gene.

Glossary

aide-memoire (French) a memorandum of a discussion, proposed agreement, etc. Here, Knowles uses the term comically.

Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Hindu nationalist leader and social reformer, assassinated; called Mahatma. The term describes any of a class of wise and holy persons held in special regard or reverence. Here, Gene jokes that if Leper can find the courage to jump from the tree, than Gene is as holy as the Indian leader.

Ne Plus Ultra (Latin) the ultimate; especially the finest, best, most perfect, etc. Here the term refers to an academic award Gene hopes to win at graduation.

Lazarus the brother of Mary and Martha, raised from the dead by Jesus. Here, Finny awakening on the beach reminds Gene of Lazarus miraculously coming to life again.

Back to Top

Take the Quiz

How does Finny shatter his leg?




Quiz