A Separate Peace By John Knowles Summary and Analysis Chapter 5

Summary

As the chapter opens, Gene hears from the school doctor, Dr. Stanpole, that Finny's leg has been "shattered" in the fall. Numbed by the terrible accident and fearing that he will be accused of causing it, Gene stays in his room. There he dresses in his roommate's clothes (including the pink shirt) and feels, for a time, as if he has become Finny — sharp, optimistic, confident. But when the moment passes, Gene again feels dread and guilt about what he has done to his friend.

After chapel one morning, Dr. Stanpole tells Gene that he may visit Finny in the infirmary. Finny is recovering, Dr. Stanpole explains to Gene, but he will never play in any sport again. Gene bursts into tears at the news. Gently, Dr. Stanpole encourages Gene to cheer up, for Finny's sake. Gene is the only person Finny has asked to see.

Gene arrives at the infirmary, certain that Finny will accuse him of causing the accident. In their conversation, Gene probes to see whether Finny realizes what made him fall. Although he has a vague sense of Gene's involvement in the accident, Finny pushes these thoughts aside and apologizes to his friend for suspecting him. Gene suddenly feels he must tell Finny the truth, but he is prevented by the arrival of Dr. Stanpole, who ends the visit.

That fall, on his way to Devon, Gene visits Finny in his home outside Boston, where he is still recuperating. There Gene admits jouncing the limb deliberately in order to make Finny fall. Finny refuses to believe his friend, and when Gene insists he is telling the truth, Finny tells him to go away.

Realizing that he is hurting Finny, Gene stops the talk, mumbling an excuse about being tired from the train ride. Finny tells Gene that he will return to Devon soon. The roommates part as friends, with Gene promising, falsely, that he will not start "living by the rules."

Analysis

This chapter presents the consequences of the fall, physically for Finny and psychologically for Gene. Here, as he tries to determine how much Finny actually knows about the fall, Gene begins a slow and torturous process to understand himself.

Although he is absorbed in his own grief in this chapter and fearful of discovery, Gene still senses the deep sadness the masters feel over Finny's injury. Such a tragedy seems to them especially cruel for a 16-year-old boy, who should be enjoying his last months of freedom before going to war. In fact, Finny's shattered leg becomes a poignant image of the peace that has been shattered prematurely.

The chapter begins by exploring Gene's numbed reaction to the consequences of his unthinking action in the tree. The leg, the doctor explains, is "shattered" — a term Gene cannot fully understand. And when the doctor also announces that "sports are over" for Finny, he assigns Gene the terrible responsibility to try to help his friend to come to terms with this devastating prospect. In no uncertain terms, then, Gene realizes that he has truly destroyed his friend — and not the imagined rivalry that he now sees as nothing more than his own selfish illusion.

Afraid of accusations and also frightened of his own deepest emotions, Gene retreats into himself, where he discovers paradoxically his own mirror image of his friend — and victim. Alone in the room he shares with Finny, Gene decides, on an impulse, to dress in his friend's clothes, including his pink shirt. In the mirror, Gene sees himself becoming Finny, even down to the expression on his face — "Phineas to the life."

Imaginatively restoring his friend to vigor, Gene feels momentarily relieved of his guilt — and at one with Finny. Yet this illusion, comforting as it is, lasts only a single night for Gene, although the theme of his identification with Finny — their doubleness, as it were — continues to develop throughout the novel.

Gene not only identifies with his friend, but also tries to confess his wrongdoing to Finny. Twice in the chapter, he makes the attempt, first at the infirmary and later at Finny's home in Boston, but both times the discussion ends without any true resolution. Yet even these attempted confessions show Gene struggling to cope with his psychological turmoil and still very much caught up in his conflicted emotions about Finny.

The scene at the infirmary — when he makes his first (abortive) attempt at confession — reveals the guilt, fear, and anger that Gene still feels toward Finny. Dreading a direct accusation, Gene hesitantly probes Finny's memory of the fall, hoping, it seems, to find a lapse of memory that would make his guilt disappear. When Finny remembers an urge to reach out and catch on to his friend, Gene reacts in anger and fear — "to drag me down, too!" — confusing his own unspoken violent impulses with Finny's simple and innocent instinct to save himself.

Reliving the fall with Finny in the infirmary room, Gene emphasizes his own pain and fear, insisting that the accident, in a sense, happened to him, too. Again, Gene seeks relief from his guilt through his identification with Finny.

As the two boys struggle with their memories, Gene tries to confess to Finny, but is interrupted by Dr. Stanpole. Actually, Gene welcomes the interruption, because he comes to his confession not so much out of contrition as shame. Indeed, before Gene begins his stuttering admission, Finny makes a confession of his own — he vaguely suspects that Gene somehow caused the fall — but quickly apologizes to his friend for thinking badly of him without any proof of wrongdoing. Ironically, then, it is Finny who confesses out of innocence — he feels guilty for guessing the truth — rather than Gene, who should be confessing out of guilt.

Gene's second attempt at confession takes place during an impulsive visit he makes to the recuperating Finny at his home outside Boston. His impulse here suggests the beginning of his growing maturity and personal integrity, which prompts his need to confess.

Yet, visiting at Finny's home, Gene feels like a "wild man." In fact, he launches into a declaration that seems more like another attack on Finny than an admission of guilt or a heartfelt apology. Finny, in turn, lashes out in anger, hurt by his friend's words and unable to accept the dark secret inherent in their meaning. And Gene, in turn, sees this reaction as a vindication of his own violent instinct; if Finny can express such murderous rage, Gene reasons, then his own action must be no worse than his friend's.

The truth of the matter, it seems, cannot really be discussed between the roommates. Uncomfortable but still wanting to be friends, Gene and Finny part on a false note — Gene will not lapse back into the old rules when he returns for the new term at Devon.

But Gene ends the chapter by foreshadowing his regression back into conformity when he judges this promise to be "the biggest lie of all."

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