A Separate Peace By John Knowles Summary and Analysis Chapter 6

Summary

In this chapter, Gene returns to Devon for the Winter Session and notices immediately that the freedom of the summer days has come to an end. The ordinary business of the school term as well as changes due to the war now dictate life on campus, creating an atmosphere that is both serious and rigid.

As Gene hurries to report as new assistant manager at the Crew House, he thinks of Phineas' trick of balancing on a canoe and then tumbling headlong into the water. The thought pleases Gene, because it brings back the carefree image of his friend before his accident.

Gene meets Cliff Quackenbush, the crew manager, who treats him with contempt. Disgusted by Gene's inexperience and lack of motivation, Quackenbush calls him "maimed" — a remark that prompts Gene to hit Quackenbush in the face. In the struggle that follows, both boys end up in the water, and a drenched Gene leaves for his dormitory.

On the way to his room, Gene meets Mr. Ludsbury, a strict Devon master who warns him that the wild antics of the summer will not be tolerated any longer. Saddened by this stern lecture, Gene is only mildly curious when Mr. Ludsbury tells him he has a long-distance phone call.

It turns out to be Phineas on the phone, calling from home. In a friendly conversation, Finny again dismisses Gene's confession and expresses relief that they will still be roommates. The only conflict arises when Gene tells Finny about going out for assistant crew manager, a position usually taken by younger students with no athletic talents.

Outraged that Gene would even consider such a position, Finny tells his friend that he must go out for sports. Since Finny can no longer compete, Gene must take his place. With this pronouncement, Gene feels as if he is becoming part of Finny.

Analysis

This chapter emphasizes the changes in Devon and in Gene now that the Summer Session is over — brought to a close, symbolically, by Finny's fall. The chapter begins with Finny's absence, but ends with him not only reasserting his presence, but also his influence over Gene.

Without Finny, Gene notices, peace seems to have "deserted Devon." The "gypsy days" of summer are gone, replaced by the "duration" of the war, and now Gene sees authority reasserting itself — as in the chapel sermon, for example — and demanding hardship and sacrifice.

The "gypsy music" of the summer has also vanished, replaced by the drone of duty and tradition. Note especially the title of the hymn, "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, Forgive Our Foolish Ways" — an outright apology, it seems, for all the fun the boys had during the Summer Session.

Within this atmosphere, Gene cannot help but feel responsibility for his part in Finny's fall. In this chapter, he begins to understand his world more deeply as he struggles with the consequences of his inner turmoil — and his own darker self.

Water symbolism runs through the novel, and here it helps to dramatize Gene's sense of loss in the wake of Finny's fall. As narrator, Gene uses the metaphor of the two rivers flowing on either side of Devon to express the dual nature of the school as a protected, isolated community and also as a place connected directly to the world at war. It also symbolizes the sense of innocence and evil that Gene must come to understand and accept.

The fresh-water Devon River suggests the idyllic nature of the school — the sense of it as a kind of Eden. The river, where the boys have played all summer, runs through familiar farms and woods, its banks alive with pine and birch trees. Indeed, the river, flowing clear and unpolluted, symbolizes the freedom and innocence of the summer's "gypsy days."

Gene associates this river with Finny, who seems "like a river god." When Gene looks upon the Devon, he especially remembers Finny's spectacular balancing act on the prow of a canoe — his body poised effortlessly between the river and the sky — capped by his comic (rather than tragic) fall into the clear water.

But the Devon also flows into the Naguamsett River, whose murkier course suggests the darker instincts Gene must finally acknowledge as he moves toward an understanding of himself. In contrast to the Devon, the Naguamsett joins the ocean, making it subject to the tides and larger natural forces; its banks are marshy and muddy, its water salty.

The central scene of the chapter occurs here on the Naguamsett and contrasts sharply with Gene's happy memories of summer on the Devon with Finny. Without Finny, Gene withdraws into himself and in a half-hearted attempt at sports decides to become the assistant crew manager. Accordingly, he reports to Cliff Quackenbush, the sullen and humorless crew manager — a kind of anti-Finny, who presides over the boathouse and the river with a jealous spitefulness. Indeed, Quackenbush seems to be a nasty river troll rather than Finny's river god.

Unpopular and even actively disliked by other boys, Quackenbush sees Gene, his new assistant, as someone to whom he can finally feel superior — someone he can treat with utter contempt. For his part, Gene feels a kind of sympathy for the mean-spirited Quackenbush — a compassion that emerges from his own sense of guilty sinfulness after causing Finny's fall.

While Gene endures the crew manager's condescension and rejection, his pity evaporates when Quackenbush refers to him as a "maimed son-of-a-bitch." Clearly, Quackenbush here touches a sore point with Gene, who feels spiritually crippled for having maimed Finny. And so Gene strikes out at Quackenbush.

Gene's fury rises not only from his sense of being revealed by Quackenbush — he is, after all, morally maimed — but also out of his strong connection to Finny, who is, in fact, physically disabled from the fall. Once again, Gene instinctively identifies with Finny, transforming his guilt into shared pain.

The result of the fight between Gene and Quackenbush — a fall into the salty Naguamsett — represents a dirty dunking that contrasts sharply with the cleansing baptism of the Devon. While the earlier jump from the tree into the Devon opens Gene's eyes to a fresh vision of the world, this fall into the Naguamsett awakens him to a keener sense of his own guilt. Later, in the next chapter, Gene comes to accept his dunking as another kind of "baptism."

Gene's fall into the river also gains in moral significance when Mr. Ludsbury confronts him on the way to the dormitory. Gene's excuse — tellingly, "I slipped" — becomes the basis for Mr. Ludsbury's long and caustic sermon on the boys' disobedience during the Summer Session. Gene has "slipped" from Devon traditions and standards, according to the master, but he has also slipped morally from friendship through his own jealous spite. Dirty with salt and slime here, Gene appears as a fallen, filthy friend, unworthy of Finny's trust and regard.

This image of Gene contrasts sharply with the warmth and trust evident in Finny's unexpected phone call. The boys' friendship seems renewed on both sides — passively, on Gene's part, because he has not got a new roommate; and actively, on Finny's part, through his assertion of faith in Gene after their argument in Boston. But the moment of unity quickly yields to a study in contrasts and the reassertion of Finny's influence over Gene when the conversation turns to sports. As Finny tells Gene: "Listen, pal, if I can't play sports, you're going to play them for me."

This command represents both a challenge and a relief to Gene. Upon hearing Finny's wish, Gene becomes virtually one with the friend he has both idealized and destroyed. And it is in this moment that a sense of freedom suddenly sweeps over Gene, when he thinks about what his secret purpose must have been in jouncing the limb — "to become a part of Phineas."

Glossary

duration the time that a thing continues or lasts. Here, a specialized term from World War II meaning "for as long as the war continues." For example, the maids at Devon will be gone "for the Duration," or as long as the war lasts.

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