A Separate Peace By John Knowles Summary and Analysis Chapter 7

Summary

This chapter opens when Brinker Hadley, a leader of the senior class, visits Gene in his room. Brinker teases Gene about having a room to himself, suggesting that Gene has "fixed it" that way on purpose. Gene laughs off the remark uneasily, feeling as if Brinker is hinting that he deliberately caused Finny's accident.

Later in the basement Butt Room where students gather to smoke, Brinker pushes Gene into a crowd of boys and openly accuses him of "doing away with his roommate." In response, Gene makes up a long, silly list of crimes he committed against Finny, stopping short of actually admitting to his part in the fall. At this point, he dares a younger boy to guess what happened at the tree. When the boy answers that Gene pushed Finny off the limb, Gene tells him he is wrong and brushes him aside, exposing the younger boy to the ridicule of the others. Making an excuse about having to study, Gene escapes the awkward situation.

As the winter approaches, Devon students start to take on the work usually done by men now in the service. For a few days, the boys pick apples. Later, with the first heavy snow, they volunteer to dig out the railroad yards so that trains can pass. Only Leper stays behind, to ski through the countryside and take photographs.

The work on the railroad exhausts the boys, and the sight of the first train to pass — a troop train carrying young recruits — makes the students feel childish. Talk turns to training programs and recruitment — activities much more meaningful, they decide, than school. When Quackenbush insists that he will stay at Devon the whole year, the others sneer at him and question his patriotism.

As the returning students reach the school grounds, Leper appears, delighted with his day's skiing and proud of the photographs he has shot of a beaver dam. Protective of his friend, Gene congratulates him, but Brinker barely contains his annoyance. When they are alone, Brinker declares impulsively to Gene that he is going to enlist immediately.

Excited by Brinker's sudden decision and determined to face the challenge of the war himself, Gene bounds up to his room. But when he opens the door, he finds that Finny is back, and the plans about enlisting suddenly fade away.

Analysis

As this chapter opens, Brinker Hadley emerges as a possible new influence on Gene, in the absence of Finny who continues to recover at home from his accident. Like Finny, Brinker impresses Gene from the beginning as a well-liked and charismatic leader in the school, able to command attention and compliance with his interests of the moment.

But, unlike the independent Finny, Brinker comes by his leadership through conventional — even traditional — means. While Finny leads the boys in unofficial blitzball and the forbidden challenges of the Suicide Society, Brinker serves as the duly elected president of the Golden Fleece Debating Society. Unlike Finny, who seems almost unconscious of his effect on others, Brinker takes his leadership very seriously and campaigns constantly to maintain it.

After his baptism in the Naguamsett, Gene senses in Brinker a possible friend, but also a psychological inquisitor. Relentlessly, Brinker needles Gene about Finny, apparently recognizing dark motives behind the accident. When Gene tries to escape Brinker's insinuations, their psychological drama simply moves to the more public forum of the Butt Room.

In the Butt Room, a kind of kangaroo court unfolds, with the curious students as jury and Brinker as prosecutor, foreshadowing the more formal procedure (in Chapter 11) at the Assembly Room. And like Gene's earlier fight with Quackenbush on the Naguamsett, the encounter in the Butt Room — "this dungeon nightmare," as he calls it — unexpectedly touches Gene's worst fears about his true nature.

The charges Brinker levels against Gene in the Butt Room — "rankest treachery," "practically fratricide" — strike directly at his fear of being accused of causing Finny's accident. Suddenly Gene stands as "prisoner," with the scene of his crime openly identified — "that funereal tree by the river."

When one boy attacks with the bluntness of raw curiosity, Gene defends himself with ironic humor — silly confessions to serious crimes — but he cannot make himself joke about his part in Finny's fall. In this moment, Gene does try to admit his crime — as an absurdity, to disguise his guilt — but his throat tightens and words fail him.

Gene cannot yet truly acknowledge his guilt to others — or even, really, to himself, despite his earlier attempts to confess to Finny. Gene's guilt remains as a part of his deepest nature, and it will re-emerge in a more serious trial later in the novel — a trial that neither he nor Finny can escape.

After the mock trial in the Butt Room, the focus of the chapter turns to the war as winter comes to Devon. As part of the war effort, the school boys join in apple-picking — humorously celebrated in Brinker's Keatsian "Apple Ode" — and take up shovels against the heavy New England snow on the nearby railroad tracks.

The description of the railroad scene — grimy, run-down, industrial — creates a clear contrast with the sheltered Devon campus and the idyllic apple orchard. Here, at last, the boys play their part in a larger, rougher world, closer to the war and their own adulthood. They work all day under the sullen supervision of a railroad man — who seems an older version of Quackenbush — performing heavy labor with a real purpose.

Yet, when the tracks are cleared and the first train pulls through, the Devon volunteers again feel themselves returning to boyishness. The train carries young men barely older than the students, recruits who are off to the real war, leaving the Devon boys behind. The recruits' new uniforms, their excitement, the fact that they are going off to the war, make Gene and the other school boys feel even more isolated, more inconsequential, and, finally, childish.

Against this backdrop, Leper appears — the boy who consistently refused to jump from the tree and who has also skipped the shoveling to ski by himself. Here, in this chapter, Leper's eccentric interests, his isolation, and his vulnerability all become apparent, especially in contrast to Gene and Brinker.

Leper's appearance in this chapter also foreshadows later developments in the novel. For example, as Leper approaches Gene and Brinker, his touring skis move with the slow regularity of a piston engine — an image that will reappear later in his testimony (in Chapter 11) about Finny's fall from the tree.

This scene also dramatizes Leper's status as a loner at Devon. While the other boys battle winter with shovels, Leper keeps his own vigil in the wild, observing how animals dig into their homes to escape the harsh conditions. Leper's winter day, in fact, foreshadows his later inability to adapt to military life and his frightened retreat to his own snowy Vermont home after his nervous breakdown.

Leper's isolated calm contrasts sharply with Brinker's energetic instincts for action. Leper's announcement that he has found the beaver dam, and even has photographs, so infuriates Brinker that he is determined to enlist at once. Ironically, though, it is Leper, rather than Brinker or Gene, who will be the first from their class to enlist in the war.

When Gene, inspired by Brinker's sudden decision, thinks about enlisting, his vision of the future remains unclear — more a school boy's dream than a resolve to take up arms. It expresses itself in the arresting image of the blue and white weave of his school clothes cut off sharply by military shears and replaced by new khaki threads, woven in a new, unknown design. The thrill of the unknown, the challenge of adventure, rise in Gene here, even as he tries to think about the deadly danger of war.

His friendship with Finny, after all, is deadly — and the fall has brought an end to peace at Devon, at least for him, anyway. So, under a starry sky that seems to sharpen his resolve, Gene is determined to face the moment as the war demands.

But when he opens his door, Gene suddenly finds Finny returned to Devon in good spirits, though with a heavily bandaged leg. Gene's "crisis" of choice about the war and his role in it evaporates as he faces his friend.

All of Gene's imaginative energy focused on the future now disappears before the present reality of Finny, who represents the essence of vibrant life. And so a life force confronts Gene just as he has decided on a course of action — military enlistment — dedicated to killing.

Gene realizes in this final scene of the chapter, then, that Finny — rather than the war — will be his testing ground, his field of honor, his moment of life and death.

Glossary

butt the remaining end of anything; stub; stump; specifically the stub of a smoked cigarette or cigar. Here, the term is a slang word for cigarette, applied to the place where the boys at Devon gather to smoke, the Butt Room.

contretemps (French) an inopportune happening causing confusion or embarrrassment; awkward mishap. Here, Gene uses the word to play down the seriousness of Finny's fall.

fratricide the act of killing one's own brother or sister. Here, Brinker's characterization of Gene's doing away with Finny.

Golden Fleece (Greek Mythology) the fleece of gold that hung in a sacred grove at Colchis guarded by a dragon until taken away by Jason and the Argonauts. Here, the term is used as the name of the Devon debating society, emphasizing the club's exclusive quality, unconnected to reality.

interned detained or confined (foreign persons, ships, etc.) as during a war. Here, confined in prison for the war, the fate of many Japanese-Americans. When the boys question Quackenbush's loyalty, they wonder why he has not been confined as an enemy alien.

Mussolini (1883-1945) Benito Mussolini, Italian dictator, Fascist prime minister of Italy (1922-43), executed; called Il Duce. Here, someone questioning Quackenbush's loyalty asks if he intends to join Mussolini's army, the enemy of the Allies.

Kraut (slang) a German or person of German ancestry; a derogatory term.

Pearl Harbor inlet on the southern coast of Oahu, Hawaii, near Honolulu; the site of the United States naval base bombed by Japan on December 7, 1941. Here, the reference to the base denotes the entrance of the United States into World War II.

Abominable Snowman a large, hairy, man-like creature reputed to live in the Himalayas; also called yeti. Here, Leper in his ski gear reminds Brinker of the creature.

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