A Separate Peace By John Knowles Summary and Analysis Chapter 8

Summary

As the chapter opens, Finny teases Gene and complains about the lack of maid service in the dormitories. When Gene says that the inconvenience is minor, considering the war, Finny murmurs his doubts about whether there really is a war at all.

The next morning, as Finny bounds around the room on crutches, Brinker comes by to ask Gene if he is ready to go enlist. When Finny is shocked by this, Gene suddenly changes his mind and jokingly refuses to sign up with Brinker. In the teasing that follows, Brinker receives his first nickname at Devon — "Yellow Peril."

Gene worries that Finny will fall again, because the snow and ice outside and the marble floors inside make it difficult for him to get around campus on crutches. Finny decides to miss class and go to the gym instead, a long and exhausting walk for him. Gene realizes that Finny's natural athlete's way of walking will never return, and Finny in turn tells Gene that he must become an athlete in his place.

Finny also tells Gene there is no war really — only fat old men pretending that it exists to punish young people who might have fun otherwise. These old men have faked the food shortage, too, Finny insists, so that all the best food can be shipped to the rich men's exclusive clubs. When Gene asks how he knows about this deception, Finny blurts out bitterly that he knows because he has suffered. He confides to Gene that he once hoped to compete in the Olympics, but now Gene will have to take his place in the 1944 Games. When Gene brings up the war, Finny reminds him that there is no war.

The boys begin a strict routine, with Gene helping Finny in his studies and Finny training Gene for the Olympics. One day, as he runs a challenging course laid out by Finny, Gene finds, to his surprise, that he can push himself beyond exhaustion to a second wind.

When Mr. Ludsbury comes out to ask Gene if he is training to become a commando, Finny proudly declares that they are aiming for the 1944 Olympics. Mr. Ludsbury laughs briefly, but sternly remind them that the war is more important than any games. Finny responds flatly, "no" — an answer that catches Mr. Ludsbury by surprise and sends him on his way.

Finny wonders why the master believes the lie about the war, and then it comes to him — Mr. Ludsbury is thin, and only the fat old men know the secret about the war.

Analysis

Peace has returned to Devon with Finny, and Gene's plans for enlistment vanish, almost without a thought. Finny's presence — especially his obvious injury — takes up Gene's entire reality, even the reality of his own future. From now on, Gene responds to Finny's needs, and enlistment, under such circumstances, seems to be desertion of Finny.

But choosing to stay at Devon rather than enlist means saying no to Brinker, a painful rejection that will have consequences later in the Assembly Room "trial." Brinker's needling about Gene's plot to get rid of his roommate is an obvious attempt to keep Gene and Finny's friendship from re-forming. But their caustic wit against Brinker expresses their renewed partnership, despite his "catastrophic joke."

When they mock Brinker together, they define their own friendship against him, reforging their union by excluding the popular leader. Their scorn for Brinker and his plans for enlistment represent a claim for their own shared future. Later, this scorn will turn back on Gene and Finny, though, when Brinker lays a claim on their murky, shared past at the tree.

The boys join together again, but the weeks apart have clearly changed them. Gene has become overly serious — even sanctimonious — about the hardships of wartime, while Finny's frame of mind, his expectations about daily life, remain firmly fixed in peace. At first, Finny's irreverence and flippancy about the war shocks Gene, but soon Finny draws Gene back under his influence, and before long, their relationship of leader and follower re-emerges, even in matters of war and peace.

Water imagery again surrounds the drama between the two friends. At the very mention of enlistment, for example, Finny announces that he is going to the shower, as if to wash away the thought of war and separation. And Finny's influence buoys Gene up, allowing him to ride the imaginative waves of wartime as easily as Finny rode the waves during their forbidden trip to the beach. At this point, the war itself, Gene decides in retrospect, swept over him "like a wave at the seashore," leaving him "peaceably treading water."

On his first day back at Devon, Finny cuts class and sets off for the gym — a long and difficult walk on crutches that foreshadows the later moment outside the Assembly Room when he slips and falls. As they walk to the gym, Gene becomes aware of the icy paths and the danger they pose for Finny on his crutches. And, as they move indoors, Gene also notes the floors and stairs — "smooth, slick marble, more treacherous even than the icy walks."

Appropriately, the gym, once the site of Finny's athletic triumphs, now becomes the forum for his most inspired flights of imagination — his twin fantasies about the fake war and the 1944 Olympics. With these two fantasies, Finny reasserts his leadership through imaginative rather than physical means. Injured, but not broken, Finny draws Gene into a new vision of the world in order to recreate Gene as his own double.

Finny's eccentric view of the war contrasts sharply with Gene's dutiful, olive-drab consciousness of wartime America. While Gene sees the dullness of disappointment and suffering — homesick young servicemen coming and going on trains that are never on time — Finny imagines a vast conspiracy of fat old men frustrated by their own incapacity and embittered by the possibility of other people having fun.

While Gene's view calls upon its believers to sacrifice, Finny's incites rebellion. Finny's vision assumes a real war between generations behind the fake war between nations — a fabricated rumor that enables the old to keep power, wealth, and pleasure to themselves. Given the fake war, sacrifice is meaningless.

Instead of sacrifice, Finny's vision demands amused detachment, a refusal to give one's heart or mind to the cause trumpeted by a lying older generation. In such a world vision, Gene and Finny are essentially on their own, with only each other to trust.

Finny's fake war theory attacks the dominant world view, but his vision of the 1944 Olympics proposes a new world altogether. As Gene points out, an Olympics two years away — in 1944 — would be impossible, because the war will almost certainly still be raging, and so prevent a peaceful form of competition between nations. But if there is no war, as Finny maintains, then the 1944 Olympics is virtually a reality already for the athletes training for it. Finny's 1944 Olympics, then, represents an anti-war, a reality that must be accepted in light of the fake war.

When Finny invites Gene to train for the Olympics in his place, he invites him, in essence, to join him in a new world — to become, in fact, a part of him. The invitation — the challenge, really — to Gene grows out of an uncharacteristic moment for Finny, a sullen mood created by his weeks of suffering. But Gene's deliberate effort at chinning the bar rouses Finny, re-creating his unique spirit even in adversity. Clearly, the collaboration of trainer and athlete will benefit both: Finny will relive his lost glory through Gene, while Gene will grow in unexpected ways through reforging his close bond to Finny.

Finny's carefully planned track for Gene's run circles a "patriarchal elm tree" — a site recalling the fatal tree by the river. In fact, the training for the imaginary Olympics takes a form that recalls the boys' challenging play on the river the previous summer.

But this time, in winter, the boys have switched places, with Finny passively resting on the tree and Gene energetically throwing himself into action. Here Finny merely watches while Gene pushes himself beyond his limits, finding the second wind that makes the exertion a joy rather than a test of endurance.

Instinctively, Gene realizes that the experience makes him more like Finny. Once overly conscious of Finny's extra ten pounds, Gene now feels as if his friend has grown smaller, or, perhaps, that Gene has "all at once grown bigger."

Perhaps Gene has become Finny's double at last — a true twin, rather than one simply dressed in his clothes. The resolution of the rivalry might be the happy ending of another story, but not this novel. In the chapters ahead, the boys' relationship will meet other challenges, and Gene will again face the reality of his guilt.

Glossary

Bunyan Paul Bunyan, the giant lumberjack of American legend.

Elliott Roosevelt the son of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945), 32d president of the United States. Here, Gene refuses to enlist with Brinker, even if he were the son of the president. In turn, Brinker claims a family connection with the wealthy, powerful Roosevelts.

the Eton playing fields observation "Eton" town in Buckinghamshire, on the Thames, near London; site of a private preparatory school for boys. Here, Mr Ludsbury refers to the phrase used by the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852). In the Duke's opinion, the Battle of Waterloo, in which the British defeated the French led by Napoleon, was won "on the playing fields of Eton," the result of the spirit of the British officers who first learned to compete in the vigorous games of their schools, notably the prestigious Eton.

General MacArthur Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964), United States general, commander in chief of the Allied troops in the southwest Pacific during World War II.

Guadalcanal largest island of the Solomon Islands in the southwest Pacific. Here, the site of an United States victory after a long, bloody struggle (1942-43).

gull a person easily cheated or tricked. Here, Gene offers Leper as an example.

Madame Chiang Kai-Shek (Soon Mei-Ling) the wife of Chiang Kai-Shek (1888-1975), Chinese generalissimo and head of the Nationalist government on Taiwan (1950-75). Here, a reference to the couple's representation of wartime China in international circles.

Prohibition the forbidding by law of the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages. Here, Finny is referring to the period between 1920 and 1933 when the sale of all alcoholic beverages was forbidden by an amendment of the United States Constitution.

Yellow Peril the threat to Western civilization presented by Asian people, especially those of China or Japan; widely believed in during the late 19th and early 20th centuries in North America, Europe, and Australia. Here, Finny gives Brinker the nickname when Gene says he is really Madame Chiang Kai-Shek.

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