Summary and Analysis
In this chapter, Gene travels by train to Leper's house. As he stops for coffee, he concludes that Leper's "escape" must have been from spies. The legend of Leper, created in fun at Devon, seems to have come true.
As Gene approaches the house, he notices Leper watching him from a window, not moving even as Gene stands at the front door. When Gene opens the door himself, Leper appears and ushers him into the dining room — the only place, he tells Gene, where "you never wonder what's going to happen."
When Gene jokes and lightly teases him, Leper's response is angry, then despairing. Leper has changed, Gene sees, and he begins to understand that his friend has become mentally unbalanced. The "escape," Leper explains, was from the Army and a section-eight discharge that would have labeled him a "psycho."
Laughing hysterically and shouting angrily, Leper tells Gene that his experience has revealed a lot to him about himself and others — especially the "savage underneath" that lurks in Gene. Suddenly, he accuses Gene of deliberately causing Finny's fall. In response, Gene rises angrily and kicks over Leper's chair. The noise brings Leper's mother, and Gene apologizes, saying he will leave, but Leper, still laughing, invites him to stay for lunch.
After the meal, they walk through the snow together, and Gene tries to talk to Leper calmly. The conversation breaks down when Leper begins sobbing uncontrollably, confessing that he is haunted by disturbing images, such as a man's face on a woman's body, or the arm of a chair coming to life as a human arm. When Leper tells these frightening details from his psychotic episode in the Army, Gene shouts at his friend to shut up and runs away.
First and last, the journey to Leper is, for Gene, a journey within himself. This trip, which he takes without Finny, brings Gene face to face with a different and disturbing vision of himself — the "savage underneath."
Before recounting his visit to Leper's home in Vermont — the "Christmas location" — Gene (as adult narrator) offers an extended recollection of his wartime service, made up, he remembers, of many nighttime trips. After all the training and travelling, he explains, the war was nearly over, and so he never saw battle.
Ironically, then, Leper's telegram represents a kind of draft notice for Gene. In answering Leper's strange call, Gene experiences what the war will be for him — not terrifying combat, but long, dark journeys without a clear purpose.
Now, as he travels through the night, Gene thinks about Leper's telegram, wondering — in a fantasy that rivals Finny's conspiracy theory about the war — if his friend's "escape" is really from wartime spies. Even the description of the remote Vermont area where Leper lives — and has now retreated — emphasizes this sense of danger, with its bitter cold and wind, its snow and isolation. It is, to Gene's mind, a "death landscape."
As Gene trudges toward the Lepellier house, he spies Leper standing at the window — alone, intent, immobile, not moving even to open the door. While Leper once skied happily to explore how animals took shelter in winter, now he himself desperately seeks refuge, hiding in his dining room, as if he were one of the beavers he once sought to study.
Clearly, Gene's arrival invades Leper's uneasy world, but Leper also harbors a revelation that will shake Gene's own self-image and vision of the future. As a result, this chapter — the only one set entirely away from Devon — stands as a pivotal moment in the novel, because its drama sets in motion the action of the concluding three chapters as well as the tragic crisis of the story, which turns on Leper's reappearance at Devon.
The change in Leper, his alternating laughter and tears, makes clear that he has suffered a mental breakdown in the army. Agitated and defensive, Leper spits out the word he imagines Gene is thinking — "psycho."
As if the mere mention of this pseudo-clinical term frees him, Leper suddenly pours out a stream of frighteningly true observations about Gene himself. Leper declares that Gene pushed Finny out of the tree, because Gene is "a savage underneath."
Accused and judged, Gene responds to his own dark instincts, his secret impulses, and knocks Leper from his chair, just as he once pushed Finny from the tree. Again, in a moment of blind anger, Gene strikes out at a friend, and, in his fury, embodies the brute emotions at the heart of war.
Here, then, in a remote Vermont farmhouse, far from the action, war exists in Gene himself, as a confused burden of fear, anger, and blind impulse. As his earlier recollection makes clear, Gene will never see combat, but in Leper — and in his own reaction to Leper — he sees the consequences of war dramatized in psychological terms.
Leper's psychosis creeps outward, bringing on, in Gene, too, a crisis of identity. The confrontation, with its revelation about his nature, forces Gene to retreat into a comforting self-image, just as the emotionally wounded Leper has retreated to his home. Embarrassed, confused, Gene imagines Leper's protective mother judging him in flattering terms, despite his angry attack on her son — as "a good boy underneath," rather than "a savage underneath."
Later, on their walk together in the snow after lunch, Leper confides his delusions to Gene, and this conversation recalls the scene (in Chapter 9) when Finny reveals his vision of the fake war conspiracy to Gene. In both instances, Gene passively listens to a strange and surprising view of reality offered by a friend in crisis, but the contrast between these two scenes underscores the crucial difference between Finny and Leper.
The harrowing, close-up view of Leper's hallucinations suddenly makes Finny's unorthodox stories look normal and healthy in comparison.
Finny's vision may be unconventional, and perhaps even paranoid, but it enables him to move imaginatively in a world that he finds physically challenging because of his injury. The fake war theory represents Finny's active, rebellious involvement in the wider world.
But Leper's visions — like Snow White with Brinker's face — virtually paralyze him, and his other delusions — of men turning into women, the arm of a chair becoming a human limb — reduce him to hysteria. Leper's perceptions of the real world behind the war are psychotic and destructive — not imaginative and creative, like Finny's.
Finally, the details of Leper's breakdown — the first reality of the war that might await the Devon boys — prove too much for Gene to take. In Chapter 9, Gene sits absorbed during Finny's rambling explanation of the fake war, and rises to the challenge of the dreamlike 1944 Olympics, but here he withdraws suddenly from the confiding Leper, shouting, "I don't care!"
The horrible vision of wartime psychosis, so close after Finny's separate peace of the Carnival, terrifies Gene, and he abandons his friend in the snow, fleeing him, literally, as he would a leper.