Summary and Analysis
Shaken by what he has learned about Leper, Gene returns to Devon, wanting to see Finny again. He finds him in the middle of a chaotic snowball fight, in which all the boys end up playfully attacking Finny. Gene worries that Finny may injure his leg again with such rough play, but Finny insists that he is careful and adds — to Gene's relief — that he can feel the bone growing stronger.
When Brinker visits the boys' room to ask about Leper, Gene answers that Leper is "Absent Without Leave." Finny assumes that Leper has grown tired of the army, but Brinker sees the truth at once, declaring that now two students from the class are out of the war, the second being the injured Finny. Gene resists this idea, resorting to Finny's notion that there is no war, but when Finny agrees with only a fading grin, Gene knows that he is being ironic.
One morning after chapel, Brinker tells Gene that his failure to enlist comes from pity for Finny. He also says that Gene should put the accident in the past by seeing all the details come to light. Brinker hints darkly that Gene knows what he means.
Working on a translation of Caesar's Gallic Wars, Gene and Finny discuss the current war. Finny admits that Leper's mental breakdown has convinced him of the reality of the war, and he tells Gene that he has even seen Leper at Devon. The boys decide not to tell anyone about Leper's presence.
Later, Brinker and other boys come to take Gene and Finny by force to the Assembly Room in the First Building. There Brinker formally opens an inquiry into the circumstances of Finny's accident to end any "stray rumors and suspicions." When Brinker questions him, Finny first recalls Gene at the bottom of the tree but then remembers that they climbed the tree together. This contradicts Gene's own false statement, and only Leper, who also witnessed the accident, can resolve the difference.
Leper appears and makes it clear in his own strange and mystical version of the event that Gene jounced the limb just before Finny fell. When Brinker insists they must investigate further, Finny shouts him down and rushes out of the room in tears. The boys hear Finny's cane tapping and then the sound of him falling down the marble stairs.
When Gene arrives back at Devon at the beginning of this chapter, he still reels from his shocking encounter with the mentally disturbed Leper. He seeks comfort in the familiar campus, but most of all he wants to see Finny — "and Phineas only."
He finds Finny in the midst of a snowball fight, child's play compared to the brutal adult reality of war that drives Leper "psycho." And while a blanket of snow covers both Devon and the Lepellier home in Vermont, the school campus seems to Gene to be innocent and Edenic, with the promise of an "untouched grove" — a sharp contrast to Leper's "death landscape."
The snowball fight, significantly, offers the last view of Finny at sports. It ranges chaotically, like blitzball, with little regard to anything but Finny's wild whims. And — in a foreshadowing of how Gene imagines his friend might behave in actual combat — Finny switches sides back and forth during the fight, betraying both teams for the sake of the disorderly game.
For Finny, Gene realizes, conflict always becomes play, a lively rather than a deadly rivalry. The thought comforts Gene, but shames him, too, in light of Leper's accusation. For Gene, it seems, even play can turn into war. Saddened by the revelation, Gene wants to find a separate peace again with Finny.
But that is no longer possible. With Gene's journey, the war comes to Devon, and the truth about Leper — as well as the truth Leper brings with him — inevitably emerges. Brinker, especially, senses the reality of Leper's situation. In a foreshadowing of his role in the Assembly Room trial, he asks a few leading questions, sifts through the facts, and comes to the harsh but true conclusion that Leper has "cracked up."
For Finny in particular, Leper's mental breakdown represents undeniable proof that the war exists. The news shatters his theory of a fake war and destroys the imaginative refuge that he once shared with Gene. Now, Finny confesses, he only believes in Gene — but his faith proves unfounded, making both of them vulnerable.
Suddenly, Brinker drags them off to a highly theatrical trial. The Assembly Room, where the trial is set, symbolically recalls Leper's "death landscape," with school boys somberly dressed in black robes, and the windows staring down on the proceedings with a "deadened look." Even Leper himself appears, finally, in a starring role.
Just as Finny once led the Suicide Society, Brinker now takes command, hoping to reprise his role as Gene's psychological inquisitor. In fact, he assumes that, under his careful examination, the emerging facts will resolve the question of Gene's guilt once and for all.
But the truth of the fall does not conform to Brinker's legalistic expectations. Finny's testimony, for example, emerges as a muddled mass of conflicting and false memories about Gene's position near (or in) the tree. At one point, Finny even suggests that the tree itself shook him from the limb — a strangely magical notion that would leave Gene entirely guiltless.
But Brinker perseveres in bringing legal clarity to this uncertain situation. Intrigued by Finny's conflicting memories and Gene's own inconsistencies, Brinker suggests that another witness to the fall — Leper — might clear up everything, if only he were at Devon.
When Finny turns to Gene — the only other person who knows that Leper is, in fact, at Devon — he clearly expects his friend to speak up and help him to resolve the mystery of his fall. But Gene, ashamed and frightened in the knowledge of his guilt, does nothing to bring Leper forward — leaving it to Finny instead.
Gene's silence amounts to yet another betrayal. In fact, it recalls the two previous instances when Gene said nothing in response to Finny — on the beach, and, most recently, during their discussion of Caesar and the Gallic War — and may, perhaps, even remind the reader of Peter's three denials of Christ.
When Leper arrives on the scene to testify, he takes the trial spinning off into the realm of hallucinatory revelation — and also truth. In his recounting of the fall, Leper offers a strangely mystical vision of light and darkness, in which two silhouetted figures appear on the limb "black as death." To this, Leper adds — in a strange echo of his own skiing style — that the figure nearest the trunk moved up and down "like a piston."
The recollection may be confused and fragmented, but the boys seize on one incontrovertible point — the boy who moved up and down made the other fall. As prosecutor, Brinker presses for details, but Finny rises in anger. Like Gene, he cannot bear the truth of Leper's disturbing reality.
With the same words that Gene screamed at Leper at end of the previous chapter — "I don't care!" — Finny now furiously charges from the room to the foyer, where he slips on the marble steps and falls, once again to be broken by Gene's disloyalty.
Athens capital of Greece, in the southeastern part of the country; Athens became established as the center of Greek culture in the 5th century B.C., when it was the capital of ancient Attica. Here, a model for Devon.
Sparta ancient city of Laconia in the Peloponnesus, a peninsula forming the southern mainland of Greece. Here, a model for the representatives of various branches of the military.
Hitler Youth "Hitler" Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) Nazi dictator of Germany (1933-45), born in Austria. Here, the term refers to a Nazi program designed to promote discipline and loyalty in German children and adolescents. Finny uses it in his joking description of the free-for-all snowball fight.
LST the initials stand for "land ship tank"; a vessel designed to land large numbers of troops on a beach quickly.