A Separate Peace

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Over Sukkos, I read A Separate Peace by John Knowles. This was a book I'd been assigned to read back in ninth grade, but the homoerotic undercurrents of the story freaked me out so much at the time that I couldn't properly concentrate on it very well and so I faked my way through most of the schoolwork that was assigned with the novel. Of course, I was all the more freaked out because it seemed like I was the only one seeing that sort of theme, and so part of me assumed I was just being gutter-minded and reading stuff into the book that wasn't there. Now that I've been around the block a few more times, I'd since discovered that it wasn't just my wild imagination at work, and so I was happy to take a second, fresh look at this marvelously well-written book.

Without question, there's absolutely not even the smallest explicit mention actual homosexual activity or fantasy in the story. But equally without question is the intensity of Gene's feelings toward Finny, and not just platonic feelings of admiration. The eloquent imagery of Gene's narration whenever describing Finny's exquisite physicality is probably the closest the book gets to an explicit illustration of the nature of Gene's love for Finny. There are also a couple of very sly, teasing, on-the-side references to gayness, the most striking of which is Finny's hilariously pink shirt. Gene declares to Finny with open shock that it makes him "look like a fairy!" And Finny responds with perfectly unflustered aplomb at that idea, idly wondering what would happen if he "looked like a fairy to everyone." While the greater point being made is Finny's lovable irrepressibility, I can't help but feel like the author is toying with the reader with such allusions. It think it's just delightfully droll.

But while the hints of homosexuality in the novel may range from scandalous to amusing in the reader's mind, it wouldn't be all that important to the book's deeper meaning if it weren't for the insight it lends us into Gene's psychology. The central difficulty in understanding A Separate Peace is Gene's motivation for surreptitiously causing the accident that crippled Finny. The rest of the story after that flows pretty clearly and comprehensibly, with Gene progressing through various stages of attempting to atone for this climactic action. But the reason for Gene's action is far from clear. On my first reading, I found this point to be the most puzzling mystery of the story. A significant part of Gene's own inner torment is caused by his own inability to understand what motivated him to commit such a deed. The best that he can come up with is that it was "just some ignorance inside me, some crazy thing inside me, something blind, that's all it was." While I wouldn't disagree with the irrational nature of Gene's motive, I think a closer look at the events and emotions leading up to the accident can paint a much more detailed and useful picture of why Gene shook Finny out of the tree.

So let's review what was going on right before Finny's accident: one morning, Gene managed to cook up the theory that Finny was jealous of Gene's academic ability and was therefore secretly sabotaging Gene's studies with Finny's adventurous and rule-flouting hijinks under the guise of their close friendship. The hatred that Gene secretly nursed in response to this imagined enmity lasted for several weeks before Gene's delusion was shattered. Immediately after this sudden realization of Finny's purity of heart, that Gene committed his fateful act of betrayal. But this only deepens the conundrum. An act of violence against your best friend is only more incomprehensible when you've just been reconciled with him.

We'll have to probe even further back before the knot will begin to unravel. After all, why would Gene make the foolish mistake of suspecting his best friend of sabotage in the first place? Everything we were ever given to know of Finny's character only spoke of sportsmanship, integrity, and faithful, innocent, freely-given love. And why does the loss of this jealous suspicion cast Gene down into such a confused state of emotional turmoil? To find an answer we'll have to explore what took place immediately before Gene invented this paranoid fantasy: the trip to the beach. The day on which Finny cheerfully persuaded Gene to spontaneously cut classes for a bike ride to the seashore resulted in the experience which embodied the highest and deepest expression of their friendship that was ever realized. Lying next to each other on the sand before falling asleep under the stars after a very full day and night of simple boardwalk pleasures, Finny does an amazing thing: he tells Gene that he is his best friend. I can't describe Gene's reaction any better than the author does:

It was a courageous thing to say. Exposing a sincere emotion nakedly like that at the Devon School was the next thing to suicide. I should have told him then that he was my best friend and rounded off what he had said. I started to; I nearly did. But something held me back. Perhaps I was stopped by that level of feeling, deeper than thought, which contains the truth.

It is no coincidence that Gene's inability to express his true feelings toward Finny immediately precedes Gene's neurotic jealously. The above quote makes it obvious that Gene could not face his true emotions consciously. His psyche reacted by attempting to reverse the forbidden love into hatred. But this defense mechanism ultimately could not survive long against Finny's undeniable goodness. And now we can finally see a clear path to Gene's unconscious motivation for shaking Finny out of the tree: when left with no other choice, the only way that Gene could deal with a love that he could not express was to attempt to destroy the object of that love.

What separates this story from a mere tragedy of love gone awry is the symbolism of the character of Finny. The insurmountable problem that Finny represents to Gene is not just a love that is forbidden by deep cultural taboo, but the problem of a love that is too beautiful, too good, too pure, too perfect to exist in the "real" world, a world of adulthood, a world of war, deprivation, senseless cruelty. A Separate Peace forces the reader to ask the question, "What can we possibly do when we're convinced that the very structure of the world denies that which is truly precious and dear?" Finny was a Peter Pan whose Never-Never-Land was crumbling beneath his feet. Only Gene perceived this impending doom of adulthood, and this perception ultimately drove his every action in the story.

The final, aching question that the novel leaves undecisively answered is whether Gene actually managed to save any of the preciousness that Finny represented. Did Finny ever transcend the dull, grey, inhumanity that the war exemplified? Did Finny attain salvation despite his tragic death, or perhaps even because of it?


Comment from Steve Killen at

You know, this was an excellent book.  I must have read it at least three times.  And yet I never once picked up on a current of "homosexuality".  It just seemed to me to be a very painful story of a guy who didn't allow himself to escape the role he thought he had to play.  It was sad, because I really liked Finny, and he didn't deserve any of the fallout from the psycho-crap Gil went through.

I'll have to re-read it with more adult eyes.  Thanks for the reminder.