A Separate Peace by John Knowles

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To what extent does Knowles make the reader sympathize with Gene when confronted by Brinker in the Butt room scene (chapter 7) in A Separate Peace?

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Since the story is told by Gene, we tend to sympathize with him. People are most often the heroes of their own stories. However, Knowles also uses ominous description and dialogue in this scene to encourage our sympathies to lie with Gene.

The butt room itself is described in ominous terms as a place of entrapment. It is likened to a "dungeon," and because it is the place the boys go to smoke, the school administration tries to make it as unpleasant as possible. We learn it is small, has a low ceiling, small dirty windows, "mutiliated" tables, ashy colored walls, and a concrete floor. This gives us a sense of unease, as does Brinker's aggressive move as they enter the room:

“Here’s your prisoner, gentlemen,” announced Brinker, seizing my neck and pushing me into the Butt Room ahead of him.

While Brinker taunts Gene about Phineas and threatens him with a trial, the boys in the room grill Gene in an ominous way about what he did to Finny. One student, for example, states:

“So, you killed him, did you?”

Gene tries to laugh it all off by telling absurd and exaggerated stories, but we fully feel his unease. The boy who asks if he killed Finny is described as sounding "tense." He also "uncoiled" from the couch, as if ready to spring at Gene. Although Gene tries to stay joking and cool as he informs them of things they know are untrue, such as giving Finny arsenic, the many ellipses (...) that show him pausing and hesitating testify to his unease. When it comes to joking about pushing Finny out of the tree, Gene says "I could feel my throat closing."

Over all, a sense of danger that builds our sympathy for Gene hangs over the butt room, both because of its dungeon-like appearance and the pointed way the boys grill Gene. On the other hand, we know Gene is guilty of purposely shaking the tree, so despite our sympathy for him, we wonder if his guilt should or will be exposed.

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