Illustration of two pairs of legs standing on the branch of a large tree

A Separate Peace

by John Knowles

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Chapter 12 Summary

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Everyone reacts with complete presence of mind in the wake of Phineas's fall. Gene wants desperately to be among those ministering to Finny, but discreetly hangs back, knowing that he was the cause of his friend's precipitous reaction. Dr. Stanpole is summoned and, after examining Finny, arranges to have him transported to the infirmary. Before he leaves, the doctor tells Gene that Finny's leg is broken again, but that it is a simple fracture this time.

Gene makes his way across the darkened campus to the infirmary and crouches in the grass beneath the window of Finny's room, listening to the murmur of voices coming from within. As the minutes pass, Gene thinks about the people inside, recalling each of their individual idiosyncrasies, and incongruously imagines Finny speaking to them only in Latin. This thought makes him want to laugh out loud, and to keep himself from doing so, he stops his mouth with his fist. When he has regained control, he notices that his hand is covered with tears. Finally, Dr. Stanpole leaves, and Gene goes up to the window of Finny's room, calling his friend's name. When Finny realizes it is Gene, he "thrashe(s) wildly in the darkness," vainly struggling "to unleash his hate against (him)." Gene watches helplessly as Finny falls from the bed and onto the floor, his fury spent. Finny has not hurt himself, and Gene knows better than to enter the room and help him back into bed. He calls out blindly, "I'm sorry," and walks away, wandering aimlessly through the night, oddly disconnected from the "overpoweringly solid and deeply meaningful world around (him)."

Gene awakens the next morning in the shelter of the school stadium. Mechanically, he returns to his room, where he finds a note for him from Dr. Stanpole, requesting that he bring some of Finny's clothes to the infirmary. With a sense of having done this before, Gene packs items into Finny's suitcase, walks to the infirmary, and goes to his friend's room. Finny greets Gene impassively and asks him to bring the suitcase to him, going through its contents with uncharacteristic care. Gene notices that Finny's hands are shaking so badly he can hardly grasp the items. Seeing this releases something within Gene, and he tells Finny, "I tried to tell you before, I tried to tell you when I came to Boston that time!" Finny, his voice breaking, says he remembers that and asks why Gene had come by the night before. Gene has no answer, other than that he "thought (he) belonged (there)" with Finny, which causes Finny to pause with a peculiar look of enlightenment.

Finny suddenly slams his fist against his suitcase, passionately crying out that he has been writing "to the Army and the Navy and the Marines and the Canadians and everyone else all winter," trying to find someone who will allow him to take part in the war. He exclaims, "I'll hate it everywhere if I'm not in this war!" Finny had pretended that the war was an illusion because he had known he would not be able to participate. His greatest fear is being left behind.

Gene breaks in on Finny's rant, tearfully telling him that he would not be any good in a war, even if there had been nothing wrong with his leg. Knowing that what he is saying is "important and right," Gene says that Finny, because of his nature, would make a mess of things, forgetting who is the enemy and making friends with them, getting things "so scrambled up nobody would know who to fight any more." Finny, trying to control his emotions, listens, then asks Gene quietly:

"It was just some kind of blind impulse you had in the tree there, you didn't know what you were doing. Was that it?"

In all his other actions, except for that day at the tree, Gene has shown how he really feels about Phineas, and Phineas understands.

The surgery to reset Finny's leg is scheduled for that afternoon. Gene goes to the infirmary around five o'clock, when his friend should be coming out of the anesthesia. He encounters Dr. Stanpole, who tells him that in the middle of the procedure, which should have been uncomplicated, Finny's heart "simply stopped," most likely because some marrow had escaped from the broken bone and entered his blood stream, blocking the flow to his heart. Phineas is dead.

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