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A Separate Peace

by John Knowles

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Is Gene redeemed at the end of A Separate Peace?

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To be redeemed means to atone for a sin or pay a debt: to make a wrong right and be in the clear. Fifteen years after have deliberately wobbled a branch, causing Finny a fall that ultimately killed him, Gene wants to believe he is redeemed and that all is OK. He recounts that Finny, in his hospital bed, goes to lengths to excuse Gene. Gene accepts Finny's story:

“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?”

“Yes, yes, that was it. Oh that was it, but how can you believe that? How can you believe that? I can’t even make myself pretend that you could believe that.”

“I do, I think I can believe that. I’ve gotten awfully mad sometimes and almost forgotten what I was doing. I think I believe you, I think I can believe that. Then that was it. Something just seized you. It wasn’t anything you really felt against me, it wasn’t some kind of hate you’ve felt all along. It wasn’t anything personal.”

We know that Gene has a way of projecting his darkness onto Finny, which is what causes him to shake the tree to begin with, so when Gene says "How can you believe that?" it sounds more as if he is saying "how can I believe that ... I can't even make myself pretend that I could believe that." But he lets the lame story stand.

Finny lets Gene off the hook, but we know from Gene's version of the story that causing the fall was personal: Gene was plagued with the fear—a projection of his own dark, competitive nature—that Finny was trying to sabotage his academic excellence so that Finny could "win" against him.

Gene accepts the forgiveness Finny offers, but this doesn't mean he has redeemed himself or atoned for what he did.

He does say that in World War II:

I never killed anybody and I never developed an intense level of hatred for the enemy. Because my war ended before I ever put on a uniform; I was on active duty all my time at school; I killed my enemy there.

This is a cryptic statement: what enemy did Gene kill? His inner hatred—or Phineas? Is he at peace because he killed someone who was in his way? That sounds dangerously close to a borderline personality, perhaps a narcissistic disorder.

He did take from Phineas the lesson that:

letting its rocklike facts sift through and be accepted only a little at a time, only as much as he could assimilate without a sense of chaos and loss.

It seems to me that for all that Gene tells the story to put himself in the best light, as first-person narrators do, he has never come to grips with or made up for what he did to Finny. I remain uneasy with his story as too self-serving, too self-focused. He still seems to be in denial about the evil he has done. Finny doing his best to say it was okay doesn't make it okay. Gene using a lot of heightened romantic language about what a great guy Finny, oh so much better than the rest of us (!), doesn't make deliberately shaking the tree okay. The fact that is seems to have helped Gene not kill anyone in the war or feel hate for the enemy doesn't make it okay. Gene doesn't seem to have to come to grips with the idea that this isn't all about him and what the death did for him. If he thinks destroying another person is okay because it helped him, he still has a lot of work to do to find redemption.

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This is a good question. Does Gene find redemption by the end of the book? One way to answer this question is to map the narrative of the Bible onto the novel and see what emerges. In the Bible, there is a fall, an exile from Eden, death, and finally redemption. A Separate Peace roughly follows this pattern.

In the beginning of the book, the boys are living in a carefree world, with Finny as the leader of the pack. Things are innocent. There is a sense of excitement and newness. And, most of all, relationships are intact.

When Finny gets hurt and literally falls from the tree, there is also a fall of the school. We can liken this event to the ousting of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Innocence is lost, and alienation begins to creep into the book. First of all, Gene feels guilt for possibly jostling the branch, and even people like Leper, a nature-loving and peaceful boy, are torn apart by war. Leper becomes a deserter and deals with hallucination, or what we might call PTSD—effects of the fall, we can say.

Finally, there is redemption. Finny does not blame Gene at all. There is forgiveness. In fact, we can say that there was not an ounce of maliciousness in Finny throughout the novel. So, when Finny dies, we can say that he functions as a Christ figure. Gene is a beneficiary, and he is redeemed.

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At the end of John Knowles' novel A Separate Peace, Gene Forrester finds peace and redemption in the form of forgiveness from his friend Phineas. 

Mired in self-blame, jealousy, and regret, Gene goes to meet Finny in the infirmary "in the grip of a kind of fatal exhilaration" (180).  His self-recriminations at having caused Finny's accident has made him fearful of facing his friend, , and the situation is awkward at best.

Finny feels incredibly frustrated about not being able to join the war, but Gene reassures him that he "wouldn't be any good in the war, even if nothing had happened to your leg" (182); then he goes on to explain that Finny's good heart and friendly spirit would not fit into the battle field.  It is this moment in the novel that Finny realizes and hopes for the goodness in Gene as well and forgives him for causing the accident. 

"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?" (183)

Whether Finny is being naive about Gene's role or actively choosing to let Gene know that he does not blame him, the effect is the same.  Phineas' act of forgiveness in this moment could have vindicated Gene, releasing him from his guilt.  However, Gene questions Finny, asking him how he could possibly believe that, when he did not even believe that.

Finally, the two friends are being direct and honest with each other, and Finny again affirms his belief in Gene's inherent goodness, that "it wasn't some kind of wasn't anything personal" (183).  Finny believes in Gene, even when his friend does not.

Yes, Gene is redeemed in the end of the novel, not really through his own actions, but the steadfast belief and friendship of Phineas.

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