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A Separate Peace

by John Knowles

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Discussion Topic

Gene's memories and thoughts during the flashback in A Separate Peace

Summary:

In the flashback in A Separate Peace, Gene reflects on his time at Devon School with a mix of nostalgia and regret. He recalls his complex friendship with Phineas, the innocence of their youth, and the events leading to Finny's tragic fall. This introspection reveals Gene's inner conflict and guilt over his role in the accident.

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In chapter 3 of A Separate Peace, what world does Gene remember?

In Chapter 3 of "A Separate Peace" there is a World According to Phineas that the narrator, Gene, recalls.  Phineas and he are in summer school at Devon, and Finny loves rules, not the rules of the school, but his own that he creates as he goes along.  Gene writes,

Everyone has a moment in history which belongs particularly to him.  It is the moment when his emotions achieve their most powerful sway over him, and afterward when you say to this person 'the world today' or 'life' or 'reality' he will assume that you mean this moment, even if it is fifty years past.  The world, through his unleashed emotions, imprinted itself upon him, and he carries the stamp of that passing moment forever.

For Gene, this moment was World War II; it "was and is reality" for him.  The color of life for Gene is the same as the color of war:  dull, dark green called "olive drab."  In this special country, Gene writes, he spends his summer at Devon with Finny, who achieves certain feats as an athlete.  Finny, however, creates his own world by designing new sports such as "blitzball,"  named after the Nazis blitzkrieg. a sudden, overwhelming attack by air of a country such as Poland.  Reckless, like his sports, Finny does things just to see if he can do them, such as breaking swimming records.  For Finny to break a school record is, Gene declares, "inebriating in the suppleness of this feat.  It had, in one word, glamour, absolute schoolboy glamour. But, there is also something "too unusual for rivalry" about Phineas's actions, and Gene cannot figure Finny out.

Wildly, Finny breaks the school rules.  They run off from the campus to the ocean where they have dinner at a hot dog stand and drink a beer.  Then they settle in a "good spot in the sand dunes at the lonely end of the beach"  and sleep for the night.  There Finny tells Gene he is his best pal:

It was a courageous thing to say.  Exposing a sincere emotion nakedly like that at the Devon school was the next thing to suicide....Perhaps I was stopped by that level of feeling, deeper than thought, which contains the truth.

Gene feels inferior to Finny, whose ease and charm are spontaneous, whose courage is unlimited.  There is a growing jealousy in Gene, one that becomes destructive to both Finny and Gene himself.

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In A Separate Peace, what is Gene thinking during the flashback in chapter 3?

In Chapter 3, Gene subtly portrays many of his true feelings toward Finny.  The chapter picks up right after Finny "saves" Gene's life.  But Gene is not all that grateful because he realizes that there would have been no need for Finny to save him if he hadn't lured Gene up into the tree in the first place.  This admission at the beginning of the chapter sets the stage for Gene running through a list of physical and social activities that Finny handles with skill and charm (Blitzball, swimming, talking to professors, etc.). Throughout this description of Finny's talents, Gene begrudgingly praises his roommate but realizes more thoroughly his own inadequacies.

Abruptly, in the middle of the chapter, Gene mentions that every person has a defining moment in life, one that his life flashes back to often.  Gene says,

"For me this moment--four years is a moment in history--was the war. The war was and is a reality for me.  I still live and think in its atmosphere" (40).

Even though Gene follows this statement with a lengthy description of every day activities affected by the war, Knowles purposely does not capitalize war.  The word is meant to have a figurative meaning, and that is why Gene flashes back to this in Chapter 3.  The war that he is really talking about is the war within himself.  He knows that he should like Finny and return true friendship, but his insecurity and unhappiness with who he is are warring inside him, and he doesn't know which side to take.  This inner war affects everything that Gene says and does in the flashback portions of the book.

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