Welcome to our second installment of the Mockingbird Reader’s Guide to A Separate Peace. If you’d like to catch up, you can find Chapters 1-4 here.

The Law

Much like Adam and Eve’s fall from paradise, Finny’s fall from the tree is only the beginning.

Gene tells us in the first paragraph of Chapter 5 that Finny’s leg has been “shattered,” a word which Gene does not want defined because it would mean coming face-to-face with the true extent of the damage he has done to his friend.

Thus begins Gene’s ordeal throughout the rest of the novel as he slips between recognition of his fault and his own attempts at atonement.

The first such attempt comes on the very next page, when Gene decides to put on Finny’s infamous pink shirt.

Its high, somewhat stiff collar against my neck, the wide cuffs touching my wrists, the rich material against my skin excited a sense of strangeness and distinction … But when I looked in the mirror, it was no remote aristocrat I had become, no character out of daydreams. I was Phineas, Phineas to the life. I even had his humorous expression in my face, his sharp optimistic awareness. I had no idea why this gave me such intense relief, but it seemed, standing there in Finny’s triumphant shirt, that I would never stumble through the confusions of my own character again.

The pink shirt that Gene pulls over his head, transforming his face and the mask he had worn, is the first of many times throughout the next few chapters where Gene “puts on” characteristics of Finny. In attempting to atone for his sin, Gene finds it easiest to try to be like Finny—to mimic his qualities and even his brokenness—than to grapple with his own soul. No matter how hard he tries, however, he cannot paper over the savagery beneath.

Gene and Finny have two conversations in Chapter 5 in which Gene tries to confess his sin at the tree. The first conversation takes place in the infirmary, Gene’s first glimpse of Finny after the accident. Gene is nudged up the steps by Dr. Stanpole, all the while feeling sure that Finny has only asked to see him in order to accuse him.

Gene’s first—instinctive—reaction is to blame anything but himself:

“Finny, I—” … “What happened there at the tree? That goddam tree, I’m going to cut down that tree … What happened, what happened? How did you fall, how could you fall off like that?”

Gene damns the tree, shifts the blame from himself to the object of creation, but throughout the course of the conversation with Finny, he comes to realize that shifting blame is the one thing he cannot do. Finny refuses to voice the suspicion he feels towards Gene, even apologizing to Gene for the feeling he has about Gene’s culpability. Finally, Gene realizes:

He was never going to accuse me … he must have been formulating a new commandment in his personal decalogue: Never accuse a friend of a crime if you only have a feeling he did it. And I thought we were competitors! It was so ludicrous I wanted to cry.

Gene realizes that he could not possibly be Finny’s competitor because Finny’s heart—Finny’s own ten commandments and his ease in upholding them—is so much purer than Gene’s will ever be. Gene could no more follow Finny’s newest commandment as he could follow the commandment of “Never say you are five feet nine when you are five feet eight and a half” before Finny came along. And in the moment that Gene realizes the shame of his ineptitude, he also realizes the example that Finny has set:

If Phineas had been sitting here in this pool of guilt, how would he have felt, what would he have done? He would have told me the truth.

Gene leaps out of his chair in his rush to mimic Finny’s honesty, in his rush to explain and to confess to Finny what he had done, but in the same moment, he loses his opportunity. Dr. Stanpole and a nurse both come in and tell Gene that it is time for him to leave, and Finny returns to his home in Boston before Gene has a chance to see him again.

On Gene’s return to Devon before the winter term begins, he impulsively decides to stop at Finny’s home to see him. A very different Gene enters Finny’s house—he has regressed, returning to his old selfish spirit by not planning ahead to see Finny nor bringing any gifts from “down South.” Gene looks around the room at the array of comfortable, homey furniture almost in horror. To steel himself,

I moved back in the Early American chair. Its rigid back and high armrests immediately forced me into a righteous posture.

Gene assumes a posture of righteousness because he believes that by forcing his confession onto Phineas, by forcing Finny to take on the burden of Gene’s guilt, he can be relieved of his own unhappiness. Gene’s rigid insistence backfires spectacularly because his insistence on absolution is naught but another act of savagery against Finny, this time against Finny’s heart. After Finny lashes back in pain and anger, denying Gene his forgiveness by refusing to hear the truth, Gene realizes,

It struck me then that I was injuring him again. It occurred to me that this could be an even deeper injury than what I had done before.

Gene convinces himself that he can make it up to Finny back at Devon, that it will be easier for him to do the work of absolution in a place where “every stick of furniture didn’t assert that Finny was a part of it.” Without Finny’s forgiveness, Gene’s guilt remains unresolved and unaddressed, and the only thing left for Gene is to do the work of atonement himself.

When he leaves Finny’s house, Finny offers an olive branch, a chance to return to their days of summer. The olive branch, though a fragile peace offering, isn’t enough to take them back to paradise:

“You aren’t going to start living by the rules, are you?”
I grinned at him. “Oh no, I wouldn’t do that,” and that was the most false thing, the biggest lie of all.

Gene, as we know from the beginning, is a rule-follower. Finny even mocks his way of walking in Chapter 1, as Gene rushes towards the dinner bell with his “West Point stride,” alluding to Gene’s willingness to fall in step with the rules of others: the army, Devon, the masters, etc. Gene’s discipleship to the laws of Devon stands in opposition, early in the novel, to Finny, whose “life was ruled by inspiration and anarchy, and so he prized a set of rules. His own, not those imposed on him by other people.” As we see again in Chapter 5, Finny has his own personal decalogue, his own ten commandments, which he sets according to principles of truth and honor that are higher than the other boys, especially Gene, can muster. Gene finds himself falling far short of Finny’s commandments many times; it is in fact easier to follow the rules of Devon than the inspiration and anarchy of the law of Finny—but what Gene gains in ease, he loses in freedom.

When Gene returns in Chapter 6, “peace had deserted Devon.” Without Finny’s inspiring presence, the gypsy summer fades away and is replaced with masters, sermons about “What We Owed Devon,” the encroaching chill of winter, and the dull khaki of the waiting army.

Ours had been a wayward gypsy music, leading us down all kinds of foolish gypsy ways, unforgiven. I was glad of it, I had almost caught the rhythm of it, the dancing, clicking jangle of it during the summer.
Still it had come to an end, in the last long rays of daylight at the tree, when Phineas fell. It was forced on me as I sat chilled through the chapel service, that this probably vindicated the rules of Devon after all, wintery Devon. If you broke the rules, then they broke you.

Surrounding Devon now is the inescapable presence of the Law: the law of winter, the law of Devon, the law of the army and the draft, and Gene fights against the approaching tsunami of the literal and symbolic snow and ice that will soon surround the school. He yearns to be back in the gypsy summer—the summer of freedom and lawlessness—that disappeared with their fall from the tree.

And nowhere in the novel is the Law more literally embodied than in the character of Brinker Hadley.

Brinker is the new class leader, filling the gap of Finny’s absence and setting up his “headquarters” directly across from Gene’s room while “emissaries” drop in and out to confer with him. The language of war that pervades descriptions of Brinker shows up again and again throughout the novel. He is militaristic and lordly and ready to do battle for what is right and just—and more than willing to take that battle into his own hands.

Before his first real altercation with Brinker, however, Gene makes an attempt at penance for the wrong done to Finny: he doesn’t go out for a sport. Sports are the absolute good for Finny, and so if Finny cannot play sports, neither will Gene. He chooses, instead, to be an assistant manager on the crew team—a lowly position for a senior.

Gene’s self-justification is spoiled, however, when he encounters Quackenbush, the crew manager, who takes an instant dislike to Gene because of Gene’s unwillingness to show any competitive fire.

As I walked toward the door I supposed that Quackenbush was studying me to see if he could detect a limp. But I knew that his flat black eyes would never detect my trouble.

Gene knows that his trouble is not the physical limp that would make his refusal to play sports obvious but a spiritual, inner limp. And when Quackenbush lashes out at him later on, Gene reacts again with his latent savagery.

“You, Quackenbush, don’t know anything about who I am … or anything else.”
“Listen you maimed son-of-a-bitch …”
I hit him hard across the face. I didn’t know why for an instant; it was almost as though I were maimed. Then the realization that there was someone who was flashed over me … I fought that battle, that first skirmish of a long campaign, for Finny.”

The competitive spirit in Gene comes alive in a world that is now easy to make sense of. All he needs to do is to wage a campaign of war to right the wrong he has done to Finny. “But it didn’t feel exactly as though I had done it for Phineas. It felt as though I had done it for myself.”

Not only does Gene begin to internalize Finny here, but he also puts on yet another mask of penance, realizing all the same, that he continues to do it for himself. If only he could hang on to feelings of the summer, if only he could make Finny see the truth, if only he could quit sports, if only he could fight Finny’s battles for him, if only he could…

And at the end of Chapter 6, Gene receives the gift of a phone call from Finny. The sin has not been washed away. In fact, Gene’s fight with Quackenbush ended with a dunking in the Naguamsett River, the dirty, salty, unfamiliar river which bounds the school on one side, juxtaposed against the clean, fresh, and familiar Devon river, bounding the school on the other side. Gene’s tumble into the Naguamsett in the midst of his attempts at self-justification are a reminder of how he cannot wash the dirt of sin away himself. In fact, the trials of self-justification only serve to dirty him more. It is only when Finny calls, when Finny offers him grace and a way out of reliving his guilt over and over again by taking Finny’s place in the world of sports, that Gene feels a first glimpse of true freedom.

“Listen, pal, if I can’t play sports, you’re going to play them for me,” and I lost part of myself to him then, and a soaring sense of freedom revealed that this must have been my purpose from the first: to become a part of Phineas.

Sports, of course, will not bring Gene salvation, but it is a taste, a spark of light, in the depths of his darkness. And the light comes through Finny’s offer of grace, not through any of Gene’s own works.

Gene washes off the dirty water of the Naguamsett in the first page of Chapter 7, before he finds himself face-to-face with Brinker Hadley. Brinker has come to inspect Gene’s room—spacious and luxurious because Gene is without a roommate—and to accuse. Gene may be outwardly cleansed from his shower, but inwardly he still roils with guilt, and Brinker’s direct accusation that Gene pushed Finny from the tree in order to get a room to himself is terrifying. With a flair for the dramatic, Brinker pushes Gene ahead of him into the Butt Room—the school’s smoking basement—with a call of “Here’s your prisoner, gentlemen!” to the other boys. The trappings of a trial start to form: the charge of “rankest treachery, practically fratricide,” the gathering of facts from the other boys, and Gene’s own attempts at a defense by turning the situation into one big joke. But Gene is unable to joke about the true act itself—some semblance of honor within him closes his throat and will not let him speak.

I only had to add, “pushed him out of the tree” and the chain of implausibility would be complete, “then I…” just those few words and perhaps this dungeon nightmare would end.
But I could feel my throat closing on them; I could never say them, never.

Something prevents Gene from speaking the very words that could turn his act of betrayal into a joke, to be laughed off by the other boys and forever forgotten. Some sense of responsibility and culpability betrays him and illustrates his own maturity at the same time. Though he manages to wriggle out of this dungeon scene, Brinker’s insistence on the truth foreshadows a greater reckoning to come.

Without Finny at Devon, Gene finds himself drawn more and more easily into Brinker’s world, the world of winter and the world of war. The snow and ice close in around the campus, and the lure of the gypsy summer fades as the days get busier and life settles into the rhythm of the darkening season. After a day of shoveling snow from the railroad tracks, Brinker and Gene decide that it’s time for them to enlist.

To enlist. To slam the door impulsively on the past, to shed everything down to my last bit of clothing, to break the pattern of my life—that complex design that I had been weaving since birth with all its dark threads … all those tangled strands which required the dexterity of a virtuoso to keep flowing—I yearned to take giant military shears to it, snap! bitten off in an instant, and nothing left in my hands but spools of khaki which could weave only a plain, flat, khaki design, however twisted they might be.

Gene senses freedom in the anonymity of the army, not simply freedom from his own efforts but freedom from his past. The idea that with the snip of military shears all of Gene’s missteps and mistakes could vanish is intoxicating. But it is the Fates of Greek mythology who cut the strands of human life, not a self-sacrificial God who cleanses with His own blood, and such a violent cutting cannot fulfill what Gene needs. Once again, at the end of the chapter, Finny intercedes to remind him of real freedom, but it is not just Finny’s voice over the phone this time. When Gene returns to the dorm rooms, he finds a warm, golden light flowing from beneath his door. Finny has returned to Devon.

The next two chapters embody the separate peace that Gene has longed for since the fall from the tree. Finny returns to Devon, and with his return, Gene no longer feels a desire to enlist. That falls away, along with Gene’s dreams of escape, when he realizes that Finny needs him. For Finny’s return is not a complete return. Finny is broken and crippled, hobbling across the icy Devon walks and down slippery marble staircases. When Gene is confronted with Finny’s new belief that the war does not really exist and is, instead, one great conspiracy theory, he pushes back against Finny’s imagined reality. They are both taken aback when Finny bursts out that he knows the truth because he has suffered. Not knowing how to respond, Gene walks towards the exercise bar.

I sprang up, grabbed it, and then, in a fumbling and perhaps grotesque offering to Phineas, I chinned myself. I couldn’t think of anything else…

Almost unthinkingly, Gene makes an offering of the only gift that Finny truly loves—the gift of sports. Finny may no longer be able to compete, but he throws himself into training Gene for the 1944 Olympics, creating a separate world for the two of them away from the oncoming storm of war. And it is this training that inspires Finny to create the real day of peace—the Devon Winter Carnival.

The Devon Winter Carnival becomes Finny’s latest invention for the boys of the school. He comes up with a list of events, including slalom races, snow statues, music, food, and more games. Gene is sent to enlist the help of the other students, and although Brinker thinks that there’s probably a rule against a Winter Carnival, even Brinker’s world of law cannot withstand the onslaught of joy and happiness that Finny’s ideas herald.

In that plotters’ glance all his doubts vanished, for Brinker the Lawgiver had turned rebel for the Duration.

Finny stages even more of a coup against Brinker, who has managed to contribute casks of hard cider to the day’s festive atmosphere. Brinker stands atop these casks of cider, straddling them and holding the other boys at bay, and as Brinker shouts to Finny to ask what’s next in the order of the day, Finny shouts back that he is.

Chet released from his trumpet the opening, lifting, barbaric call of a bullfight, and the circle of boys broke wildly over Brinker. He flailed back against the evergreens, and the jugs appeared to spring out of the snow. “What the hell,” he kept yelling, off balance among the branches. “What … the … hell!” By then his cider, which he had apparently expected to dole out according to his own governing whim, was disappearing. There was going to be no government, even by whim, even by Brinker’s whim, on this Saturday at Devon.

The strict law and order that Brinker has imposed on Devon in Finny’s absence is broken by the start of the Games. The tumbling down of the structure and government, overthrown even in the midst of winter, signals that Brinker’s yelling and invocation of hell will have no recourse against the boys of Devon. Finny has, for one afternoon, set them free from the Lawgiver and the rules of reality, Gene most of all.

It wasn’t the cider which made me surpass myself, it was this liberation we had torn from the gray encroachments of 1943, the escape we had concocted, this afternoon of momentary, illusory, special and separate peace.

But Gene remembers the Winter Carnival so vividly not because the peace lasts but because within moments, he is once again “facing in advance” the destruction that is to come, in the form of a telegram from their friend Leper Lepellier, who has gone A.W.O.L. from the army. A cold and bitter Chapter 10 awaits Gene with the return, not just of Brinker’s law, but of the world’s law. And this time, he won’t have Finny at his side.

Tune in next time for Part III, our final installment, of A Mockingbird Guide to A Separate Peace.