Mr. Prud’homme, a substitute teacher at Devon for the summer, comes to Finny and Gene’s room the next morning to admonish them for missing dinner. Instead of making up an excuse, Finny plainly tells him that they were swimming in the river and then wrestling in the fields. He also goes on at length about the beauty of the sunset the night before, saying that nobody would want to miss such a thing. As he goes on and on, Mr. Prud’homme tries and fails to maintain his disciplinarian attitude, though he points out that Gene and Finny have already missed nine meals in the last two weeks. In response, Finny tries even harder to win him over—not because he cares about what happens, but simply because he enjoys the challenge of winning teachers over.
Finny’s charming nature comes to the forefront of the novel in this moment, as he proves himself capable of enchanting teachers even while acknowledging his own wrongdoing. His ability to captivate people is an important thing to keep in mind, since A Separate Peace is largely about Gene’s admiration for Finny and his discomfort surrounding the fact that he both appreciates and envies his best friend’s beautiful way of moving through the world.
Intent upon trying to charm Mr. Prud’homme, Finny admits that the actual reason they missed dinner was because they had to jump out of the tree. This, Gene notes, is a much more serious infraction than missing a meal, but Finny launches into a long monologue about how they must prepare for the war, since they will soon be old enough to enlist or get drafted. In fact, he says, Leper will be eligible to go to war before the end of the upcoming academic year. When Finny finally stops talking, all Mr. Prud’homme can do is sigh and suppress a bewildered laugh before leaving them alone.
Finny challenges himself by seeing if he’ll be able to win over Mr. Prud’homme after admitting to an even more incriminating offense. To do this, he references his respect for the war and reminds Mr. Prud’homme that he and Gene are on the cusp of entering it. In this regard, he uses the war to his advantage, acting like jumping out of the tree is an admirable act of patriotism—which, to be fair, he apparently thinks it is, eager as he is to become involved in the war. Once again, then, readers see just how much the war has already influenced the Devon environment, even for students like Gene and Finny, who are still too young to be in the military.
Gene describes Finny as a unique boy, someone who is good and kind, even if he’s also a rule-breaker. Gene believes that the faculty members at Devon—especially in the summer term—look fondly upon Finny and the rest of the students in their year because these boys remind the adults what peace is like. After all, none of the boys are registered yet with the draft board, and none of them have needed to take physical tests to prove their worthiness of the war effort.
Although Finny likes to act like his various exploits are somehow related to the war, the adults in his life appreciate his innocence and naivety, clearly seeing his casual misbehavior as the last vestiges of youthful purity. Because Finny and his peers haven’t yet been forced to enter the military and haven’t been subjected to the harsh realities of life during war, they stand for a simpler, more innocent time in the educators’ minds. This, in turn, gives them a certain leeway to do what they want.
Finny thinks about the war constantly, often talking about the various updates he’s heard and speaking patriotically about what’s happening. Shortly after Mr. Prud’homme leaves his and Gene’s room, he puts on a pink shirt. This astounds Gene, who worries that people will make fun of Finny. “It makes you look like a fairy!” he says, but this doesn’t bother Finny, who says, “Does it?” Looking in the mirror, he adds, “I wonder what would happen if I looked like a fairy to everyone.” He then tells Gene that, on the off-chance that “suitors” start crowding their space, he can tell them that Finny’s shirt is nothing more than a show of solidarity with the American troops, who just bombed Central Europe for the first time. Because he doesn’t have a flag, he says, he’s going to wear this shirt as a celebration.
When Finny puts on a pink shirt, he’s unbothered by the idea that people might make fun of him. This demonstrates just how comfortable he is with his own identity. Unlike Gene, he is unconcerned with how other people see him. Of course, it’s worth considering that Gene is horrified by the idea that someone might think Finny is a “fairy”—a word that underlines his own homophobia. Given that A Separate Peace is a novel about two young men who are very close, Gene’s moment of homophobia and insecurity suggests that he is perhaps struggling with his own sexual identity, possibly questioning whether or not he himself is attracted to men. Many scholars and commentators have debated this element of the novel, but the exact nature of Finny and Gene’s relationship is ambiguous. Suffice it to say, Gene can hardly fathom what it would be like to accept himself for who he is in the same way that Finny accepts himself, ultimately calling attention to his struggle to come to terms with his own identity.
Throughout the day, Gene watches Finny explain to his teachers why he’s wearing a pink shirt, speaking passionately about the bombing in Central Europe. That evening, the substitute headmaster, Mr. Patch-Withers, hosts a party at his home. Finny wears his pink shirt and talks to Mr. Patch-Withers’s wife. At one point, she notices that he’s wearing the Devon school tie as a belt. Finally, Gene thinks, Finny has gotten himself into too much trouble, offending both Mr. Patch-Withers and his wife. However, he launches into an explanation, saying that the belt is supposed to signify Devon’s involvement in the war effort. This is feeble logic, but Mr. Patch-Withers can’t help but be amused, and Gene finds himself oddly disappointed that Finny didn’t get punished, though he dismisses this feeling by telling himself that he must just want to see some excitement.
As Gene watches Finny scramble to explain why he’s using the Devon tie as a belt, he finds himself hoping that Finny will finally get in trouble. Although Gene admires his best friend’s ability to charm his way out of seemingly any situation, he apparently yearns to see Finny fail. This suggests that Gene’s relationship with Finny isn’t as simple as it might seem. Rather than wanting his friend to excel under all circumstances, Gene wants proof that Finny is capable of failure. As a result, it becomes clear that he feels threatened by Finny’s infallibility and probably jealous of it.
After the party, Finny and Gene head to the river. On the way, they discuss the war, and Finny says that he doesn’t actually believe that American forces bombed Central Europe. Gene agrees with this sentiment, thinking about how such things feel distant and remote in the beautiful, idyllic New Hampshire summer. When they reach the river, they swim for a while before Finny asks if Gene is still afraid of jumping from the tree. Gene claims he isn’t, so Finny asks him to jump first, and he obliges. On their way up the tree, Finny proposes that they form a club to make their “partnership” official—in this club, he says, all members will be required to jump from the tree. The name, they decide, will be the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session.
Finny and Gene doubt the latest developments in the war because everything feels so far removed from their immediate environment. Although the students one year older than them are all rushing toward the war, they themselves have yet to encounter it in any real or tangible way. For this reason, they are free to focus on more innocent matters, like jumping from the tree, solidifying their bond, and forming secret societies.
About to jump, Gene loses his balance on the tree limb. Seeing him teeter, Finny swiftly reaches out and catches him. Flooded with relief, Gene jumps without fear, and Finny follows him into the water. For the rest of the night, Gene can’t stop thinking about how bad it would have been if he had fallen, recognizing that he could have been killed. Thinking this way, he realizes that Finny saved his life.
When Finny casually saves Gene from falling, he proves himself as a friend, demonstrating that he will always be there when Gene needs him. This, it seems, is what true friendship looks like.