A Separate Peace

A Separate Peace Chapter 3 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Gene thinks about how Finny saved his life, but he also realizes that Finny is the one who put him in danger in the first place—after all, he wouldn’t have even been in the tree if it weren’t for Finny. Thinking this way, he decides that he doesn’t need to feel all that grateful that Finny caught him from falling. In the coming days and weeks, the Super Suicide Society becomes widely popular, as other boys want to join for the appeal of belonging to a secret society. Each night, then, the club meets at the river, and Finny and Gene begin the sessions by jumping from the tree. Despite the frequency with which they do this, though, Gene never gets over his fear of climbing the tree and throwing himself into the water. Whenever it’s time to go to the river, he wishes he could bring himself to refuse.
Gene’s gratitude for Finny doesn’t last long. This suggests that there’s something about their relationship that keeps him from fully appreciating Finny, as if he’s actively looking for shortcomings in his friend. And yet, it is rather obvious that any shortcomings that he identifies in Finny are actually his own. After all, he blames Finny for making him climb the tree in the first place, but he never actually voices his hesitancy, even after nearly falling. In turn, his own insecurity is to blame for his near miss, not just Finny’s gung-ho attitude.
Themes
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Despite his desire to tell Finny every night that he can’t come to the river, Gene never voices his true feelings. Instead, he follows Finny to the tree and jumps, eternally afraid of losing Finny’s favor. Meanwhile, he observes that Finny has certain steadfast beliefs. One, for example, is that everyone always wins when they play sports. This is because he sees sports as an “absolute good,” believing that nothing bad can ever happen in an athletic event. With this appreciation intact, he is appalled when the school tries to force him and his classmates to play badminton. Instead, he finds a medicine ball on the fields where the seniors do calisthenics in preparation for joining the military, and he invents “blitzball,” which he and his friends name after the military term “blitzkrieg.” In this game, everyone tries to knock down whoever’s carrying the ball. 
Unlike Gene, who is rather cynical even if he doesn’t always voice his misgivings, Finny is an optimist. This is why he sees jumping out of the tree as something more than just a fun activity, but as a vicarious contribution to the war effort. Similarly, he idealizes athletic pursuits, thinking that playing sports is inherently good. By outlining this dynamic, Knowles emphasizes Finny’s unflinchingly good attitude, which stands in stark contrast to Gene’s many private reservations.
Themes
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Blitzball becomes the unofficial sport of the summer, as everyone wants to play. The best athlete at the school, Finny is a natural at Blitzball, running circles around his opponents and sometimes even chuckling to himself when he thoroughly dupes them. Gene watches him in admiration, observing how good he is at seemingly everything he does. Even socializing comes easy to Finny, who wins over anyone who speaks to him. All in all, then, Gene is in awe of Finny and is happy—proud—to be his roommate and best friend.
Despite Gene’s private hesitancies and competitive thoughts, he still feels strongly for Finny. Moreover, he’s proud to be his best friend, clearly feeling that his association with Finny enriches his life and improves his image. In this sense, then, he is devoted to their friendship and genuinely invested in their bond, even if his admiration sometimes bears traces of jealousy.
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Gene notes as an aside that everyone has a certain moment—a “moment in history”—that defines their life, so that when they think about anything truly important, they think of it in the context of this period. For him, this period took place during World War II, when he was at the Devon School with Finny and hearing about the war while living out the easy existence of a 16-year-old student. During this time, he thinks that 16 is the best age, that it is an ideal point of life in which adults are both impressed and bewildered by the vitality of youth.
In this section, readers see that any influence of the war on Gene’s life is oblique and remote, even as it continues to impact his surroundings. Looking back, he conflates the war with his own development into an adult—a period that feels definitive for anybody, regardless of whether or not there is a war going on. All the same, though, the war shapes Gene’s adolescence simply by hanging over it, casting a certain shadow on his innocence even if he’s too wrapped up in his own innocence to pay much attention.
Themes
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One day, Finny and Gene are hanging out at the school’s pool when Finny sees that nobody has broken the 100-yard freestyle swimming record for years. Finding this ridiculous, he has Gene time him, claiming that he can beat the current record-holder’s time. Sure enough, his time is seven-tenths of a second faster than the record. Gene can’t believe this, insisting that they’ll have to go get an official timekeeper and some witnesses so that Finny can do it again and solidify himself as the new record-holder. However, Finny says he’s not going to do this, insisting that it’s enough to simply know that he broke the record. He also makes Gene promise not to tell anyone what happened.
Finny’s unwillingness to publicize his athletic success is evidence of his belief in the inherent goodness of athletic endeavors. Whereas Gene allows a certain amount of vanity to steer him, Finny is happy just knowing that he beat the record. This outlines a fundamental difference between the two boys, simultaneously revealing Gene’s competitive nature and Finny’s carefree belief in anything that seems genuine or pure. 
Themes
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Optimism, Idealization, and Denial Theme Icon
Baffled, Gene tells Finny how impressed he is. Finny, for his part, unexcitedly accepts this praise, and Gene wonders if his friend is trying to impress him. And yet, he knows that Finny already has multiple athletic awards and senses that he truly doesn’t care about anything other than the knowledge that he’s capable of swimming faster than the record-holder. This idea overwhelms Gene with admiration and astonishment, and he begins to see Finny as too unique to be his—or anybody’s—rival. And this, he knows, is significant because most of the relationships between boys at Devon are founded upon a sense of rivalry.
Gene’s belief that most friendships at Devon are built upon a sense of rivalry is worth noting, since it contrasts with Finny’s genuine sense of good will. When he thinks to himself that Finny is too good to be his rival, Gene’s admiration for his friend takes on a slight bitterness, as if he jealously believes that Finny is so out of his league that he can’t even compare himself to him. This is an important dynamic to track as the novel progresses, since it will eventually influence how Gene treats Finny and—later—how he views his own actions.
Themes
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Optimism, Idealization, and Denial Theme Icon
Friendship and Honesty Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Discounting his own success, Finny says that swimming in pools doesn’t count as “real swimming.” He then suggests that he and Gene should go to the beach, which will take hours to reach on their bikes. Nothing about this suggestion sounds appealing to Gene, who hates long bike rides and knows that such an outing could result in expulsion. What’s more, it will make it impossible for him to study for a math test that is set to take place the following day. Nonetheless, he agrees, and the two boys set off. On the way, Finny tries to entertain Gene by telling long stories and doing tricks on his bike, clearly wanting to make sure Gene is having a good time.
Once again, Gene fails to voice his opinions because he doesn’t want to risk losing Finny’s approval. Although he feels competitive with Finny and even seems to resent him in certain ways, he’s forever willing to do whatever he wants, sacrificing his own agency just to please his best friend. After all, he’s proud to be Finny’s best friend and has founded his entire identity on this role, so he won’t do anything to put it in jeopardy. 
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When they arrive at the beach, Finny and Gene play in the water. But after a big wave overpowers him, Gene returns to the sand while Finny frolics alone. That evening, they stroll the boardwalk, eat hotdogs, and use fake draft cards to order beer at a local bar. In public, Gene notices that everyone’s eyes are drawn to Finny because of his beautiful tan, his sun-bleached hair, and his vivid, bluish-green eyes. However, Finny turns to him and says that everyone is looking at him, saying that Gene has acquired a “movie-star tan” and playfully accusing him of showing off.
Again, Gene finds himself admiring Finny and the way he commands everyone’s attention. When Finny compliments him for the same thing, it suggests either that Gene doesn’t give himself enough credit or that Finny can sense how much Gene admires him and therefore tries to make him feel better by saying something nice. Either way, it’s apparent that their relational dynamic is perhaps a bit more complex than the average bond between two friends.
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As they settle down to sleep among the dunes, Finny thanks Gene for coming with him, saying that he hopes he’s having a good time. He also says he’s well aware that he couldn’t do this sort of thing with just anybody, adding that this outing is only something he could ever do with a best friend. “Which is what you are,” he adds after a pause. Gene knows that this is a very brave thing to say, since speaking so emotionally and openly at the Devon School is usually seen as a form of social suicide. Gene wishes he could tell Finny that he, too, is his best friend, but he finds himself unable to say this, stopped by some mysterious, tacit feeling—a feeling that “contains the truth.” 
Gene is accustomed to a tight-lipped, unemotional way of moving through the world, one that he thinks is required in the excessively masculine world of the Devon School. Speaking openly about one’s feelings for a friend, he thinks, is dangerous because it exposes a person to all kinds of ridicule and judgment. And yet, he desperately wishes that he could tell Finny how much he cares about him, wanting to match Finny’s openness. However, he can’t bring himself to do this because he’s stopped by a feeling that “contains the truth.” Gene—and, for that matter, Knowles—never clarifies what this “truth” is, so the meaning of this moment remains ambiguous. However, it’s reasonable to consider the possibility that the “truth” to which Gene refers in this moment is that he has romantic feelings for Finny, feelings he isn’t ready (or willing) to acknowledge. Even if this isn’t the case, though, what’s overwhelmingly clear is that Gene is afraid of his feelings for Finny—a dynamic that impedes upon their relationship and keeps Gene from being open with his friend.
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