A Separate Peace

A Separate Peace Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Gene wakes up early the next morning and watches the sun fill the sky. Finny is still asleep, but when he finally wakes, he insists upon taking one last swim in the ocean before they leave. Gene, for his part, wants to get going as soon as possible because he’s worried about missing his trigonometry exam, but Finny pays no attention. Finally, they make their way home, and Gene narrowly makes it to class in time but fails the test because he didn’t study. Frustrated, he returns to the dorm and starts studying, wanting to make up for flunking. Trying to pull him away from his studies, Finny tells Gene that he works too hard, accusing him of wanting to be the class’s valedictorian. At first, Gene denies this, but then wonders why this would be such a bad thing.
After their escapade to the beach, Gene resents Finny for causing him to fail his test. Of course, it isn’t just Finny’s fault that he didn’t study, since Gene could have decided to stay and focus on his schoolwork. In fact, he didn’t even protest when Finny suggested that they take their bikes to the beach. And yet, he now sees his own failure—his own decision to blow off his studies—as Finny’s fault, proving once again that his relationship with Finny fluctuates between admiration and scorn.
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Gene’s conversation with Finny about academic performances makes him consider the nature of their friendship. He senses that Finny doesn’t want him to excel in his studies. In fact, he thinks, he and Finny are actually rivals. Because Finny isn’t as good in school as him, he doesn’t want Gene to succeed. And though Finny is well-liked and the school’s best athlete, Gene realizes that they would be “even” if he himself were to become valedictorian.
In the aftermath of his failed exam, Gene hatches a resentful theory that he and Finny are rivals. This, of course, is based on nothing but his own feelings of jealousy and competition, not necessarily on anything that Finny actually feels. And yet, his theory is convincing enough that it’s hard for him—and even for readers—to dismiss it. In this regard, he allows his frustration to completely destabilize his bond with Finny.
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Gene asks Finny if he’d mind if he did become valedictorian, and Finny sarcastically says that he’d commit suicide out of envy—a statement that Gene takes seriously. He then finds himself quite upset, thinking that he doesn’t actually have anyone at Devon (or anywhere, for that matter) whom he can trust, since he now sees Finny as his rival. The only consolation that comes from this thought is that he and Finny are already even because they both want to be better than the other. However, he suddenly convinces himself that Finny has been trying to keep him from succeeding in his studies, distracting him from work so that he won’t excel beyond him. From this point on, then, he applies himself feverously to school, and though he now sees Finny as his rival, he continues to get along with him very well.
What makes Gene’s theory about his relationship with Finny so hard to ignore is that it makes sense. After all, it’s plausible that Finny doesn’t want him to become the valedictorian. Even if this were the case, though, it’s clear that Gene is taking the idea of their rivalry much more seriously than Finny. If Finny even did feel competitive in his friendship with Gene, it’s unlikely that he would obsess over it in the way that Gene does by applying himself so feverishly to his studies. This is because Finny’s brand of competition is generally good-natured and fun, whereas Gene’s is bitter and scornful. In other words, Gene’s envious streak threatens to upend his entire relationship with Finny, whereas Finny’s competitive side is casual and full of goodwill.
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As the final exams of the summer session approach, Gene feels underprepared, despite the amount of studying he’s been doing. One thing that continues to interfere is the Suicide Society, since Finny frequently interrupts his studies so they can go jump out of the tree. And yet, Gene is unwilling to let Finny go without him, knowing that this, too, is part of their rivalry. One night, though, he acts especially angry when Finny fetches him to go to the tree. In a characteristically jovial mood, Finny informs him that Leper will finally be making the jump. Gene slams his book shut and begrudgingly prepares to go, but Finny acts as if he doesn’t understand why he’s mad. When Gene tells him that he’s tired of the Suicide Society interfering with his schoolwork, Finny tells him to stay.
Gene’s tense behavior in this scene demonstrates the extent to which his sense of jealous rivalry has infected his relationship with Finny. Whereas Finny simply wants to have a good time, Gene wants to triumph over his friend. However, he can’t bring himself to let Finny go to the tree by himself, thinking that this would also be a form of losing. In turn, readers see just how obsessed he has become with the idea that he and Finny are rivals, letting the notion destroy his ability to simply get along with his friend.
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Gene is caught off-guard by Finny’s suggestion that he keep studying instead of jumping from the tree. But Finny goes on, explaining that he should pursue his studies because he’s naturally good in school. Finny says he would apply himself in a similar regard, but he knows that it’s no use—he’ll never excel like Gene. Hearing this, Gene insists upon coming to the tree, but Finny urges him to stay and study. Nonetheless, Gene leaves his textbooks behind and walks with Finny across campus, thinking on the way that Finny has never actually been jealous of him. There is, he sees, no rivalry between them at all because he isn’t “of the same quality” as Finny.
Finally, Gene recognizes that Finny doesn’t see him as a rival. When Finny earnestly tells him to focus on his studies and compliments him for being good in school, he sees that his best friend has no interest in sabotaging his academic performance. In keeping with this, he realizes that Finny doesn’t see him as a competitor. Instead of seeing this as a good thing, though, he broods, thinking that Finny doesn’t think of him as a rival because he’s not good enough to be his rival. Of course, it’s more likely that Finny simply sees Gene as a close friend and therefore doesn’t harbor any animosity toward him, but Gene assumes the worst, thereby pitting himself against Finny even though Finny doesn’t have anything against him.
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When they reach the tree and greet the other members of the Suicide Society, Finny suggests that he and Gene should make the first jump together, plunging into the water at the same time. Not caring anymore what happens, Gene agrees and lets Finny climb up the tree first, following closely behind. When they reach the limb that hangs over the bank, Finny walks out onto it and instructs Gene to follow him so that they can jump simultaneously. Still holding the trunk, Gene takes a step. Then his knees bend and the branch bounces, knocking Finny off balance. Time seems to stretch for an instant as Finny twirls around to look at Gene, wearing an expression of intrigue before falling off the branch and landing on the bank with a gut-wrenching sound. Fearlessly, Gene jumps into the river.
By telling Gene that it’s all right if he wants to stay in his dorm and study, Finny makes it clear that he doesn’t see him as a rival. As if to further demonstrate this, he suggests that they jump off the tree at the same time, clearly wanting to re-solidify their bond as best friends with nothing between them. However, both of these developments upset Gene because they make it clear that Finny doesn’t see him as a competitor—a thought that enrages him because he believes it means that Finny doesn’t think Gene could compete with him. These considerations are all relevant to this moment because it is unclear how, exactly, Finny falls. In his telling of the story, Gene simply states that his knees bend on the branch, destabilizing it. Whether or not this is intentional is hard to say, though Gene’s feelings of jealousy and resentment suggest that he might indeed have meant to send Finny hurdling to the riverbank. 
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