A Separate Peace

A Separate Peace Chapter 5 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Nobody is allowed to visit Finny in the infirmary, where he lies after having decimated his leg, the bone messily broken. Everyone at the school is profoundly affected by the accident, especially the teachers, who find it particularly unfair that one of the few young men capable of enjoying an innocent summer in 1942 should have to face such pain and hardship. Though nobody accuses Gene of causing the fall, he wonders if he purposefully made Finny lose his balance by shaking the limb. Alone in their room one evening, he decides to try on Finny’s clothing. Finny is constantly stealing Gene’s clothes, but now Gene reaches for Finny’s pink shirt and pulls it over his head. When he looks in the mirror, he’s astounded by what he sees: he looks exactly like Phineas, and this makes him feel like he’ll never have to grapple with his own identity again.
That Gene wonders whether or not he purposefully made Finny fall suggests that, even if he did do it, it wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision. Rather, his pent-up resentment and jealousy might have led him to shake the tree limb. In keeping with this, he dresses up in Finny’s clothes and feels a certain kind of relief, as if he has been waiting to simply become Finny but hasn’t necessarily realized it until this moment. By destroying Finny, then, Gene has subconsciously tried to inhabit his best friend’s identity. 
Themes
War and Rivalry Theme Icon
Identity Theme Icon
Friendship and Honesty Theme Icon
One morning, the school physician, Dr. Stanpole, informs Gene that Finny is well enough to receive visitors. Gene is hesitant at first, but Dr. Stanpole insists that it would be good for Finny to see a friend. On their way to the infirmary, Stanpole says that the break in Finny’s leg was very bad but that he’ll most likely walk again someday. When he registers Gene’s bewilderment that he would even say such a thing, Dr. Stanpole explains that Finny will never be able to play sports again. Because of this, he needs a friend now more than ever, and Stanpole hopes Gene might be able to help Finny come to terms with this unfortunate reality. Unable to help himself, Gene begins to cry, but Dr. Stanpole tells him to be strong for Finny, who asked for him specifically.
It's worth remembering in this moment that one of Finny’s defining traits is his impressive athleticism. For this reason, it will undoubtedly devastate him when he learns that he’ll never be able to play sports again, especially since he thinks of all athletic pursuit as an “absolute good.” Despite these thoughts, he will no longer be able to partake in such activities, meaning that Gene has thoroughly ruined his best friend’s ability to experience the thing he loves most in life. This is why Gene breaks down in tears when Stanpole tells him that Finny will never play sports again. Simply put, he fully grasps the gravity of his actions.
Themes
War and Rivalry Theme Icon
Optimism, Idealization, and Denial Theme Icon
Gene pauses before fully entering Finny’s room, and Finny tells him to come inside, joking that Gene looks worse than him. He then asks why he looks so upset, and Gene doesn’t know what to say. Speechless, he finally asks Finny what happened in the tree, wanting to know how he fell. In response, Finny says that he simply fell, that the branch shook and that he lost his balance. He also notes that he turned to look at Gene and tried to reach out to him. “To drag me down too!” Gene erupts, but Finny just gazes at him and explains that he only wanted to stabilize himself. Getting ahold of himself, Gene claims to have tried to reach out for him, but Finny says that he can only remember the look on his face—it was strange, he says, a look of total shock.
When Gene momentarily accuses Finny of wanting to “drag” him down too, he reveals that he hasn’t fully let go of the idea that he and Finny are rivals, despite all that’s happened. However, Finny just looks at him in response and calmly tells him that he simply wanted to regain his balance. Once again, then, readers see how off-base Gene is to think that Finny houses any animosity for him. Furthermore, readers will remember that Finny reached out to stabilize Gene when they were in opposite positions. This only emphasizes how heartless it was of Gene to send Finny falling to the ground.
Themes
War and Rivalry Theme Icon
Friendship and Honesty Theme Icon
Finny points out that the look Gene had on his face when he fell is exactly the look he’s wearing right now. Gene claims that this is because he’s shocked, but Finny doesn’t understand why Gene is acting so upset, as if it happened to him. When Gene says that it practically did happen to him because he was right there, Finny tells him that he knows, saying that he remembers the entire thing. In the pause that follows this statement, silence stretches between the two boys before Gene suddenly breaks it, asking if Finny remembers what made him fall. In response, Finny speaks with uncharacteristic confusion, ultimately—in a long, discursive way—implying that Gene may have caused his fall. Before he commits to this sentiment, though, he takes it back, apologizing for suspecting his friend of anything. “I just fell,” he says.
Although Finny has already said that the only thing he can remember about his fall is the look on Gene’s face, he now claims to remember the entire thing. However, he can’t bring himself to fully accuse Gene. This is most likely because he could never imagine why his best friend would want to hurt him. Unlike Gene, Finny doesn’t feel any bitterness in their friendship. Instead, he sees Gene as his best friend and, therefore, can’t fathom the idea that he might have caused his fall. All the same, though, that he even brings this idea up suggests that he knows—on some level, at least—what really happened.
Themes
War and Rivalry Theme Icon
Optimism, Idealization, and Denial Theme Icon
Friendship and Honesty Theme Icon
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Gene has no idea what to say, since Finny has just apologized to him for suspecting what Gene himself knows is the truth. Considering this, Gene admires Finny’s belief in friendship, realizing that Finny would never accuse a friend of something malicious without knowing for sure what happened. In his place, Gene knows, Finny would confess, so he stands and begins to tell the truth. He says that he must admit something terrible, something that Finny is going to detest, but before he can say anything more, Dr. Stanpole enters and sends him out of the infirmary. The following day, Stanpole says that Finny isn’t up to seeing visitors, and it isn’t long before he’s sent back to his parents in Boston.
An optimist and idealist, Finny believes in the sanctity of friendship, which is why he can’t bring himself to fully accuse Gene. After all, this would mean suspecting his best friend of malice, thereby tarnishing their bond. Of course, he’s right to suspect that Gene caused his fall, but he denies this because the idea goes against what he sees as the purity of friendship. To make matters more complicated, Gene loses his chance to tell Finny the truth, effectively making it harder for him to be honest with Finny, since he will now have to apologize for leading Finny to believe that Gene is innocent. 
Themes
War and Rivalry Theme Icon
Optimism, Idealization, and Denial Theme Icon
Friendship and Honesty Theme Icon
The summer session ends, and Gene goes home for the rest of August before heading back to Devon. His trains are delayed on his return trip, and he suddenly is filled with the desire to see Finny, so he heads toward Boston instead of catching his final train back to campus. When he arrives, Finny greets him warmly and excitedly, wanting to know all about Gene’s vacation. After some conversation, he tells Finny that he’s been thinking a lot about him and the accident. Finny calls him “loyal” for spending his summer vacation thinking about such things, but Gene goes on, saying that he can’t get the accident off his mind because he’s the one who caused it to happen. Finny asks what he means, and Gene admits that he bounced the limb, but Finny refuses to accept this.
As time passes, it becomes harder and harder for Gene to tell the truth. This is largely due to the fact that Finny has decided to drop all of his suspicions, even going out of his way to praise Gene’s “loyalty” in a way that only makes it more difficult for him to admit what he did. Interestingly enough, this appears to be a defense mechanism for Finny, as made evident when he refuses to listen when Gene tells him that he caused the fall. After all, Finny has already lost his ability to play sports, so he doesn’t want to also lose his best friend. For this reason, he actively denies what Gene tells him.
Themes
Optimism, Idealization, and Denial Theme Icon
Friendship and Honesty Theme Icon
Insisting that he made the tree branch move, Gene stands and loudly states that he was responsible for Finny’s fall. Calmly, Finny informs him that he’ll hit him if he doesn’t sit down and stop saying such things, but Gene incredulously points out that Finny couldn’t hit him even if he wanted to, since he can’t stand. Finny then tells him to shut up, threatening to kill him, and this comment resonates with Gene, who  says that now Finny knows why he caused him to fall—this, he says, is exactly how he felt when he bounced the limb. Hearing this, Finny insists that he has no such feelings, telling Gene to go away because he’s making him sick. Suddenly, Gene senses that he’s only causing Finny more pain, and he questions whether or not he truly sent Finny falling to the ground on purpose.
As Finny tries to deny that Gene meant to hurt him, he becomes more and more upset. When he finally expresses outrage and threatens to hurt Gene, Gene suggests that this is exactly what he himself felt that day on the tree. This aligns with the idea that he caused Finny to fall because he let his envy and resentment build into a violent rage. However, this isn’t actually what Finny is experiencing. When Gene finally sees this, he recognizes that Finny is only mad because Gene is adding a new and emotional element of pain to the pain that Finny already has to endure. Most interestingly, he begins to wonder if he actually caused Finny to fall on purpose, acknowledging to himself that his actions were subconscious. In turn, readers see how toxic jealousy and resentment can be to a friendship.
Themes
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Friendship and Honesty Theme Icon
Whether or not Gene meant to cause Finny’s fall, he realizes that it will hurt Finny even more if he knows that this is what happened. For this reason, he desperately tries to take back what he’s said, saying that he’s overtired and that he’s not making any sense. In a matter-of-fact way, Finny tells him not to worry about what he’s said, and then Gene stands to leave, saying that he’s already an entire day late for school. Just before he goes, Finny asks if he’s going to start following rules, and Gene promises that he won’t, though he privately notes that this is the biggest lie he’s told all day.
Finny’s willingness to dismiss what Gene has said signals his own desire to deny the implications of what happened that fateful evening in the tree. Now that he’s more or less come to terms with the physical aspects of his injury, he doesn’t want to consider the emotional implications surrounding Gene’s involvement in the accident. Instead, he’d prefer to believe that Gene—his best friend—would never do anything to hurt him, thereby demonstrating his idealistic belief in the inherent goodness of friendship.
Themes
Optimism, Idealization, and Denial Theme Icon
Friendship and Honesty Theme Icon