When Gene returns to Devon, he feels as if the calm ease of the summer session has fled campus. It is no longer a peaceful haven, but a place consumed by energy and order. During the first chapel service of the year, he and the other students notice that five of their teachers from the previous years have left for the war. All the beauty and peace and tranquility of the summer, Gene feels, ended the night Finny fell from the tree, and now he must set himself to the rote habits of the traditional school year. Worse, his room feels lonely, since Finny is still recovering at home. Across the hall, a popular and well-rounded student named Brinker Hadley has moved into Leper’s old room—a development that would normally please Gene but does little to stir him. Leper, for his part, has been moved to a remote room across campus.
Everything about Gene’s new existence at Devon has changed in the aftermath of Finny’s fall. As he tries to accustom himself to the new patterns of the regular academic calendar, he thinks wistfully about the innocent freedom he enjoyed with Finny over the summer, as if their youthful joy has disappeared along with Finny’s perfect physical condition. In this regard, Finny’s fall from the tree symbolizes Gene’s fall from innocence, as he plummets from the happiness of childhood into the harsh, strict world of adulthood, toward which he is constantly hurdling, destined not only for maturity, but also for war.
Gene decides to visit Brinker, but stops before he enters, realizing that he doesn’t want to see how Leper’s former room has changed. Instead of saying hello to Brinker, then, he turns around and goes to the Crew House because he has decided to be the assistant crew manager. On his way, he sees the Devon River and thinks of Finny, though he’s actually headed toward the Naguamsett River, which the Devon joins before entering the ocean. When he reaches the Crew House, Cliff Quackenbush, the crew manager, admonishes him for being late. Most people dislike Quackenbush because he’s abrasive and enervating, but Gene doesn’t care because he has decided to resign himself to the inglorious job of assistant crew manager, regardless of how unpleasant it is.
It’s worth noting that, although Gene was never better than Finny at sports, he is a rather athletic young man. It’s surprising, then, that he has decided to be the assistant crew manager instead of playing a sport—an obvious show of solidarity with Finny, whose athletic career he ruined. In turn, readers see the ways in which Gene’s guilt influences his decisions in the aftermath of Finny’s fall. While he resists the changes all around him, he makes great changes to his own life as a way of punishing himself for what he’s done.
At the end of the day, Quackenbush tries to understand why Gene is suddenly interested in managing teams, which is a job mostly filled by people who aren’t athletic themselves. Gene gets annoyed as Quackenbush peppers him with questions, wanting to be left alone so he can work mindlessly. However, Quackenbush won’t leave him alone, and Gene feels bad for him because he sees how desperate Quackenbush is to assert himself, since people normally overlook him so readily. However, when Quackenbush insinuates that Gene must only want to work as an assistant manager because he is “maimed,” Gene hits him in the face. In response, Quackenbush locks his arms around him and they both fall into the dirty Naguamsett River.
Quackenbush’s claim that Gene must be “maimed” suggests that he thinks Gene is somehow physically unable to play sports, the assumption being that he wouldn’t want to be assistant crew manager for any other reason. Of course, the only reason Gene wants to be assistant crew manager in the first place is to make up for having “maimed” Finny, which is why he responds so harshly to Quackenbush’s derogatory use of the word. Simply put, Gene takes it upon himself to avenge Finny even though he’s the one who hurt Finny in the first place.
Although Gene wants to think that he hit Quackenbush to defend Finny, he knows that he really did it for himself. On his way back to the dorm, he runs into Mr. Ludsbury, the man in charge of his building. Mr. Ludsbury scolds him for taking advantage of Mr. Prud’homme over the summer and says that now things will return to order. He also tells him that he has received a phone call, so Gene hurries back to the dorm and calls the number Mr. Ludsbury wrote down for him. Finny answers and asks Gene if they’ve replaced him with a new roommate. Gene assures him that they didn’t, and Finny says that he knew he could count on Gene to prevent the teachers from letting another boy take his place.
Despite Gene’s desire to defend Finny’s honor, he can’t quite convince himself that he admirably avenged his friend. This is because he knows that he’s the reason Finny got hurt in the first place. No matter what he does to make up for this, he’ll never be able to change the fact that he injured Finny and changed the course of his life. Thankfully, though, Finny himself is apparently eager to put this ugly past behind them, either intentionally putting the matter out of his mind or denying it so fiercely that he legitimately convinces himself that Gene did nothing to harm him.
Apologizing for doubting that Gene would save his place, Finny moves on to other topics, asking what sports Gene is going out for this year. When Gene tells him that he was thinking of being assistant crew manager, Finny is appalled. He asks what this has to do with sports, and Gene privately thinks about how it has nothing to do with sports, which is exactly why he likes it. This is because he never wants to play sports again. When Dr. Stanpole said, “Sports are finished,” Gene felt as if the statement applied to him, not just to Finny. Furthermore, he doesn’t trust himself to play sports anymore, unnerved by the violence that now seems inherent in any athletic event. After all, there is a war afoot, and everything around Gene is infused with the threat of violence.
Everywhere Gene looks, he is affronted by the possibility of violence. Of course, the looming presence of the war ensures that the threat of violence is ever-present, but now he even associates sports with this kind of malice because of what he did to Finny. Indeed, he no longer trusts himself to engage in physical activities that pit him against others, apparently aware that his competitive side is what led him to act against Finny. For this reason, he wants to punish himself by doing only things that Finny would be able to do, too, trying to atone for his mistakes despite the fact that this does nothing to change what has happened and doesn’t even please Finny.
Not wanting to explain his thoughts about sports to Finny, Gene simply says that he’s too busy to go out for any teams. However, Finny rejects this idea, saying that Gene will have to play sports because he himself cannot. As soon as he says this, Gene senses that he has finally gotten the chance to be part of Finny.
Having put the past behind them, all Finny wants is for Gene to succeed in the activities in which he himself can no longer participate. Instead of resenting Gene for causing his fall, he denies that this happened and focuses on living vicariously through his friend. This, in turn, is why he finds it ridiculous that Gene would want to be assistant crew manager instead of playing an actual sport. What’s more, Gene finally gets to merge his identity with Finny’s—something he has always wanted to do.