Symbolic Wages of War
As children begin to age and minds start to mature, they are able to comprehend that the world can be a trying place full of crime, death, and war. The older a person gets, the more responsibilities and problems they will encounter. Some may never be involved in a physical war, but anyone can struggle with a symbolic war. In John Knowles’ A Separate Peace, Finny and Gene fight their own war, one that relates greatly to the war occurring in the outside world: the second world war. Throughout the plot, Finny and Gene manage to wage their own non-physical war, that contains just as much loss as a real one.
The jealousy that Gene has for Finny shapes their relationship into a battleground, accumulating physical and symbolic casualties along the way. Gene’s hatred of Finny leads him to jounce the limb of the tree branch that Finny is perched upon. Finny, who had such a bright future ahead of him full of athletic opportunities, is stripped of his dreams when his leg is shattered after falling. Therefore, Finny is the main casualty of Gene’s war. The lives lost in a real war may be greater in number than just one, Finny, Gene feels as if his own life has been stripped away after his best friend dies. Attending Finny’s funeral, Gene says, “I did not cry then or ever about Finny. I did not cry when I stood watching him being lowered into his family’s strait[laced burial ground outside of Boston. I could not escape a feeling that this was my own funeral, and you do not cry in that case” (186). Gene feels like he has suffered through his own death since his best friend has been taken away from him and replaced with nothing but emptiness. Their extremely close and affectionate relationship makes them support one another in a way where they complete each other. At one point, before the accident, Finny convinces Gene to come to the beach with him saying, “I hope you’re having a pretty good time here. I know I kind of dragged you away at the point of a gun, but after all, you can’t come to the shore with just anybody… the proper person is your best pal, which is what you are” (40). This proves how much the two boys care about each other; Finny shows a never before seen vulnerable side while Gene sacrifices his grades to please his friend. The casualties that Gene faces are similar to lives that are lost during a war because he takes Finny’s death as his own.
During the 1940s, the time period that the novel takes place in, World War II is a reoccurring issue that reappears various times. Most everyone wishes that the war will end soon to end the pain end suffering, but many sacrifices must be made along the way in order to become victorious. In physical wars, soldiers will lose their lives, and their families will grieve. Soldiers who do survive will live the rest of their lives with painful memories of the war, wishing they could go back and do something differently, saving someone’s life or sparing someone else’s. In A Separate Peace, Gene suffers losses as well, relating to the loss of life in a war. After returning to Devon, Gene does not want to accept the fact that he crippled his best friend for life, and avoids certain situations that will jolt him into reality. Gene says that he “did not want to see the trays of snails which Leper had passed the summer collecting replaced by Brinker’s files. Not yet” (75). Seeing how much the room changed will only prove to Gene that everything has changed, and nothing will ever be the same. He is not ready to admit his guilty feelings. This relates to veterans in real wars because they are hesitant to return home in fear of not being able to adapt back to their old lifestyle. They are afraid to embrace this new change and refuse to acknowledge the difference by telling themselves that everything is the same and that nothing at all has changed. Gene believes he is competing with his best friend, Finny, in academic and athletic abilities. Finny always is eager to convince Gene to halt his studies and break rules, like jumping off trees, instead. Gene attempts to “win” by studying more and putting in much more effort into his academics to make up for his lesser athletic ability that Finny has. Gene does technically win by killing Finny’s chances of becoming an athlete and enlisting in the war when Gene jounces the limb of a tree that Finny is perched upon, but Gene considers this victory to be a Pyrrhic one. He immediately regrets his decision to make his friend fall and shatter his leg. In a surgery to fix his leg, Finny dies when a piece of bone marrow floats through his bloodstream to his heart, leaving Gene with no more competition. Gene feels as if a part of himself died along with Finny when his “enemy” died, for taking the life of another takes something out of the killer they never can be able to regain. Soldiers feel this similar sense of remorse too when they kill another human in the battlefield; the guilt of stripping someone of their life will follow them around for the rest of their lives, become a new war they may struggle with. Another way that soldiers cope with returning home after the traumatic memories they hold, is to change their everyday routine. Gene does this when he says, “I was late for my afternoon appointment. I never used to be late. But today I was, even later than I had to be” (75). Here he is avoiding certain situations where he may feel guilty about Finny’s leg. Before the accident, Gene was one of, if not the best student at Devon, but now he is cleansing himself of all memories and routines attached to the war that he battled with Finny. Even when winning in war, the winner will have lost something of value that they will never get back.
At times of war, soldiers are confused on who is to blame for their fighting. They are told that they are to fight the enemy, but it is difficult to truly know if the opposing side is evil since they are simply fighting for what they believe in. Gene’s actions of making Finny fall off the tree is what inevitably leads to Finny’s death. Some students, like Brinker Hadley, have suspicions that Gene made Finny fall. Even Brinker parallels his situation to a fallen soldier: “‘there is a war going on. Here’s one soldier our side has already lost. We’ve got to find out what happened’” (168). He and the other students desire to know who is to blame for the accident and to know who the enemy is. During this investigation, Finny himself even begins to show doubt in Gene’s innocence. Both boys are confused as to who they can trust, and who they should hate. In the last line of the novel, Gene reflect, “I killed my enemy [at school] … all of them, all except Phineas, constructed at infinite cost to themselves these Maginot Lines against this enemy they saw across the frontier, this enemy who never attacked that way-if he ever attacked all; if he was indeed the enemy” (196). This shows how confused Gene is about who the enemy is. At the time of Finny’s accident, Gene believed Finny was his opposer in the sense that they were competing to be superior to one another. But now it is unclear to Gene if his enemy was indeed Finny, his best pal, or himself, the envy devouring his mind.
Students at Devon learn to fight their own wars, while soldiers fight in physical ones. The relationship between Finny and Gene is a microcosm of the outside world since Gene’s jealousy of his friend creates a miniature war. Their battling results in casualties, just like a real war. Gene’s inability to resolve his internal conflict of hating Finny results in not only his suffering but the suffering of others as well. This resentment that Gene feels shapes his relationship with Finny into a symbolic war that results in casualties, the same as a physical war.
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