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When Gene is responsible for Finny's fall off the tree, the reader is in some confusion as to what really happened. All the book reads at this juncture is "Holding firmly to the trunk, I took a step near him, and then my knees bounced and I jounced the limb. Finny, his balance gone, swung his head to look at me for an instant with extreme interest, and then he tumbled sideways, broke through the little branches below and hit the bank with a sickening, unnatural thud." The reader does not know whether it was accidental or intentional. It is not until later that Finny realizes that Gene is responsible for his crippling, and what a natural thing it was to do. Gene bounced the branch just to see if he could make the invincible Finny fall; at least, this is why Gene claims he did it. This is true, but at some level, Gene was scared of Finny, of his confidence, his abilities, and his potential for breaking records. Consider Gene's paranoia over Finny's attempts to make him adventurous. Gene interprets these genuine acts of friendship as attempts to prevent him from reaching the top of the academic ladder.
This paranoia parallels war in that after it is declared, no one is safe. Countries, leaders, people suspicious of all who are perceived as a threat, causing them to lash out at anyone even peripherally involved. Adequately proven in A Separate Peace, there are also historical examples: the Nazi death camps, the American Japanese-American relocation camps, and the McCarthyism of the fifties. Apparently, in America, the Constitution rules until war is declared, then paranoia and vindictiveness take charge. When Gene had the opportunity to get back at Finny, he did, which is so human it is disheartening.
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Another example of man's capacity for viciousness against his fellow is Leper's insanity. Leper, an outcast at Devon, was one of the first juniors to enlist. An avid naturalist, he was entranced by the ski patrol, zooming about on clean, crisp snow. When he discovered the horrible reality of war, he cracked. The students at Devon, when they heard this, acted like the human creatures they were; they laughed. It was a survival reflex, laughing at a horror they would soon been forced to endure. Picking on Leper, Brinker and his buddies revealed the human need to blame someone, to distract the eye from their own fear.
A final example of man's inhumanity to man as shown in A Separate Peace is the inquiry by Brinker and his panel to find out what happened the day Finny broke his leg. Gene himself says of Brinker and the proceedings: "He's enjoying this, he's imagining himself Justice incarnate, balancing the scales. He's forgotten that Justice incarnate is not only blindfolding the scales but also blindfolded." With Finny begging for him to stop, he relentlessly probed, determined to find the truth, a truth that helped no one and hurt everyone. Because Brinker insisted on proceeding with his little drama, Finny loses what was possibly one of his most precious possessions: Gene. All this playacting ultimately accomplished was one thing: Finny's death. The marrow of Finny's bones killed him, thus, it seems the symbolism is man's inner core will defeat him. Because we are human, we are imperfect, and the perfect among us (symbolized by Finny) cannot exist, so that ideal society will never become a reality.
This novel illustrates man can be cruel to his fellow man. John Knowles' A Separate Peace demonstrates why men go to war, and why they cannot stop. This remarkable feat is accomplished with the telling of a single unique individual and his death.