Preserved along with it, like stale air in an unopened room, was the well known fear which had surrounded and filled those days, so much of it that I hadn't even known it was there. Because, unfamiliar with the absence of fear and what that was like, I had not been able to identify its presence (1.3).
Is sixteen-year-old Gene really unaware of fear? This seems pretty inconsistent with his behavior…Can you say "unreliable narrator"?
I felt fear's echo, and along with that I felt the unhinged, uncontrollable joy which had been its accompaniment and opposite face, joy which had broken out sometimes in those days like Northern Lights across black sky (1.5).
A Separate Peace is all about equal but opposite pairs: war and peace, winter and summer, safety and injury, life and death, and here we see joy and fear.
I felt better. Yes, I sensed it like the sweat of relief when nausea passes away; I felt better. We were even after all, even in enmity. The deadly rivalry was on both sides after all (4.34).
That Gene feels better at finding resentment in Finny proves both his jealousy and its source: Finny's character, not his abilities.
Any fear I had ever had of the tree was nothing beside this. It wasn't my neck, but my understanding which was menaced. He had never been jealous of me for a second. Now I knew that there never was and never could have been any rivalry between us. I was not of the same quality as he (4.72).
This is what Gene fears, more than Finny's athleticism or charm – his goodness of heart, his pureness of motive. The question is, then, why is Gene free of fear after Finny falls from the tree? His athleticism has been destroyed, but his character hasn't. What should we make of this?
In the silences between jokes about Leper's glories we wondered whether we ourselves would measure up to the humblest minimum standard of the army. I did not know everything there was to know about myself, and knew that I did not know it; I wondered in the silences between jokes about Leper whether the still hidden parts of myself might contain the Sad Sack, the outcast, or the coward. We were all at our funniest about Leper, and we all secretly hoped that Leper, that incompetent, was as heroic as we said (9.16).
Leper becomes a reflection of all the boys' dreams of their own future selves in the army. What does it say, then, that Leper goes mad and abandons ship?
"That was when things began to change. One day I couldn't make out what was happening to the corporal's face. It kept changing into faces I knew from somewhere else, and then I began to think he looked like me…" (10.77).
Leper's visions betray a fear of changing identity – think about this in the context of what's going on between Finny and Gene, as the latter "become[s] a part of" the former.
What did he mean by telling me a story like that! I didn't want to hear any more of it. Not now or ever. I didn't care because it had nothing to do with me. And I didn't want to hear any more of it. Ever (10.82).
Gene is lying to himself again. What bothers Gene so much about Leper's visions is precisely this – they have everything to do with him, and with Phineas. Shifting identities is one of the many horrifying transformations going down at the Devon school.
Finny turned toward me. "You were down at the bottom, weren't you? he asked, not in the official courtroom tone he had used before, but in a friend's voice (11.147).
Finny so much fears his friend's betrayal that he has altered the past in his mind to avoid facing the truth.
None of them ever accused me of being responsible for what had happened to Phineas, either because they could not believe it or else because they could not understand it. I would have talked about that, but they would not, and I would not talk about Phineas in any other way (12.14).
Gene spoke in Chapter One about his hope to achieve growth and harmony within himself. How might this passage address that question?
I listened so hard that I nearly differentiated it from the others, and it seemed to be saying, "Finny, give that bone the old college try."
I was quite the card tonight myself (12.13-4).
After Finny's second fall, Gene deflects his fear in a variety of ways, first with objective reporting and secondly, as we see here, with humor.