A Separate Peace: Responsibility
A responsibility is something for which one is held accountable. Often people say that one is responsible for one’s own words and actions; if something happens as a result of something one does one is responsible for it. But is it possible that something could be the result of various actions from different people who are therefore equally responsible, or is there always one person who is most responsible for the incident at hand? Such a situation where this question is relevant is present in the novel A Separate Peace by John Knowles. In the novel, the main character, Gene, ponders his responsibility for the death of his best friend, Phineas or Finny. After reading Gene’s account of the events that led to Finny’s death the reader may observe that there are three people who are all partially at fault for Finny’s death. Gene, a classmate named Brinker, and Phineas all had something to do with the incident, but who was most responsible for it?
Gene is probably the most obvious to blame for part of Phineas’ death. Gene clearly feels guilty, that is why he returns to the tree fifteen years after the fact, for some sort of closure. As Gene and Finny were about to jump from a tree branch into the river together, Gene shook the branch causing Phineas to fall into the river unexpectedly and hurt his leg. Later on, when Phineas re-injured his leg and was having it set in a routine operation, he passed away. The doctor said that it was probably because some marrow entered his blood stream and caused his heart to stop. But if Finny had never fallen in the first place he would have not been on that operating table. Therefore, indirectly an action of Genes eventually resulted in Finny’s death. But was this action done consciously? The author does not specify. “My knees were bent and I jounced the limb”(Knowles p.52) says Gene in his account of the incident. “I jounced” is an active verb but “were bent” is passive meaning that some unknown force bent Gene’s knees and as a result of that he jounced the limb. Since this action was not totally Gene’s he is not thus totally responsible for the fall or the events that occurred as a result of it.
Brinker, Gene and Finny’s classmate was responsible for the circumstances that lead to Phineas’ second fall. Brinker suspected that Gene was responsible for Finny’s first fall and begrudged him somewhat for not enlisting in the army with him when he had wanted to. It was Brinker who called together the trial in which Gene was prosecuted for purposely causing Finny to fall off the tree. But even if Gene was to blame for Finny’s first fall, it was not necessary to drag Finny out of bed in the middle of the night and put him through such emotional turmoil when he was still physically vulnerable from the accident. If Brinker had not organized the trial Finny would have never rushed out in such an upset manner causing him to fall and hurt himself again. The doctor was not sure why Phineas died. “In the middle of it his heart just stopped. I can’t explain it.”(Knowles p.185) He said. Later on the doctor conjectured that Phineas probably died when marrow entered his blood circulation and clogged his heart but Gene meant the world to Finny. The idea Brinker introduced to Phineas that his best friend would betray him hurt Phineas severely and maybe even caused him to loose the will to live. Brinker’s actions were crucial to Finny’s death and since they were done with cruel intentions Brinker is largely responsible for the death of his classmate.
Surprisingly enough Finny is partly responsible for his own death. He knew that jumping off the tree into the river was dangerous hence the name of the club “Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session”(Knowles p.24) whose membership requirement was one jump from the tree. Also, if not for Finny Gene wouldn’t even have come to the meeting the night of the accident, Gene wanted to stay in the dorm and study but Finny used reverse psychology in order to convince him to come. Lastly, it was also Finny’s idea that they jump together rather then alone, risking the possibility that the movement of one could cause the other to loose his balance. If not for any of these incidents Finny would never have fallen to begin with, Gene’s trial would never have taken place, and he would not have found himself on that operating table. This makes Finny largely responsible for his first fall and partly responsible for his death.
In conclusion although none of them were conscious that their actions would eventually lead to Finny’s death, Gene, Brinker, and Finny were all partly responsible for it. The one most to blame however was Finny himself, starting a club in which jumping off the tree into the river was a membership requirement was the first in the series of events that eventually lead to his death. If Finny had not done this none of the incidents which Gene and Brinker were at fault for would have ever had reason to take place. Consequently, the person most to blame for the death of Phineas was Phineas himself. As the song goes: “It is of no surprise to me, I am my own worst enemy.”(Lit Place in the Sun)