The Homosocial, the Homoerotic, and the Homosexual: Tracing the Homos in A Separate Peace

Author(s): 
Jason Vanfosson
Issue: 
Tracts 6 - 2009

Male foils are a common characteristic of John Knowles’ works.  In The Paragon, Lou Colfax stands in contrast to his roommate, Gordon Durant. Durant’s outgoing and 
sociable personality underscores the solitary life that Colfax chooses. Hochschwender is used as a 
contrasting look to Wexford in Peace Breaks Out. These characters highlight each other’s 
differences because of their blatantly different political affiliations and personal rivalries. 
Knowles’ most notable juxtaposition of male characters, however, is the placement of Gene Forrester 
next to Phineas (Finny) in A Separate Peace. Gene epitomizes the introverted, intellectual, 
rule-follower, while Phineas represents the outgo- ing, athletic, rule-breaker. By placing these 
two characters next to each other, Knowles creates a homosocial relationship that leads to 
homoerotic desire; Gene uses this homosocial relationship to suppress the homosexual panic he 
experiences in the face of his homoerotic longing for Finny.
Two scholars have provocatively discussed the potential of a homosexual relation between Gene and 
Finny. James Holt McGavran argues in “Fear’s Echo and Unhinged Joy: Crossing Homosocial Boundaries 
in A Separate Peace” that, while Gene and Finny never explicitly state their love for one another, 
they do create a bond that resembles a homosexual relationship. In “Refusing the Queer Potential: 
John Knowles A Separate Peace,” Eric Tribunella agrees with McGavran that homosexual tendencies do 
exist in Knowles’ work, but he contends that Gene refuses the possibility of homosexuality, while 
Finny acts on it, which is why he must die. McGavran traces the homosocial relationship between 
Gene and Finny by examining “some of Gene’s and Finny’s expressions of love for each other, then 
Gene’s growing sense of identification with Finny and Finny’s reciprocating responses” (71).  He 
also compares the relationship and narration found in Knowles’ novel to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The 
Great Gatsby. This novel parallels Knowles’ because the main characters in each novel are 

in an implied homosexual partnership that results in the death of one of the men.  In placing these 
two novels together, McGavran shows how unspoken homosexual bonds typically must have one of the 
homosexual partners die at the end. Both scholars apply Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s conception of 
homosexual panic to the relationship between Gene and Finny, asserting that the moment of panic for 
Gene occurs when he jounces the limb and causes Finny to fall. McGavran and Tribunella neither 
acknowledge the homosexual relationship found between the characters of A Separate Peace nor see 
the extent of the homoeroticism in the novel.
While Gene Forrester does not exhibit explicit homosexual behavior, as the narrator of A Separate 
Peace, he does have a gaze that lingers upon the object of his homoerotic desires. Gene’s attention 
to detail in the male form suggests same-sex desires and provides a type of outlet for Gene to 
express these desires. When Finny first prepares to dive from the tree, Gene acutely observes:

We just looked quietly back at him, and so he began taking off his clothes, stripping down to his 
underpants. For such an extraordinary athlete . . . he was not spectacularly built. He weighed a 
hundred and fifty pounds, a galling ten pounds more than I did, which flowed from his legs to torso 
around shoulders to arms and full strong neck in an uninterrupted, unemphatic unity of strength. 
(16)
Gene’s description of Finny is detailed and precise, suggesting the veiled admiration he has for 
Finny.  This description of the unclothed Phineas also reveals an element of the inchoate desire 
that Gene has for Finny.  Gene com- pares Phineas to himself, which foreshadows Gene’s later 
yearning to be Phineas when, later, he cannot be with him.
Gene’s homoerotic gaze changes focus throughout the novel, lighting on others besides Finny. 
Brinker temporarily becomes the object of Gene’s desire, and Gene’s eye lingers erotically on 
Brinker.  Gene provocatively reveals, “The flaps of his gabardine jacket parted slightly over his 
healthy rump, and it is that, without any sense of derision at all, that I recall as Brinker’s 
salient characteristic, those healthy, determined, not over-exaggerated but definite and 
substantial buttocks” (87).  Gene is keenly aware of Brinker’s physical attributes, in particular a 
physical feature that is eroticized. This homoerotic description comes at a time when Phineas is 
away from Devon.  Brinker, unknowingly, becomes the object of Gene’s desire during this period, and 
causes a bond to form between Gene and Brinker that Brinker does not attribute to Gene’s desires 
for him.  But these desires lead Gene to enlist in the war with him to consecrate their 
relationship.  Once Phineas returns to Devon, however, Gene immediately disregards this commitment 
to Brinker stating, “‘What a nutty idea.
It’s just Brinker wanting to get there first again.  I wouldn’t enlist with you if you were General 
MacArthur’s eldest son’” (108).  Gene’s desire for Brinker is extinguished with the reappearance of 
Phineas, on whom it refocuses. Gene notes this subtly by stating, “Peace had come back to Devon for 
me” (109). The return of Phineas marks the return of Gene’s desire for him and the return of peace 
and complacency that Gene feels when Phineas is around.
After Finny’s death, Gene still narrates the novel with a homoerotic eye. When the paratroopers 
commandeer Devon, Gene notes, “At the gym a platoon was undressing in the locker room. The best 
that could be said for them physi- cally was that they looked wiry in their startling sets of 
underwear, which were the color of moss” (202).  Even though Gene was just with Brinker, he does 
not describe Brinker erotically as he did earlier.  Instead, Gene focuses on the anonymous troops 
he sees in the locker room.  Consistent in his heightened sense of the men’s bodies, Gene 
accurately and closely describes the male bodies clad only in underwear that covers their most 
eroticized parts. Gene’s bewilder- ment at the nearly nude soldiers suggests the pervasiveness of 
his homoerotic eye. Up until now, his gaze has fastened upon one person at a time. Here, his 
homoerotic eye surveys a group.  His gaze shifts from Finny to Brinker, as a substitute for Finny, 
and finally rests on an anonymous group that represents multiple objects of desire.  The transition 
from gazing at a single person at a time to a collective group illustrates the beginnings of 
acceptance of his homo- erotic desires. In looking at several men, rather than just one, Gene 
indulges his homoerotic gazing. In watching the anonymous soldiers, Gene is also implying that his 
acute awareness of male bodies is not limited to his friends.  Instead, Gene is illustrating that 
his homoerotic gaze and desires are universal to the male form and not a coming-of-age curiosity 
with boys he already has a strong friendship with.
Gene’s homoerotic eye is not limited to the homosocial environment of Devon, but continues at the 
mixed environment of the beach.  After a day of swimming in the ocean, playing in the sun, and 
eating hot dogs–a phallic symbol– Gene describes Finny, noting, “His skin radiated a red-dish 
copper glow of tan, his brown hair had been a little bleached by the sun, and I noticed that the 
tan made his eyes shine with a cool blue-green fire” (47). Gene’s attention to detail in Finny’s 
appearance is yet another example of Gene’s idolization of Finny. The descriptive imagery used in 
this passage also indicates the meticulousness of Gene’s gaze as it lingers on Finny.  This 
description is different from the rest of Gene’s homoerotic characterizations of Phineas because it 
focuses on his skin and eyes.  Most of Gene’s descriptions up to this point have detailed Finny’s 
limbs, torso, and overall body appearance. Here, however, Gene provides 

a blazon of Finny, which illuminates his cataloging of Finny’s body. Notably, however, all of 
Gene’s descriptions are similar in that they all describe Finny in a positive, beautiful manner.
Despite Gene’s function as the narrator, Finny is self-reflective enough to articulate in part the 
bond between them.  This verbalization, nonetheless, is only found when he is not in the homosocial 
environment of Devon.  Finny makes his faltering proclamation at the beach.  He concedes to Gene:

“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 and you can’t come by yourself, and at this teen-age period in life the proper 
person is your best pal.” He hesitated and then added, “which is what you are,” and there was 
silence on the dune. (48)

Not only is Finny able to verbalize his emotions for Gene here, but he also points to the selective 
nature of their bond.  Finny implies that a person can only have one “best pal” and names Gene his. 
This declaration is very close to ideas of monogamous relationships suggesting an exclusive 
partnership between the two.  Despite Finny’s forwardness, the silence that follows his comment 
indicates Gene’s inability to articulate his homosexual emotions toward Finny. Gene’s silence is 
also a moment of panic, to recall Sedgwick’s term, which is evident when he says, “I should have 
told him then that he was my best friend also and rounded off what he had said.  I started to; I 
nearly did.  But some- thing held me back. Perhaps I was stopped by that level of feeling, deeper 
than thought, which contains the truth” (48).  Gene admits that he wanted to affirm his longing, 
but also there was something forbidding that prevents him from doing so.  Gene recognizes the 
homosexual love for Finny, but he panics and cannot express his feelings for Finny.
While Gene has a hard time verbalizing his feelings and, at times, inwardly admitting his feelings 
toward Phineas, he does acknowledge that he has some fondness for Phineas. Gene is equally aware of 
the animosity between himself and Finny.  Gene thinks that Finny is trying to sabotage his grades 
and begins to resent him. But Gene has difficulty holding his suspicions against Finny; he says, 
“Sometimes I found it hard to remember his treachery, sometimes I dis- covered myself thoughtlessly 
slipping back into affection for him again” (55). This passage shows Gene can address his 
“affection” for Finny, yet Gene can- not act on or voice his sentiments to or about Finny, a 
hesitancy attributable to Sedgwick’s notion of panic. Gene’s realization that he has feelings for 
Phineas causes Gene to have a moment of panic, but he copes by suppressing his feelings by reminding himself that Finny is trying to sabotage his life.

Despite his intermittent recognition of his desire for Finny, Gene never acts on it.  He is sadly 
aware of his inability to express these feeling, when Finny falls for the second time. Phil Latham 
wraps Phineas in a blanket and Gene responds, “I would have liked very much to have done that 
myself; it would have meant a lot to me” (179). Again, when Finny is hoisted into the air on a 
chair, Gene says, “I knew that normally I would have been one of those carrying the chair, saying 
something into his ear as we went along” (180). Gene refrains from wrapping the blanket around 
Finny and participating in his transport to the infirmary because he thinks, “My aid alone had 
never seemed to him in the category of help” (180).  But soon after Gene realizes the faults in his 
conclusion and receives a revelation as to why Finny thinks Gene’s aid is unsubstantial.  Gene 
wrongly thinks that Phineas is just assuming he is full of animosity, but realizes, “Phineas had 
thought of [Gene] as an extension of himself” (180). Gene, however, is not participating in the 
activities because the intensity of his relationship with Phineas leads him to suppress his urges, 
lest homosexual panic consume him.
Gene still cannot outwardly express his desires, but he is able to covertly and enigmatically act 
on his longing for Finny. For example, Gene and Finny’s relationship is inaugurated with the first 
jumping from the tree. This seemingly innocent act later evolves to become a form of sexual 
displacement.  During the first jump, Gene erotically describes Finny, and afterwards says, “‘It’s 
you, pal, just you and me’” (18). Here, Finny’s remark instantiates their relationship. They are 
the only two to jump from the tree, which Finny acknowledges as a bond they now share. The 
eroticism between these two characters immediately intensifies as they begin to wrestle.  First 
Finny is on top of Gene; then Gene says, “I threw my hips against his, catching him by surprise, 
and he was instantly down, definitely pleased. This was why he liked me so much. When I jumped on 
top of him, my knees on his chest, he couldn’t ask for anything better” (19). This wrestling match 
demonstrates the pleasure each takes in each other’s physical contact. Gene as a homodiegetic 
narrator liberally expresses internal focalization of Finny’s homoerotic desires.  Even though Gene 
has difficulty and never articulates his own longings, here he is able to unselfconsciously, 
freely, and easily make other male’s desires explicit and seem typical.  Argu- ably, Gene even 
takes pleasure in exposing these feelings and acting on them because he makes them seem normal and 
does not experience guilt or shame when partaking in them.
The jumps later are a replacement for sex between the two young men. The jump begins as something 
that Gene does following Finny. Then Finny suggests they “‘jump together to cement our 
partnership’” (31).  This jump is the first

that acts as a sexual substitute; in its intimacy—they alone participate in the jump—they create a 
unique bond between themselves. The partnership Finny is referring to is an implied homosexual one. 
 The last jump from the tree is a sort of mutual pleasuring that occurs between the two characters. 
Again, Gene and Finny are on a limb of the tree, a phallus, but this time Gene “jounces” the limb.  
The diction and imagery combine to provide a sense of masturba- tion between the two boys.  When 
Finny falls from the tree, this is equivalent to the orgasm from the masturbation.  Jouncing the 
limb, Gene jerks Finny to ejaculation from the tree and then proceeds to ejaculate himself into the 
pool of water below.
This isolated scene of the boys performing coded desires is carried out in various other forms. 
Though he does not discuss the displacement of gay acts or men’s desires, Mark Simpson’s discussion 
of buddy war films is applicable to A Separate Peace.1   In his analysis of the character, Father, 
from the film A Midnight Clear, Simpson notes, “He is very much the ‘queerest’ and—because this is 
a buddy war film—the most popular boy.  Which is of course why he has to die” (226).  Like Father, 
Finny is the quintessence of this archetype in A Separate Peace.  He is the most popular student, 
and the students at Devon follow him around and indulge themselves in Finny’s world of impromptu 
games, secret societies, and special events. All the characters, teachers included, miss him when 
he is away from Devon and anxiously await his return.  Finny exhibits his queerness by disregarding 
the rules and going against the norms of society and Devon. He frequently skips classes, takes 
spontaneous trips to the beach, and uses the Devon tie as a belt.  In wearing the tie as a belt, 
Finny is disregarding the rules of Devon and is displaying disrespect for the institution by making 
an unconventional and unexpected gesture. As if to further under- score this point, Finny puts on 
his pink shirt and Gene comments, “‘Pink! It makes you look like a fairy!’” (24). In 1943, the year 
in which the novel is set, “fairy” would be a synonym for “queer.” Finny does not think he is 
perceived as being queer because he tells Gene casually, “‘I wonder what would happen if I looked 
like a fairy to everyone’” (25).  Finny’s remark here is a means for him to explore what would 
happen if he were perceived as queer.  By posing this hypothetical question to Gene, Finny 
highlights the unique trust of his homoerotic bond with Gene.

 

Finny, however, best exemplifies Simpson’s archetype in dying at the end

of the novel because of his queer characteristics. Simpson notes, “The most

 

physical expressions of masculine femininity have to pay the ‘ultimate price’.

 

But pain and death are not just a price that has to be paid—it is as if the caress, the kiss, the 

embrace were the fatal blow itself” (214). Arguably, Finny is the character portrayed as the most 

feminine, and he does pay the ultimate price. At the beach, Finny’s expression of his admiration 

for Gene could be indicative of the “the fatal blow” Simpson discusses (214). Although he does not 

immediately die, Finny’s confession is the first indication that he must die.

Simpson posits another maxim about men in film: “In war films of the buddy type the deadliness of 

war is not glossed over.  But it is portrayed not in the death of the enemy, who are often faceless 

or even unseen, but in the death of comrades and buddies” (214). This insight applies to the 

relationship between Gene and Finny because Gene loses his buddy Finny. Finny is not the 

opposition, although Gene sometimes thinks he is, but he is Gene’s comrade at school, at play, and 

at war, and hence the one who dies.

A Separate Peace follows in the tradition of other novels in which homo- erotic desires result in 

the death of one of the characters, but it differs because Gene’s homosexual panic is the indirect 

cause of Finny’s tragic death. The ho- mosocial environment of Devon provides a covert conduit for 

the homoerotic desires and the homosexual bond that develop throughout the novel. Gene and Finny’s 

relationship cannot survive in the setting of the novel, which is why Finny must take the fatal blow and pay the ultimate price.

 

Works Cited

Knowles, John.  A Separate Peace. New York: Scribner, 1959.
McGavran, James Holt. “Fear’s Echo and Unhinged Joy: Crossing Homosocial Bound- aries in A Separate 
Peace.” Children’s Literature 30 (2002): 67-80. MLA
International Bibliography. EBSCO. Fairmont State Univ, Fairmont, WV. 23 Nov 2007
<http://www.ebscohost.com>.
Simpson, Mark. “Don’t Die on Me, Buddy: Homoeroticism and Masochism in War Movies.” Male 
Impersonators: Men Performing Masculinity. Ed. Mark Simpson. New York: Routledge, 1994. 212-228.
Tribunella, Eric. “Refusing the Queer Potential: John Knowles’s A Separate Peace.”
Children’s Literature 30 (2002): 81-95. MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO.
Children’s Literature 30 (2002): 81-95. MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO.
Fairmont State Univ, Fairmont, WV. 23 Nov 2007 <http://www.ebscohost.com>.