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Ho Yay / A Separate Peace

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Despite widely being considered an American classic, A Separate Peace has an enormous amount of Ho Yay, so much so that several school districts have attempted, in the past, to ban it from their curriculum for its rampant Homoerotic Subtext. After all, the book's setting is an all-boys boarding school, and the plot revolves around the incredibly close relationship between two students.

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    Gene and Phineas 
  • The blurb of the book sounds like something straight out of a dramatic gay romance novel, especially if you are unaware of the actual plot.
    Gene is a lonely, introverted intellectual. Phineas is a handsome, taunting, daredevil athlete. What happens between the two friends one summer, like the war itself, banishes the innocence of these boys and their world.
  • In the beginning of the book, an older Gene states while reflecting on his time at Devon, "Nothing endures, not a tree, not love, not even a death by violence." The first and last of these refer to very specific things: "a tree" refers to the tree on which Gene jounced the limb, making Finny fall and break his leg, while "a death by violence" refers to Finny's death, which he indirectly caused. The outlier, "love," has no obvious connection that is outright stated in the book, but there is only one relationship it can plausibly be referring to. Thus, it is not a stretch to say that Gene explicitly refers to his feelings for Finny as "love" in the first chapter of the book.
  • One of the first things Gene says about Finny is that his voice is "the equivalent in sound to a hypnotist's eyes." Throughout the book we become certain he's very enraptured by Finny's voice, as he repeatedly refers to it as "hypnotic" (as in the aforementioned quote) and "musical," as well as at one point going so far as to say Finny's voice reminds him of "a Rolls-Royce moving along a highway."
  • Gene mentions the color of Finny's eyes repeatedly and just as dotingly every time. At one point in the book he even uses the adjective "magical" to describe them.
  • Gene's narration seems to be hyper-focused on Finny's physical features, especially during the scenes when Finny isn't wearing a shirt. His descriptions are so detailed and flattering that they cross objective territory and feel very much like someone describing their crush.
  • The scene during which Finny decides to wear a pink shirt is quite complicated in its Ho Yay implications, despite its short length. A man wearing a pink shirt in this time period would have been ostracized for appearing to be gay, so the first question raised is, what does this say about Finny himself? It doesn't seem he's wearing the shirt to indicate homosexuality, but he doesn't seem all that bothered by the idea when Gene mocks him for looking like a "fairy" (which was derogatory slang for "gay man"). He declares the shirt to be his "emblem" and even jokingly but casually tells Gene to explain this to the others if "suitors begin clamoring at the door." (Remember the subject matter at hand and the fact that these two attend an all-boys school.)
    • This scene starts becoming complicated once we explore the implications it has about Gene. He is extremely fixated on Finny and may be gay; if so, this scene may be implying that he is an Armored Closet Gay. It would certainly make sense during the time period. When Gene feels the need to tell Finny he looks like a fairy, Finny responds mildly, "I wonder what would happen if I looked like a fairy to everyone," the implication of this statement being that Finny thinks Gene is the only one thinking about him being gay. Gene recognizes the implication and becomes annoyed; it's possible Gene is pinning his own insecurities regarding his homosexuality onto Finny.
      • Gene also mentions that Finny is the only person in the school who could wear a pink shirt without getting ridiculed. He is clearly annoyed about this, which in itself has its own implication: that Gene wants to be able to do this as well. Gene is the one who suggests the pink shirt represents homosexuality, but he is jealous that he couldn't wear such a thing in public without getting harassed while Finny can. Hmm...
  • Going hand in hand with the "pink shirt scene" mentioned above, there is the scene during which Finny is away from Devon and Gene puts on a bunch of his clothes. Gene specifically mentions the pink shirt and states that wearing it makes him feel as though he "will never stumble through the confusions of [his] own character again." This obviously has something to do with his longing to be like Finny, since the shirt is Finny's "emblem," but it could also have to do with what the shirt represents...which, to Gene, is homosexuality.
  • After stating that Finny has "tremendous loyalty" to any group he belongs to, Gene adds "beginning with him and me," meaning that Finny (and most likely Gene himself) sees the two of them as an individual group separate from the other boys.
  • Gene mentions offhandedly at one point that Finny's attractive, crooked smile makes him lose most arguments between them.
  • When Gene comes back from working in the snow, Finny mocks his ugly clothes and the amount of layers he's wearing. As Gene takes off each layer one by one, Finny watches and makes comments on each individual layer. Eventually Gene is down to his last layer—a sweat-stained undershirt—and Finny smiles, saying he looks best like that and should have just worn that all day. He could just be joking or using sarcasm, but it comes off a lot like he's flirting. And it doesn't help that Gene describes his tone as "ambiguous."
  • Gene mentions that since they wear the same size, Finny sometimes just decides to wear his clothes. Not to mention the aforementioned time when Gene decides to wear Finny's clothes, although this only happens once.
  • Gene's description of Finny's physical appearance:
    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.
    • And immediately after:
    He began scrambling up the wooden pegs nailed to the side of the tree, his back muscles working like a panther’s.
  • This passage, so suggestive and homoerotic that a school district once quoted it as a means of banning the book from their curriculum (it Makes Just as Much Sense in Context):
    I threw my hip 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.
  • Gene's narration and what he says after he witnesses Finny breaking the school swimming record without any practice. Finny's awkward reaction also counts, as it seems he recognizes the Ho Yay.
    I stopped and looked at him up and down. He didn't look directly back at me. "You're too good to be true," I said after a while.
    He glanced at me, and then said, "Thanks a lot" in a somewhat expressionless voice.
    • From the same scene:
    There was something inebriating in the suppleness of this feat. When I thought about it my head felt a little dizzy and my stomach began to tingle. It had, in one word, glamour, absolute schoolboy glamour.
  • The entire scene in which Gene and Finny skip a day of classes to go to the beach together, for the most part, but some things deserve special mentions:
  • This kind of sunshine and ocean, with the accumulating roar of the surf and the salty, adventurous, flirting wind from the sea, always intoxicated Phineas. He was everywhere, he enjoyed himself hugely, he laughed out loud at passing sea gulls. And he did everything he could think of for me.
  • I noticed that people were looking fixedly at him, so I took a look myself to see why. His skin radiated a reddish 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.
    “Everybody’s staring at you,” he suddenly said to me. “It’s because of that movie-star tan you picked up this afternoon…showing off again.”
  • And another thing from the beach scene, so significant it needs to be mentioned separately. The last sentence of this segment has a double meaning, depending on your interpretation: is Gene referring to how he doesn't really consider Finny his best friend due to his repressed resentment and jealousy, or is he trying to say that he sees Finny as more than a friend? Or maybe he means both...
  • The last words of Finny’s usual nighttime monologue were, “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 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 his dune.
    It was a courageous thing to say. Exposing a sincere emotion nakedly like that at the Devon School was the next thing to suicide. 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 something held me back. Perhaps I was stopped by that level of feeling, deeper than thought, which contains the truth.
  • This quote, in which Gene explicitly refers to Finny as something that attracts him, as well as something that he wants and loves:
    ...I was used to finding something deadly in things that attracted me; there was always something deadly lurking in anything I wanted, anything I loved. And if it wasn't there, as for example with Phineas, then I put it there myself.
  • Gene makes a rather interesting (and oddly intimate) comment about the smell of the boys' locker room. Remember that Finny is an athlete, and see what Gene compares athletes to here:
    No locker room could have more pungent air than Devon’s; sweat predominated, but it was richly mingled with smells of paraffin and singed rubber, of soaked wool and liniment, and for those who could interpret it, of exhaustion, lost hope and triumph and bodies battling against each other. I thought it anything but a bad smell. It was preeminently the smell of the human body after it had been used to the limit, such a smell as has meaning and poignance for any athlete, just as it has for any lover.
  • This, after Finny asks Gene why he visited him in the infirmary the night before:
    “I don’t know.” I went over to the window and placed my hands on the sill. I looked down at them with a sense of detachment, as though they were hands somebody had sculptured and put on exhibition somewhere. “I had to.” Then I added, with great difficulty, “I thought I belonged here.”
    I felt him turning to look at me, and so I looked up. He had a particular expression which his face assumed when he understood but didn’t think he should show it, a settled, enlightened look; its appearance now was the first decent thing I had seen in a long time.
  • As is stated on the trivia page, John Heyl, who played Finny in the 1972 movie of A Separate Peace, said during an interview that he interpreted Gene and Finny as being romantically but not physically in love.
  • David Levithan wrote an entire afterword for the book about the ambiguity of Gene and Finny's relationship. He states "there is clearly love and desire between [them]" and that "so much of what Knowles writes gets to the heart of what it would have been like to be gay at that time—and what it can still be like to be gay now." He adds that Knowles "certainly created a compelling resonance for boys who [know they are gay or have conscious gay feelings]."
  • Armistead Maupin (author of Tales of the City) stated that he first read the book as a teenager, and it was important to him because he believed Gene and Finny were in love.
  • There is, of course, the infamously long and detailed description Gene gives of Brinker's butt. It's only one sentence, but it lingers in a way that is really unnecessary. He goes so far as to refer to Brinker's butt as his salient characteristic.
    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.
  • The exceptionally strange scene during the Winter Carnival when Gene decides it's a good idea to choke Brinker with a jug of hard cider. After which Brinker angrily declares he's "been violated."
  • The comment from older Gene that he "lived in fear" the whole time he attended the Devon School. Obviously this can be attributed to the events of the book, but it can also be attributed to other things—such as the fact that he's strongly implied to be gay and went to an all-boys boarding school in the 1940s. Gayngst, anyone?
  • Though Leper is clearly mentally unwell, it's worth noting that Section Eight discharges were not just for the mentally ill, but for homosexuals as well (though at the time this was considered a mental illness itself). During the scene where Gene visits Leper's house, replacing the word "psycho" with "homosexual" in their dialogue strangely still fits, and portrays the scene in a whole new light. Reading the scene this way makes it seem as though Leper is gay and knows Gene is as well, but Gene violently and repeatedly denies it when Leper tries to make him accept it.
  • This oddly suggestive scene (just how familiar is Gene with the subject matter of the last sentence?):
    "Tell us everything," a younger boy at the table said huskily. There was an unsettling current in his voice, a genuinely conspiratorial note, as though he believed literally everything that had been said. His attitude seemed to me almost obscene, the attitude of someone who discovers a sexual secret of yours and promises not to tell a soul if you will describe it in detail to him.
  • Apparently, Finny is quite fashionable, to the point where he draws attention to himself due to how well-dressed he is. This could mean absolutely nothing, of course, but this is a trait stereotypically belonging to gay men.

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