I always had the inkling that Gene and Finny’s relationship in John Knowles’s A Separate Peace stretched beyond friendship, but it wasn’t until I read Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx, which is explicitly a story of two gay men, that I was able to see how many implications of homoeroticism there are in A Separate Peace. Despite living in different eras, classes, and age categories, the doomed love story of Ennis and Jack in Brokeback Mountain mirrors, and consequently exposes, that of Gene and Finny in many ways.
It is never outwardly stated that Gene and Finny are attracted to one another sexually or romantically, instead it is cleverly hinted at. Finny, while on a beach away from the socially constructed confines of their strict boarding school, admits to Gene: “’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” (Knowles 48). Here, Finny is struggling to explain his want for an exclusive relationship between himself and Gene. Gene admits that he wants to express these feelings back but is unable to. Following this, there is the incident on the tree, which has been a place for reckless abandonment and fun within the confines of their school’s campus for Finny and Gene as there is the branch they can jump off of into the river below. One night, Finny suggests him and Gene jump together, which could be read as a metaphorical suggestion of sex, but once up there, Gene “jounces the limb” (60), and Finny hits the ground, shattering his leg and leaving him crippled for the rest of his life. This shows that when Finny tried to breach society’s unspoken laws that forbid homosexuality, he was punished for it. Gene wasn’t because he didn’t respond that day on the beach and wasn’t the one to suggest they jump together.
This brought to mind Ennis’s fear that Jack having sex with men outside of their rendezvouses could be a threat to his life. Ennis warns him in no uncertain terms that he could get himself into some serious trouble doing this (Proulx 41). Finny’s warning to not push societies’ boundaries was represented in his fall from the tree, but Ennis explicitly tells Jack that he is on a dangerous path. Ennis and Gene, while also partaking in homoerotic behavior/thoughts aren’t punished because they maintain a sense of “normality.” Ennis is married and has a family (at least for a little while) and never has sex with a man other than Jack, and after Finny falls, Gene jumps into the river, like he was supposed to (Knowles 60).
As they were doomed from the start, Finny dies in surgery after rebreaking his leg on a marble staircase (Knowles 177, 193), and Jack dies after a tire explodes in his face while he’s pumping gas (Proulx 45). Finny falls down the marble staircase because he learns the “truth” that Gene purposefully jounced the limb from some school bullies, a metaphor for society taking Finny and Gene’s sexual moment and using it against him (Knowles 176-177) and Jack, Ennis knows, is just as likely to have been hit by a tire as it is that he was murdered in an act of homophobic violence (Proulx 45). They may have been wounded by their lovers’ panic at their own feelings, suffered broken limbs and bloody noses, but they were killed by their situations in life and society’s inability to accept them for who they are. This is never stated outwardly in A Separate Peace and is presented through metaphors and symbolism, but Brokeback Mountain never tries to hide the fact that it would be a tragic story of two gay lovers. Consequently, one exposed the other.