The shift in seasons from summer to winter parallels a more general shift in the novel’s mood from the carefree innocence that preceded Finny’s fall to a darker time in which a note of doom, associated with the coming war, grips the school. This shift is given a physical embodiment in the two rivers on campus. The fresh, clear, bubbling Devon River represents the summer session and its naïve carefree character. But this river flows into the salty, ugly, unpredictable Naguamsett, which is joined to the ocean and controlled by the large, global forces of the tides. This river can be seen as a symbol of a dawning era of bitter conflict and disempowerment for the boys. Whereas Finny, with his spontaneity and rebellious spirit, directs the activities of the former era, Brinker Hadley, a stolid, rigid personality and an advocate for authority and order, now succeeds him as the boys’ leader. Indeed, not only does Brinker support order in the classroom and the dormitory, but he also functions as a force for order in the larger moral landscape. It is he who first suspects Gene’s guilt and eventually insists on bringing out the truth and seeing justice done at whatever cost.
Gene’s desire to manage crew seems to be an attempt to escape Finny’s shadow, as it places him far from the central, physical aspect of the school’s athletics program, in which Finny excelled. Yet the reader quickly realizes the irony of this attempt when Gene remarks that the job usually goes to disabled students: Gene, of course, is not disabled, but Finny is. Once again, it seems, Gene proves unable to separate his own identity from that of his friend. When the odious Quackenbush (a minor character whose absurd name suits his role as a much-disliked clod) makes fun of Gene for being “maimed,” Gene responds violently even though he isn’t maimed at all. One can argue that he is fighting for Finny—or, perhaps, that he is fighting as Finny. Gene himself is acutely aware of his increasing identification with his friend, especially when Finny insists that if he, Finny, cannot play sports, then Gene must play them for him. At this moment, Gene understands that he is losing himself and becoming a part of Finny. One might understand the joy that Gene consequently feels as stemming from a deep desire: he may dislike himself so much by now that his dearest wish is to abandon this self altogether.
In these chapters, the war takes on an increased significance in the novel, having lurked in the background thus far. As the title of A Separate Peace suggests, World War II plays a central role in the fabric of the story—yet it does so without ever directly affecting the lives of the characters. None of the boys goes into battle and none except for Leper even joins the army until after graduation. A Separate Peace is a war novel without tanks, guns, or bullets; it is the shadow of war and the knowledge of its approach that affects the characters. Gene, in his unwillingness to play sports, sees the violence of football as mirroring battlefield violence, and he imagines tennis balls turning into bullets. Indeed, his narrative betrays a sudden obsession with war and its images: he compares the snow to an advancing army and thinks of the flakes’ slow accumulation as paralleling the almost undetectable yet steady encroachment of the war on the peacefulness of life at Devon.
Ultimately, the war has only an indirect and insidious effect on the students at Devon. It causes a tense feeling of unsettlement among the boys, disrupting their former lives yet never fully releasing them onto the new horizons at which it hints. The boys know that they will have to join the fighting eventually, but, still young students, all they can do is wait. They stand shoveling snow off train tracks while real soldiers ride on the trains to their assignments. The world is at war, but the Devon boys still exist amid a “separate” illusory peace. Only Leper, eccentric and gentle, seems untouched by the peculiarity of their situation and simply continues with his hobbies of skiing and nature-watching. Leper, in a way, is still in the summer session—still innocent, not yet fallen from grace. But the rest of the boys have moved on psychologically. Thus, Brinker’s desire simply to enlist, to put a stop to the gray and fruitless waiting period, seems perfectly understandable, as does Gene’s decision to join him. When Gene eventually abandons his plans to enlist, he does so based upon his relationship with Finny—not because he has ceased to hate the gloom of waiting or the feeling of uselessness.