Assessment of John Knowles’ Book Characters in A Separate Peace: Finny Vs. Gene


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The literal meaning of “A Separate Peace” is a tranquility unaffected by the uproarious events of the outside world. The novel takes place during World War II, however, Finny and Gene have a quiet little world of their own unmoved by the war and tragic violence occurring around them.

After Finny’s injury to his leg, he decides to train Gene for the 1944 Olympics and is determined to dedicate the year for this cause. Throughout this time period, Gene’s friendship with Finny grows stronger and the boys become closer, although after the accident it would seem like they should grow apart. Gene feels horrible for causing Finny to fall out of the tree and in an effort to be a good friend to Finny, he goes along with Finny’s ideas, such as the idea of training for the Olympics. When Finny realizes he cannot go to war this upsets him terribly and causes him to go into denial. He refuses to acknowledge any existence of the war in his attempt at achieving a “separate peace”. Engaged in his crusade to deny war, Finny drags Gene deeper into his fantasy world where everything is peaceful and serene, and even keeps him from associating with the other boys who talk about enlisting in the war. It’s as if the “separate peace” Finny strives to create in every waking moment is meant for himself and Gene alone and can work only when the two of them are behind it 100 percent. Finny feels that the only person who can truly understand him is Gene and he wants Gene to share fully in his exclusive view of the way of the world should be- A world of games and sport, unbothered by real issues such as war. During the winter, Finny goes as far as creating a winter carnival to distract everyone from thoughts of war. The carnival and Olympics are a clear escape concocted to achieve a peace separate from the problems of the outside world.

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After Finny breaks his leg for the second time, he finally admits to the harsh reality of the war and tells Gene his reasons for denying the existence of the war. After his death, Gene enlists and war finally becomes real to him as well. At this point, Gene finally comes to terms with Finny’s unique gift. He had no enemies; therefore he had no defenses. To be friends with Finny was to experience a “separate peace” unlike any other in the world.

Gene Forrester is the narrator of the story. Having Gene as the narrator serves many purposes. Everything that happens is seen through his eyes and the only way we know what is going on, is by what he tells us. He has the ability to step back and observe events as an outsider, rather than giving a one sided view of someone that is involved in an incident. It allows us to understand exactly what he is thinking and feeling, emotionally as well as physically. When he tells his story it is obvious that he does not have too much self-confidence. That may seem like a problem but it is quite the opposite. Having an overly self-confident narrator would not be as effective because the reader would not be able to identify with him. Gene characterizes many fears and hopes we all possess making it easier to relate to the book.

The turning point of the novel is when Gene causes Finny, his best friend, to fall off the tree and break his leg, therefore altering the course of Finny’s life forever. Finny, Gene, and the other boys go down to the river to jump off the tree branch as they often did during the summer. Normally Gene goes along with Finny’s ideas happily, as they are best friends, but recently he had been thinking about his relationship with Finny and begins to think that Finny uses things such as their “tree jumping sessions” in order to cause Gene to fall back in his studies and thus keep Finny as the leader in everything. They go down to the river and Finny suggests he and Gene jump off together. However once they reach the top Gene “jounces the branch” and Finny tumbles backward onto the riverbank, breaking his leg.

The entire course of the story changes after this pivotal incident. Finny’s life can never be the same because the leg injury is so severe that it will keep him from his pride and joy, sports, for the rest of his life. Gene becomes extremely confused, no longer seeing any motivation in his life and is no longer as certain of his own nature. Ironically, Gene becomes lost without the friend he tried to hurt. Once school resumes for the new year, with Finny absent, Gene has to struggle with his guilt and the suspicions of his classmates about how the accident was really caused and who was the cause of it. Finny has the internal struggles of whether or not Gene is truly his friend but he pushes those thoughts out of his memory and denies to himself and everyone else that Gene caused the accident.

After this point both boys realize the importance of friendship. Gene realizes that Finny was truly his friend and had no intention of harming him. Finny realizes that “Something blind” made Gene cause the fall and that his friend is truly his friend. Although this fall causes Finny to die at the end, it teaches both boys many invaluable lessons about life and friendship.

After Finny breaks his leg for the second time, Gene comes to visit him in the infirmary. At this point in the story, Finny admits that the only reason he claimed there was no war was because he knew he would never be of any use in the war. Until he could fight in it, the war would be nonexistent to him. He says that once he would have gotten a letter saying he could enlist there would be a war. Gene than begins to tell Finny that he wouldn’t have been any good in the war even if nothing had ever happened to his leg. This surprises Finny but he listens silently, trying to hold back the tears as Gene goes on to explain.

Finny has leadership capabilities and many people eagerly follow him so he would be put somewhere up front. However, he also puts way too much trust in the people around him and would never think any harm could come to him. Finny doesn’t take many things seriously and always enjoys a good laugh. The only thing that is sacred to him and must be given all serious respect is sports. Being athletic is very important to him and he takes much pride in his abilities on the playing field. Therefore, as Gene says to Finny, “there would be a lull in the fighting” and before anyone knew what hit them he would be “over with the Germans or the Japs, asking if they’d like to field a baseball team against our side”. He would probably assume a game of baseball, or any other sport for that matter, would be a better way of solving their differences than fighting a war. He has a self-confidence that shows and his personality is totally unguarded. Finny is fun loving and extremely easy to get along with due to his great sense of humor and ability to laugh at himself. As a result of this trait Finny would end up making friends with soldiers from both sides, causing confusion in the war. Gene points out that no one would know who to fight anymore and unknowingly, Finny would make a big mess out of the war. Finny would not be suited for war because he would not take it seriously enough. To him, it would be more of a game than a real war.

When Gene Forrester opens the story and begins to tell about the events of the summer of 1942 one of the first things he says is that he was “damned” if he climbed the giant tree beside the river. This statement is extremely ironic because he does indeed climb the tree and jump off the branch, many times in fact, and in a way climbing the tree does “damn” him, or curse him.

Finny brings Gene and three other friends down to the riverbank in hopes that they would all jump off the tree and start a new custom of Upper Middlers being allowed to jump into the river as practice for the war. Finny jumps first and lands impressively in the water. The other three boys refuse to jump, and Gene, although he said he’d be “damned” if he jumped, does climb the tree and jump into the water with the hopes of impressing Finny. Because they were the only two that jumped, it brings them much closer together and sets a precedent for the summer events. The boys jump off the tree almost every day to kick off the day’s events and although he is reluctant to do so, Gene goes along with this idea. After weeks spent with Finny playing his games and following all his ideas, something takes over Gene. He begins to feel like Finny is trying to keep him from his studies so he can keep his position as the leader, and as the top athlete, keeping him in his point of being highest ranked in the class. He gets so filled with rage that one day when Finny suggests that he and Gene jump at the same time, he shakes the branch and causes Finny to fall, changing both lives forever.

Ironically, climbing the tree was, in fact, ill fated as Gene unknowingly predicted when he made the statement that he would be “damned” if he climbed the tree. Beginning that tradition of climbing the tree all summer was the real reason Gene was damned. If he had never climbed the tree, Finny wouldn’t have fallen because of Gene, eventually leading to his death, and Gene wouldn’t have had to spend the whole year wrestling with his guilt and the provocations of his fellow classmates about what happened that day.

The relationship between Gene and Finny is a microcosm of the outside world, although they do not realize it. There is a big war, World War II, going on in the world outside of the school the boys attend. People are fighting and dying and there is very little real loyalty and trust. Though no one realizes it, the same thing is happening in Devon School at that time period. All the boys begin to turn against each other and no one really has any allegiance to anyone else, as in the war. For example, Brinker, who was once a friend of Gene and Finny’s, turns against both when he creates a mock trial to find out what caused Finny’s accident. Things like this begin to happen more and more as the war outside of the school presses on as well. The school is a reflection of the world, both of them including things such as jealousy, violence, gossip, and torment.

Finny and Gene’s friendship alone can also be a likeness of the outside world. Even when there is a war going on, countries have allies even though they have different agendas and philosophies. Similarly, Gene and Finny hold on to their friendship despite their differences in character and outlook. Although everyone around them is turning against one another and breaking all trust, just as among the countries at war during World War II, the two friends maintain their loyalty to one another. In the same manner that a few countries remained allied.

During the summer of 1942 the things Gene is exposed to force him to grow up very quickly. The summer starts of as many childhood summers start, filled with innocence and fun. However, things quickly take a turn for the worst when Finny comes up with the seemingly harmless idea of jumping out of the tree into the river. When Gene jounces the limb and causes Finny to fall, both lives are drastically changed. Gene grows up a lot over the next year after the accident. He develops a lot emotionally and realizes the value of a true friendship. He begins to question his judgment and place in the world but at the same time he begins to discover who he is inside, helping him to mature a lot more. After Finny’s death Gene also realizes that all things have consequences and in life you have to learn to deal with them.

During this time, Gene is also exposed to the war, which makes him grow up faster than a normal teenager should have to. The authority figures in the Devon school, as well as the other students, pressure him to enlist, and he sees the effects of the war taking their toll on his friends. For example, his friend Leper was always quiet and seemed happy, but after enlisting in the army he comes back a different person. He was mentally incapable of dealing with the basic training and seems to be almost insane. Seeing this drastic change in someone like Leper scares Gene. By the same token, he watches Finny go into complete denial that any war even exists and sees the emotional damage it causes Finny when he realizes no one will take him in the army and with his leg damaged he is useless in the war.

Being exposed to a life altering accident, death, and war all at this young age makes a person mature and grow faster than normal. Gene is forced to accept the reality of the harsh world and learn to live in it. He becomes more in touch with the world and understands it better. The world is no longer just fun and games to him. It is real.

Gene Forrester and Phineas share a bond unlike any other in the world. They are best friends throughout the book and are there for each other through the good and bad events of their lives. Their personalities are complete opposites yet they have enough in common to be able to stay friends.

Gene is the narrator of the story. When we are first introduced to Gene we see that he is very thoughtful and smart, yet also soft-spoken and does not speak his mind as often as his friend Finny. He is also very innocent and has not yet experienced life in the outside world. He would prefer not to be noticed in a crowd, rather than being the center of attention, and is more of a follower than a leader which complements Finny’s controlling personality. Gene rarely comes up with ideas of his own and lacks the initiative to follow them even if he did. He would prefer to go along with Finny’s ideas and feels that if he didn’t he would be inferior to Finny. He always seems to be struggling with the choice of whether to go along with his own instincts or to follow the crowd. On the other hand, Finny just does whatever he wants and does not care what everyone else is doing. Gene seems like the type who would never break the rules however there is a glimmer of a daredevil inside that needs to be ignited by someone like Finny. Finny is a spontaneous boy who lives for adventure. If he does not find a challenge he creates one of his own. Gene is also very sensitive and envies Finny’s talents and popularity with everyone.

As opposing as Gene and Finny seem, the two boys share many of the same personality traits and have a lot in common, although they may not realize it. Both boys are jealous of each other to some extent. Finny, who seems perfect in Gene’s eyes, is actually envious of Gene’s academic skills and Gene, very obviously, is jealous of Finny’s athletic capabilities. Neither one of the boys is selfish and each would do anything for the other. This is shown when Gene devotes much of his time to helping Finny after the accident and Finny would do anything to help Gene, even though Gene caused his accident. A final similarity the two share is their willingness to block what really happened the day Finny broke their legs out of their heads completely.

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