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'Friendship in "A Separate Peace"'

The characters Gene and Phineas were integrated because they complemented each other

Friendship in A Separate Peace

By Tina Hwang

"He got away with everything because of the extraordinary person he was. It was quite a compliment to me, in fact, to have such a person choose me for his best friend" (21). The friendship of Gene, an intellectual, and Finny, a fearless athlete, is the focus of John Knowles?s A Separate Peace. Narrated by Gene Forrester, this is a story of two youths growing up at a beautiful boys? boarding school in New England. Set at the headwaters of World War II, the bond between Gene and Phineas grows as the peace in Devon School diminishes.

? "It?s you pal," he said, "just you and me." He and I started across the fields, proceeding the others like two seigneurs"?(10). Gene becomes Finny?s best friend the moment he jumps out of the tree and into Devon River as a result of Finny?s goading. Since then, Finny is the dominant factor in all the choices the Gene makes: ?Why did I let Finny talk me into this? Was he getting some sort of hold over me? "Jump!" With the sensation that I was throwing my life away, I jumped into space? (9). When Gene jumps, in a way he is throwing his life away to Finny, because from that point forward, Finny will be the overwhelming influence of his life.

Gene and Phineas are like two poles of a magnet, opposite yet bound together. Finny excels in athletics and sports while Gene excels in academics. Finny is the extroverted leader and Gene is his follower. Finny shines bright and Gene is his shadow. Their personalities and strengths are different and yet they are inseparable.

The real story begins when Gene doubts Finny?s loyalty. As an adolescent, Gene?s insecurity causes him to suddenly believe that such a friend as Phineas is too good to be true. He suspects Phineas is dragging him along in all his venturesome ideas to keep him from being the top student. To confirm his suspicions, Gene asks Finny about his feelings: "You wouldn?t -- mind if I wound up head of the class, would you?" "I?d kill myself with jealous envy"(44). Gene takes this answer literally and believes that their friendship has been a competition all along:

Finny had deliberately set out to wreck my studies. That explained blitzball, that explained the nightly meetings of the Super Suicide Society, that explained his insistence that I share all his diversions. The way I believed that you?re-my-best-friend blabber! The shadow falling across his face if I didn?t want to do something with him! His instinct for sharing everything with me? Sure, he wanted to share everything with me, especially his procession of D?s in every subject. That way he, the great athlete, would be way ahead of me. It was all cold trickery, it was all calculated, it was all enmity. (45)

The first climax of the story happens right after Gene begins to be disillusioned from the supposed rivalry between Finny and him. As they prepare to jump off the tree and into the river together, Gene accidentally jounces the limb that they?re standing on, causing Phineas to fall and shatter his leg. This accident, resulting in Finny?s leg being crippled, will be between them for the rest of the story.

Phineas is an extraordinarily loyal friend to Gene. After the accident, he denies even to himself that Gene had caused it. Gene asks him about what he remembers from the fall:

"Do you remember what made you fall?"

"I don?t know, I must have lost my balance. It must have been that. I did have this feeling that when you were standing there beside my, y--- I don?t know, I had a kind of feeling. But you can?t say anything for sure from just feelings . . . I just fell, that?s all . . . I?m sorry for that feeling I had." (58)

Later, when Gene admits: "I deliberately jounced the limb so you would fall off," Finny says: "Of course you didn?t" (62), and he yells at Gene to stop saying so. Throughout most of the story, Phineas continues to act like it was just an innocent misshappening and he also continues to hold on to Gene as a best friend.

An example of how Phineas is an absolute factor in Gene?s life is when he keeps Gene from enlisting for the war. Because he is crippled, and couldn?t possibly go into combat, Phineas repudiates the war. If Gene had left for war, Phineas would not be able to keep up the illusion that the war is just a sham. When Phineas hears that Gene has considered enlisting, he?s stunned: ? "Enlist!" . . . His large and clear eyes turned with an odd expression on me. I had never seen such a look in them before. After looking at me closely he said, "You?re going to enlist?"? Gene recognizes the fact that he must not leave for war, because his best friend Finny needs him to stay:

Phineas was shocked at the thought of my leaving. In some way he need me. He needed me. I was the least trustworthy person he had ever met. I knew that; he knew or should know that to. I had even told him. I had told him. But there was no mistaking the shield of remoteness in his face and voice. He wanted me, and dreams of enlistment and escape and a clean start lost their meaning for me. (100)

After the accident, Gene and Phineas become even more integrated. Because his major strength, athletics, was taken away by the accident, Phineas begins to live his life through Gene: ? "You?re going to be the big star now," in an optimistic tone, and then added with some embarrassment, "You can fill in any gaps or anything" ? (106). Before Finny?s fall, Gene explains about their strengths and weaknesses: "Phineas was without question the best athlete, so in that way we were even. But while he was a very poor student I was a pretty good athlete, and when everything was thrown into the scales they would in the end tilt definitely toward me" (47). Phineas tells Gene that he used to be aiming for the Olympics, but now he?s going to help Gene train for it: "And now I?m not sure, not a hundred per cent sure that I?ll be completely, you know, in shape by 1944. So I?m going to coach you for them instead" (109).

The second climax occurs when Finny is confronted with the accident and forced to admit to himself that Gene had caused him to fall from that tree. At first Finny defends Gene, "It?s very funny," he said, "but ever since then I?ve had a feeling that the tree did it by itself. It?s and impression I?ve had. Almost as though the tree shook me out by itself" (161). Then he tries to recall the event, but has confused what really happened with what he wants to have happened. When Finny is coerced into finally acknowledging the truth, it?s such a shock to him that he storms away in a sudden rage, falling down the white marble stairs and braking the same leg again.

After this second fall, Finny reveals bitterness and anger the night Gene visits him in the infirmary. With his leg bound and hindering, he snaps fiercely at Gene, "You want to break something else in me! Is that why you?re here!" (176). But being the extraordinary friend that he is, Finny readily forgives Gene. "I believe you. You?ve already shown me and I believe you" (183).

The most important aspect of Gene and Finny?s friendship is that each was so much a part of the other. To Finny, Gene has always been an extension of himself. Perhaps that?s why it is so easy for him to forgive Gene. Gene realizes that the whole purpose of their friendship is for him the become part of Finny: ? "Listen, pal, if I can?t play sports, you?re going to play them for me," and I lost part of myself to him then, and a soaring sense of freedom revealed that this must have been my purpose from the first: to become a part of Phineas ?(77).

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