The Characters (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Gene Forrester is a character whose worst enemy is himself. Although he is a capable athlete and an excellent student, Forrester is unable to prevent the dark side of his inner self from perverting and distorting his enjoyment of the world and the people around him. As Forrester admits to himself in chapter 7, he always finds something bad in the things around him; or, if he does not find it, he invents it. This proclivity, clearly the product of a subconscious force, results in paranoia. At one point in the novel, Forrester entertains the absurd idea that Finny is deliberately trying to destroy his scholastic success (even though Finny is obviously unconcerned). Forrester’s personal insecurity is such that it drives him toward somehow getting even with Finny, which he eventually does by causing Finny’s fall from the tree. Even though Finny’s accident and subsequent death liberate Forrester from his dark interior impulses, something vital inside him also dies.
Finny may symbolize the kind of person Forrester wishes he could be; Finny is an almost complete opposite of Forrester, a natural athlete and a complete individualist, interested in immediate and innocuous personal pleasures. Against the confining background of the Devon School strictures, Finny constructs his own world out of his imagination: It is Finny who invents new games to play; it is Finny’s idea to jump from the tree into the river. Whereas Forrester is all calculation, Finny is all...
(The entire section is 615 words.)
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Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Gene Forrester, a Southern teenager attending Devon, a preparatory school in New Hampshire. A highly sensitive, studious, and intellectual sixteen-year-old, he experiences maturation, goes through a dark night of the soul, and conquers adolescent angst during this short novel. Primarily, he is a keenly perceptive youth struggling to establish his identity at a time when World War II interferes with any peaceful and meaningful attempt to do so. He is capable, popular, boyish, and somewhat daring. The main action of the novel centers on his relationship with Finny, who is in most ways his physical, emotional, and intellectual opposite. At first, the two boys have a rather carefree existence as complementary halves of a friendship. This ends when Gene intentionally jolts the limb of a tree on which Finny is standing. His friend falls, crippling himself for life and ending his athletic endeavors. After this event, Gene spends his life accepting this fact of his guilt and trying to reconcile it to human nature and activity. The opening and ending chapters of the novel are narrated by Gene when he is thirty-one years old, now mature, yet still groping with the implications of what he had done years earlier as a teenager.
Phineas, called Finny, Gene’s friend, roommate, rival, and intimate companion at Devon School. Rambunctious, daring, winsome, popular, and athletic, he takes Gene as his best friend...
(The entire section is 586 words.)
The opening pages of A Separate Peace serve as a prologue in the "present" when the book is being written, fifteen years after 1942, the critical year in the life of the novel's narrator, Gene Forrester. A mood of philosophical reflection develops as the narrator describes a visit back to his prep school. His memory soon takes him back to the days of his seventeenth year, at the convergence of youth and manhood in a timeless moment when "feeling was stronger than thought." This return enables Knowles to place the action within an introspective frame so that both "feeling" and "thought" are employed in the service of understanding. In addition to the perspective provided by the passage of time, another kind of framework emerges as Gene, the central subject of his own narrative, also becomes the narrator of a hero's life, the poetic story of the extraordinary Phineas.
Knowles has created a friendship that parallels that of Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby (1925). Gene, like Nick, records his friend's exceptional qualities and singular style. The parallel is particularly appropriate since Knowles, like Fitzgerald, is writing about the American dream and the loss of idealism. Gene's involvement with Phineas, however, is more intimate than Nick's relationship with Gatsby, and his own actions are more intricately connected with Finny's destiny. Gene's participation in Finny's fate irrevocably changes his own...
(The entire section is 983 words.)
The narrator of A Separate Peace, Gene as an adult recalls himself at sixteen: a lonely intellectual with the tendency of analyzing his and everyone else's motives. At various times in the novel, he is highly competitive, selfish, insecure, and combative. On other occasions, he is courageous, mature, and dependable.
Throughout the novel, Gene compares and contrasts himself with his best friend. Finny, and often falls short in his own estimation. Although Gene is obviously the more scholarly of the two (Gene is academically near the top of his high school class, while Finny seldom achieves more than a "C" in his courses), Finny is the better athlete and more self-confident than his friend. Also troubling to Gene is that Finny openly flouts conventions but never gets punished for his acts. For example, on an occasion when Finny and Gene miss the mandatory school dinner, Finny cheerfully rambles a bizarre explanation to Mr. Prud'homme, the summer substitute teacher. Mr. Prud'homme, more amused than angry, decides not to punish the boys.
Gene observes many other occasions when Finny breaks the rules but never gets his comeuppance, because he has so much charm and self-confidence. He becomes increasingly jealous of Finny, and for a while he assumes Finny reciprocates those feelings. That Gene works systematically and diligently for his academic and athletic success, and Finny's athletic achievements seem to come effortlessly to him fuels...
(The entire section is 550 words.)
One of the two central characters in the novel. Phineas, also known as Finny, is Devon School's best athlete and a handsome, self-confident teenager. Despite or because of these qualities, he is also arguably the most innocent of all the characters in A Separate Peace. For example, just before he and Gene fall asleep on the beach one night, Finny honestly declares that Gene is his "best pal." Somewhat taken aback, Gene cannot return the compliment and reflects, "It was a courageous thing to say. Exposing a sincere emotion nakedly like that at the Devon School was the next thing to suicide." Finny is naive in other ways as well. When Gene complains about not having enough time to study, Finny is genuinely puzzled. "I didn't know you needed to study," he said simply. "I didn't think you ever did. I thought it came to you." Since Finny excels at sports with a minimum of effort—Gene witnesses his breaking the school swimming record with no preparation—he does not understand that Gene works diligently to be at the top of his class scholastically.
In Hallman Bell Bryant's A Separate Peace: The War Within, the author compares Finny to many literary or historical figures. For example, he brings to mind Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn; just as Huck could not accept the Old Testament story of Moses because he did not have any "stock" in dead folks, Finny doubts the authenticity of the Latin language because it is a "dead language." Many critics have...
(The entire section is 470 words.)
Gene Forrester's rival for the position of class valedictorian. Unlike Gene, Chet has a genuine interest in learning and does not thrive simply on competition.
Brinker Hadley's father, a World War I veteran whose patriotism offends both Brinker and Gene.
Described as "the big name on campus," Brinker Hadley's characterization was actually based on the novelist Gore Vidal. In an interview with the Exonion, Knowles remembers Vidal as an "unusual and thriving" person, although he did not know him very well. In his realization of Hadley's slick temperament, Gene appreciates his own maturity. At one time, Gene would have ingratiated himself with someone like Hadley, but after Finny's fall Gene comes to prefer the sincerity of someone like Leper. Brinker Hadley also serves the function of being the character that arranges the mock tribunal to determine whether Gene is innocent or guilty in regard to Finny's fall.
One of the less impressive authority figures at the Devon School, Phil Latham is the wrestling coach. His advice, "Give it the old college try," seems to pertain to all situations, whether they be sexual, psychological, or academic. He is not really an unsympathetic character, so much as a man without much intelligence or creativity.
(The entire section is 766 words.)