There are plenty of quotes in John Knowles novel A Separate Peace that speak to Gene’s character. As the story’s narrator, and the cause of Phineas’ (“Finny”) death, Gene’s narration is filled with expressions of remorse and envy regarding his role in Finny’s injuries and death and in the duplicitous nature of their relationship. Finny, despite his flaws, was a true friend to Gene; Gene, however, was deeply and adversely affected by feelings of jealousy he maintained towards Finny due to the latter’s athletic prowess and adventurous nature. While Gene protests early in the novel that Finny did not goad him into an act of daring, defiantly declaring that “I never backed away from anything in my life,” there is no question that Finny’s willingness to take risks exceeds anything Gene could have imagined. Describing Finny’s decision to wear a bright pink shirt around the school campus, defying others to question his sexual orientation, Gene states the following:
“I was beginning to see that Phineas could get away with anything. I couldn’t help envying him a little, which was perfectly normal. There was no harm in envying even your best friend a little”
As the story progresses, and with Gene’s and Finny’s relationship growing both closer and more competitive, the darker side of Gene’s nature begins to appear. At the end of Chapter Three, when Finny and Gene settle down to sleep on the beach after a day of recreation along the boardwalk, Finny expresses his emotions in a manner normally unheard of in the masculine formality of their school, telling Gene that he was his “best pal.” Gene’s recollection of that day, and that moment, are described as follows:
“I should have told him then that he was my best friend also…But something held me back. Perhaps I was stopped by that level of feeling, deeper than thought, which contains the truth”
The truth, of course, is that Gene feels envious of and resentful towards Finny because of the latter’s more carefree, daring nature, and because of his physical attractiveness. Gene, of course, is not evil; he’s a boy, maturing into the man he will become, and possessed of conflicting emotions regarding the world around him. Knowles theme, embodied in the title he chose for his novel, A Separate Peace, is about the moral as well as the physical isolation his characters felt, attending an elite boarding school while the most destructive war the world had ever known raged thousands of miles away. Late in the story, after Gene has attempted to visit Finny, who lies in the hospital, his leg broken again because of Gene’s actions, the narrator reflects on his isolation:
“I felt that I was not, never had been and never would be a living part of this overpoweringly solid and deeply meaningful world around me.”
There are many viable references in A Separate Peace to Gene’s nature. The above quotes, however, are three that stand out for what they reveal about Gene’s character.