A Separate Peace is a good example of a bildungsroman; which means that the protagonist goes through experiences that help him/her to learn, grow and mature. Gene and Phineas are best friends at a private school named Devon during World War II. Even with the war most likely in their future, they are still young and compare themselves with each other. Gene, however, is the most insecure in the relationship for many reasons. Phineas is athletic, social and suave and Gene is not. Gene expresses his paranoia to the reader through a first-person narration of events as he remembers them. For example, Gene can't even tell Phineas that "thanks" when Finny tells him that he is his best friend. Gene is uncomfortable because he feels a strong sense of normal masculine competition in their relationship that Finny either doesn't feel or doesn't feel as strongly about as Gene. Later, Finny does express an attitude towards Gene wanting to excel academically, which not only shows Finny's insecurity for the first time, but also brings peace to Gene that the two boys are actually equal, just different, and truly good friends. It must come down to feeling secure and confident within before being able to accept another person. Gene is completely paranoid of his relationship with Finny until he realizes his own abilities and accepts himself.
Throughout the novel, Knowles illustrates the tense relationship and insecure feelings Gene has for his close friend Finny. Gene indirectly portrays his jealousy and insecurity towards Finny through his actions, particularly when he shakes Finny from the tree branch, crippling him permanently. Gene's admiration for his more athletic, charismatic, and popular friend initially seems harmless, but quickly becomes bitter and violent. As an adolescent, Gene resents the fact that everything comes so easy to Finny. Essentially, Finny does not have to try hard at anything, except his studies, and many of his amazing accomplishments seem effortless. After Gene injures Finny, he begins to feel more confident and considers himself equal to the once great athlete. Unfortunately, Gene's resentment and insecurities motivate him to harm the person he most admired. Through Gene's character, Knowles explores how individuals deal with their insecurities in order to improve their self-esteem. However, Gene's sinister actions provide a more nuanced view of how envy and adoration are connected and expressed.