In A Separate Peace, what are some characteristics or character traits of Gene's best friend Finny?
In John Knowles’ novel A Separate Peace, Gene’s best friend Phineas, or Finny, is the embodiment to which many boys and young men aspire. Knowles’ story is about the relationship between these two students at a prestigious New England boarding school and about the growing jealousy the more studious Gene holds toward the better-looking, more athletic, and more popular Finny. That jealousy will lead, as readers of A Separate Peace know, to Gene’s complicity in the death of Finny—a burden the former will carry with him for the rest of his life. Finny is not only handsome and good at sports, he is also the more charismatic of the two and a natural leader, for better or worse. These characteristics of Finny were immediately evident early in Gene’s narrative when he (Gene) describes some of his fellow students and himself contemplating a tree from which one could, conceivably, jump out into a river: “Naturally Finny was going to be the first to try, and just as naturally he was going to inveigle others, us, into trying it with him.”
While Finny’s athletic prowess is evident and his face is repeatedly referred to as “handsome,” his body, according to Gene, is nothing special:
“For such an extraordinary athlete—even as a Lower Middler Phineas had been the best athlete in the school—he was not spectacularly built. He was my height . . . He weighed a hundred and fifty pounds, a galling ten pounds more than I did, which flowed from his legs to torso around shoulders to arms and full strong neck in an uninterrupted, unemphatic unity of strength.”
Finny’s leadership qualities are evident in his commanding voice: “his cordial, penetrating voice, that reverberant instrument in his chest” and it is emphasized throughout the narrative that this is the proverbial big man on campus. While recognizing Finny’s limitations, such as his struggles in the classroom and his friend’s seeming naivete, Gene cannot shake the feeling of wanting to be more like Finny and less like himself. In contemplating the life-and-death scenarios involving trees and the river and the imperative of accepting Finny’s challenges no matter how potentially dangerous, Gene observes, “I would have lost face with Phineas, and that would have been unthinkable.”
It is Finny’s naivete that ultimately compels Gene to confront his friend’s inability to fully comprehend the world in which he lives. When Gene visits Finny in the latter’s hospital room, Finny becomes upset about the ramifications of his leg injury on his prospects to serve as a soldier in the distant war that provides a backdrop to the school’s tranquil setting. After listening to Finny complain that no army will accept a recruit with a serious leg injury, Gene responds bitingly, suggesting that Finny is ill-suited to the realities of the world beyond the confines of Devon School:
“They’d get you some place at the front and there’d be a lull in the fighting, and the next thing anyone knew you’d be over with the Germans or the Japs, asking if they’d like to field a baseball team against our side. You’d be sitting in one of their command posts, teaching them English. Yes, you’d get confused and borrow one of their uniforms, and you’d lend them one of yours. Sure, that’s just what would happen. You’d get things so scrambled up nobody would know who to fight any more. You’d make a mess, a terrible mess, Finny, out of the war.”
Finny represents the innocence of youth despite being on the cusp of adulthood and the responsibilities that entails. Elite boarding schools, like Devon and its real-life counterpart Phillips Exeter Academy, provide insular transformative experiences for those fortunate enough to attend. They prepare their charges for adulthood, but they also, as the novel’s title suggests, provide a comfortable, isolated environment in which the realities of the world can be kept at bay. Finny’s defining characteristics—good looks, athletic excellence, leadership qualities—are ultimately overcome by his failure to mature emotionally despite the gravity of the situation across the ocean.
In A Separate Peace, Phineas (Finny) is the best athlete in the school and most of the students and teachers find him so charming that he seems to be able to do whatever he wants. In a school where boys are being groomed to become men (and sent off to wars), Finny does not, and seemingly is not expected to, accept the adjustment into young adulthood. This is the other part of Finny's outlook or his nature. One could argue that Finny is actively trying to stay young at heart, or one could argue that his nature simply is to be young at heart.
To whatever degree Gene caused Finny's fall, and ultimately his death, Finny and Gene were friends; not enemies. Gene realizes later that he was not jealous of Finny's talent; he was jealous of Finny's innocence and his (Finny's) reluctance to grow up and accept the reality/futility of war. Finny symbolizes the opposite of the upcoming war. Finny was innocent, playful and without a shred of harmful intentions. It is ironic that Finny, the most innocent character, ends up being injured (and killed) without seeing a single battle in the war. The accident is perhaps a tragic reminder that innocence cannot endure in a world where war is still a common means of solving disputes.