In A Separate Peace, what are three times where Gene's internal conflict affected his decisions and behavior?

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mnietfeld eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are two types of conflict: internal and external. Internal conflict refers to the inner struggles a character faces, such as battles with guilt, shame, or decision-making. External conflict is caused by outside forces, such as a character having to find contentment after a divorce or having to rebuild their home after a storm.

Gene faces many conflicts in A Separate Peace. His primary conflict is his battle with guilt, as he attempts to understand how involved he is with Finny's injury (and later his death). On the outside, Gene and Finny look like best friends. They spend their time together, compete with one another, and joke and laugh with one another. But one of their competitions gets complicated when they go outside to a familiar tree that school boys often jump into the water from. (The tree becomes a symbol of fear that recurs throughout the book.) The boys are excited and feeling free outside of the school building where they are being prepared to fight in World War II—a situation they feel, as young, able men, unable to avoid. Gene explains:

Any fear I had ever had of the tree was nothing beside this. It wasn't my neck, by my understanding which was menaced. He had never been jealous of me for a second. . . . Now I knew that there never was and never could have been any rivalry between us. (59)

In this moment Gene believes that he is inferior to Phineas. He becomes jealous, believing that his intellectual abilities are not as valuable or important as Phineas's athletic ability and social skills. Phineas suggests that they do a double jump from the tree, leaping at the same time from a high branch over the water. He says, "Come out a little way . . . and then we'll jump side by side" (59). Gene bravely faces his fears, agreeing with the plan:

Holding firmly to the trunk, I took a step toward him, and then my knees bent and I jounced the limb. Finny, his balance gone, swung his head around to look at me for an instant with extreme interest, and then he tumbled sideways, broke through the little branches below and hit the bank with a sickening, unnatural thud. (60)

In this accident, Finny breaks his leg and immediately loses all of his athletic ability, his primary skill. Gene is left with great internal conflict about why the branch "jounced" (60). Did he do it intentionally? Did he want his friend to get hurt? Was it an accident? Did this glance from Finny, at the moment of the accident, suggest that he thought it was on purpose? Gene recounts this scene throughout the book, questioning his motives and seeking to make amends with his friend, whether the bounce of the branch was an playful, an accident, or an intentional desire to harm.

The depth of Finny's confusion and concern over this memory shows up soon after the accident. Gene starts a conversation with Finny about it: "Finny, I. . . . What happened there at the tree? That goddam tree, I'm going to cut down that tree. Who cares who can jump out of it. What happened, what happened? How did you fall, how could you fall off like that?" (65). He responds, "I just fell . . . something jiggled and I fell over" (65). Finny then inquires about the expression on Gene's face during the accident: "I just remember looking at your face for a second. Awfully funny expression you had. Very shocked, like you have right now." Here, Gene begins to feel guilty, as seen by his defensive words: "Well, of course, I am shocked. Who wouldn't be shocked for God sakes. It's terrible, everything's terrible" (65). This theme of guilt haunts Gene throughout the remainder of the story. Guilt is a major internal conflict that Gene faces.

Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Three significant instances of inner conflict affecting Gene's decisions and subsequent behavior are these:

  1. inner conflict over the idea that Finny is trying to sabotage Gene's studies.
  2. inner conflict over feelings of inadequacy when compared to Phineas, whose charm saves him from repercussions of his (mis-) behavior
  3. inner conflict of guilt over the consequences his irrational act caused in Phineas's life

The first two instances are critical to the major story conflict, to the climax and to the resolution. Since Gene suspected Phineas (Finny) of trying to interfere with his studies--thus making him fail to some degree or another--he feels the weight of his feelings of inferiority and inadequacy when Finny unknowingly proves to Gene's satisfaction that sabotage is neither his thought nor intent. It is these feelings, following in the wake of disparaging thoughts about Finny, that make Gene decide to go to the tree after all, (2) to agree to a double jump with Finny and (3) to act out impulsively from internal agitation to antagonize Finny.

The third instance leads Gene to decide to tell Finny that the accident was the direct result of Gene's choice to jounce the limb so Finny would fall, thereby confessing his guilt for Finny's condition as an invalid. This confession adds to the emotional agitation Gene feels about Finny and about the war through the rest of the story. It also compels his decision not to enlist for the war effort like Leper did.

    [Gene said,] "I was thinking about you ... and the accident."
    [Finny said,] "There's loyalty for you. To think about me when you were on a vacation."
    "I was thinking about it, about you because—I was thinking about you and the accident because I caused it."
    Finny looked steadily at me, his face very handsome and expressionless. "What do you mean, you caused it," his voice was as steady as his eyes.
    My own voice sounded quiet and foreign "I jounced the limb. I caused it." One more sentence. "I deliberately jounced the limb so you would fall off."
    He looked older than I had ever seen him "Of course you didn't."
    "Yes I did. I did!"

A very important fourth instance of inner conflict driving Gene's decision is his underlying fear of being inadequate to the demands of life, a feeling accentuated in the shadow of Finny's seemingly god-like powers, charm and successes. Gene ends his narrative by revealing that his fear was common to and shared by all the boys he knew at school.

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A Separate Peace

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