To what extent should we consider Gene to be an unreliable narrator?

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stolperia eNotes educator| Certified Educator

All persons bring their individual perceptions and biases with them when telling a story about past events in their lives, and these personal understandings inevitably have some impact upon the telling. However, Gene seems to be particularly emotionally involved and unable to separate himself from the events he is reporting, with the result that his narration contains more introspection and less objective narrating than some readers would consider desirable.

The exchange between Gene and Phineas as they were studying the evening after returning from their overnight visit to the beach is an example of Gene's inability to present the narration in an unemotional manner. Finny tells Gene that he studies too hard; Gene attempts to refute the accusation, but then decides that perhaps he has a reason for working at his classwork as hard as he does.

"Somebody's got to be the head of the class."...What if I was. It was a pretty good goal to have, it seemed to me...If I was head of the class on Graduation Day...then we would both have come out on top, we would be even, that was all. We would be even...

If Gene had recorded the conversation and stopped at that point, we would have had a reliable record of the exchange. However, Gene's insecurity arose and led him to the conclusion that Finny was conspiring to undermine Gene's academic efforts in order to prevent Gene from graduating at the academic top of their class. Gene's inner relationship with Finny changes from that of best friends to that of enemies, competing for the spotlight and prestige of being the best in your chosen area of accomplishment.

Finny had deliberately set out to wreck my studies....Sure he wanted to share everything with me, especially his procession of D's in every subject. That way he, the great athlete, would be way ahead of me.

Gene is unable to simply report that he became more determined to excel in his academic efforts during the remainder of the Summer Session. He has to frame everything in terms of how it impacted the perceived competition.

Examinations were at hand. I wasn't as ready for them as I wanted to be. The Suicide Society continued to meet every evening, and I continued to attend, because I didn't want Finny to understand me as I understood him. And also I didn't want to let him excel me in this...

Gene's narration is true to his insecure and emotional personality. However, it is not impartial and objective, which makes its reliability questionable.

mrerick eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Twenty years of guilt about a friend's death can tend to manipulate your memories of that friend.  I often pose the question to my students, "Did Gene do this on purpose?"  Many of them want to simply say yes or no, but I believe there is too much gray area to take that stance.  Gene eventually reasons with Finny to make it seem like he acted on some instant compulsion without regard for the consequences.  My students quite often want to believe that Gene may have shook the branch without any intentions of Finny falling, just to scare him a little bit.  I'll argue with them (I always play devil's advocate!) that Gene knew the potential danger of falling out of that tree.  We don't play jokes on our friends to "scare them" if the potential for getting seriously hurt is present.  I'll suggest that perhaps Finny really did just lose his balance and Gene couldn't save him.  Why can't Gene's memory of bending his knees and jouncing the limb simply be his act of re-balancing after Finny shakes the branch by falling?  This is why we can't entirely trust Gene's story.  He's had to deal with twenty years of his best friend being dead because of him before he attempts to tell us what has happened.  We're a society that tends to exaggerate the truth after a day or two of a serious event - this is much longer and, in Gene's eyes, a far more tragic event.

Susan Hurn eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is interesting! The idea that Gene is projecting makes sense. The novel is full of psychology: denial, sublimation, paranoia, etc. So assume that he is feeling defensive and self-pitying when he returns. This implies that he is still carrying a great deal of guilt. This makes sense. If he were not still struggling with his history at Devon, why would he return in the first place?

I've always interpreted the novel this way: Gene returns to Devon, relives the events, finally understands how fear affected him, identifies "something ignorant in the human heart," makes the connection between his "war" at Devon and World War II, finally forgives himself because he has developed insight into man's basic nature, and is thereby changed. The final paragraphs of the novel are as important as the introduction, I think.

So, does Gene change or does he merely find a way to rationalize his attack on Finny? Or are they one and the same?

If Gene is an unreliable narrator, does that negate the insights he seems to develop about Finny, Leper, and Brinker? Would his being an unreliable narrator negate his idea that war is an act of violence that results from the content of the human heart?

I'm always amazed by the depth of this novel. It's just bottomless.

jeff-hauge eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It is rather obvious that Gene is to be seen as an unreliable narrator. The opening of the frame narration has him take a journey to the two locations of his highest guilt. The hardness of the marble stairs in the First Academy Building are shockingly hard to him. He even remarks that it is strange that this fact has escaped his memory.

He then trudges out to see the tree. He uses phrases like "self-pitying" and "defensive" to describe the objects around him, yet it is obvious that HE is the one that exhibits those traits. When he sees the tree and feels that it is actually smaller than he remembered he also imagines that it is shrinking. Then he butchers the quote about things changing and staying the same. He inverts it in a Freudian manner into something more palatable.

The final quote of the frame narration is that nothing endures, not even a tree or the death resulting form his betrayal. His feels his guilt will be erased if he just waits longer. The most chilling part is that upon reaching this rationalization he feels, "changed". He is, of course, not changed at all. He merely may assuage his future guilty feelings by thinking about that tree rotting and then there would be no evidence left of his actions.

Susan Hurn eNotes educator| Certified Educator
A Separate Peace

To what extent should we consider Gene to be an unreliable narrator?

I would say to no extent! I think we must consider Gene to be a very reliable narrator because he has endured a great deal of suffering, has lived with crushing guilt, and finally has returned to Devon to face himself and take responsibility.

Gene deliberately, blindly jounced that limb; he attacked Finny and injured him physically and spiritually. Gene initiated the chain of events that led to Finny's death. He did not know he was capable of such hatred and violence. When he was at Devon, Gene did not understand himself at all. It took years for him to realize why he had done what he did to Finny--and to accept it.

When Gene visits the stairs and the tree, he is reliving those days at Devon and the terror he felt. He understands how insecure, self-loathing, and fear-filled he had been. As he stands at the tree remembering, Gene is finally able to accept the truth and forgive himself. He finally achieves a separate peace. He understands and says, "it was time to come in out of the rain."


Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Gene is a reliable narrator in this sense: he is flawed and he knows it.  Perhaps I would say he's an honest narrator, whether or not he's completely reliable. He's telling his own story, and he's telling it as he sees it.  If we know that and take it for what it's worth, then it's reliable.  He doesn't try to hide any of his ugliness or confusion from us, which is as honest as we can ask any narrator to be. What I've always wished is that we could somehow catch a glimpse into Finny's mind, as well.  Alas, that will not happen, so I shall have to be content.  The most intriguing moment for me is when Gene comes back to Devon and can't tell which tree was THE tree.  What seemed so huge and imposing and all-encompasssing back then was just another element in his life fifteen years later.  That, too, makes for a truthful narrator.

jeff-hauge eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I agree that the last pages of the novel present a hopeful image of growth and ownership over his actions. But I see the end of the frame narrative as the true "end" to the novel. It is the culmination of what he came to see. I don't believe he was interested in finding out the depths of his responsibility. I think he was looking to reinforce all the small balled up rationalizations he made throughout the internal narrative. His ultimate summation is more of an "anti-bildungsroman". We expect development but he is more provocative in his ability to sustain his dishonest rationalization. It is the true beauty of the book. Humans are at our most creative when we need to excuse our bad behavior. He just needs that tree to die.

Needles to say I LOVE the "flawed" ending of Huck Finn as well. Same thought.

accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In response to micdoe, whilst I agree that there are a lot of points in the narrative where Gene is clearly incorrect about his assumptions with regard to Finny, I think what is key is that the narrative does go on to reveal the falsity of these assumptions. Rather the narrator is trying to express how he honestly felt and how he used to be an unreliable narrator. Now of course, with the benefit of hindsight, he is able to reflect and realise the mistakes he made in his relationship with Finny and in particular his assumption that Finny was as envious of him as he was of Finny.

graciepie9 | Student

What is the significance of the Title? and why did the author choose the title?

micdoe | Student

I believe that gene is most definatly an unreliable narrator. there are many lies through out the novel. gene is a twisted charactor. Following is a charator anayasis i wrote (only parts) please feel free to comment;

While reading the novel, A Separate Peace, you realize that Gene is not a narrator to be trusted. For instance, Gene is always putting characteristics that are not there in people. He calls Finny “jealous’ and also calls Leper ‘crazy’. When Gene is about to jounce the limb Finny is on, He starts to describe it as if he had no say in the crime his legs were about to commit. He was trying to paint himself in a better light. He wanted to trick others, and maybe even himself, into believing he was not to blame. Although, after Gene sees Finny lying on the ground, unmoving, he does not gasp, yell, or rush to help Finny in his regret. Gene calmly does a perfect swan dive into the river, just like Finny did the first time they jumped out of the tree.

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A Separate Peace

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