What did Gene realize about himself when Phineas brought up the idea of being first in class in "Separate Peace"?
When Phineas brings up the idea of being first in the class academically, Gene realizes that he harbors every bit as much enmity towards Phineas as he suspects Phineas harbors towards him.
Phineas is a great natural athlete but an indifferent scholar, while Gene is quite smart, and not a bad athlete either. Gene takes his grades seriously and, knowing that he has the capability to excel academically, tries to apply himself dilligently, but Finny, with his seemingly constant stream of creative schemes, often cons Gene into squandering precious study time. Gene, resentful because he is unable to resist Finny's persuasiveness, concludes that his purported best friend is trying to distract him so that he will not be at the head of the class. In Gene's mind, Finny will always be the best athletically, and if Finny succeeds in keeping Gene from being the best in academics, then Finny will always be one step ahead. Gene realizes that although he does not necessarily love learning for learning's sake like Chet Douglass, he would like to come out at the top of his class just so that he can "be even" with Finny. Gene thinks,
"(He) and Phineas are even already. (They) are even in enmity. (They) are both coldly driving ahead for (them)selves alone" (Chapter 4).