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A Separate Peace

by John Knowles

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Do Phineas and Gene symbolize good and evil in A Separate Peace?

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Phineas is the extreme example of all that's good in a character. He is straightforward and openly honest in all his enthusiastic, energetic encounters with everyone he meets. He could also shine at many other things, with people for instance, the others in our dormitory, the faculty; in fact, if you stopped to think about it, Finny could shine with everyone, he attracted everyone he met. Finny loves life and wants for everyone else to share his joy. He is constantly searching for the next adventure, pushing the envelope to test the boundaries and find out how far he can go in exploring new aspects of the world around him.

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Phineas is the extreme example of all that's good in a character. He is straightforward and openly honest in all his enthusiastic, energetic encounters with everyone he meets.

He could also shine at many other things, with people for instance, the others in our dormitory, the faculty; in fact, if...

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you stopped to think about it, Finny could shine with everyone, he attracted everyone he met.

Finny loves life and wants for everyone else to share his joy. He is constantly searching for the next adventure, pushing the envelope to test the boundaries and find out how far he can go in exploring new aspects of the world around him.

Gene, on the other hand, is not necessarily evil but is very insecure and concerned with preserving himself, which puts him on the defensive and easily causes suspicion in his relationship with Finny.

My brain exploded. He minded, despised the possibility that I might be the head of the school. There was a swift chain of explosions in my brain, one certainty after another blasted - up like a detonation went the idea of any best friend, up went affection and partnership and sticking by someone and relying on someone absolutely in the jungle of a boys' school, up went the hope that there was anyone in this school - in this world - whom I could trust.

The evil but unintentional result of Gene's perception of Finny at that moment in time is the retaliation against Finny's great natural athletic ability when Gene causes Finny to loose his balance on the tree limb.

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Phineas and Gene in A Separate Peace are often considered to be symbols of the two sides of the human condition—good and evil. Discuss how the author develops this dichotomy and ultimately transcends it.

In A Separate Peace, the boys at the Devon School are entrenched in the political climate of World War II, the conflict between good and evil playing out on the global stage, and through Gene, Knowles challenges the reader to transcend the good-versus-evil dichotomy to wonder if there is good on both sides that has simply been warped by unnatural circumstance.

After an escalating series of dares, Gene loses his temper and shakes the tree branch that Phineas is standing on, permanently disabling his supposed best friend. The dichotomy is established; Phineas is good and Gene is evil. Yet as soon as he sets up this comparison, Knowles begins to transcend it. Gene becomes consumed with guilt and confesses his crime to his friend. Phineas refuses to accept that Gene would be capable of hurting him; Gene perceives that this thought alone deeply disturbs his friend and so rescinds his confession. Once Phineas re-breaks his leg, however, Gene comes to him again professing his guilt. Phineas finally accepts it and, after a brief spell of anger, forgives his friend. He understands that Gene acted out of impulse and that his own competitiveness pushed Gene to that point.

After Phineas dies from his injury, Gene goes off to war, carrying the benevolent spirit of his friend with him. He is unable to see the opposing forces as enemies; thinking back on his relationship with Phineas, he decides that competition—in school or in war—makes enemies out of good people. Gene's revelation demonstrates Knowles's ultimate transcendence of the good-versus-evil trope.

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