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A Separate Peace

by John Knowles

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Key quotes from A Separate Peace that reveal Gene Forrester's character traits, including competitiveness, insecurity, jealousy, neuroticism, intelligence, and internal conflict

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Key quotes from A Separate Peace that reveal Gene Forrester's character traits include: "I was not of the same quality as he," showcasing his insecurity and jealousy towards Finny; "I fought that battle, that first skirmish of a long campaign, for Finny," indicating his internal conflict and competitiveness; and "I didn't trust myself," highlighting his neuroticism and intelligence.

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What quotes reveal Gene's competitiveness, insecurity, or jealousy in A Separate Peace?

At the end of chapter 3, Finny tells Gene that he is his best friend after a fun, exhilarating day at the beach. Instead of responding to Finny's comment, Gene thinks to himself,

I should have told him then that he was my best friend also and rounded off what he had said. I started to; I nearly did. But something held me back. Perhaps I was stopped by that level of feeling, deeper than thought, which contains the truth (Knowles, 21).

Gene's overwhelming feelings of insecurity, competition, and jealousy prevent him from admitting that he is close friends with Finny. By not reciprocating, Gene displays his true feelings towards Finny.

In chapter 4, Gene admits to Finny that he has to work extremely hard to get good grades. This astonishes Finny, who has never had to work hard at anything in his life. Gene is insecure and believes that he would be "even" with Finny if he were the highest ranking student in the school. When Gene asks Finny if he would mind if he received that award, Finny sarcastically says, "I’d kill myself out of jealous envy" (Knowles, 24). At that moment, Gene develops feelings of enmity toward Finny because he believes that Finny is his competition. Gene completely misinterprets Finny's comment, and his insecure feelings are replaced by jealous hostility toward his friend. Gene says,

I found a single sustaining thought. The thought was, You and Phineas are even already. You are even in enmity. You are both coldly driving ahead for yourselves alone. You did hate him for breaking that school swimming record, but so what? He hated you for getting an A in every course but one last term. You would have had an A in that one except for him. Except for him (Knowles, 24).

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What quotes reveal Gene's competitiveness, insecurity, or jealousy in A Separate Peace?

There are many quotes that illustrate Gene's characteristics of competitiveness, insecurity, or jealousy. Indeed, a major aspect of the story is the war Gene sporadically conducts against himself, Finny, or others at Devon School.

Consider the Upper Middle Class term tea. As Finny, Gene, Mr. Patch-Withers, and Mrs. Patch-Withers are discussing the actions of the Germans, Finny unbuttons his sportcoat so as to have freedom of movement for larger gestures. The coat falls open and exposes Finny's belt, his school tie with Devon's crest and colors. Gene finds himself looking forward to observing Finny's punishment for this misstep, then being jealous when no punishment is given.

This time he wasn't going to get away with it. I could feel myself becoming unexpectedly excited at that...Phineas was going to get away with even this...He had gotten away with everything. I felt a sudden stab of disappointment. That was because I just wanted to see some more excitement; that must have been it.

The study scene in their dorm room displayed all the traits you ask about. Gene realizes he wants to achieve scholastic recognition to compare with Finny's athletic honors; Gene is too insecure to conceive of a friendship with someone by whom he feels (at that moment) betrayed; and Gene is jealous that Finny's sports achievements come so easily, while Gene has to study and work for his good grades.

"Somebody's got to be the head of the class."...He had won and been proud to win the Galbraith Football Trophy and the Contact Sport Award...If I was head of the class on Graduation Day and made a speech and won the Ne Plus Ultra Scholastic Achievement Citation, then we would both have come out on top we would be even, that was all..."You wouldn't...mind if I wound up head of the class, would you?"..."I'd kill myself out of jealous envy." I believed him...My brain exploded. He minded, despised the possibility that I might be head of the school.

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What key quotes from A Separate Peace show Gene's neurotic personality?

The word "neurotic" isn't used in psychology circles so much any more because there are more specific words used to diagnose different mental illnesses these days. The word technically refers to an unsettling of the nerves, or pertaining to nervousness. Gene does seem to be nervous, but more specifically, he is a paranoid, insecure teenager with a newly discovered dark side that he must learn to tame. This dark side comes out as Gene's paranoia and insecurity are pushed to their limits as he inadvertantly breaks his pre-supposed rival's leg. Because the book is written from Gene's perspective, there are many quotes that discuss what he is thinking and how his thoughts expose his paranoia and insecurities. 

In chapter 2, Gene admits to being envious of Phineas. Gene realizes that Phineas can charm his way out of anything, beat anyone at any game, and do anything he wanted in life. Gene says, "There was no harm in envying even your best friend a little"(25). But this slowly starts to get out of control as Finny seems to do one incredible thing after another. Gene's mental status spirals.

For example, in chapter 3, Finny breaks the school swimming record and Gene hits a breaking point with his jealousy. Finny didn't want to tell anyone about the accomplishment so it festers in Gene. Gene says the following:

". . .so I didn't tell anybody. Perhaps for that reason his accomplishment took root in my mind and grew rapidly in the darkness where I was forced to hide it"(44).

This darkness and hiding things builds up in Gene to the point where he can't contain his jealousy and that isn't good for mental health.

By chapter 4 Finny and Gene get into an argument about grades, recreational time, and how each one perceives the other. Gene realizes he has been jealous of Finny, but what really gets his goat is when he says:

"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. I was not the same quality as he"(59).

By this point, Gene is completely riled up mentally and he's energized to go prove himself by jumping off the tree into the Devon river again. Again, not a good frame of mind at this point and it leads to him jouncing the branch which leads to Finny's broken leg.

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What quotes in A Separate Peace show Gene Forrester's intelligence and insecurity?

Gene Forrester's envy of Phineas is, of course, born of insecurity, and his observations of Finny are redolent with this insecurity.  For instance, in Chapter 2 when Finny wears a pullover roadcloth shirt in pink to class, and not one of the instructors said anything about it during classes, Gene remarks in his unsureness of himself:

I was beginning to see that Phineas could get away with anything....because of the extraordinary kind of person he was.  It was quite a compliment to me, as a matter of fact, to have such a person choose me for his best friend.

As Finny recalls the conversation he has had with Mr. Patch-Withers, Gene replies sarcastically, admitting to his insecurity: 

As I said, this ws my sarcastic summer.  It was only long after tht I recognized sarcasm as the protest of people who are weak.

In Chapter 3 Gene further admits that

I was subject to the dictates of my mind, which gave me the maneuverability of a straitjacket.

Later, when Finny breaks the school swimming record, he tells Gene that he just did this to see if he could.  Gene narrates,

Perhaps for that reason his accomplishment took root in my mind and grew rapidly in the darkness where I was forced to hide it.

Then, in their room, Finny tells Gene in his recognition of Gene's intelligence,

You know all about History and English and French and everything else.  What good will Trigonometry do you?

But this discussion, also, results with more insecurity upon Gene's part as he hears Finny talk of studying and becoming "head of the class."  His eyes snap in envy from the textbook to Finny: 

But what did go on in his mind?  'If I was the head of the class and won that prize, then we would be even...'

Now, Gene becomes worried that Finny will try to surpass him intellectually, as well.  This insecurity is reinforced by the incident in which he and Finny are in the library, studying for a French examination, but Finny passes nonsensical notes and "I didn't get any work done."  After Gene returns to his room, Finny enters, announcing that Leper has decided to jump this night, so Gene must attend.  Gene, in his insecurity, suspects ulterior motives on Finny's part:

Finny had put him [Leper] up to it, to finish me for good on the exam.

When Gene expresses this thought, Finny is surprised.  He tells Gene he is intelligent:

Listen, I could study forever and I'd never bread C.  But it's different for you, you're good. you rally are.  If I had a brain like that, I'd--I'd have my head cut open so people could look at it....

And, Gene becomes ashamed of his insecurity:

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.  I was not of the same quality as he.

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What quotes in A Separate Peace show Gene Forrester's intelligence and insecurity?

The beginning of Chapter 4, when Finny and Gene wake up on the beach together and Gene returns late to school unable to revise for a test, Gene says:

I flunked it; I knew I was going to as soon as I looked at the test problems. It was the first test I had ever flunked.

Later, when Gene complains to Finny about it, Finny responds dismissively:

"Don't give me that line. Nobody at Devon has ever been surer of graduating than you are. You aren't working for that. You want to be head of the class, valedictorian...."

These quotes then show how intelligent Gene is - firstly that this is the first test he has ever flunked, and secondly, as Finny correctly guesses, he isn't working hard just to graduate - he wants to be head of the class, which means he has to be intelligent to be able to realistically aim for such a goal.

The very end of Chapter 3 when they are at the beach shows how insecure Gene is in his friendship with Finny. After Finny has declared that Gene is his "best pal", Gene ponders:

It was a courageous thing to say. Exposing a sincer emotion nakedly like that at the Devon School was the next thing to suicide. I should have told him then that he was my best friend also and rounded off what he had said. I started to; I nearly did. But something held me back. Perhaps I was stopped by that level of feeling, deeper than thought, which contained the truth.

Here we have a open reference to the "truth" of the hatred and jealousy that Gene feels towards Finny. Finny makes him insecure and challenges him - just look how he obeys Finny in so many things even though every bone in his body is crying out not to do it - and it is this insecurity in himself that leads Gene to harbour anger and jealousy against Finny. Even though he tries to express his friendship and emotion to Finny, he is unable too - indicating his true feelings.

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In A Separate Peace, what quotes show Gene's internal conflict?

One quote that shows Gene's conflict with himself occurs in the first chapter as he returns to Devon after an interval of 15 years. He writes of remembering his conflicted emotions of both fear and happiness when he was a student:

I felt fear’s echo, and along with that I felt the unhinged, uncontrollable joy which had been its accompaniment and opposite face, joy which had broken out sometimes in those days like Northern Lights across black sky.

As Gene mentally heads back in time to recreate his memories of his last year at Devon, he expresses his conflicted feelings about Phineas. He has decided at this point that Finny is in competition with him, out to destroy his chances to be the top scholar at the school. This makes him hate Finny, but he also loves him, as the quote below shows:

It was surprising how well we got along in these weeks. Sometimes I found it hard to remember his treachery, sometimes I discovered myself thoughtlessly slipping back into affection for him again.

Gene's conflicted feeling about himself and Finny emerge again when Finny is in the hospital after Gene bounces the tree so that he falls. Gene puts on Finny's clothes and looks in the mirror:

I was Phineas, Phineas to the life. I even had his humorous expression in my face, his sharp, optimistic awareness. I had no idea why this gave me such intense relief, but it seemed, standing there in Finny’s triumphant shirt, that I would never stumble through the confusions of my own character again.

Gene is conflicted in his feelings about Phineas, both filled with admiration of him and envy that he can't be more like him, and also conflicted about his own character, which confuses him with its many contradictions.

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

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.

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

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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Can you provide three quotes from A Separate Peace that describe Gene's character?

There are plenty of quotes in John Knowles novel A Separate Peace that speak to Gene’s character.  As the story’s narrator, and the cause of Phineas’ (“Finny”) death, Gene’s narration is filled with expressions of remorse and envy regarding his role in Finny’s injuries and death and in the duplicitous nature of their relationship.  Finny, despite his flaws, was a true friend to Gene; Gene, however, was deeply and adversely affected by feelings of jealousy he maintained towards Finny due to the latter’s athletic prowess and adventurous nature.  While Gene protests early in the novel that Finny did not goad him into an act of daring, defiantly declaring that “I never backed away from anything in my life,” there is no question that Finny’s willingness to take risks exceeds anything Gene could have imagined.  Describing Finny’s decision to wear a bright pink shirt around the school campus, defying others to question his sexual orientation, Gene states the following:

“I was beginning to see that Phineas could get away with anything. I couldn’t help envying him a little, which was perfectly normal. There was no harm in envying even your best friend a little”

As the story progresses, and with Gene’s and Finny’s relationship growing both closer and more competitive, the darker side of Gene’s nature begins to appear.  At the end of Chapter Three, when Finny and Gene settle down to sleep on the beach after a day of recreation along the boardwalk, Finny expresses his emotions in a manner normally unheard of in the masculine formality of their school, telling Gene that he was his “best pal.”  Gene’s recollection of that day, and that moment, are described as follows:

“I should have told him then that he was my best friend also…But something held me back. Perhaps I was stopped by that level of feeling, deeper than thought, which contains the truth”

The truth, of course, is that Gene feels envious of and resentful towards Finny because of the latter’s more carefree, daring nature, and because of his physical attractiveness.  Gene, of course, is not evil; he’s a boy, maturing into the man he will become, and possessed of conflicting emotions regarding the world around him.  Knowles theme, embodied in the title he chose for his novel, A Separate Peace, is about the moral as well as the physical isolation his characters felt, attending an elite boarding school while the most destructive war the world had ever known raged thousands of miles away.  Late in the story, after Gene has attempted to visit Finny, who lies in the hospital, his leg broken again because of Gene’s actions, the narrator reflects on his isolation:

“I felt that I was not, never had been and never would be a living part of this overpoweringly solid and deeply meaningful world around me.”

There are many viable references in A Separate Peace to Gene’s nature.  The above quotes, however, are three that stand out for what they reveal about Gene’s character.

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