A Separate Peace is a story about two youths, Gene and Phineas, growing up at a beautiful boys’ boarding school in New England. Set in the background of World War II, the friendship between them grows as the peace in Devon School diminishes. Gene and Phineas are like two poles of a magnet, opposite yet bound together. Gene is academic, Finny is athletic; Gene is a hard worker, Finny is not; Finny is the extroverted leader and Gene is his follower. Gene follows the rules, and Finny breaks them. Their personalities and strengths are different and yet they are inseparable. “It’s you, pal,” he said, “just you and me.” He and I started back across the fields, preceding the others like two seigneurs. We were the best of friends at that moment” (17). Gene becomes Finny’s best friend the moment he jumps out of the tree and crashed into Devon River as a result of Finny’s goading. Since then, Finny is the dominant factor in all the choices Gene makes: “When I got myself into position to jump…I always jumped.
Otherwise, I would have lost face with Phineas, and that would have been unthinkable” (34). When Gene jumps, in a way he is throwing his life away to Finny, because, from that point forward, Finny will be the overwhelming influence of his life. At the early stage of their friendship, Gene always feels that Finny is such a great person: “He got away with everything because of the extraordinary person he was. It was quite a compliment to me, in fact, to have such a person choose me for his best friend” (29). But somehow, Gene doubts Finny’s loyalty. As an adolescent, Gene’s insecurity causes him to suddenly believe that such a friend as Phineas is too good to be true. He suspects Phineas is dragging him along to keep him from being the top student. “Finny had deliberately set out to wreck my studies . . . That way he, the great athlete, would be way ahead of me. It was all cold trickery, it was all calculated, it was all enmity” (53).
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The first climax of the story happens right after Gene begins to be disillusioned from the supposed rivalry between Finny and him. As they prepare to jump off the tree and into the river together, Gene accidentally jounces the limb that they’re standing on, causing Phineas to fall and shatter his leg. This accident, resulting in Finny’s leg being crippled, will be between them for the rest of the story. Phineas is an extraordinarily loyal friend to Gene. After the accident, he denies even to himself that Gene had caused it: “I must have lost my balance. I did have this feeling that when you were standing there beside my, y — . . . I just fell, that’s all . . . I’m sorry for that feeling I had.” (66) Later, when Gene admits: “I deliberately jounced the limb so you would fall off,” Finny says: “Of course you didn’t” (70) and he yells at Gene to stop saying so. Throughout most of the story, Phineas continues to act like it was just an innocent miss happening and he also continues to hold on to Gene as a best friend.
An example of how Phineas is an absolute factor in Gene’s life is when he keeps Gene from enlisting for the war. Because he is crippled, and couldn’t possibly go into combat, Phineas repudiates the war. If Gene had left for war, Phineas would not be able to keep up the illusion that the war is just a sham. When Phineas hears that Gene has considered enlisting, he’s stunned: “Enlist!”. . . His large and clear eyes turned with an odd expression on me. I had never seen such a look in them before. After looking at me closely he said, “You’re going to enlist?” Gene recognizes the fact that he must not leave for war, because his best friend Finny needs him to stay: “Phineas was shocked at the thought of my leaving. In some way he needed me . . . He wanted me, and dreams of enlistment and escape and a clean start lost their meaning for me” (107).
After the accident, Gene and Phineas become even more integrated. Because his major strength, athletics, was taken away by the accident, Phineas begins to live his life through. Phineas tells Gene that he used to be aiming for the Olympics, but now he’s going to help Gene train for it: “And now I’m not sure, not a hundred percent sure that I’ll be complete, you know, in shape by 1944. So I’m going to coach you for them instead” (117). The second climax occurs when Finny is confronted with the accident and forced to admit to himself that Gene had caused him to fall from that tree. At first, Finny defends Gene, “It’s very funny,” he said, “but ever since then I’ve had a feeling that the tree did it by itself. It’s an impression I’ve had. Almost as though the tree shook me out by itself” (169). Then he tries to recall the event but has confused what really happened with what he wants to have happened. When Finny is coerced into finally acknowledging the truth, it’s such a shock to him that he storms away in a sudden rage, falling down the white marble stairs and breaking the same leg again.
After this second fall, Finny reveals bitterness and anger the night Gene visits him in the infirmary. With his leg bound and hindering, he snaps fiercely at Gene, “You want to break something else in me! Is that why you’re here!” (184). But being the extraordinary friend that he is, Finny readily forgives Gene. “I believe you. You’ve already shown me and I believe you” (191). The most important aspect of Gene and Finny’s friendship is that each was so much a part of the other. To Finny, Gene has always been an extension of himself. Perhaps that’s why it is so easy for him to forgive Gene. Gene realizes that the whole purpose of their friendship is for him the become part of Finny: “Listen, pal, if I can’t play sports, you’re going to play them for me,” and I lost part of myself to him then, and a soaring sense of freedom revealed that this must have been my purpose from the first: to become a part of Phineas” (85).