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A Separate Peace
Jan. 16, 1999
In A Separate Peace , by John Knowles, Gene has more or less lived in an
imaginary world of dreams. He has never come to grips with the problems of his own
existence. Gene had withdrawn into a dream world established by Finny. If Gene wasn’t
such a follower he wouldn’t be facing the inner darker regrets he has. Gene assumes
Finny’s identity, sees himself as an extension of Finny, and speculates to the true
intentions underlying all his actions.
Gene worships Finny and wants desperately to be his best friend, but it occurs to
Gene that he really envies rather than loves Finny. When Gene pretends to be Finny it is
the first time he is able to do so. That is, only with Finny “out of the way” is Gene able
to form a connection between himself and Finny. When dressed in his clothes before the
mirror, Gene exclaims, “I was Phineas, Phineas to the life.” The importance of this is
that Gene’s exhilaration over becoming Phineas suggests to him that he might
consciously have caused Phineas’ accident. The “sense of transformation” which Gene
experiences connects with the guilt Gene has felt since the accident.
Gene is able to view himself instinctively as an extension of Finny. After Finny’s
second fall, Gene cannot help feeling that the accident has happened to himself as well as
to Finny. When Gene recalls attending Finny’s funeral, he explains that he “could not
escape a feeling that this was my own funeral.” And by viewing himself as an extension
of Finny, Gene has failed to see other truths about himself and other truths about Finny.
Gene has “the desolating sense of having all along ignored what was finest in him.”
Gene fears that perhaps unconsciously he wants to become superior to Finny and
so he feels unusually guilty as Finny falls from the tree. Because Finny’s fall arrives
shortly after Gene’s expression of hatred between himself and Finny, it is normal for
Gene to feel guilty about Finny’s fall. As Gene has come to distrust Finny, perhaps he
has now caused Finny to fall. Gene is plagued by self-doubts because of his hostility
toward Finny, and is now convinced that he really did cause Finny to fall. Finny’s
accident almost takes up the entirety of Gene’s thinking. It naturally changes the life of
When Finny refuses to accept Gene’s confession, he is trying to convince himself
that his best friend really is his best friend. He must believe in Gene’s sincere friendship
but at that same time he must reconcile his suspicions that Gene could have intended the
accident to happen. But Finny, even more than Gene, wants to believe the best about
Gene. Gene will never know exactly what happened up in the tree that summer, but he
will be able to feel assured that no one is blaming him for what happened. Finny’s
accident will always be that an accident.
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Phillips Exeter Academy, A Separate Peace, British films, Literature, Fiction, John Knowles, Phineas, Finny
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