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Gene and Finny's Personal War in A Separate Peace Essay


A Separate Peace

Summary: In A Separate Peace, by John Knowles, the story takes place during a time of war, but at Devon, an exclusive New England prep school, two friends face a greater war of their own. Gene Forrester is sort of an outcast, much unlike his best friend and roommate Phineas, who he is perilously jealous of.

The saying, "our greatest enemy is ourselves," is shown in A Separate Peace, by John Knowles. The novel takes place during a time of war, but at Devon, an exclusive New England prep school, two friends face a greater war of their own. Gene Forrester is sort of an outcast, much unlike his best friend and roommate Phineas, who he is perilously jealous of. Finny is friendly, loving, and popular. Throughout the novel Finny is portrayed as Gene's enemy; however, Gene's real enemy is himself.

Why would an enemy constantly praise and help someone they detest? Phineas is nothing but a loyal friend to Gene. By definition, an enemy is one who feels hatred toward, intends injury to, or opposes the interests of another; however Finny is none of these. In fact, Phineas is the complete opposite. Finny expresses only love and friendship towards Gene. He shows his appreciation for Gene, when he tells him that "you can't come to the shore with just anybody...the proper person is your best pal"(Knowles48). Finny hesitates and then adds "which is what you are"(48). This shows only love and appreciation for Gene, and Phineas continues to express tremendous care and encouragement for Gene. For example, when Finny encourages Gene to earn good grades: "It's going to be all A's for you"(58). Finally, if Finny intends to injure Gene, then why would he save his life? One day while making a jump out of the tree, Gene accidentally loses his balance. Luckily Finny quickly grabs his hand and pulls him back up onto the limb. Gene remarks that "if Finny hadn't come up right behind me...I could have been killed"(32). Gene even admits to himself that "Finny had practically saved my life"(32). If Finny wants Gene to injure himself, then he would let him fall. Considering that one cannot read minds, Finny does not know that Gene hates jumping out of the tree and isn't very fond of sports. Only in his head does Gene express his dislike for these things:"For I wanted no more of sports"(84). In fact, Gene shows only his "like" for jumping out of the tree when Finny is trying to convince him to stay back and study, but Gene insists on coming: "Wait just a minute. I'm coming"(58). To Finny, this shows enthusiasm for the jump, there are no hints from Gene that he in any way detests the jump. Gene treats sports the same way. He acts enthusiastic about sports around Finny and never objects to participating in them. In reality, Gene is even more excited then Finny about him breaking the swim record that was set back in 1940. Gene is so excited that he wants to "get the coach in here, and all the official timekeepers and I'll call up The Devonian to send a reporter and a photographer-"(44). But before Gene is even able to finish his sentence, Finny cuts him off and quietly says "No, I just wanted to see if I could do it"(44). From Finny's point of view, he shares the same interests with Gene. Phineas is a good and loyal friend, but an enemy he is not.

Gene believes that Finny's defiance of the rules gets him in trouble, when in reality Gene's personality gets him into even more trouble. Throughout the novel Gene projects his feelings onto others causing him to lash out in violence. Finny's natural ability at sports, his good looks, and popularity make Gene crazy with enmity. Gene, who isn't much of an athlete, is an honor student who works hard for his grades. Phineas, on the other hand, is a natural born athlete and wins at everything. Gene longs to win awards like Finny, 'best this' and 'best that.' This need for attention and recognition causes Gene to want to be valedictorian. Gene believes that if he is head of his graduating class, this will make him even with Phineas. Finny's sarcastic statement: "I'd kill myself out of jealous envy"(52), makes Gene believe that they were even in enmity. Gene became quite a student after this. Before he had been a mediocre student, but now he is an exceptional one. Still believing, that all of this will make them even in the end; Gene is struck with a difficult truth to face, that Finny never has and never will be jealous of him. One night, while Gene is studying, Finny barges in, voicing that Leper will once and for all make the jump out of the tree. Gene demands that he must stay back at the room to study for his big exam tomorrow. This confuses Finny because he can not understand why anyone would want to study: "You want to study?"(57). Gene then changes his mind and insists on coming, but Phineas has also changed his mind and now wants Gene to stay and study. Finny then states "I didn't know you needed to study," he said simply, "I didn't think you ever did. I thought it just came to you"(58). Gene then realizes that Phineas was never jealous of him and never will be. After arguing about whether or not Gene should go or study, Finny came up with another new idea: "We'll go together, a double jump! Neat, eh?"(59) While in the tree, Gene's emotions take control of him, forcing him to bounce the limb. This caused Phineas to lose his balance and "then he tumbled side-ways, broke through the little branches below and hit the bank with a sickening, unnatural thud"(60). This is when Gene's rage and jealousy take control and force him to do something terrible. At this point Gene's personality becomes his enemy.

To comprehend Gene's loss of identity, you must understand how he pretends to be someone he is not. Gene's loss of identity is due to the fact that he is insecure with himself and there is something inside of himself that he does not want to acknowledge. There are a few different incidences where Gene pretends to be someone that he is not. One evening, while dressing for dinner, Gene decides to try on Finny's clothing. While looking in the mirror Gene remarks that, "when I looked in the mirror it was no remote aristocrat I had become, no character out of my day dreams. I was Phineas, Phineas to the life"(62). Gene then goes on to describe how he felt confident, and how he "would never stumble through the confusions of my own character again"(62). That quote shows that Gene is insecure, and feels the need to pretend to be something he's not. Gene believes that he will be more popular if he acts this way, but who ever heard of someone enjoying the company of a fake person? Another time Gene admits to posing as someone he's not is during an inner-monologue when he is looking at his posters above his bed. Gene says to himself: "Over my cot I had long taped pictures which together amounted to a barefaced lie about my background-weepingly romantic views of plantation mansions, moss-hung trees by moonlight, lazy roads winding dustily past the cabins of the Negroes. When asked about them, I had acquired an accent appropriate to a town three states south of my own, and I had transmitted the impression without actually stating it, that this was the old family place"(156). Gene even lies about where he is from to make himself sound more important and fit in. Gene is a fake person who has a loss of identity, therefore making him and enemy to himself because no one likes a phony person.

Although Gene portrays Phineas as his enemy in A Separate Peace by John Knowles, Gene really only has one enemy, and that enemy is himself. Finny, who Gene calls his enemy, has done nothing but "be there" for Gene, by encouraging to get good grades and saving his life. Gene's personality alone gets him into more trouble than Finny does, and lastly Gene's loss of identity causes him to be insecure and not well liked. Therefore, Gene's real enemy is Gene. A great man once said, "keep your friends close and your enemies closer."

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