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Gene's Search for Identity in John Knowles A Separate Peace
A Separate Peace by John Knowles is a coming-of-age novel, narrated by the main character Gene, about the tribulations that come from leaving the innocence of adolescence and merging into the impure world of adulthood. Gene Forrester’s lack of self confidence and minimal sense of self leads him to envy his best friend, Phineas, also known as Finny. Finny is confident, good-natured, the best athlete in school, and spontaneous; he is everything Gene is not. Overtaken with jealousy and resentment, Gene jounces the limb of the sacred tree, causing his best friend’s fall, in turn, causing both of their destructions. By both boys being destroyed, Gene is no longer in search for his identity.
Throughout the novel – especially prevalent in the beginning – Gene and Phineas have a complex relationship, but the complexity is only one-sided. As far as Phineas is concerned, Gene is his very best friend, his number one man he can trust with his life. Finny has no evil thoughts toward Gene, only pure affection. Gene, on the other hand, does not mutually share all the same feelings as Phineas. Gene both loves and hates Finny. Finny is his best friend, but his enemy also. Phineas is at peace with his own identity and the people around him. Gene cannot stand this air of confidence. Phineas does not know about Gene’s contradictory feelings toward him, but the reader does. Once Gene expresses some profound fondness of Finny, it is usually preceded or followed by an impure thought. One example is when Phineas breaks the school swimming record without even practicing. Gene tells Finny he is “too good to be true.” Gene seems proud of his best friend, but then Gene grows a little paranoid by questioning whether or not Phineas broke the record just to show him up or impress him. This shows somewhat of an insecurity on Gene’s behalf.
Through Gene’s descriptions and thoughts of Phineas, the reader gains a sense that Gene is jealous of Finny and maybe even a little paranoid of Finny having evil thoughts against him. Out of all the people in the world, Gene is most jealous of his very best friend, which goes to show that Gene is not only having troubling thoughts, but also a dangerous inner crisis. Gene even tells the reader that he is “used to finding something deadly in things that attracted [him]; there was always something deadly lurking in anything [he] wanted, anything [he] loved. And if it wasn’t there, as for example with Phineas, then [he] put it there [himself]” (Knowles 101). If Gene were fully comfortable with himself, he would not be jealous or paranoid of the number one person he should be able to trust and confide in. Finny gives Gene no reason not to trust him, and maybe Gene knows this all along. Even if he does know that Phineas is trustworthy and would do nothing to hurt him in any way, he will not admit it. He wants to prove to himself that Phineas has an evil side to himself too; the only problem is Phineas does not have an evil side. This eats away at Gene until Phineas falls from the respected and feared tree.
Gene is intensely uncomfortable with his identity so much that he creates enemies and thoughts of enmity that do not even exist. Gene creates an enmity in his mind between himself and Phineas. He lets himself believe Phineas has “deliberately set out to wreck [his] studies” (53) by creating the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session and the new game of blitzball. When he realizes that his concerns were all false, Gene cannot stand the fact that Finny is not only superior to him in athletics and personality, but morally superior as well: “It wasn’t my neck, but 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. I was not of the same quality as he” (59). Gene resents the fact that Phineas is not jealous, which makes him more jealous.
Gene does not even make his thoughts or emotions known at the climax of the story when he jounces the limb that Finny is standing on the end of, causing Finny to fall off. This not only makes Gene a rather unreliable narrator when it comes to expressing himself, but it also makes Gene seem as though he is fearing something about himself, only that something is not explicitly stated. It almost seems as if Gene’s greatest fear is himself. Because Gene does not make his feelings known, the reader is left to interpret Gene’s actions. Gene could be pained too much to tell about his thoughts and emotions, or it could mean that Gene felt numb at the time he jounced the limb, so therefore he would not have any emotions to persuade him in any way. From the rapid way Gene accounts for the events on the tree, it is believable that Gene did not know what he was doing; he just did it.
After Phineas falls from the tree, Gene recollects that “every trace of fear [of jumping out of the tree into the river] was forgotten” (60). When Finny is in the infirmary after his fall from the tree, Gene spends as much time in his room as possible “trying to empty [his] mind of every thought, to forget where [he] was, even who [he] was” (62). Gene goes as far as putting on Phineas’s clothes and imagining himself as Phineas: “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 confusions of my own character again” (62). When Gene says he will no longer stumble through confusion of his own character, it foreshadows what will become of Gene’s sense of self and solidifies the reader’s suspicion of his identity crisis.
Gene feels that his purpose it to become a part of Phineas. When Dr. Stanpole tells Finny that sports are through for him, Gene feels as if Dr. Stanpole is talking to him: “[Sports] were barred from me, as though when Dr. Stanpole said, ‘Sports are finished’ he had been speaking of me” (84). Gene thinks of himself as being a part of Finny. What happens to Finny happens to Gene, and what Finny feels, Gene feels. The only person in the novel that Gene is fully omniscient to is Phineas. Gene is quite possibly obsessed with Phineas.
When Phineas comes back to Devon after being at home due to his injured leg, he starts training Gene for the 1944 Olympics that may not even occur due to the fact that World War II is going on. Gene goes along with this plan, even if he does not fully believe in the ideas Finny presents to him. In Gene’s mind “there was no harm in taking aim, even if the target was a dream” (117). In a sense, Gene wants to lose himself to Phineas. Gene continues to go along with everything Phineas wants him to do and believe. By Gene letting his own opinions go and accepting all of Phineas’s, he kind of gives himself to Phineas. Gene is letting Finny make his character. It is obvious that Gene does not like himself; but he surely loves Finny. One is molded and fashioned by what he or she loves, and this holds true for Gene in the winter session at Devon School. Since Gene really does love Phineas, he tries his hardest to mold himself into what Finny wants him to be and the character that Finny is. This is shown by Gene immersing himself into sports and athletic training. Through sports Gene can lose himself to Finny entirely, and become even more Phineas-filled.
When Phineas has Gene run the course he has set up – part of Gene’s training for the 1944 olympics – something inside of Gene comes out. He finds his “rhythm.” Gene knows that he is changing: “[Phineas] seemed older that morning, and leaning quietly against that great tree wrapped in his heavy coat, he seemed smaller too. Or perhaps it was only that I, inside the same body, had felt myself all at once grown bigger” (121). This shows that Gene is gaining self-confidence and becoming a new person. This is the first instance where it is obvious that Gene recognizes his changing perspective. This is also the first instance where it seems as though Gene is beginning to find his identity and feel secure about the person he is, or more importantly, the person he is becoming.
Finny thinks of Gene as an extension of himself: “My [Gene’s] aid alone had never seemed to him in the category of help. The reason for this occurred to me as the procession moved slowly across the brilliant foyer to the doors; Phineas had thought of me as an extension of himself” (180). Since Finny thinks of Gene as an extension of himself, he decides that Gene will play sports because he cannot. This shows a strange, maybe even dangerous, relationship between Gene and Phineas. Phineas wants to give and make Gene do the things he no longer can, mainly sports. This sounds like a relationship between that of a parent and child. While Finny is training Gene to become a better athlete, the boys grow an even stronger bond, making the truth even harder for Phineas to accept. This strong bond is not healthy for either of the boys. They become dependent on each other for their emotional well-being. Phineas is able to live out the things he would normally have done through Gene, which eases Finny’s pain. This makes Gene feel better also. Gene can become a part of Phineas. This bond leads to a massive emotional break down.
It is apparent that Gene is becoming more like Phineas throughout the novel. After Gene jounces the limb he does not act or think angrily towards Finny, after all, Gene is the one that caused Phineas’s fall. Gene no longer has hatred towards Finny. This attitude is more like Phineas because Phineas does not hold evil thoughts against others, especially the ones he cares about dearly, such as Gene. When Phineas falls down the stairs and breaks his leg for the second time, Gene listens outside Finny’s hospital window and makes jokes to himself. This is unlike Gene. This is something Phineas would do. The fact that Gene could laugh and be light-spirited when something major is occurring makes him more like Phineas also. Gene is showing even more signs of attaining an identity.
The reader not only sees signs of Gene gaining self-confidence and a sense of identity, but the reader also sees that Finny is sometimes letting his harmonious and non-troublesome spirit slip away from him. When Finny is in the locker room with Gene he shows Gene a side of himself that neither of the boys knew existed: “The momentum of the argument abruptly broke from his control. His face froze. ‘Because I’ve suffered,’ he burst out” (116). This is the first time in the novel that Finny lets his head run away from him completely. This is also the first time, and the only time, in the novel where Phineas seems to pity himself. This does not fit Finny’s personality from what Gene has described to the reader. Gene finally starts to realize what he did emotionally to Finny. The reader does not know for sure if Gene pities Finny, but after this encounter, everything Gene does is for Phineas. He wants Finny to be happy, even if it means going along with Phineas’s crazy ideas.
When Gene tries to tell Phineas what actually happened on the tree during the summer Finny does not believe him. The fact that Phineas refuses to believe him makes Finny seem a little naïve. He refuses to believe the person he calls best friend would betray him. According to Finny, “When you really love something, then it loves you back, in whatever way it has to love” (111). Phineas loves Gene profoundly, and Phineas knows that Gene loves him in whatever way Gene can. Gene learns to purely love Finny as soon as Gene develops his identity.
Gene’s dangerous insecurities and feelings of resentment cause Phineas’s emotional destruction before his physical death. During Gene’s trial that Brinker has set up so that the world could know the truth about what actually happened on the tree during the summer, Phineas finally comes to terms with the fact that Gene is to blame for his fall from the tree, and this is too much for him to take in at one time. Phineas finally realizes that something he purely and truly loves has not always had the same, mutual feeling towards him. When Finny walks down the stairs, his surefootedness and harmonious way of walking are no longer present. He trips clumsily down the stairs and breaks his leg again. This is symbolic. It is similar to the fall of a heroic figure, someone destined to die young. No matter what else happens in the novel, it is clear that Phineas has been destroyed. Gene knows that he is the one that has destroyed Phineas: “He [Phineas] possessed an extra vigor, a heightened confidence in himself, a serene capacity for affection which saved him. Nothing as he was growing up at home, nothing at Devon, nothing even about the war had broken his harmonious and natural unity. So at last I had” (203).
Leaving the trial, Phineas breaks his leg for the second time, and Gene stays outside his hospital window until the others leave. Gene tries talking to Phineas, but Phineas does not react in his usual way. Gene does not state it, but it does affect him. The little secret he has been keeping all along is finally out for the world to know, but even worse, Phineas knows his secret and finally believes it. He loves Phineas, and if Phineas is emotionally hurting, the reader can tell through Gene’s stream-of-conscience that he is lost:
“They unrolled away impervious to me as thought I were a roaming ghost, not only tonight but always, as though I had never played on them a hundred times, as though my feet had never touched them, as though my whole life at Devon had been a dream, or rather that everything at Devon, the playing fields, the gym, the water hole, and all the other buildings and all the people there were intensely real, wildly alive and totally meaningful, and I alone was a dream, a figment which had never really touched anything. 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” (186).
At this point in time, nothing besides Phineas matters to Gene. He feels as if he does not even exist: “In fact the stadium did speak powerfully and at all times, including this moment. But I could not hear, and that was because I did not exist” (187). Phineas makes Gene’s life and the things around him meaningful. Without having some sort of bond with Phineas, Gene really has nothing. Gene could also be feeling what Phineas feels, lost and bewildered.
During the surgery to reset his leg, Phineas dies, leading to his destruction in the physical sense. Gene tells the reader that Phineas has died “from the marrow of his bone flowing down his blood stream to his heart” (194). In essence, Phineas really dies from a broken heart, caused by his broken leg, which was caused by his best friend’s insecurity and jealousy. Gene does not say much about the death of his best friend, his hero. He moves on with Phineas’s spirit ingrained in his heart forever. Like a guardian angel, Phineas is always with Gene. Gene “never talked about Phineas and neither did anyone else; [Phineas] was, however, present in every moment of every day since Dr. Stanpole had told [Gene of his death]… [Gene] couldn’t say anything or listen to anything about [Phineas], because [Phineas] endured so forcefully” (202). Phineas has saved Gene from himself.
Gene’s minimal sense of self leads to his own destruction of the “old Gene.” Gene realizes that his only enemy is himself and the evil thoughts of the human heart and mind. The old Gene dies with Finny. Gene now lives in the atmosphere that Finny has created. Gene loved Finny so intensely that Finny’s spirit is merged in Gene’s heart and soul. Through this mutual love, Phineas’s death causes Gene to find himself. He is no longer burdened by feelings of jealousy and resentment. He no longer has to look at the thing he destroyed, the number one thing in the world that he had loved with his whole heart, Phineas. He is finally able to move on and become what Finny may have always wanted Gene to be, an extension of him.
Knowles, John. A Separate Peace. Scribner. New York, NY, 1987. Print.