More than anything, A Separate Peace is a novel about friendship—its joys, its benefits, its limits. Gene and Finny’s relationship is unique, shot through with both childish simplicity and a complex tenderness they don’t always know how to navigate. To add to this already intricate dynamic, envy and competition often work their way into the friendship, and this is what ultimately threatens their bond. Throughout the novel, Gene tries to sort out his feelings of admiration and jealousy, and though he is certainly wrong to take out his various insecurities on Finny, his most serious failure is his inability to be honest with his best friend. Before the accident, he’s unable to tell Finny not only that he cares about him, but that he feels threatened by him. Then, in the aftermath of the accident, he can’t bring himself to admit that he caused Finny’s fall. Although Finny seems at times to have sensed the truth, he never accuses Gene, clearly believing that his friend would tell him if he’d done such a horrible thing. This, after all, is what Finny himself would do, since he always tells Gene what he’s thinking and how he feels. Whereas Finny demonstrates unflinching emotional honesty, then, Gene embodies secrecy and insecurity, and this only estranges him from Finny. As a result, Knowles highlights the detrimental effect that dishonesty has on otherwise beautiful and deep relational connections.
Before Finny’s fall, his and Gene’s relationship isn’t quite as full of dishonesty as it is later, when Gene must hide the truth about what happened in the tree. Still, though, their initial friendship is more nuanced than the average bond between two teenaged boys. This becomes clear when Finny convinces Gene to sneak away from school to go to the beach. Just before falling asleep on the sand that night, Finny thanks Gene for coming with him, going out of his way to say that this isn’t the kind of excursion he would make with just anyone. It is, he says, something he’d only do with a best friend. “Which is what you are,” he says after a pause. Gene privately acknowledges that this is a brave thing to say, since everyone at the Devon School goes to great lengths to hide their emotions. However, Gene can’t bring himself to reciprocate Finny’s sincerity, feeling somehow “stopped by that level of feeling, deeper than thought, which contains the truth.” This is a very enigmatic line, since Gene never clarifies what, exactly, the “truth” is in this context. Consequently, readers are left with nothing more than the fact that Gene is apparently unable to be honest about his feelings for Finny, perhaps because these feelings make him uncomfortable.
One very legitimate interpretation of this ambiguity is that Gene loves Finny and sees him as more than a friend but is afraid to admit this because he hasn’t come to terms with his own sexuality. Of course, this is a somewhat contentious reading—not because there isn’t textual evidence to support such a claim, but because Knowles himself has said that he did not intend for Finny and Gene to be romantic with each other. Still, it seems plausible that Finny and Gene are indeed in love and that the “truth” Gene can’t bring himself to admit is that he is a young gay man who has fallen for his best friend. Even if this isn’t the case, though, it’s overwhelmingly clear that Gene and Finny have the kind of connection that transcends the boundaries of ordinary friendship, and it is perhaps because Gene is uncomfortable with this closeness that he instinctually (but still purposefully) causes Finny to fall out of the tree shortly after this sensitive interaction.
Like many things in A Separate Peace, Knowles also never clarifies why Gene “jounces” the tree limb. Because of this, readers must consider multiple possibilities, one of which is that Gene is frightened by how close he and Finny have become. Another possibility—which could indeed exist alongside the first—is that he is jealous of Finny and thinks that they’re in competition with each other. Either way, a lack of openness in their relationship is what leads him to do what he does. After all, if he were capable of simply telling Finny how he felt, then he wouldn’t feel the need to distance himself by hurting him. Similarly, if he spoke honestly to Finny about his feelings of envy and competition, he would most likely understand that Finny isn’t trying to one-up him, and so he wouldn’t try to assert his dominance by sending him hurdling to the ground. Unfortunately, though, he is apparently incapable of speaking the truth, even when he later tries to make up for what he did by telling Finny that it was his fault when he visits him at home. As soon as he sees how much the truth will upset Finny, Gene takes back what he has said, insisting that he’s tired and out of sorts. For the rest of the school year, then, he acts as if he had nothing to do with Finny’s fall, and Finny—who wants to see the best in Gene—chooses to believe him.
Because Finny wants to believe that Gene would never do something to hurt him, he’s devastated when he finally discovers the truth, rushing into the dark hall on his bad leg and falling down a set of marble steps. What’s remarkable, though, is that Finny finds it within himself to forgive Gene while lying in the hospital with yet another break in his leg. All he wants to know, he says, is whether or not Gene’s hostile act was “personal.” When Gene assures him that it wasn’t, he says that he believes him. This conversation takes place shortly before Finny dies unexpectedly while the doctor is resetting his bone, meaning that Finny dies after having made peace with Gene, their relationship—and Finny’s life—ending in honesty and unchecked emotion. Gene, on the other hand, will live the rest of his life regretting what he did and the way he lied to Finny for so long. By outlining this tragic dynamic, Knowles warns that dishonesty can take a terrible toll not only on friendships, but on the individuals who find themselves unable to speak openly about their feelings.
Friendship and Honesty ThemeTracker
Friendship and Honesty Quotes in A Separate Peace
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 […]. I felt better. We were even after all, even in enmity. The deadly rivalry was on both sides after all.
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.
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. It was the first clumsy physical action I had ever seen him make. With unthinking sureness I moved out on the limb and jumped into the river, every trace of my fear of this forgotten.
So to Phineas I said, “I’m too busy for sports,” and he went into his incoherent groans and jumbles of words, and I thought the issue was settled until at the end he said, “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.
In the same way the war, beginning almost humorously with announcements about [no more] maids and days spent at apple-picking, commenced its invasion of the school.
To enlist. To slam the door impulsively on the past, to shed everything down to my last bit of clothing, to break the pattern of my life […]. The war would be deadly all right. But I was used to finding something deadly in things that attracted me.
So the war swept over like a wave at the seashore, gathering power and size as it bore on us, overwhelming in its rush, seemingly inescapable, and then at the last moment eluded by a word from Phineas; I had simply ducked, that was all, and the wave’s concentrated power had hurtled harmlessly overhead.
You’d get things so scrambled up nobody would know who to fight any more. You’d make a mess, a terrible mess, Finny, out of the war.
I could not escape a feeling that this was my own funeral, and you do not cry in that case.
I never killed anybody and I never developed an intense level of hatred for the enemy. Because my war ended before I ever put on a uniform; I was on active duty all my time at school; I killed my enemy there. Only Phineas never was afraid, only Phineas never hated anyone.