[(essay date 2002) In the following essay, McGavran attempts to construct a clearer definition of the relationship between Phineas and Gene in A Separate Peace, discussing whether Gene wanted to be like, be with, or become Phineas.]
At the beginning of John Knowles's great novel of male adolescence, A Separate Peace, narrator Gene Forrester revisits Devon, the New Hampshire boys' boarding school where fifteen years earlier, during World War II, his best friend Phineas had died. He is overcome first with memories of fear, "like stale air in an unopened room, ... the well known fear which had surrounded and filled those days" (1). He continues: "I felt fear's echo, and along with that I felt the unhinged, uncontrollable joy which had been its accompaniment and opposite face, joy which had broken out sometimes in those days like Northern Lights across black sky" (2). By focusing on Gene's joy as well as his fear, I believe we can find a new way of looking at Gene and his friendship with Finny.
What did Gene fear at Devon? Unlike Finny and most of the other students, he comes from a less elitist part of the country than New England (apparently West Virginia, Knowles's home state) but affects, with indifferent success, the speech and attitude of an aristocrat from "three states south of ... [his] own" (148). At one point, when Gene says "I don't guess I did," Finny responds, "stop talking like a Georgia cracker" (112-13). But Gene is not socially disadvantaged at Devon by competition with blue-blood preppies from Boston or New York; not only is he the class brain and a more than passable athlete, but conservative student leader Brinker Hadley wants Gene to be his best friend--and so does emotionally disturbed Leper Lepellier.
Nor do I uncritically accept the idea, though there is much textual and critical support for it, that self-divided, willful, guilt-haunted Gene finds jealousy and fear to be integral parts of his friendship with Finny, whereas beautiful, totally integrated, guileless Finny, portrayed symbolically as both a Greek god (Mengeling) and a Christlike sacrificial savior and victim (Bryant, War Within 86), lives on an altogether higher plane of moral and emotional purity and love.1 Granted, Gene says he always hated jumping with Finny into the river from the high branch of a tree but felt compelled by Finny to do it (25-26). And granted, he feels jealous shock as well as admiration when Finny breaks a school swimming record but magnanimously refuses to let Gene publicize it: he comments first to Finny, almost Judas-like, "You're too good to be true" (36), and then to himself more than half-confessionally, "there were few relationships among us at Devon not based on rivalry" (37). And the central action of the book, where Gene's jostling of their tree branch causes Finny to fall and break his leg, seems causally though unintentionally connected to Gene's almost disappointed recognition that Finny had not been plotting to ruin his academic performance at...