Gene is the novel’s narrator, and he tells the story as a flashback, reflecting on his days at the Devon School from the vantage point of adulthood. He is the source of all of the reader’s information in the novel and yet proves somewhat unreliable as a narrator—especially regarding insights into his own motivations. We first meet him as an older man returning to the place where he spent his adolescence; we thus initially attribute the wisdom of maturity to him and assume that he brings a certain degree of perspective to his memories of Devon. But even the adult Gene seems filled with fears and insecurities; his great worry, we realize, is that nothing has changed since adolescence—not the school buildings and not, most important, himself. We are then plunged into his memories of an idyllic summer session preceding his senior year in high school and his friendship with the athletic, spirited Finny. But what Gene initially presents as a perfect friendship soon emerges as nothing of the sort; his account of certain actions, along with statements that seem insincere or strained, soon betray his true feelings. Thus, Gene initially asserts that Finny resents him for his academic success. The reader quickly comes to realize, however, that it is Gene, in fact, who resents Finny—indeed, he resents Finny all the more for Finny’s lack of resentment toward him.
Finny’s fall constitutes the climax of the story, and, afterward, all of Gene’s resentments fade away. By crippling Finny, he brings him down to his own level. As Gene and Finny subsequently become increasingly codependent, the reader comes to see that Gene’s forced equalization of the two boys may have been darkly deliberate—it may have stemmed from a deep desire within Gene to blur his own identity, to lose himself in another. Gene’s act of putting on Finny’s clothes and standing in front of the mirror, feeling strangely peaceful, symbolizes his desire to leave behind his own self and become Finny. As the object of Gene’s jealousy, Finny is, in the language of the novel’s dominating metaphor, the object of Gene’s own private “war”; yet, as the mirror scene and other episodes make clear, Finny is also Gene’s great love. Because of Gene’s own insecurities and smallness of self, however, he can realize this love only after crippling Finny, for only then can his mixed awe and resentment give way to pure devotion. It is never clear whether, in jouncing Finny from the tree, the young Gene is motivated by an unconscious impulse or a conscious design. What he certainly does not know, however, is that the fall from the tree will set in motion the chain of events leading to Finny’s death, making Gene Finny’s killer, the destroyer of the thing that he loves most. Gene’s fatal tendency to blur love and hate, his deep desire to blur his own identity into Finny’s, is at the core of the novel’s tragedy.
Although we see all of the characters through Gene’s eyes, his perception of others is most significant in the case of Finny. Even as Gene resents his best friend and harbors dark, unspoken feelings of hatred toward him, he regards Finny at times with something akin to worship. His depiction of Finny contains a strong note of physical, if not erotic attraction. Finny is presented in classical terms, as a kind of Greek hero-athlete, always excelling in physical activities and always spirited—thymos, to use the Greek term. (These Greek heroes were, like Finny, fated to die young; the archetype was Achilles, who considered it preferable to live briefly and gloriously than to die of old age.) Energetic and vibrant, Finny is a tremendous athlete; friendly and verbally adroit, he is able to talk his way out of any situation. Finny finds himself in his element during Devon’s summer session; the substitute headmaster enforces few rules and Finny can let loose his spontaneity and boisterousness without restraint. Yet while he constantly tests the limits and asserts his own will, he seeks neither to emerge “victorious” in any argument or contest nor to “defeat” competing systems of rule. Blitzball, the game that he invents in which everyone competes furiously but no one wins, perfectly embodies Finny’s attitude toward life.
Finny’s perspective on competition speaks to a more profound wisdom and goodness regarding other human beings. Just as he dislikes games with winners and losers, so in life he always thinks the best of people, counts no one as his enemy, and assumes that the world is a fundamentally friendly place. These qualities, according to Gene, make Finny unique; Gene believes that humans are fearful and create enemies where none exist. But Finny’s inability to see others as hostile is his weakness as well as his strength; he refuses to attribute dark motives to Gene and he continues to subject himself to what may be a perilously—or even fatally—codependent relationship, never imagining that Gene’s feelings for him are not as pure as his for Gene.
Moreover, by assuming that everyone thinks like he does, Finny often acts selfishly, insisting that he and Gene do whatever he fancies. This carefree, self-absorbed attitude is one of the roots of Gene’s resentment toward Finny, though Finny, aware only of himself and seeing only the good in others, never seems to pick up on Gene’s inner turmoil. Finny is a powerful, charismatic figure—perhaps too good a person, as he inspires in Gene not only loyalty but also jealousy.
A quiet, peaceful, nature-loving boy, Leper shocks his classmates by becoming the first boy at Devon to enlist in the army; he shocks them again by deserting soon after. Both of Leper’s decisions demonstrate important properties of the war: to the students at Devon, it constitutes a great unknown, overshadowing their high school years and rendering their actions mere preparations for a dark future. Leper’s decision to enlist stems from his inability to bear the prolonged waiting period, his desire simply to initiate what he knows to be inevitable. Later, his desertion of the army again demonstrates a horrible truth: despite their years of expectation, the boys can never really be ready to face the atrocities of war.
Leper’s descriptions of his wartime hallucinations constitute one of the novel’s darkest moments. He proceeds to outline to Gene, with terrifying detail, the hallucinations that he suffered in the army, disproving Gene’s belief that he, Leper, cannot possibly descend into bitterness or angry flashbacks when walking through his beloved, beautiful outdoors. This tension emphasizes the contrast between the loveliness of the natural world and the hideousness of the characters’ inner lives. Most of Leper’s visions involve transformations of some kind, such as men turning into women and the arms of chairs turning into human arms. In a sense, then, Leper’s hallucinations reflect the fears and angst of adolescence, in which the transformation of boys into men—and, in wartime, of boys into soldiers—causes anxiety and inner turmoil.
Brinker Hadley is, in many ways, a foil (a character whose actions or emotions contrast with, and thereby highlight, those of another character) to Finny. Also charismatic and a leader of the Devon boys, Brinker wields a power comparable but opposite to Finny’s. Whereas Finny is spontaneous, mischievous, and vibrant, Brinker is stolid and conservative, a guardian of law and order. Finny, with his anarchic spirit and innocence, comes to be associated symbolically with the summer session at Devon, with its permissive atmosphere and warm, Edenic weather. Brinker, on the other hand, with his devotion to rules and his suspicious mind, is conceptually connected to the winter session, when the usual headmaster returns to restore discipline, the severe weather puts a damper on the boys’ play, and the distant war intensifies, looming ever blacker on the students’ horizons.
In many ways, Brinker represents the positive sense of responsibility that comes with adulthood. When he convinces Gene to enlist in the army, Gene moves toward accepting obligations and leaving the carefree realm of childhood behind. Yet Brinker also embodies the cynicism and jadedness of adolescence. He suspects the worst of Gene in contemplating his involvement in Finny’s fall. Only at the end of the novel does Brinker fully come into maturity: his earlier support of the war is, in many ways, as naïve as Finny’s insistence that the war is a big conspiracy; now however, he begins to resent the war for its injustice and madness.