I found it. 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. Yes, I sensed it like the sweat of relief when nausea passes away; I felt better. We were even after all, even in enmity. The deadly rivalry was on both sides after all.
This quotation is from Chapter 4, as Gene slowly becomes conscious of the tremendous resentment and envy that he feels toward Finny, who is a far superior athlete, has a much stronger personality, and can talk his way out of any trouble. We see Gene develop a strategy for coping with this resentment: he tells himself that Finny feels exactly the same way, convincing himself that just as he envies Finny’s athleticism so must Finny envy Gene’s academic achievements. This vision of a “deadly rivalry” between himself and Finny sustains Gene for some time; it enables him to avoid feeling shame about his resentment toward Finny and drives him to excel academically in order to spite his friend. Yet the vision is only temporary: after he realizes that Finny shares neither his sense of competition nor his resentment, Gene sinks into a jealousy more bitter than before, convinced of Finny’s moral superiority as well. It is in the shadow of this second envy that Finny’s fall takes place.
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. I couldn’t stand this. . . . 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.
These lines encompass the climax of the novel, at the end of Chapter 4, when Gene shakes the tree limb and makes Finny fall. In the moments leading up to this scene, Gene’s notion of a mutual enmity and competition between himself and Finny breaks down as he realizes that Finny has never wanted to compete with anyone—certainly not with him. “I was not of the same quality as he,” Gene says, suddenly perceiving his own moral inferiority to his best friend. His anguish at this realization (“I couldn’t stand this”) is the only explanation offered for the events on the tree, which are described in a detached tone, without allowing us access to Gene’s thoughts as his knees bend and the limb shakes. By refusing to tell us what he is thinking, Gene leaves the question of his guilt up in the air. Indeed, he refuses to say anything—perhaps because he himself is not sure about the degree of his guilt. In a story that is largely about the dangers of being codependent and identifying too closely with another person, it is apt that we must consider the fall for ourselves, without Gene’s insight.
Gene’s comment that Finny’s slip from the branch is “the first clumsy physical action I had ever seen him make” marks the fall as the first sign in the novel of Finny’s mortality. Up until the fall, Finny has reigned supreme as the epitome of charm and grace; never defeated in athletics, he talks his way out of predicaments with teachers and maintains a blithe, untroubled existence, seeming to glide along in life. Finny’s fall is thus a literal fall from grace; he is no longer the physical paragon that Gene earlier considers him, and his death is clumsy—both the tripping down the stairs and the stopping of his heart by a piece of bone marrow.
“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.
At the end of Chapter 6, Gene records this telephone conversation with Finny, in which the recuperating Finny expresses horror at the thought of Gene fulfilling his athletic requirement by managing the crew team. Their conversation establishes a pattern for their post-accident relationship, in which Gene, purged of his animosity and resentment, increasingly begins to blur the line between himself and his friend. He allows Finny to live through him, becoming “a part of Phineas” by letting Finny train him to be the athlete that Finny can no longer be. But even as Finny lives through Gene, Gene is clearly living through Finny; for, as his words here suggest, to experience life through Finny is to accrue a sense of “purpose” and a sense of self, both of which Gene had previously lacked. The friends’ codependency, which develops as Finny trains Gene for his fantasy “1944 Olympics,” fulfills deep needs on both sides: Finny’s need to live out his dreams of athletic glory and Gene’s desire to escape his identity. Thus, each boy, by becoming “part” of the other, protects himself from reality—Finny from his sudden but permanent physical shortcomings and Gene from his moral shortcomings.
Fear seized my stomach like a cramp. I didn’t care what I said to him now; it was myself I was worried about. For if Leper was psycho it was the army which had done it to him, and I and all of us were on the brink of the army.
This quotation comes from Chapter 10, when Gene goes to Vermont to visit Leper, who has deserted the army after suffering hallucinations. In Leper’s home, Gene listens to him recount the story of his training camp madness, and grows distraught—not, we quickly realize, for Leper’s sake, but for his own. For Gene, Leper’s transformation from gentle nature-lover into verified “psycho” shatters the illusion, foisted on him by Finny, that they can stave off adulthood forever. Gene earlier joins with his classmates in celebrating imagined heroics performed by Leper; they try to cover up their own insecurities about military service by naïvely pretending that their meek classmate is succeeding mightily as a soldier. Now, however, seeing that army life has, in fact, made Leper a “psycho,” Gene can regard the war only with great fear. In the minds of Gene and the rest of the boys, Leper’s madness transforms the war from a distant threat into an immediate reality.
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.
These words are among Gene’s final musings in the novel, as he reflects on the meaning of his experiences at Devon and then in the war. He suggests that every human being, at a certain point in his or her life, decides that the world is a fundamentally hostile place and subsequently finds enemies to fight with and kill. He believes that for most of his classmates, this moment came with fighting in World War II, with real enemies—but for himself, it came before the onset of military violence or the arrival of army-issued weapons; Gene fought his war while still at Devon. Gene does not detail who his “enemy” was, and we are left to decide for ourselves whether he refers to Finny or to his own inner demons. In either case, he goes on to say that what separated Finny from everyone else was his inability, or lack of desire, to understand these notions of war and enmity. For Finny, everyone was a friend; no one deserved fear and hatred. This innocence contributed to a moral superiority in Finny; but it also led to his destruction, the novel suggests, because it rendered him unable to anticipate, and cope with, the revelation of betrayal.