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.