Phineas didn’t really dislike West Point in particular or authority in general, but just considered authority the necessary evil against which happiness was achieved by reaction, the blackboard which returned all the insults he threw at it. My “West Point Stride” was intolerable; his right foot flashed into the middle of my fast walk and I went pitching forward into the grass.
Gene reflects on Finny’s rebellious personality. Gene understands that Finny tends to take the contrary view of things and to question the status quo. However, Gene also notes that Finny likes to involve others in his assertions of independence, even to the point of tripping Gene in his purposeful walk to make a point. Finny never worries about getting in trouble, and rarely does, an impunity that school authorities only extend to him. The other students like Gene often must decide between pleasing Finny by breaking the rules, and pleasing themselves or others by following the rules.
Finny pressed his advantage. Not because he wanted to be forgiven … he might rather have enjoyed the punishment if it was done in some novel and unknown way. He pressed his advantage because Mr. Prud’homme was pleased, won over in spite of himself… [I]t was just possible, if Phineas pressed hard enough, that there might be a flow of simple, unregulated friendliness between them, and such flows were one of Finny’s reasons for living.
Gene recounts Finny explaining to Mr. Prud’homme what he and Gene were doing when they should have been at dinner. Finny admits that they jumped out of the tree into the river. Mr. Prud’homme surprises Gene by reacting without anger. Once again, Finny’s engaging personality helps keep him out of the trouble that his iconoclastic nature got him into. Finny’s rare honesty gives him power.
The Devon faculty had never before experienced a student who combined a calm ignorance of the rules with a winning urge to be good, who seemed to love the school truly and deeply, and never more than when he was breaking the regulations, a model boy who was most comfortable in the truant’s corner.
Gene believes that Finny’s unique personality confused the school faculty, especially the summer term substitutes. They simply could not respond with normal, disciplinarian practices. As a result, all of the boys completing the summer term experienced a loosening of the usual rules. Gene as an adult will look back on this summer fondly as an idyllic time, thanks to Finny.
“I just wanted to see if I could do it. Now I know. But I don’t want to do it in public.…By the way,” he said in an even more subdued voice, “we aren’t going to talk about this. It’s just between you and me. Don’t say anything about it to…anyone.”
Finny just broke the school’s swimming record in front of Gene alone. Immediately after, he explains to Gene that he pushed himself to break the record as a strictly personal challenge. He doesn’t want anyone other than Gene to know. While Finny’s motivation for keeping his feat a secret remains ambiguous, his lack of interest in the glory of his achievement shocks and amazes Gene.
”I didn’t know you needed to study” he said simply, “I didn’t think you ever did. I thought it just came to you.” It seemed that he had made some kind of parallel between my studies and his sports. He probably thought anything you were good at came without effort. He didn’t know yet that he was unique.
Finny constantly invites Gene to join in games and outings, which cut into Gene’s study time. Gene first thought that Finny was doing it on purpose to bring Gene’s grades down, which he deeply resents. But here, Finny reveals that such a thought never occurred to him. Once he realizes that Gene truly needs to study, he encourages him to do so. Finny never realizes how much work Gene put into keeping up with him instead of studying.
“I wanted to be sure you’d recovered. That’s why I called up, I knew that if you’d let them put anyone else in the room in my place, then you really were crazy. But you didn’t, I knew you wouldn’t. Well, I did have just a trace of doubt, that was because you talked so crazy here. I have to admit I had just a second when I wondered. I’m sorry about that, Gene. Naturally I was completely wrong.”
Finny explains why he called the school to make sure Gene was no longer taking responsibility for his fall. Finny even apologizes for thinking that Gene might continue to make what he felt was a ludicrous claim. Finny’s apologetic rationalizations heighten the dramatic irony since Gene is most certainly responsible for Finny’s fall. Finny embodies pure innocence and absolute loyalty.
I was the least trustworthy person he had ever met. I knew that, he knew or should know that too. I had even told him. I had told him. But there was no mistaking the shield of remoteness in his face and voice. He wanted me around.
Gene recounts telling Finny that he and Brinker are going to enlist the following day. Finny has just returned to school after being out for months due to his broken leg. His guarded response shows his attempt to control strong emotions. From Finny’s visible reaction, Gene understands that Finny wants and, in fact, needs Gene to stay. Finny thinks of Gene as an extension of himself.
“Do you really think that the United States of America is in a state of war with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan? … Don’t be a sap,” he gazed with cool self-possession at me, “there isn’t any war.”
After his fall, Finny declares that the war is a made-up construct designed to exploit ordinary people for the benefit of old, wealthy men. In actuality, Finny has no doubt about the reality of the war. He concocts this theory as a way to cope with the impossibility of his fighting due to his injury. When necessary, Finny has the ability to create his own version of reality to shield him from truths too painful to bear.
Just as there was no war in his philosophy, there was also no dreary weather. As I have said, all weathers delighted Phineas. “You know what we’d better do next Saturday?” he began in one of his voices…. “We’d better organize the Winter Carnival.”
During the most disheartening part of the long winter, Finny decides that the students should organize a “Winter Carnival.” He refers to the carnival as a preexisting tradition, when in fact Finny has just brainstormed the idea. Under his leadership, the students organize a Winter Carnival within a few days for the entertainment of the student body. Finny’s whims inspire allegiance because of the appeal of his personality.
“I think I can believe that. I’ve gotten awfully mad sometimes and almost forgotten what I was doing. I think I believe you, I think I can believe it. Then that was it. Something just seized you. It wasn’t anything you really felt against me, it wasn’t some kind of hate you’ve felt all along. It wasn’t anything personal…. I believe you. It’s okay because I understand and I believe you.”
Finny has finally been forced to confront the fact that Gene did, in fact, willfully cause his accident. Finny identifies the motive, better than Gene can himself, as a momentary blind impulse. Finny clearly wants to justify forgiving Gene. Finny naively believes the best of Gene and struggles to reconcile his belief with Gene’s betrayal.