“Aey-uh,” he said. This weird New England affirmative—maybe it I spelled “aie-huh”—always made me laugh, as Finny knew, so I had to laugh, which made me feel less sarcastic and less scared.
With the hindsight of fifteen years, Gene remembers the first time his friend Finny convinced him to climb a dangerously tall tree over a river. He recognizes, looking back, his own tendency to be sarcastic when scared, and Finny’s skill, or natural tendency, to make him feel better. Gene’s insight provides a telling first glimpse into their friendship: Finny convincing and humorously cajoling the somewhat reluctant and insecure Gene.
He had gotten away with everything. I felt a sudden stab of disappointment. That was because I just wanted to see some more excitement; that must have been it.
Gene analyzes his letdown that Finny never gets into trouble even though he often breaks the rules. He admires Finny’s skill or ability to stay out of trouble but begrudges his success. At this point in their relationship, Gene has not recognized and acknowledged his envy of Finny.
Every time, when I got myself into position to jump, I felt a flash of disbelief that I was doing anything so perilous. But I always jumped. Otherwise I would have lost face with Phineas, and that would have been unthinkable.
Gene reflects on his jumps from the tree into the river below. He’s terrified, but as Finny goads him on, he manages to ignore the terror and perform the dangerous stunt. Finny insists on making the jumps a daily routine, but Gene never loses the fear. He continues to jump because he feels deeply competitive with Finny, a fact he hides from everyone else, including Finny. The insecure Gene will follow the always confident Finny even when he would rather not.
The beach was hours away by bicycle, forbidden, completely out of all bounds. Going there risked expulsion, destroyed the studying I was going to do for an important test the next morning, blasted the reasonable amount of order I wanted to maintain in my life, and it also involved the kind of long, labored bicycle ride I hated. “All right,” I said.
Gene reluctantly agrees to go to the forbidden beach with Finny, after reminding himself of his many reasons not to. Gene’s compulsion to make the trip stems from several factors. The honor of calling oneself Finny’s best friend entails living up to Finny’s own standards. Gene can’t show weakness, lack of spontaneity, or cowardice, because Finny has none of those qualities himself. Gene fears revealing his true self to Finny.
I became quite a student after that. I had always been a good one, although I wasn’t really interested and excited by learning itself, the way Chet Douglass was. Now I became not just good but exceptional, with Chet Douglass my only rival in sight.
Gene explains why he strives to get better grades: He believes Finny has been trying to undermine him so that his grades will suffer, and he refuses to let Finny win. As Gene, or at least his adult narrator self, realizes, learning doesn’t motivate him to excel at schoolwork, but achieving superiority does. Gene’s resentment of Finny drives his success. Gene’s lack of interest in learning for its own sake highlights that his main driver was simply competitiveness, not self-improvement.
It struck me then that I was injuring him again. It occurred to me that this could be an even deeper injury that what I had done before. I would have to back out if it, I would have to disown it. Could it be that he might even be right? Had I really and definitely and knowingly done it to him after all? I couldn’t remember, I couldn’t think. However it was, it was worse for him to know it. I had to take it back.
Gene reflects on his confession to Finny in which he takes responsibility for Finny’s fall. Finny denies Gene’s version of the events and gets angry at Gene for suggesting the idea. Finny can’t believe any friend capable of such a horrible betrayal. At this point Gene begins to convince himself that, for Finny’s sake, he should take back the confession, though he clearly wants to deny his responsibility for his own sake as well.
The point was, the grace of it was, that it had nothing to do with sports. For I wanted no more of sports. They were barred from me, as though when Dr. Stanpole said, “Sports are finished” he had been speaking of me. I didn’t trust myself in them, and I didn’t trust anyone else. It was as though football players were really bent on crushing the life out of each other, as though boxers were in combat to the death…
As part of his penance for injuring Finny, Gene decides to opt out of sports his senior year. With Finny’s athletic days over, Gene does not feel like he should be enjoying sports. Additionally, the competitive edge he achieved from his momentary action on the tree suggests he cannot enjoy sports without a level of competition that can easily slip over into danger. He no longer trusts himself.
To enlist. To slam the door impulsively on the past, to shed everything down to my last bit of clothing, to break the pattern of my life—that complex design I had been weaving since birth with all its dark threads, it unexplainable symbols set against a conventional background of domestic white and schoolboy blue, all those tangled strands… I yearned to take giant military sheers to it, snap! bitten off in an instant…
Gene explains why, after seeing a train full of troops, he and Brinker feel a surge of patriotism and resolve to leave school early and enlist. Both boys feel frustrated about how little they currently do for the war effort, but Gene has another motive. Enlisting would be a way of shedding dark elements from his past and starting fresh. The reader understands that Gene wants to escape the tangled web of guilt he created in causing Finny’s accident.
“Do you think I want to hear every gory detail? Shut up! I don’t care! I don’t care what happened to you, Leper. I don’t give a damn! Do you understand that? This has nothing to do with me! Nothing at all! I don’t care!” … What did he mean by telling me a story like that! I didn’t want to hear any more of it. Not now or ever, I didn’t care because it had nothing to do with me.
Gene lashes out at Leper who has been describing how he began to hallucinate during his time in the army, leading him to desert his post. Gene needs to shut out the horror of what he hears. Gene states that Leper’s story has nothing to do with him, but he doesn’t say that Leper’s experience hits too close to home. He understands that Leper’s failure to handle army life could happen to him. Gene can’t face his own vulnerability and chooses to reject Leper.
I had no qualms at all; in fact I could feel now the gathering, glowing sense of sureness in the face of it. I was ready for the war, now that I no longer had any hatred to contribute to it. My fury was gone, I felt it gone, dried up at the source, withered and lifeless. Phineas had absorbed it and taken it with him, and I was rid of it forever.
Gene recognizes that his life experiences matured him. As his fears and insecurities disappeared, so did his anger and resentment of others, particularly Finny. Having been through that painful process, Gene now has no hatred for anyone. His new attitude makes him unafraid of what the future holds, even the war. He has become an adult and the war can’t take that away from him.
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