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.