To keep silent about this amazing happening deepened the shock for me. It made Finny seem too unusual for—not friendship, but too unusual for rivalry. And there were few relationships among us at Devon not based on rivalry.
Gene reflects on the moment Finny breaks a school swimming record, but in front of Gene alone. Gene thinks he should redo the race officially and get his name enrolled as the record holder, but Finny insists that he beat the record for his own enjoyment. Finny’s secrecy about the feat gives Gene his first inkling of Finny’s unique nature. Unlike the other boys, Finny doesn’t compare himself to others, constantly judging himself against them and fearing where he stands. Unfortunately, Gene later forgets this glimpse into Finny’s personality and projects his own competitive drive onto Finny.
“I’d kill myself out of jealous envy.” I believed him. The joking manner was a screen; I believed him…. My brain exploded. He minded, despised the possibility that I might be the head of the school.
Finny makes a joking observation to subtly convey his lack of interest in competition. Gene misses his intention and takes Finny at his word. Gene’s jealousy of Finny’s status as best athlete of their class has led him, half-consciously, to try to make them “even” by being the best scholar. After Finny’s seemingly mock admission, Gene mistakenly concludes that Finny has been competing with him all along out of envy of Gene’s academic skills. Gene’s misinterpretation leads to his bitter disillusionment with their friendship. He had thought of Finny as above such competitiveness, and now regards Finny not as his friend but his enemy. Ironically, Finny’s words meant to disarm competitiveness end up catalyzing competition, but in Gene’s mind alone.
Sure, he wanted to share everything with me, especially his procession of D’s in every subject. That way he, the great athlete, would be way ahead of me. It was all cold trickery, it was all calculated, it was all enmity.
After coming to believe that Finny feels competitive with him, Gene further convinces himself that Finny plots to lower Gene’s grades with invitations to join secret clubs that meet daily, play made-up ball games, and skip class. To conceal his mistrust, Gene continues to play along, but his resentment builds. The reader recognizes Gene’s suspicions as unfounded and created by Gene’s fears and insecurities.
And I thought we were competitors! It was so ludicrous I wanted to cry. If Phineas had been sitting here in the pool of guilt, how would he have felt, what would he have done? He would have told me the truth.
Gene explains his moment of epiphany after Finny apologizes for thinking that perhaps Gene had something to do with his fall from the tree that resulted in his broken leg. The reader knows that Gene did cause the fall. In an impulsive moment of resentment, Gene had jostled the tree limb on which Finny was standing and Finny had fallen to the ground. It’s as if he blamed Finny for his own suspicion, resentment, and doubt. Finny’s admission provides an example that allows Gene to recognize where he needs to grow, and he later confesses his crime to Finny.
All of them, all except Phineas, constructed at infinite cost to themselves these Maginot Lines against an enemy they thought they saw across the frontier, this enemy who had never attacked that way—if he ever attacked at all; if he was indeed the enemy.
The Maginot Line was a series of fortifications built by France in the 1930s, which they expected to prevent Germany from invading. However, the Germans simply invaded via a different route. Gene’s last thought in the novel reveals the story’s overarching theme: Most people create their enemies out of fear, often seeing the wrong people as enemies or seeing enemies where none exists, and in doing so, they hurt themselves in trying to fight these imagined enemies. Gene recognizes that of all of them, Finny alone did not fall into this trap. Finny’s security in his own identity freed him from fear in his relationships with others.