[M]y war ended before I ever put on a uniform . . . I killed my enemy [at school]. Only . . . Phineas never hated anyone. . . .See Important Quotations Explained
The school year draws to a close, and Gene’s class graduates. The school donates its Far Common quadrangle to the military for a parachute riggers’ school. Gene watches from his window as the army drives in at the beginning of summer to occupy it. Brinker takes Gene down to the Butt Room to meet his father, who expresses his wish that he were younger, so that he could fight in the war. He chokes back his distaste at hearing Gene’s plans to avoid the danger of the infantry by joining the navy and Brinker’s decision to join the coast guard. He lectures them on the importance of serving their country honorably, saying that their lives will be defined in large part by what they do in the war. He leaves, and Brinker apologizes for his father’s attitude, denouncing the older generation for causing the war and then expecting the younger generation to fight it. He goes to finish packing and Gene walks to the gym to clean out his locker. He finds a platoon of parachute riggers in the locker room and watches the men as they prepare to go to the playing fields to do calisthenics. Gene knows that he will soon take part in the same sort of regimentation, but he is glad that it will not take place for him at Devon.
Gene now speaks again from the perspective of his older self. He says that he never killed anyone during his time in the military—that his war was fought at Devon and that it was there that he killed his enemy. Everyone, he says, finds themselves pitted violently against something in the world at some point in their lives; everyone realizes that there is something in the world that is hostile to them, and they are never the same after that realization. For his classmates, Gene says—for Brinker and Leper and Quackenbush—this realization came with the war. Each found ways of defending himself against it, by either adopting a stance of careless unconcern, descending into insanity, or treating others with a bullying anger. Only Finny, Gene reflects, never sensed the existence of an enemy to fight; thus it was that Finny was never afraid and never hated anyone. Finny alone, he muses, understood that the perceived enemy might not be an enemy at all.
The novel ends on an appropriately dark note, as the war invades Devon. Although the characters have felt the war descending upon the school throughout the book, the incursion is literal this time, as soldiers set up camp on the campus. However, for Gene and his classmates, the abstract notions that one would expect to accompany the war—honor and glory—have drained away, leaving only an adolescent cynicism. Those leaving Devon for the army make fun of the parachute riggers, whose sewing machines make them seem slightly absurd, even as the boys themselves make plans to do whatever is necessary to avoid active combat. Even Brinker, who had wanted to enlist early on, has now decided to join the coast guard, which will keep him a safe distance from any real action. Everyone now unconsciously echoes Finny’s belief that the war is a conspiracy of the old against the young, and they resolve not to be “taken in.” Brinker’s father, with his talk of pride and duty and serving one’s country, seems indeed to personify Finny’s fat, old men, which Brinker and the others are quick to recognize. “He and his crowd are responsible for [the war]!” Brinker declares. “And we’re going to fight it!”
Brinker expresses the general disillusionment of his classmates, a disillusion that has stemmed partly from their knowledge of Leper’s fate, partly from their despair over Finny’s death, and partly from the fear associated with the end of the waiting period and beginning of their real involvement in the war. But Gene, in these final pages, does not share in the boys’ disillusionment, for he has achieved a higher insight. Due to the narrative structure of the novel, it is difficult to discern whether Gene first comes to these understandings during the time period narrated or whether he only now, older, arrives at them. In any case, the narrating Gene now explains the insight that has allowed him to understand the war as something deeper and more firmly rooted in the human condition. To Gene, war is not merely the expression of a few old men’s selfishness; rather, war emerges out of a profound and toxic ignorance in the human heart—an ignorance that causes one to seek out an enemy and to see the world as a hostile place.
Gene thus introduces the final metaphorical meaning of the novel’s wartime backdrop: World War II represents man’s need for a personal war—for a personal enemy—to defend against and kill. Part of growing up, Gene suggests, involves finding this enemy and losing one’s childhood illusion that the world is a fundamentally friendly place. He goes through the list of characters and discusses how each has reacted to this discovery of the “enemy”: Mr. Ludsbury with arrogant disdain; Brinker with resentment; Leper with a surrender to madness. Although Gene doesn’t include himself on this list, the reader remembers his earlier statement that he killed his enemy while at Devon: the implication, of course, is that Finny was the focus of his hatred, the enemy in his private war. The precise reason for this enmity is never fully explained; nevertheless, from the story as a whole we may conclude that it was quite a perverse hatred. For it stemmed not from Gene’s jealousy of his friend’s accomplishments but rather from his jealousy of Finny’s goodness and innocence.
The novel closes with Gene reflecting on Finny’s great gift—his ability to remain innocent (“unfallen,” one might say), see the world as a good, beneficent place, and never even imagine the possibility of an enemy. The book’s last lines leave us to wonder if Finny’s worldview—if what we consider the enemy is only a fabrication of some profound ignorance in mankind’s inner being—is ultimately truer than that of the other characters. For if our hatred of others stems from something intrinsic to the human heart, then sincere friendships and peaceful societies will always be imperiled. If, on the other hand, our animosities stem from ignorance, then perhaps we may retain hope for our futures, both as individuals and as communities. Perhaps we may have reason to hope that, given enough experience and reflection, we may become better human beings.