Now I knew that there never was . . . any rivalry . . . I was not of the same quality as he.
I couldn’t stand this. . . .See Important Quotations Explained
Finny’s plunge from the tree at the end of this chapter forms the climax of the novel. The events leading up to the fall show us Gene at his most petty and vicious. His resentment manifests itself as a sort of paranoia as he convinces himself that Finny is trying to sabotage his academic success. Ironically, Gene falls prey to the same flaw that afflicts Finny: just as Finny thinks that everyone shares his enthusiasms, so Gene assumes that everyone shares his jealousy and competitiveness. He is competing with Finny, so he assumes that Finny must be competing with him. Gene feels ashamed of the extent to which he is plagued by insecurity and envy; he overcomes this feeling of shame not by trying to improve himself but rather by convincing himself that Finny is just as bad as he himself is.
The dark, angry thoughts that Gene has about Finny contrast sharply with the idyllic, innocent spirit of the summer. The nature surrounding the boys, pure and wild, evokes an Edenic paradise (Gene himself calls the beach on which he and Finny sleep in Chapter 2 “as pure as the shores of Eden”). Gene’s inner life soon shows itself to be the snake in this biblical garden. Gene is well aware of the tension between his mental state and his surroundings. In at least one scene, he actively goes to war with the beautiful weather: he describes how he wakes up on a perfect morning and forces himself to “guard against” the perfection of nature, for it saps his will to hate.
The need to maintain willful hate is one that Gene himself has invented: it is natural neither to this world nor, as Gene finally realizes, to Finny. (Indeed, it may not be natural to Gene, either, as he must force himself when in the face of beauty to persist in his resentment.) Unfortunately, the realization that hate is not intrinsic to Finny makes Gene even angrier than does his previous perception of Finny’s enmity: if Finny does not, in fact, possess feelings of competitiveness and selfishness, this lack only makes him superior to Gene, who does possess them. Whereas Gene earlier envies Finny’s athleticism, confidence, and ability to get away with things, he now envies Finny’s goodness, which he finds too great to bear.
It is this later, deeper envy in Gene that stains all the events surrounding Finny’s fall, raising the question of Gene’s responsibility for the tragedy. Crucial to the novel’s power, the facts of the event remain mysterious—to both the reader and the characters involved. We never know the extent to which the incident is deliberate; the jostling of the branch seems to arise more from Gene’s hesitation than from any committed action. Nonetheless, the fall answers a deep wish in Gene, and there are times when Gene (and the reader as well) cannot help but assign a certain purposefulness—whether conscious or not—to the shaking of the branch. Ultimately, the degree of Gene’s guilt in the incident is never resolved.
Regardless of the nature of the act, however, Gene’s thoughts and behavior in this section create a problem of sympathy that persists throughout the novel. Gene is the narrator: he is the character with whom the reader most closely identifies. Despite his sympathetic qualities, Gene seems almost malicious at times—a corrupt, bitter figure who refuses to explain himself and so, despite our access to his consciousness, remains beyond our understanding and total commiseration. Whether or not we think Gene has deliberately caused Finny’s fall, we begin to feel increasingly alienated from him. Thus, even as we become ever more invested in the story’s outcome, we become distrustful of its narrator. This tension allows the reader to engage with the novel emotionally while still maintaining a critical stance and more freely analyzing the novel’s themes.