Artificial Vs. Natural In A Separate Peace

Someone once said that being yourself, being who you are, is a successful rebellion. Gene Forrester, one of the main characters in John Knowles’s novel, A Separate Peace should have taken this advice. Throughout the novel, Gene acted artificially, disguising his true self. He lived in fear of people finding out what he was really like. Phineas, Gene’s best friend and the other main character in this novel, on the other hand, acted naturally around people. He was not afraid of people seeing who he really was. In John Knowles’s novel, A Separate Peace, Gene acted artificially, while Phineas acted naturally.
To begin with, Gene Forrester acted artificially. There are several instances throughout the novel where Gene disguises himself or is influenced by artificial things. Towards the beginning of the novel Gene tells the reader that he was a half inch taller than Finny (“I had been claiming five feet nine inches before he became my roommate…” (Gene Pg. 8) and that Finny weighed ten pounds more than he did. “He weighed a hundred and fifty pounds, a galling ten pounds more than I did…” (Gene Pg. 8) Because Gene mentioned those facts, the reader can tell that even having a slight height and weight advantage or disadvantage to Finny were important to him. What people, especially Finny, thought about him worried him. “…I would have lost face with Phineas, and that would have been unthinkable.” (Gene Pg. 26) Later in the novel, when Finny wanted to wear a pink shirt to school, Gene told him it would make him look like a “fairy”. “Pink! It makes you look like a fairy!’ (Gene Pg. 17) Gene knew that people might question Finny’s masculinity and ridicule him so he spoke up. Gene would have never taken such a risk as wearing a pink shirt because it was not socially acceptable at Devon School. This again points out Gene’s obsession with what people thought of him. Gene had a cautious, competitive nature and let grades and trying to outdo Finny run his life. When Finny broke the school’s swimming record, Gene did not understand why he did not want people to know about it. “The worst thing is that there weren’t any witnesses. Tomorrow. We’ll get the coach here, and all the official timekeepers, and I’ll call up the Devonian and send a reporter and a photographer-…Not say anything about it! When you broke the school record!” (Gene Pg. 36) Gene would have wanted awards and praise for breaking a school record which shows again how highly he values artificial things. Grades also played an important part in Gene’s life and he measured himself by what his class rank was. He pretended to not care about his studies, but Finny saw right through him. “Don’t give me that line…You want to be head of the class, valedictorian, so you can make a speech on Graduation Day…I know you.” (Finny Pg. 43) Later on, Finny convinces Gene to go to the beach with him. While Finny runs and frolics in the water, having a good time, enjoying nature, Gene only worries about what time it is and whether he will be able to pass his exam. “I looked at the sky and the ocean and knew it was around six-thirty. The ride back to Devon would take three hours at least. My important test, trigonometry, was going to be held at ten o’clock.” (Gene Pg. 42) This is just another example of how time, schedules, and grades play an important part in Gene’s life. While at the beach, Finny tells Gene that he is his “best pal”. Gene does not reply and tell him that he is his best pal, but instead, keeps quiet. Instead of being completely honest and open with Finny, Gene chooses to mask his true emotions. He knew if someone ever found out about him saying something like that, that it would be “the next thing to suicide”. (Gene Pg. 40) This obsession with grades and other unnatural things leads Gene to believe that there is an intense competition going on between himself and Finny. He convinces himself that they are “even in enmity”. (Gene Pg. 46) He feels nervous about all the influence Finny has over him and is suspicious about Finny always taking him away from his studies. “Finny had deliberately set out to ruin my studies…it was all cold trickery, it was all calculated, it was all enmity.” (Gene Pg. 45) From that point on, Gene becomes “quite the student” in an attempt “to come out even” with Finny. Gene desired to be like Finny so much that on one occasion in the novel, he put Finny’s clothes on. “I was Phineas, Phineas to the life…I had no idea why this gave me such relief, standing there is Finny’s triumphant shirt, that I would never stumble through the confusions of my own character again.” (Gene Pg. 54) Gene felt “intense relief” when he felt like he was Finny. This was because Gene was not satisfied with who he was and wanted to be like Finny so desperately. As one can see, Gene acted artificially throughout the novel, and let grades, people, and “fake” things influence him.


In John Knowles’s novel A Separate Peace, Finny, unlike Gene, acts naturally. Everything from Finny’s appearance to his walk to his personality is natural and spontaneous. Finny was described as “… an extraordinary athlete, he was not spectacularly built…five feet eight and a half inches…a hundred and fifty pounds,…which flowed from his legs to torso around shoulders to arms and full strong neck in an uninterrupted unity of strength.” (Gene Pg. 8) From this description, one can tell that Finny is very “natural-looking”. His walk, which can be described as ” a continuous flowing balance, so that he had seemed to drift along with no effort at all, relaxation on the move.”, (Gene Pg. 103) was also very natural. Finny’s personality was very outgoing, fun, and innocent. He was not affected by what others thought of him, but rather wondered what people would think of him if he pulled outrageous stunts. When Gene told him that he would look like a “fairy” if he wore a pink shirt to school, Finny did it anyway. “Does it? I wonder what would happen if I looked like a fairy to everyone…in case suitors come clamoring at the door, you can tell them I’m wearing this as an emblem.” (Finny Pg 18) “He did wear it. No one else in the school could have done so without some risk of having it torn from his back.” (Gene Pg. 18) He was able to be sincere with people and let them see who he really was. “Everything he said was true and sincere; Finny always said what he happened to be thinking, and if this stunned people then he was surprised.” (Gene Pg. 16) Finny was the best athlete in the school, but what made him so natural is the fact that he did it out of pure enjoyment for the sport and not for the awards and praise that came with it. When he broke the school swimming record, he did not want anyone to find out about it. “By the way…we aren’t going to talk about this. It’s just between you and me. Don’t say anything about it, to…anyone.” (Finny Pg. 36) He didn’t want attention, he just wanted to see is he could break the record. Finny believed that : “Everyone always won at sports. When you played a game, you won, in the same way as when you sat down to a meal you ate it. It inevitably and naturally followed.” (Gene pg. 27) “Finny never permitted himself to realize that when you won, they lost. That would have destroyed the perfect beauty which was sport. Nothing bad ever happened in sports; they were the absolute good.” (Gene Pg. 27) Finny’s attitude towards sports is similar to his personality as a whole. He was innocent and never caused anyone harm purposely and believed everyone was the same way. When he told Gene that he wanted to participate in the war, Gene replied by saying: …You’d be sitting at one of their command posts, teaching them English. Yes, you’d get confused and borrow one of their uniforms, and you’d lend them one of yours…You’d get things so scrambled up nobody would know how to fight any more. You’d make a mess, a terrible mess, Finny, out of the war.” (Gene Pg. 182) Gene knew what kind of person Finny was and knew that he was not cut out for the war. Being the natural person that he was, he enjoyed nature and ran around and frolicked while at the beach with Gene. “This kind of sunshine and ocean, with the accumulating roar of surf and the salt, adventurous, flirting wind from the sea, always intoxicated Phineas. He was everywhere. He enjoyed himself hugely, he laughed out loud at passing sea gulls. And he did everything he could think of for me.” (Gene Pg. 39) He had honest. open relationships with people, and unlike Gene, was not afraid of what people thought of him. He told Gene he was his “best pal”, knowing that “…exposing a sincere emotion nakedly like that at Devon School was the next thing to suicide” (Gene Pg. 40). He had “tremendous loyalty to the class, as he did to any group he belonged to, beginning with him and me and radiating outward towards spirits and clouds and stars.’ (Gene Pg. 34) He created Blitzball, a game which “brought his own athletic gifts to their highest pitch”. (Gene Pg. 31) He had a desire to do good mixed in with a disregard for the rules. He could talk himself out of any situation and was described by Gene as being able to “shine”. After realizing that he had been wrong about the competition between himself and Finny, Gene came to the conclusion that “Only Phineas was never afraid, only Phineas never hated anyone…all of them, except Phineas, constructed at infinite cost to themselves these Maginot Lines against the enemy…” (Gene Pg. 196)
In John Knowles’s novel, A Separate Peace, Finny acts naturally, while Gene acts artificially. Gene disguises himself and is constantly worried about people’s opinions of him. His obsession with grades and outdoing Finny causes him to believe that they are in competition. Finny, on the other hand, is spontaneous, innocent, and natural. He does not worry about praise or awards, but instead plays sports for pure enjoyment, and has honest, open relationships with people. Both Finny and Gene are very alike physically, but emotionally and mentally, they are as different as two people can be.

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