Anyone who has ever set foot in a men’s locker room knows that within those walls, safely out of the public eye, the line between hetero- and homosexuality is dramatically blurred, if not completely erased. In that context, and very few others, the idea of heteronormity yields to reality—the process of settling individual identity often tracks through homoeroticism even for the manliest of men. Such was the case for Gene and Finny in John Knowles A Separate Peace. However, Knowles’ protagonists lived at a time and in a place where same sex attractions were the ultimate taboo. Their story is a cautionary coming of age tale through which we learn that while the true self might be successfully hidden, it cannot be changed, even in death.
From the beginning it is clear that Gene and Finny have a relationship which goes beyond simple friendship. As Gene stands next to the old tree by the river, he remembers back fifteen years to a definitive moment in his relationship with Finny. “What was I doing up there anyway? Why did I let Finny talk me into stupid things like this? Was he getting some kind of hold over me” (Knowles 17)? Finny does have “some kind of hold” on Gene. His willingness to jump from a tree “far enough out into the river for safety. . .[something]No Upper Middler. . .had ever tried” (15) is indicative of the sway Finny held over him. Through Finny’s influence, Gene was able to be someone he otherwise was not. Finny’s influence over Gene continues throughout their relationship even to the point of training Gene to replace him as Devon’s athletic superstar, a post which Gene has no desire to occupy. Gene’s desire to please Finny is overwhelming, but that sort of influence is not entirely one-sided.
While Finny is easily the more powerful of the two, both physically and emotionally, he is also influenced by his roommate and friend. After falling from the tree and breaking his leg, Finny is confined to the school’s infirmary for recovery. No one is allowed to see him, but he specifically asks for Gene who is, by this time, consumed with guilt for causing the accident. After a brief conversation about what Finny remembers from the accident, he finally almost accepts the truth that he surely must know. “I did have this idea, this feeling that when you were standing there beside me, you—I don’t know, I had a kind of feeling. . .And this feeling doesn’t make any sense. It was a crazy idea, I must have been delirious. . .I’m sorry about that feeling I had” (66). Regardless of the fact that on some level Finny knows that Gene purposely caused his fall, he cannot bring himself to accept the truth and is apologetic for even allowing the thought to come to mind. There is between the two a connection that binds each to the other even amidst the most troublesome events. This obvious connection affords readers an alternative reading of the text which strays from the traditional emphasis on patriotic themes and embraces the somewhat controversial themes of same-sex attraction and homoerotic relationships among adolescent males.
In his article “Refusing the Queer Potential: John Knowles A Separate Peace” Eric L. Tribunella writes, “Finny’s and Gene’s relationship is characterized by a subtle homoeroticism in which Gene eroticizes Finny’s innocence, purity, and skill, and Finny eroticizes the companionship provided by Gene” (83). Each time the boys jump from the tree, they remove all of their clothes except for their underwear. Gene’s description of Finny upon their first jump reveals his admiration for Finny’s physical appearance. “I noticed that people were looking fixedly at him, so I took a look myself to see why. His skin radiated a reddish copper glow of tan, his brown hair had been a little bleached by the sun, and I noticed that the tan made his eyes shine with a cool bluegreen fire” (Knowles 47). Finny, too, is moved by Gene’s physical appearance, and comes remarkably close to a blatant expression of his admiration as the two of them walk along the boardwalk, remarking “Everbody’s staring at you. . .It’s because of that movie star tan you picked up this afternoon. . .showing off again” (48).
The day that the boys spent at the beach together was pivotal for both. For Finny, it was a moment to test the waters of Gene’s feelings for him. His rush from the water to check Gene’s pulse after he was battered by the waves, his coy remarks about Gene’s appearance, the tenderness with which he referred to Gene as his “best pal” (48) while lying next to him on the beach were all tinged with the hope for a reciprocation which never came. While Gene shares Finny’s feelings, at least to some extent, he understands that the mere act of expressing those feelings, much less acting on them, is “the next thing to suicide” at the Devon School (48). The hold that each had over the other was not strong enough to overcome that truth and Gene’s fear of what his feelings for Finny meant ultimately destroyed both of them.
While Gene’s “jouncing” of the tree was intentional, whether or not it was truly purposeful is not settled even with Gene’s admission of guilt. Gene has become increasingly suspicious of Finny’s intentions since the night they spent on the beach, finally concluding that Finny intends to sabotage Gene’s grades—a completely irrational and unsubstantiated conclusion. Gene ultimately realizes the truth, but, according to Tribunella:
His realization that Finny’s intentions are not dishonest after all, coupled with Finny’s suggestion that they take the jump together, ignites the moment of homosexual panic. Gene responds to Finny’s advances with an act of violent separation. Finny’s attempt to take Gene’s hand triggers the need in Gene to conform to the heterosexual imperative that forecloses the possibility of same-sex desire by forcibly detaching himself from Finny (84).
Gene is a typical example of many adolescent males who experience same-sex attraction. While the “hold” which Finny has on him is strong, the hold of “heterosexual imperative” is greater and he must act to preserve that imperative.
In the end, Gene indeed does escape. Finny’s death means that he will be spared the confrontation of feelings he cannot allow himself to experience. However, upon his return to the Devon School fifteen years later, he is forced to confront an even more powerful feeling—guilt. Only upon his return does he realize that the person he feared most was not to be feared at all. While Gene claims to have “killed [his] enemy [at school]” (204), he reveals the real truth in the concluding lines of the novel: “All of them, all except Phineas, constructed at infinite cost to themselves these Maginot Lines against this enemy they thought they saw across the frontier, this enemy who never attacked that way—if he ever attacked at all; if he was indeed the enemy” (204).
The “infinite cost” to Gene is his own self. Upon Finny’s death he incorporated his friend into himself and became someone he is not meant to be. To what end? He did so in an effort to have what he could never have if Finny were to remain alive—Finny himself.
Knowles, John. A Separate Peace. New York: Scribner, 1595. Print.
Tribunella, Eric L. “Refusing the Queer Potential: John Knowles A Separate Peace.” Children’s Literature 98 (2005): 81-96. Web.