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• PHINEAS (FINNY) Finny, Gene's best friend through good or ill, rests securely at the center of the story. Right from the start we know Finny is unlike any other person we've met, or rather, he's an extreme form of the most incredible person we've ever met.
Like a tragic hero, which Finny certainly is, the boy is daring. Finny's daring is as natural to him as breathing. He thrives on challenges, and when none presents itself, he invents one: the tree-jumping ritual is the first-and ultimately the most costly.
What are the characteristics of a true leader? A leader must be able to inspire others to confidence, then convince them to follow in assurance that no harm will befall them. A leader must be vigilant-because leaders have a way of being toppled when they are not careful. Even while he's scaling new heights, Finny casts sidelong glances. We wonder if he's too trusting of the other boys.
A true leader must stand for something, a set of principles or ideals. What are Finny's principles? He never seems to take anything all that seriously; he is always capable of a good laugh at his own expense. Sports are beyond reproach to Finny. The playing field is sacred ground, the gym is a holy temple. To him, sportsmanlike prowess and athletic ability far outweigh the ability to give the right answers on a test.
You've heard the expression, "Pride goeth before a fall." Think, as you read A Separate Peace, about whether this maxim describes accurately what happens to Finny. Heroes are often brought down by excessive, blind self-confidence. They go through too many situations in which they are tested and succeed, and their triumphs intoxicate them, go to their heads, make it hard for them to maintain an accurate perspective.
On the other hand, we certainly can't say that Finny is selfish. There's nothing guarded in his nature. What you see is what you get. Gene finds this side of Finny disarming; indeed, it is difficult to accept a person on his own terms in a world where there's so much suspicion. Finny serves to remind us of the greater forces of goodness and peace in the world, and his fall reminds us how rare these forces have become. In this respect A Separate Peace goes beyond the boundaries of a schoolboy story and into John Knowles' vision of the human condition.
Finny has a sense of humor. Perhaps that doesn't strike you as unusual. But think for a moment how rare a truly fine sense of humor is these days. And the greatest humor of all is found in the person who can laugh at himself. Many of us are so close to our own problems, so wrapped up in the little things of daily life, that we can't see the bright spots. Finny, with all naturalness, can make himself the object of the funniest jokes without losing any of his self-esteem.
Finny's "steady and formidable flow of energy" often overwhelms his schoolmates when it does not inspire them. It's a double-edged quality that stems no doubt from his endless need to be in control, to be a guiding, steering force. He likes to keep moving. Even when his leg is in a cast he seems to radiate a kind of dynamic force field around himself. When he isn't running, he's talking. When he isn't swimming, he's playing blitzball or riding a bicycle backward. And he's always thinking. Imagine what a different story A Separate Peace would be if Finny, instead of Gene, were the narrator!
In the end, why do we weep for Finny? Because we will miss him, as we would miss anyone of such vitality and honesty who passed from our lives. The author has set Finny up in an idealized way; in other words, he has made the boy larger than life so that he embodies important truths beyond himself.
• ELWIN "LEPER" LEPELLIER Gene is the commentator, Finny the transcendent leader; Leper is the tagalong-with a twist. How incredibly wrong first impressions can prove to be! When we meet him, Leper's one of the boys standing at the base of the tree, refusing to jump into the river, "bidding for an ally." He wants to be liked, but he doesn't want it badly enough to move an inch from his rooted, stubborn disposition. Gene gives a hint of the general opinion of Leper when he refers to him as "inanimate," someone who is simply there, for no particularly good or bad reason.
During blitzball this observation is borne out when Leper refuses to take possession of the ball. He exists to prove a point rather than for any exemplary act he is capable of performing. He's very good at denying and rejecting ideas, throwing them into relief. He threatens to make the leap, to join the Suicide Society, but he never comes through. Of all the characters, Leper is most nearly the opposite of Finny.
That is not to say Leper doesn't possess the courage of his convictions. He marches to the beat of a different drummer, that's all. While all the other boys are shoveling snow for the war effort, Leper is in the countryside skiing. He has no personal objection to what the others are doing; he simply possesses his own, very personal agenda, and he sticks to it unfailingly.
Leper is a fascinating character because you don't want to think he's important, and then he turns out to be crucial. A lot is going on beneath the surface, and you find yourself watching and wondering about him. Why is he the first to enlist? What is the cause of his emotional breakdown? Why does he summon Gene to his home in Vermont to confess to him? Why does he return to Devon? Why does he feel the need to report on the events at the tree when Finny fell?
It's easier to pity Leper than to hate him for what he does. You are tempted to condemn him for seeking revenge; then that feeling is followed by the overwhelming desire to feel sorry for him-"There but for the grace of God go I," you think. The army was clearly no place for a boy like Leper, but how can anyone know anything about an experience, especially one of such magnitude, without having undergone it?
Leper's bravery, unwitting though it may be, and his motivation for enlisting, the naive expectation to ski his way through the war-appeal to us. His cry for help does not go unanswered, but even Gene can do nothing to aid him. After all, Gene too is struggling through the same difficult period in his own life.