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Gene Forrester, the narrator, is also the protagonist of the novel. Idolizing Finny and striving to be like him, Gene becomes extremely jealous of his friend's abilities and spontaneous ways. His jealousy makes him cause Finny to fall from a tree; in turn, Finny becomes a cripple, destroying his bright and promising future. When Finny learns that Gene, his supposed best friend, has caused his accident, he is shocked and hurt. Feeling that his trust and faith have been violated, he falls down the stairs and breaks his leg again. In turn, Gene is more ravaged with guilt than ever.
Gene's antagonist is really himself. Although he pretends to be his friend, he has a deep jealousy for Finny, his roommate. Since Finny is admired by the teachers and the students for his athletic ability and his carefree, spontaneous ways, Gene longs to be like him and tries to imitate him. When he is unsuccessful, he takes his failure out on Finny, causing him to fall from the tree and become a cripple. Then Gene must wrestle with his guilt.
The climax of the novel is reached during the student trial scene toward the end of the novel. Several times in the book, Gene has tried to admit his guilt to Finny, but Finny will not believe him, for he wants to have total faith in his best friend. At the trial, Finny is forced to face the fact that Gene has caused his accident. He is so upset by the realization that he rushes from the room, falls down the stairs, and re-breaks his leg. Now Gene must deal honestly with the accident, for everyone suspects the truth.
The story is a tragic comedy. Although Finny dies, Gene does mature. Driven by guilt, Gene realizes that he is his own enemy and accepts that a person cannot measure oneself by the abilities of another person. He accepts that he can only be himself and act accordingly. It is obvious that he will never totally forgive himself, as evidenced by the fact that he returns to Devon many years later to revisit the tree (the scene of the accident) and the First Building (the scene of the trial and Finny's second fall); however, he has come to grips with who he is and what he has done. He also has refused to let the memories of Finny fade, which is why he has narrated the story.