Gene’s feelings about Finny point toward Finny’s exceptional nature, and it is in these chapters that we begin to learn more about Finny as a person—though always, it is important to realize, through the perspective of Gene. Still, Finny’s good qualities are obvious: the reader is quickly won over by his sense of fun, clever tongue, enthusiasm, and what seems to be genuine devotion to Gene. Apparent, too, is that he seems to have no need to prove his superiority over other people: he loves sports and physical activities, and he desires to be the best but has no desire to beat anyone else. His refusal to publicize his swimming feat seems to prove his modesty. “Blitzball,” in which nobody wins but everyone competes, perfectly symbolizes Finny’s attitude not only toward athletics but toward life in general.
Finny does have one fatal flaw, however, which becomes clearer later in the book: he exhibits an intense self-involvement and fails to perceive that others might be different from him, with different needs, desires, and fears. This egocentrism is evident in the way he assumes that because he wants to jump every night Gene will want to as well. Similarly, on the trip to the beach, Finny never even bothers to ask himself if Gene might prefer not to skip school to spend a night on the sand; Finny lets his own desires decide for both boys. It is important to note, however, that Gene never attempts to counter this aspect of Finny or to point it out to him: fearful of losing face with Finny, Gene never refuses him. Thus, the tensions latent in their friendship can never be brought out into the open; Finny never expects a “no” and Gene is never brave enough to give one.
The difficulty that Gene has in standing up for himself connects to the larger problem in the novel of Gene’s sense of identity: throughout the book, Gene allows his own sense of self to be subsumed by Finny’s stronger personality. Although this strange codependency is only hinted at in these early scenes, Gene’s struggles to know and assert his own desires initiate a more general exploration in the novel of identity and what it means to be true to oneself.
Meanwhile, the backdrop to all these events is the summer session at Devon, a time when rules seem to be suspended. The summer session, like the war, serves as a large-scale metaphor for the lives of the characters. In practical terms, the session is characterized by a generally lax enforcement of school rules and a less-than-rigorous academic environment. But the resulting liberty that the boys enjoy—almost anarchic at times—represents a final stage of psychological innocence: the greenery and the boys’ unrestricted romps evoke the paradise that preceded the fall of Adam and Eve into knowledge and sin. Like the biblical characters, the boys in A Separate Peace will also experience a fall, both figurative—a fall from innocence—and literal.
Gene and Finny’s initial innocence seems to prevent them from consciously recognizing what may be homoerotic tensions in their relationship. Homosexuality is never mentioned explicitly by any character save when Gene says that Finny’s pink shirt makes him look like a “fairy.” But the relationships in the book are all between boys (we never see them interact with girlfriends or mothers, except for one brief scene with Leper’s mother), and the central relationship contains hints of an almost sexual attraction between Gene and Finny. When the boys go to the beach, for instance, Gene remarks that his friend’s 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 blue-green fire.” Although the language is not expressly homoerotic, Gene’s words suggest that the connection between him and Finny is, if not sexual, then at least strongly physical: the boys direct their affection toward each other’s whole beings, increasing the intensity of their bond.