Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The Summer and Winter Sessions at Devon
The summer session at Devon is a time of anarchy and freedom, when the teachers are lenient and Finny’s enthusiasm and clever tongue enable him to get away with anything. This session symbolizes innocence and youth and comes to an end with Finny’s actual and symbolic fall, which ushers in the winter session, a time embodied by the hardworking, order-loving Brinker Hadley. The winter session is dark, disciplined, and filled with difficult work; it symbolizes the encroaching burdens of adulthood and wartime, the latter of which intrudes increasingly on the Devon campus. Together, then, the two sessions represent the shift from carefree youth to somber maturity. Finny, unwilling or perhaps unable to face adulthood, dies and thus never enters into this second, disillusioning mode of existence.
Finny’s fall, the climax of the novel, is highly symbolic, as it brings to an end the summer session—the period of carefree innocence—and ushers in the darker winter session, filled with the forebodings of war. So, too, does Finny’s fall demonstrate to Gene that his resentment and envy are not without consequences, as they lead to intense feelings of shame and guilt. The literal fall, then, symbolizes a figurative fall from innocence—like Adam and Eve, who eat from the Tree of Knowledge and are consequently exiled from the Garden of Eden into sin and suffering, the students at Devon, often represented by Gene, are propelled from naïve childhood into a knowledge of good and evil that marks them as adults.
World War II
World War II symbolizes many notions related to each other in the novel, from the arrival of adulthood to the triumph of the competitive spirit over innocent play. Most important, it symbolizes conflict and enmity, which the novel—or at least the narrator, Gene—sees as a fundamental aspect of adult human life. All people eventually find a private war and private enemy, the novel suggests, even in peacetime, and they spend their lives defending themselves against this enemy. Only Finny is immune to this spirit of enmity, which is why he denies that the war exists for so long—and why, in the end, Gene tells him that he would be no good as a soldier—because he doesn’t understand the concept of an enemy. It is significant that the war begins to encroach upon the lives of the students with any severity only after Finny’s crippling fall: the spirit of war can hold unchallenged influence over the school only after Finny’s death.