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“People are often vain of their most criminal passions; but envy is one passion so mean and low that nobody will admit it” Francois de la Rochefoucauld(1613-1680), a French philosopher, once stated and that statement summarizes the undertone of A Separate Piece by John Knowles. The story is set at a highly competitive boy’s school on the East Coast that sets the perfect stage to develop the storyline. Gene’s insecurity, which led to jealousy of Finny, is the cause of the overall conflict.
In chapter 1 Finny leaps from the tree for the first time, and then Gene follows. When Gene jumps after Finny he does it not because of being “shamed into it” (906) as Finny says but out of envy to be more like Finny. Gene gets an odd feeling of gratification that seems to settle his insecurity when he is imitating Finny. On the walk home from the tree Gene boasts “ I then became his (Finny) collaborator” as they were both missing evening meal. This shows that his subconscious jealousy had succeeded in being like Finny. Gene felt that the more he could associate with Finny the more he would be considered like Finny. Even Gene may not have realized his underlying jealousy but it was there from the beginning.
Gene nears completion of his transformation into Finny in chapter 4. “I jounced the limb” (923) says Gene, and Finny falls through the branches snapping the limbs with his momentum until the fall ended with an unnatural thud. This action initiates the final phase of Gene’s plan he can not completely be Finny until the space is open and until then it was filled. At this point Gene begins to realize what has been happening. At the funeral Gene said that he did not cry then or ever. Gene did not cry because he knew that when Finny was buried that was all that was buried Finny, a body.
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The conflict in A Separate Piece stemmed from Gene’s envy. Gene hid his guilt in Finny’s accident not because of punishment for the action but because embarrassment from his jealousy. Gene’s acts against Finny started in his subconscious but ended on his own will.