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In the early pages of the novel, Finny confesses that Gene is his best friend. This is considered a courageous act as the students at Devon rarely show any emotion. And rather than coming back with similar affection, Gene holds back and says nothing. Gene simply cannot handle the fact that Finny is so compassionate, so athletic, so ingenuitive, so perfect. As he put it, "Phineas could get away with anything." (p. 18) In order to protect himself from accepting Finny's compassion and risking emotional suffering, Gene creates a silent rivalry with Finny, and convinced himself that Finny is deliberately attempting to ruin his schoolwork. Gene decides he and Finny are jealous of each other, and reduces their friendship to cold trickery and hostility. Gene becomes disgusted with himself after weeks of the silent rivalry. He finally discovers the truth, that Finny only wants the best for Gene, and had no hidden evil intentions. This creates a conflict for Gene as he is not able to deal with Finny's purity and his own dark emotions. On this very day Finny wants to jump off of the tree branch into the Devon river at the same time as Gene, a "double jump" (p. 51), he says, as a way of bonding. It was this decision, caused by Finny's affection for Gene and outgoing ways that resulted in drastic change for the rest of his life.
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Elwin "Leper" Lepelier, another boy attending the Devon school, is also treated inhumanely by the other boys, including Gene, creating another rivalry. From the time that Leper is introduced, it is shown that other students think him to be strange because of his idiosyncrasies and instead of trying to understand Leper, other students distance themselves from him. Hence the name "Leper," as a person with leprosy is usually isolated as much as possible, just as Elwin was. Leper also has an inner competition going on. He fights his status as a "loner" by joining Gene and Finny in their activities. He must also fight his psychological problems and his fears of war. Leper decided to go to war to face his fears head on, but he does not expect war to be as barbaric as it is. Leper can not handle the reality of war and becomes delusional. Leper was almost given a Section 8 discharge from the army, for those who develop mental disorders (p. 136). Leper sends Gene word that he has "escaped" from the army, and Gene goes to visit him at his home in Vermont. It is at this meeting that Gene witnesses a side of Leper that he has never encountered before. Leper is angry, delusional, and shows hate that Gene never knew existed. Gene also discovers that Leper's dark centre is not as well hidden as he had imagined. Leper illustrates this by saying, "You always were a savage underneath. Like the time you knocked Finny out of the tree... Like that time you crippled him for life." (p. 137) He slyly suggests that Gene was the cause of Finny's accident as an attempt to provoke Gene to lose control. This daring gesture makes Leper feel more secure during his own mental insecurity. Leper has used loss of reality as a form of escape, such that in the world he lives in now, nothing can hurt him anymore. Gene eventually runs off, trying to protect himself from becoming involved another's problems. Gene's selfishness is clearly displayed here and he has shown Leper the true lack of compassion that he feels towards others. The two boys are rivals in the sense that they both are struggling to come to terms with their fears and their sanity. This leads to accusations and hostility that tears their friendship apart.
In the novel, Gene is not the only character to treat others with abuse. Brinker Hadley, another student at Devon, provides an excellent example of man's inhumanity to man. Brinker is a friend of Gene and Phineas, and he is the only individual, other than Leper, to imply that Gene was responsible for Finny's accident. Late one night, Brinker and some friends take Finny and Gene to a mock trial (p. 156). In Devon School's Assembly Room, Brinker torments both Finny and Gene by inquiring about the accident. At this time Finny truly believes that Gene had nothing to do with his broken leg, but as the trial continues and more facts are presented by the other students, Finny becomes confused and suspicious. Leper is brought to the trial as a witness. This of course, brings Gene tremendous panic, as Leper was previously introduced to Gene's dark personality in Vermont. Leper explains that he saw one boy on the tree limb move first, throwing off the other boy's balance. Leper wants to feel superior to the other boys, so when Brinker asks him if Phineas moved first, causing his own fall, or if Gene moved first, Leper is stubborn with his answer. Leper accuses Brinker of taking him for a fool. "I'm important. You've never realized it, but I'm important too. You be the fool, you do what ever anyone wants whenever they want it. You be the fool now. Bastard." (p.168) And Leper provides no more information, although it is obvious that he is aware of Gene's guilt. Phineas comes to the realization that Gene has betrayed him. He flees from the Assembly room, crying, and screams that he does not want to hear any more facts. Finny's innocence, his beliefs about friendship, and his heart have been broken by Brinker's need to inflict grief and panic on others. Brinker is not at all interested in who caused Finny's accident, or the well being of Finny or Gene. Brinker is a natural leader, and likes to assume control. It is possible that he was feeling a loss of control over the students of Devon since Finny's return from Boston. This caused him to agitate the situation between Gene and Finny, proving how much change he could cause, and how much power over a situation he could assume.
In A Separate Peace, the students at Devon are fighting a war, a mirror as to the events of World War II. Each of the characters previously mentioned, with the exception of Phineas, is driving coldly ahead for his own personal gain. Phineas, on the other hand, possessed an extraordinary character trait, heightened confidence, and innocence like no other. The boys survive in their lives by hurting each other, as do soldiers. It is the vulnerable, innocent, and naive ones who do not survive. Phineas was dropped from the competitions in the school because of his broken leg and his eventual death. Leper made his own escape through hallucinations. Gene and Brinker made peace with their situation by enlisting and giving aid to their country. The boys all had to find their own "separate peace" through their own means. Each of the boys suffered as a result of rivalry and competition, and therefore lost friendships that could have been potentially life long. Although rivalry and competition may be a natural part of life and the human psyche, it can be a destructive force used by, and against, mankind.