A Separate Peace: Novel Summary: Chapter 4
On the next day, in the gray light of dawn, the sleeping Phineas looks dead to Gene. They both rise later on and make it back to Devon undiscovered and in time for Gene's trigonometry test, which he flunks. Finny tells Gene: "You never waste your time. That's why I have to do it for you" (43). Gene feels competitive and wants to be had of the class so that his accomplishment would balance out Finny's athletic achievements. Suddenly cast into doubt and distrust, Gene suspects Phineas of being a bitter rival: "He minded, despised the possibility that I might be head of the school" (44). Gene's doubt and insecurity destroy his confidence in their friendship: "Up like a detonation went the idea of any best friend, up went affection and partnership and sticking by someone and relying on someone absolutely in the jungle of a boys' school, up went the hope that there was anyone in this school-in this world-whom I could trust" (44-45). He suspects Finny of intentionally keeping Gene from his studies all along, with his blitzball and his trips to the beach and his Suicide Society meetings: "That way he, the great athlete, would be way ahead of me" (45).
Gene becomes a determined, excellent student thereafter, though remaining detached and uninterested in what he learns. He studies for competition's sake and finds solace in the idea that he is "ahead" of Finny because he is a better athlete than Finny is a student. There are moments during those summer days, however, when Gene finds himself "slipping back into affection for him again" (47). But for the most part, Gene maintains distrust for Phineas: "I had detected that Finny's [heart] was a den of lonely, selfish ambition. He was no better than I was, no matter who won all the contests" (48).
Tensions come to a head for Gene one evening when Phineas asks Gene, who is studying, to come to the tree because Leper has declared that he will jump. Gene is furious at Finny's interruption but lacks the courage to accuse of the surprised Finny of hindering his studies. Finny, realizing that Gene wants to study, shrugs and says: "Don't go. What the hell, it's only a game" (50). When Gene asks him what he means, Finny says, innocently: "I didn't know you needed to study. I didn't think you ever did. I thought it just came to you" (50). Gene is shocked and humiliated, feeling isolated by having distrusted his best friend: "He had never been jealous of me for a second. Now I knew that there never was and never could have been any rivalry between us. I was not of the same quality as he" (51).
Gene refuses Finny's insistence on him staying and studying and follows him to the tree, a familiar chapter-ending place by this point in the novel. Finny suggests that they jump together again. While the two are on the overhanging limb, Gene intentionally jounces the branch, causing Finny to lose his balance. Finny "swung his head around to look at me for an instant with extreme interest" (54) and then tumbles out of the tree to the bank below. His fear of jumping forgotten, Gene jumps, alone, into the river.