Friendship: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
One of the main elements in both the coming-of-age novel A Separate Peace by John Knowles, and the quirky movie Dead Poets Society, written by Tom Schulman and directed Peter Weir, is friendship. Friendship can involve many stages, and at times, can be very complex, but in pure definition it is “a relationship between two or more people who are friends” (Encarta Dictionary). Both works feature a boarding school in which teenaged boys interact with each other on a daily basis. This is how friendships are made. However, all friendships can undergo rough patches. A true friend will stay by his comrade through all of these times. By paralleling the positive and negative aspects of the friendships between Gene and Finny from A Separate Peace by John Knowles, and Todd and Neil from Dead Poets Society, it is made clear that friendship involves a significant amount more than just sharing interests, hobbies, or activities, but rather, standing by another’s side through all things, good and bad.
Gene and Phineas usually referred to as “Finny”, share a very complex bond. At a glance, it is clear that they are friends, but, at a deeper level, they may not be. In every friendship, there is always one friend that is the “friendlier”, more dominant friend, who usually is more enthusiastic, energetic, or adamant about going someplace or doing something with the other. It is obvious that Finny is this friend; Gene is more reserved and studious than Finny is. Because Finny believes so much in his friendship with Gene, and in its strength, he is willing to ignore his thoughts that Gene might have had something to do with his accident:
I don’t know, I must have just lost my balance. It must have been that. I did have this idea, this feeling that when you were standing there beside me, y— I don’t know, I had a kind of feeling. But you can’t say anything for sure from just feelings. And this feeling doesn’t make any sense. It was a crazy idea, I must have been delirious. So I just have to forget it. I just fell…that’s all…I’m sorry about that feeling I had. (Knowles, 66)
Though there is much evidence that could prove that Gene made Finny fall out of the tree (for example, he was on the branch when Finny fell), Finny chooses to depend on his trust in Gene to know, or choose to believe, that Gene did not push him out of the tree. Even though Finny is the more trusting friend, and Gene is the more paranoid and untrusting friend, Finny still helps him prepare for the Olympics and supports him: “Did I ever tell you, that I used to be aiming for the Olympics?…And now I’m not sure, not a hundred percent sure I’ll be completely, you know, in shape by 1944. So I’m going to coach you for them instead… Leave your fantasy life out of this. We’re grooming you for the Olympics, pal, in 1944.” (Knowles, 117) This may seem ironic because Finny, with his shattered leg, could use more support than he gives Gene, Through Gene’s point of view, however, it could be seen that Gene is supporting Finny, too. Finny wanted to go to the Olympics, but now with this leg, that cannot even be possible, so in fact, Gene is helping Finny live out his dream. Finny’s support for Gene is more physical because he himself cannot succeed anymore in that area, while Gene’s support for Finny is more mental because Gene is more pronounced in that area. In addition to helping with all of his homework, in fact helping him graduate from high school, Gene allows Finny to live in his own fantasy world, where the war is concocted by fat cats in business suits sitting in board rooms eating steaks and everyone wins every game and there are never any losers:
Have you swallowed all that war stuff?… Do you really think that the United States of America is in a state of war with Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan?… Don’t be a sap, there isn’t any war… The fat old men who don’t want us crowding them out of their jobs. They’ve made it all up. There isn’t any real food shortage, for instance. The men have all the best steaks delivered to their clubs now. You’ve noticed they’ve been getting fatter lately, haven’t you? (Knowles, 115)
This eventually, in a way, backfires on Gene because he eventually starts believing Finny’s ideas on the war too. And that’s where it all begins to go downhill.
Neil Perry and Todd Anderson, though they can be considered friends, do not share the same bond as Gene and Finny. Todd is the shyer of the two, most likely because he has been stuck in his older brother’s shadow, as his brother also went to Wellton and excelled in everything. Because Todd is so shy, Neil, being the optimist he is, encourages him to participate more in life: “You were there. Don’t you want to do something about it?” (Weir) When the boys confront Mr. Keating about the Dead Poets Society, and he tells them about how the boys could use poetry to understand the world, and make women swoon, most of the mare quickly on board. All that is, except Todd, who Neil later talks to. Todd doesn’t want to participate in case they are caught, which could mean expulsion from the school. However, Neil, like Finny, wants everyone around him to be as happy and carefree as he is. He is often shown trying to cheer up Todd and to inspire him to: “…Suck the marrow out of life” (Weir) with wisdom such as: “Horseshit. Nothing’s impossible.” (Weir) Neil is more of the type to throw caution to the wind and deal with the consequences later but Todd is very cautious and practical. When he hears all that Neil wants to do, or something he dreams about, Todd is often a voice of reason. However, he can be very negative, which balances out Neil’s optimism, but at the same time can be a little overbearing and offsetting: “The point is, that there’s nothing you can do about it.” (Weir) Many times, when Todd makes these unintentionally depressing comments, we as readers can see into what shaped his character into the discouraging way it is now, and how Neil lightened it, until he committed suicide.
Friendships, like life in general, can go through rough patches. Things are not always easy; people do not always agree with one another. When bad things start to happen to good people, it is easy to lose hope and start to doubt in even one’s closest friends. When Finny tries to inspire the students at Devon to keep their hopes up, and starts the Super Suicide Society that requires long nightly meetings, Gene begins to lose his trust in Finny, as he believes that Finny is sabotaging Gene’s incredible efforts to academically succeed to make himself a great student at Devon:
“After all, he should talk. He had won and been proud to win the Galbraith Football Trophy and the Contact Sport Award, and there were two or three other athletic prizes he was sure to get this year or next. If I was head of class on Graduation Day and made a speech and won the Ne Plus Ultra Scholastic Achievement Citation, then we would both have come out on top, we would be even, that was all. We would be even. Was that it!… Finny had deliberately set out to wreck my studies. That explained blitzball, that explained the nightly meetings of the Super Suicide Society, that explained his insistence that I share all his diversions.” (Knowles, 51-53)
Of course, Finny is doing no such thing; he genuinely thinks that Gene is really into all these activities and has no intention of trying to one-up Gene. Between the pair, Gene is definitely the more paranoid and untrusting, but there are times when Finny is just the same, though never coming close to the same level as Gene. Finny’s one great doubt, probably the one time he doubts anyone or anything in the entire novel, is that he thinks that Gene knocked him out of the tree which, eventually, lead to his examination by the “court” and breaking his leg a second time. This is when his world of blissful ignorance as he knows it collapses around him: “You want to break something else in me! Is that why you’re here!” (Knowles, 184) When reading this, an image of an injured animal comes to mind. Finny, like a wounded predator, is backed into a corner, and to protect it, violently lashes out at those near him. He doesn’t understand that Gene just wants to comfort him. Todd is also like this, except his outbursts do not stem from possible deceit of a friend. Instead, they stem from shyness and ignorance: that by everyone who knew his older brother and expect him to do the same and be as exceptional, standards to which he could not reach. When Neil, being the outgoing person that he is, tries to help Todd, Todd blatantly refuses: “I can take of myself just fine.” (Weir) Neil continues to try and be a friend to Todd, never discouraged at all by Todd’s remarks about his not needing anyone’s help.
With both of these pairs, one could argue that neither were friends with the other; Gene is constantly paranoid that Finny is trying to out-due him, and Todd and Neil never shared a close bond, they were only roommates. These are both true, but if special notice is given to the circumstances, it can be seen that this can also be proven wrong. Finny considered Gene to be his best friend, and though Gene can think the worst of Finny, it can be noted that Finny could point out a great deal more worse in Gene than Gene could of him, and Finny still considered Gene a friend. It may appear that Todd does not see Neil as a friend, but that would not explain all the times that the two exchange advice, or all the times that Neil cheered Todd up, such as the time when Todd’s parents sent him the same desk set as they did the previous year. Friendship is not always visible in its most common form, but people are not all the same, so it would be most unwise to assume that it would only take one form for everyone.