Phineas and Gene: A Comparative Study


To be the opposite of something or someone means to be the furthest from being like that person or object. One can say this for Gene and Phineas in the short story “Phineas” by John Knowles. Through reading the story one comes to see that Gene is the exact opposite of Phineas. One could say that Gene is insecure, envious, an admirer, intellectual and vindictive. In contrast, Phineas is unconcerned, self- assured, influential, outgoing and athletic.

The story begins, and we are first introduced to Gene, who narrates the story. It is quickly apparent  that Gene is insecure. An example of this occurs when he finds out that he is room mates with Phineas. “I had seen him at a distance around the school the previous winter, and gotten the impression he was bigger than I.”(J. Knowles, 100) This quotation shows our first introduction with Gene’s  insecure character.  One can see this because he immediately assumed Phineas to be “bigger than I,”(100) instead of waiting to meet him and then forming an opinion that maybe Phineas would be pleasant. His first impression of him was as a bully, therefore, we think that Gene is afraid of him, which would make him insecure. Another example of Gene’s insecurity occurs just after Gene and Phineas meet. “That first day, standing in our comfortless room amid his clothes, he began to talk and I began to listen.”(100) This quotation shows that Gene was too afraid to say what he wanted. He did not have enough courage even to interject when Phineas was talking. This shows that Gene was insecure about his ideas and point of view.

Throughout the story we also see Gene to be very envious of Phineas. An example of this occurs when Phineas and Gene were discussing sex. ” I wasn’t going to be opened up like that suitcase, to have him yank out all my thoughts and feelings and scatter them underfoot.”(101) This quote shows how Gene was reluctant to tell his stories to Phineas. He did not feel that Phineas should know about him. This would leave us to believe that Gene does not want to tell Phineas these stories because Gene is afraid of what Phineas might conclude.  Gene may also be reluctant to tell Phineas because of his insecurities, because he may feel that his stories are not as good as Phineas’s and he does not want Phineas knowing that. This would show that he is jealous of Phineas. Gene also knows he is jealous but tries to talk himself out of the thought. “He might be the best natural athlete in the school, the most popular boy, but I was winning where it counted” (105) This quotation shows how Gene actually admits that Phineas is better than him.  Nevertheless, we know that it upsets him because he adds, “I was winning where it counts”(105) This shows that he just needed to add in something to try to hide his envious side. By saying that Phineas was popular and is a good athlete shows that Gene is in denial of his envious side toward Phineas.

Though Gene is envious, he is also an admirer of Phineas. An example of Gene admiring Phineas occurs after Gene gets a fair mark on his report card. “It took one hatred to overcome another. I hated him at that moment always trying to show me up, to get revenge for my procession of A’s and his D’s. Damn him. I jumped.”(106) This quotation shows how Gene jumped just because Phineas said he should. This would prove him to be an admirer because he followed Phineas’s every move.   He did not do this because he loved Phineas, but because he was jealous and wanted to be like him.  “I never forgot, and that evening I put on his pink shirt, neatly laundered, in a drawer.”(110) This quotation shows that Gene thought highly of what Phineas wore. Even when what Phineas wore was not all that great,  Gene still admired the clothing and looked up to him. Gene liked the attention that Phineas got from his clothes and, Gene tried on Phineas’s clothes because he wanted to have that same apparent air of confidence that Phineas had. This constant preoccupation with  Phineas often got Gene side tracked.

Gene was very involved in school, one could say that Gene was  intelligent. An example of this occurs while Gene and Phineas are studying for their History test. “I didn’t do well in that course: that is, I got a B.”(104) This quotation shows how Gene’s school and education are very important to him. We know this because he got a B and he studied for it. This also shows he is ambitious because he got a high grade and he was hoping for a higher grade. Another example of his intelligence occurs when Gene finds out his Latin mark. “I wasn’t deceived by that amazed, happy grin of his when he learned I’d scored the highest grade in Latin, or his candid questions about how I balanced trigonometry equations in three steps while he took twelve.” (105) This quotation shows how Gene does very well in his classes because he scored the highest mark in his class. He is also very good at trigonometry. One can also see how much better Gene is in his studies than Phineas, also that he is quite intelligent.

Finally, we see that Gene is a vindictive person. We see this when Gene is in Phineas’s hospital room. “Yes, naturally. I was fighting for air in this close room.”(113)

This quote chows that Gene is a vindictive person. We know this because he is trying to twist the story so that Phineas will believe him. This shows that Gene was seeking revenge on Phineas because Gene is jealous of Phineas’s accomplishments, and because of that he made him fall from the branch. Another example of this occurs when Gene is talking about Phineas and how unconcerned Phineas is. “We searched for ways to get him for awhile and then realized that it was impossible, because he never forced himself up.”(102) This quotation shows how Gene wanted to do something to Phineas to get back at him. Phineas had not done anything to Gene, but the fact that Phineas never got cut down made Gene want to do something to cut him down to their level.

In contrast to Gene, we have the antagonist Phineas. Phineas is a very unconcerned person. Many things which some people find very important,  Phineas just blows off, because he does not feel strongly about them. An example of this occurs when Gene describes how Phineas acts. “His enjoyment of singing and his inability ever to be on key, the score of fourteen he got on a Latin examination,”(102) This quote shows that these things may embarrass some people but, they don’t bother Phineas. He really does not mind that he can’t sing well or that he failed Latin. He is unconcerned about many things. Another example of this occurs when Gene is trying to convince himself that he is, of course, very much like Phineas. “He wasn’t so unlike me, so peacefully himself, unconscious of conflict and rivalry.”(105) This quotation shows how Phineas overlooks the outside world.  It seems that he just sits and hums to himself. He does not notice people fighting or competing.  He just has fun. This shows how he is unconcerned.

Phineas also shows us he is self assured. An example of this occurs at the beginning of the story when Phineas first met Gene. “The first day, standing in our comfortless room amid his clothes, he began to talk and I began to listen.”(100) This quotation shows how Gene just began to listen to Phineas, as if Phineas had something very important to say. For Gene to be drawn to Phineas,  he most likely spoke confidently. Also, Phineas just began talking and Gene listened. Phineas projected himself as confident and this is why Gene listened. Another example occurs when Gene was discussing how Phineas is endlessly kidded. “We searched for endless ways to get at him for a while and then we realized that it was impossible, because he never forced himself up.” (102) This quotation shows that Phineas has the confidence to laugh it off when people bugged him. He just did not care when they said stuff about them. This shows that he was self- assured and he did not need the approval of the others.

Also, Phineas is very influential. We see this especially with Gene. An example of this occurs when Phineas and Gene are studying. “With Phineas sitting next to me day after day like some guiltless Doubting Thomas, I began to wonder not whether history was real, but whether it was important.”(104) This quotation shows that Phineas had an influence on Gene. One knows this because Gene is always very serious about his school work and now we see Gene not thinking so seriously . This occurs because of Phineas, Gene is with Phineas day after day. Phineas’s habits are now rubbing off on Gene and influencing Gene’s work habits. Another example occurs in the same area of the story. “I knew Finny was interfering with my studies, and then I began to suspect why. I was smarter than he was. He couldn’t stand that.”(104) This quotation shows how Phineas has an effect on Gene’s school work. Gene even admits it. Therefore, we know that Phineas has an obvious influence.

In addition, Phineas is also outgoing. An example of this occurs when they go out to jump off the tree. “He stripped to his underpants and began scrambling up the wood rungs nailed on the side of the tree. At last he stepped onto a branch which reached out a little farther over the water.”(105) This quotation shows he is outgoing because he can climb the tree, which is high from the ground and the branch, which  is a long way out. Also, he is going to jump from the tree to the water. While doing this he is in danger of falling not in the water, but on the land. This shows he is outgoing, and foolhardy.  Another example occurs when Phineas is in the hospital. “Phineas would say nothing behind my back.  He would accuse me face to face.” (112) This quotation shows he is outgoing because he had the guts to say, something insulting right to someone’s face. Not many people have the courage to do this. Phineas does not care what anyone’s  reaction may be to his comments.

Phineas is also athletic. An example of this occurs when he is bragging to Gene. Gene says, “He excelled at any sport because he had never realized that a player had to work for years to master one completely coordinated movement, such as swinging a golf club.”(103) This quotation shows how Phineas did well at sports. He was also unaware that it took so much work to be a good athlete because he was good at the first try. This shows how naturally athletic he is. Another example occurs in the hospital when he hurt himself and the doctor says that his sports are finished. “Sports are finished. As a friend you ought to help him face that and accept it. “(111) the quote shows that now he won’t be able to play sports. The doctor says this because sports must be a number one thing for Phineas if he needs a friend to break the news.

As we can see through the reading and analysis of the short story “Phineas,”  one can see that Gene and Phineas were foils of one another. Phineas was unconcerned, self-assured, influential, outgoing and athletic. On the other hand, Gene was insecure envious, an admirer, intellectual and vindictive. These traits show Gene and Phineas to be opposites.

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