Gene: Gene is the narrator of the novel and appears at two different time periods: as a middle-aged man re-visiting Devon fifteen years after being a student there, and, for the majority of the novel, as a sixteen and seventeen-year-old student during World War II. The novel is written in the past tense, and we assume that Gene’s narration is triggered by his re-visitation of his old school when he is thirty-two. And although the older narrator seems long past the emotional turmoil that marked his schoolboy days, the events of his years at Devon are told as if they were occurring in the present, as if our narrator were still sixteen years old. The Gene that we encounter for the bulk of the novel is, like many of his classmates, at a liminal stage in his life-the adolescence between boyhood and manhood. This transition is further emphasized by the war, Gene being in the final years of freedom before the ravages of a world war can legally claim him. Outwardly Gene is one of the top students in his class and a talented athlete. These traits earn him respect on campus and, most importantly, the friendship of Phineas, whom Gene respects more than any of his fellow classmates. But inwardly, Gene is plagued by the darker forces of human nature, forces which prey upon the turbulence of adolescence. Gene’s admiration and love for Finny is balanced and marred by his fierce jealousy of him, by a deep insecurity in himself, and, because of his insecurity, a need to compete with and “defeat” his friend at all costs. Gene’s internal emotional battles are the major source of conflict and tension in the novel.
Phineas: Called Finny by his classmates, Phineas is Gene’s closest companion at Devon and, for our narrator, the central focus of the novel. Finny is five feet eight and a half inches tall and weighs one hundred fifty pounds “which flowed from his legs to torso around shoulders to arms and full strong neck in an uninterrupted, unemphatic unity of strength” (8). Indeed, Finny is the superhuman wonder of athletics and physical harmony at Devon, far surpassing any competition from his classmates, Gene included. What is more, Finny’s physical prowess matches that of his personality-he is a charismatic, good-natured, and persuasive young man. Finny finds joy outside of authority and is described by Gene as “a student who combined a calm ignorance of the rules with a winning urge to do good, who seemed to love the school truly and deeply, and never more than when he was breaking the regulations” (16). Although not as strong a student as Gene, Phineas is not consumed by jealousy and the need to compete with his friend, which exposes Gene’s own insecurity. After breaking his leg, however, Finny is faced with his own personal struggle: the bitterness of being a cripple and attempting to live in a world where sports and enlistment in the army are no longer a possibility. And, of course, Phineas must also confront the fact that his life-altering injury was caused by someone he considered, and still must try to consider, to be his best friend.
Elwin “Leper” Lepellier: Leper is the dreamy, eccentric, unathletic loner at Devon. Rather than prepare for or become involved with the war, Leper would rather collect snails or search for beaver dams. Leper’s role increases in significance when, to everyone’s surprise, he decides to enlist, making the war seem even more unreal for Gene. But Leper’s quiet and quirky personality prove to be completely incompatible with army life, and he escapes from his training camp. The post-army Leper is no longer his calm, dreamy self, but rather an emotionally volatile, terrified young man. His involvement in the army has forced him to emerge from what Gene dubs his “protective cloud of vagueness” and he meets “the horror, face to face, just as he had always feared” (196).
Brinker Hadley: The last character to undergo development in the novel, Brinker is introduced at the beginning of Winter Session as an industrious and organized student, a class leader and head of many student organizations. Brinker is responsible for the two interrogations into Finny’s accident, once immediately following his fall from the tree and once, a more serious trial, at the end of the novel, before Finny re-breaks his leg. Although vocal about his desire to enlist, Brinker doesn’t dare do so without the company of his classmates, unlike Leper. And when he finally involves himself with war activities, he is sure to keep himself as far from actual combat as possible. Over the course of the year, Brinker becomes disillusioned and less active in the school organizations. This, we learn at the novel’s end, is due to a strong resentment of his father, a World War I veteran and war fanatic who pressures his son into combat.
Cliff Quackenbush: Cliff’s character is as unfortunate as his last name. A gruff senior, manager of the crew team, Cliff is a recipient of a general dislike from his classmates at Devon. Bitter about his unpopularity, Cliff adopts a cruel, arrogant manner, taking advantage of Gene’s position as assistant crew manager as an opportunity to treat someone as an inferior, which fosters a dislike and a wrestling match between the two.
Chet Douglass: Chet is a strong student who remains on the periphery of the novel’s action. He is Gene’s competition in the classroom and his real desire to learn and his fascination with what he studies contrasts Gene’s competitive disinterest in any subject. Gene writes of him: “He got carried away by things; for example, he was so fascinated by the tilting planes of solid geometry that he did almost as badly in trigonometry as I did myself” (46). Chet is also extremely talented at tennis and trumpet playing, but, according to Gene: “he had an underlying obliging and considerate strain which barred him from being a really important member of the class” (124).
Mr. Hadley: Brinker’s father, an example of the war enthusiasm of the older generation. Disappointed by his son and Gene’s desire to remain away from combat, Mr. Hadley tells the boys that they will have their war memories forever and it is best to develop memories of fighting. Brinker’s father seems living proof of Finny’s theory that the war is nothing but a ruse orchestrated by fat older men who are fearful of losing their power to the younger generation.
Mr. Ludsbury: The tall, authoritative Master of Winter Session. A stern disciplinarian, Ludsbury reproaches Gene and his classmates for taking advantage of the lack of discipline during the Summer Session and encourages Gene and Finny to direct their Olympic training toward the more practical and more urgent war effort. Gene writes that Ludsbury, faced with the dangers of the approaching war, would say: “How dare this threaten me, I am much too good for this sort of handling, I shall rise above this” (196).
Dr. Stanpole: The school doctor who urges Gene to visit Finny in the Infirmary and help him to confront his injury. When Finny re-breaks his leg, it is Dr. Stanpole who attempts to set the bone, during which process Phineas dies. Dr. Stanpole has difficulty controlling his sorrow and shock as he informs Gene of his best friend’s death.