The Tree: The tree by the Devon River is the first symbol that the reader encounters, the object that draws Gene back to the school fifteen years after he was a student there. Gene’s perception of the tree at these two vastly different time periods is a reflection of the change that has occurred within him. When Gene was at Devon, the tree “was tremendous, an irate, steely black steeple beside the river” (6). For the sixteen year-old Gene, the tree is fear itself, fear that he must climb and conquer, a task that is easy for Phineas even then. As an adult, the tree seems to Gene to be “weary from age, enfeebled, dry” (6). Gene writes that it is a symbol for “those men, the giants of your childhood, whom you encounter years later and find that they are not merely smaller in relation to your growth, but that they are absolutely smaller, shrunken by age” (6). Years later, the tree is not significant because of the fear it instills in our narrator, but rather because of the change it represents. Indeed, the tree has remained the same in the sense that it is still there with its limb hanging out over the water, but it has changed in that it only holds the memory of fear, it is now a shrunken, impotent reminder of a past age for Gene. The tree is proof that “Nothing endures, not a tree, not love, not even a death by violence” (6). And, most assuredly, as Gene demonstrates, the significance of a symbol-that too does not endure.
Blitzball and the Snowball Fight: Blitzball is the game of the summer, invented by Phineas. It features no teams and places the odds against the ball-carrier, who must outrun every other competitor or be forced to relinquish possession to another participant, who, in turn, has the right to refuse the challenging task of being the ball-carrier. The game is a metaphor for the individual struggle of each student at Devon, who finds himself alone in a world without teammates, where conflicting emotions and desires impinge on the individual’s success and well-being. Some, like Gene, grow weary and are tackled. Some, like Leper, refuse to even accept the challenge of carrying the ball. But Phineas alone excels at both the game and the game’s metaphor: life as an adolescent about to become an adult. Finny is tireless and exuberant, surpassing every challenge and competitor, unafflicted by fear or lack of self-confidence. Later, after Finny’s injury, a snowball fight breaks out among the students, a fight similar to blitzball in which everyone must fend for himself. This time, however, all forces turn on Phineas and he is buried beneath a barrage of snowballs. The significance here is similar to that of blitzball in that, because of Finny, “loyalties became hopelessly entangled” (146). But no longer can Finny win at his own game. His defeat in the snowball fight demonstrates his inability to surpass the hatred and insecurity around him. Finny’s peace cannot withstand the onslaught of envy and competition that is directed toward him and he is the only character in the novel who is not beaten by himself, but a victim of everyone else’s (most importantly Gene’s) personal defeat.
Finny’s Clothes: When Phineas is away from Devon after breaking his leg, Gene puts on his clothes one night. This actions is, of course, a metaphor for Gene’s desire to be Phineas, to embody the peace that he perceives in his friend. The costume provides a relief for Gene from the dark forces at work in his own character and, for an evening, he succeeds in becoming Phineas: “I had no idea why this gave me such intense relief, but it seemed, standing there in Finny’s triumphant shirt, that I would never stumble through the confusions of my own character again” (54). The illusion cannot last and upon waking, Gene writes: “I was confronted with myself, and what I had done to Finny” (54).
The Winter Carnival: A reckless and jubilant celebration in the dreary late winter months, the Winter Carnival becomes a metaphor for the ability to create peace and freedom in the midst of an environment that is characterized by rules and conflicts. During the carnival, the students achieve joy and a reprieve from the harsh demands of reality. It comes as no surprise, then, that the carnival is and thought of and organized by a character whose very nature abounds with peace and freedom: Phineas.
World War II and Phineas: symbols for internal war and internal peace, respectively, the war and Phineas are the two largest metaphors whose significance is tied to the central thematic developments in the novel. Please see the Theme Review section for a discussion of how this event and this person become metaphors for the thematic action.