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SYMBOLISM / MOTIFS / IMAGERY
Knowles incorporates many vivid images into his novel. The first part of the book contains abundant pastoral images and descriptive passages. The school is described in almost Eden-like terms with its enormous playing fields, healthy green turf, gently flowing river, and calling birds. This peaceful environment serves as a sharp contrast to the world war that rages in Europe and the personal conflict that rages in Gene's mind. Throughout the novel, the images of water take on symbolic significance. Gene gets a baptism in to his Finny-like life in the clean, delightful waters of the Devon River. In contrast, he gets muddied by the dirty, nasty Naguamsett River during the time that he is in turmoil over Finny's accident. Gene also sees Finny's leg cast like a sea anchor, weighing both of them down.
The tree that hangs over the river is an important and symbolic image throughout the book. It offers Gene the first opportunity to become more like Finny; he jumps from its branches into the Devon River below, a daring feat that scares him to death. It is also the tree that causes the creation of the Super Suicide Society, formed by Finny to celebrate freedom and disregard of authority. Most importantly, the tree allows Gene to punish Finny for his superiority; he pushes his friend from the tree, causing him to become a cripple.
Indirectly, the tree leads to Gene's self-examination and acceptance of who he is and his relationship to Finny. During Finny's absence from school, Gene, for the first, time starts acting on his own. In the past, he had always done things the way that Finny had wanted him to do. When Finny returns to school, Gene realizes that Finny is not a super hero; as a cripple, he is just another human being struggling with existence. Now Finny needs Gene, just as Gene had needed Finny. The tree, therefore, leads Gene to pain, and out of the pain comes an emerging knowledge and acceptance of self. When Gene leaves Devon to join the Navy, he is still in the process of maturing and accepting what has happened to him at school.
As an adult, Gene comes back to Devon to come to grips with the power that the tree has held over him during his life. When he finally locates the tree by the river, it is not so fearful as he imagined. He notices that it has changed a great deal; like the narrator himself, the tree has aged and matured, seeming almost weary.