Gene serves as both the narrator and protagonist in the novel. Telling the story from his perspective, he recounts his own growth into adulthood — a struggle to face and acknowledge his fundamental nature and to learn from a single impulsive act that irrevocably shapes his life.
Gene's name suggests what he might be — but is not. In an ideal matching of gentility with hardiness, "Eugene" means "well born," while "Forrester" suggests natural independence and outdoor resourcefulness. Yet Gene seems neither particularly noble nor physically impressive; his character, in fact, finds its definition in his limitations and his fundamental reserve, rather than his accomplishments.
As a southerner, Gene feels like a stranger in a northern landscape. Attending an elite New England boarding school, he tries to romanticize and inflate his background by hanging pictures of plantations on his wall, hoping to impress fellow students as a southern aristocrat.
A solid but not a brilliant student who succeeds through discipline, obedience, and conventional thinking, Gene at once admires and envies Finny, his roommate, for whom athletic — if not scholastic — success comes so easily. Gene must work hard for everything he attains, and so he resents the ease of Finny's physical ability and the graceful spontaneity with which he engages life.
By his very nature, Gene conforms and embraces the conventional. In contrast to Finny, he wants to follow the rules — spoken and unspoken — as if in a kind of lock-step. His "West Point stride," for example, suggests this tendency toward conformity — even, potentially, the military conformity that looms before all the boys at Devon.
With tragic consequences, Gene's conformity brings him into conflict with rebellious Finny, but his natural reserve prevents him from expressing his feelings openly and directly. As a result, Gene's anger churns within him and emerges in unconscious forms — a "bending of the knees," for instance, that shakes the limb of the tree at the critical moment and causes Finny to fall.
Yet, as much as Gene resents Finny's freedom, he needs him to become a complete human being. Over the course of the story, Gene functions as Finny's opposite — but he also becomes his double. At the end of the novel, Gene gratefully accepts the forgiveness of his friend, whose death he mourns in silence, as he readies himself to face the world without resentment or fear.