Knowles, John 1926-2001
Knowles, John 1926-2001
A Separate PeaceINTRODUCTION
American novelist, short story writer and travel writer.
The following entry presents criticism on Knowles's novel A Separate Peace (1959) through 2002.
Knowles's debut work A Separate Peace has become recognized as one of the most popular and enduring coming-of-age novels of the 1950s, attracting frequent comparisons to J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. Revolving around the friendship between two adolescent boys in a New England boarding school, the novel describes in rich, evocative language the comparatively idyllic lives of schoolchildren during the first years of American involvement in World War II. Inspired by Knowles's short story "Phineas," which appeared in Cosmopolitan in May 1956, A Separate Peace has become a best seller and a staple in elementary and high school curricula.
Knowles was born in 1926 in Fairmont, West Virginia, to James Myron and Mary Beatrice Shea Knowles. At fifteen, Knowles moved from West Virginia to New Hampshire to attend the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy. In 1945 Knowles graduated from Phillips Exeter and enrolled in the U.S. Army Air Forces Aviation Cadet Program, serving for eight months before enrolling at Yale University. At Yale, he became involved with both the school newspaper and the undergraduate literary magazine. Upon receiving his degree in 1949, Knowles found work as a journalist, a freelance writer, and drama critic for the Hartford Courant. He spent a year living in Italy and Southern France, where he penned his first novel, Descent to Proselito, which was never published. In 1955 Knowles settled in New York City, where he continued to freelance and began publishing his short
stories in periodicals. In 1956 Holiday magazine published an article that Knowles wrote on the Phillips Exeter Academy. Shortly thereafter, he moved to Philadelphia to become an associate editor for Holiday. While working at the magazine, Knowles finished A Separate Peace, which was published first in England and later in the United States in 1960. The success of the novel allowed Knowles to leave his post at Holiday and begin writing full time. His next work, Morning in Antibes (1962), was published during a two-year trip of Europe and the Middle East. Knowles spent most of the 1960s in New York City, though during that period, he also served as a writer-in-residence at both the University of North Carolina and Princeton University. After his father's death in 1970, Knowles moved permanently to Southampton, Long Island, where he continued to write, publish, and travel. He died on November 29, 2001, near Fort Lauderdale, Florida, at the age of seventy-five.
PLOT AND MAJOR CHARACTERS
A Separate Peace opens with narrator Gene Forrester returning to his alma mater, Devon School, fifteen years after graduation and trying to come to terms with the memories of his time there. Through Gene's memories, readers are introduced to his roommate and best friend, Phineas ("Finny"). Gene is the top student of his class, while Finny is the best athlete, surpassing almost all of Devon's sports records with ease. During the summer session, Finny and Gene become close, eventually forming the "Suicide Society of the Summer Session," which involves an initiation act of jumping from the branches of a tall tree into the river below. Over the course of the novel, Gene begins to resent Finny's effortless charm and natural athletic ability, whereas Gene's scholastic success comes only with tremendous effort. His paranoia and jealousy growing, Gene becomes convinced that Finny is seeking to ruin his academic chances at the school. He then discovers that Finny's playful attempts to pull him away from his studies have been caused by Finny's belief that academics were effortless for Gene and bore no malice whatsoever. After this shameful realization, Gene goes with Finny on an illicit trip to the initiation tree, where, just as Finny is about to jump, an unknown impulse causes Gene to shake the branch, causing Finny to fall awkwardly. Finny's leg is badly broken in the fall, an injury that ruins both his chances for athletic glory and his desire to fight in World War II. When Finny leaves Devon to recuperate, Gene is left alone, where he attempts to deal with both the knowledge of and motivations for his actions. Finny returns to school during the winter session but now rejects the existence of the war and feels deeply bitter over his injuries. Despite an attempted confession by Gene, Finny seems obliviously unaware of Gene's responsibility for his condition. After another classmate, Brinker Hadley, convenes a "trial" during which Finny is pressured to see Gene's possible blame for his injury, Finny runs from the scene, falls down a staircase, and further injures his already damaged leg. In the infirmary, both boys are forced to discuss the truth surrounding what has occurred. Finny tries to absolve Gene of malicious intent, and the boys make peace with each other. The next day, Gene learns Finny died during surgery on his leg.
A Separate Peace represents Knowles's examination of the psychological forces that inform the 1950s American character, which is composed, according to Knowles, of two elements—the "germ of wildness," an essentially libidinal, creative primary element bent on expressing itself upon the world, and the "cautious Protestant," a secondary element committed essentially to defending, protecting, and conserving that primary self. The retrospective first-person point of view of A Separate Peace allows Gene Forrester to review the disintegration of his adolescent personality and the subsequent process of reintegration through the detaching distance of fifteen years, a distance which enables Knowles's protagonist to analyze as well as evaluate the evolution of his identity. As a prototype of the American character, Gene comes to Devon school controlled by the "cautious Protestant" in his character. Various cultural and climatic images of conservatism at the school, including the adamantine First Academy Building, the frozen New Hampshire winterscape, and the "dull, dark green called olive drab" which Gene identifies as "the prevailing color of life in America" during the World War II years, all serve to reinforce this strain of his character. He finds himself drawn to Brinker Hadley, a student leader and class politician, the epitome of the "cautious Protestant." At the same time, the repressed "germ of wildness" in Gene's character is attracted to Finny, an indifferent student but a natural athlete and eccentric individualist who rules the playing fields of Devon during the summer session with a spirit of spontaneous anarchy. In contrast to the patriotic olive drab, which is the color of defensive conservatism for Gene, Finny's emblem is an outrageously bright pink shirt. Several critics have debated the significance of Finny's pink shirt in A Separate Peace, with some arguing that it acts as a symbol of his antiestablishment tendencies, while others see it as a symbol of homosexuality. Such scholars have asserted that there are numerous homoerotic overtones between Gene and Finny and that Finny's fate represents the oppression of sexuality in Protestant New England.
Despite mixed reviews upon its release, A Separate Peace has since become regarded as one of the most significant works of adolescent American literature. Several critics have commented on the autobiographical nature of the novel, noting that Knowles created Devon School as a mirror image of Phillips Exeter Academy. Reviewers have lauded Knowles's use of dual protagonists in A Separate Peace, asserting that the contrasting natures of Gene and Finny offer considerable commentary on the nature of developing teenagers. The novel has been widely praised for its thematic focus on the passage from adolescence to adulthood, with many critics arguing that this focus is the dominant cause for the work's enduring popularity. Several scholars have acknowledged that A Separate Peace also offers significant insight into 1950s America. Paul Witherington has observed that, "[A Separate Peace] is not a simple allegory of man's fortunate or unfortunate fall from innocence, or even an extension of that theological debate to the process of growing up, though both of these arguments are in the novel. Rather, Knowles is investigating patterns of society as a whole, patterns consisting of ambiguous tensions between rigidity and flexibility, involvement and isolation, and magic and art."
A Separate Peace was awarded the Rosenthal Award from National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1960 and the William Faulkner Foundation Award for a notable first novel in 1960.
A Separate Peace (novel) 1959
Morning in Antibes (novel) 1962
Double Vision: American Thoughts Abroad (travel essays) 1964
Indian Summer (novel) 1966
Phineas: Six Stories (short stories) 1968
The Paragon (novel) 1971
Spreading Fires (novel) 1974
A Vein of Riches (novel) 1978
Peace Breaks Out (novel) 1981
A Stolen Past (novel) 1983
The Private Life of Axie Reed (novel) 1986
James Ellis (essay date May 1964)
SOURCE: Ellis, James. "A Separate Peace: The Fall from Innocence." English Journal 53, no. 5 (May 1964): 313-17.
[In the following essay, Ellis describes how A Separate Peace demonstrates Gene's emotional, physical, and moral evolution from adolescence to adulthood.]
To readA Separate Peace is to discover a novel which is completely satisfactory and yet so provocative that the reader wishes immediately to return to it. John Knowles' achievement is due, I believe, to his having successfully imbued his characters and setting with a symbolism that while informative is never oppressive. Because of this the characters and the setting retain both the vitality of verisimilitude and the psychological tension of symbolism.
What happens in the novel is that Gene Forrester and Phineas, denying the existence of the Second World War as they enjoy the summer peace of Devon School, move gradually to a realization of an uglier adult world—mirrored in the winter and the Naguamsett River—whose central fact is the war. This moving from innocence to adulthood is contained within three sets of interconnected symbols. These three—summer and winter; the Devon River and the Naguamsett River; and peace and war—serve as a backdrop against which the novel is developed, the first of each pair dominating the early novel and giving way to the second only after Gene has discovered the evil of his own heart.
The reader is introduced to the novel by a Gene Forrester who has returned to Devon after an absence of fifteen years, his intention being to visit the two sites which have influenced his life—the tree, from which he shook Finny to the earth, and the First Academy Building, in which Finny was made to realize Gene's act. After viewing these two scenes, a "changed" Gene Forrester walks through the rain, aware now that his victory over his internal ignorance is secure. With this realization Gene tells his story of a Devon summer session and its consequences.
Described as ". . . tremendous, an irate, steely black steeple,"1 the tree is a part of the senior class obstacle course in their preparation for war and is the focal center of the first part of the novel. As the Biblical tree of knowledge it is the means by which Gene will renounce the Eden-like summer peace of Devon and, in so doing, both fall from innocence and at the same time prepare himself for the second world war. As in the fall of Genesis, there is concerning this tree a temptation.
Taunted by Phineas to jump from the tree, Gene says: "I was damned if I'd climb it. The hell with it." (p. 6). Aside from its obvious school boy appropriateness, his remark foreshadows his later fall. Standing high in the tree after surrendering to Finny's dare, Gene hears Finny, who had characterized his initial jump as his contribution to the war effort, reintroduce the war motif, saying: "When they torpedo the troopship, you can't stand around admiring the view. Jump!" (p. 8). As Gene hears these words, he wonders: "What was I doing up here anyway? Why did I let Finny talk me into stupid things like this? Was he getting some kind of hold over me?" Then as Gene jumps, he thinks: "With the sensation that I was throwing my life away, I jumped into space." (pp. 8-9.)
What Finny represents in Gene's temptation is the pure spirit of man (mirrored in the boy Finny) answering its need to share the experience of life and innocent love. For Finny the war and the tree, which represents a training ground for the war, are only boyish delights. The reality of war is lost upon him because he is constitutionally pure and incapable of malice. That this is so can be seen from Gene's later statement regarding Finny as a potential soldier. He says:
They'd get you some place at the front and there'd be a lull in the fighting, and the next thing anyone knew you'd be over with the Germans or the Japs, asking if they'd like to field a baseball team against our side. You'd be sitting in one of their command posts, teaching them English. Yes, you'd get confused and borrow one of their uniforms, and you'd lend them one of yours. Sure, that's just what would happen. You'd get things so scrambled up nobody would know who to fight any more. You'd make a mess, a terrible mess, Finny, out of the war.
The tragedy of the novel ultimately is that Gene is not capable of maintaining the spiritual purity that distinguishes Phineas and so must as he discovers his own savagery betray Phineas.
Once the two jumps have been effected, a bond has been cemented between the two. But as Gene and Finny walk up to the dormitories, Gene forgets that he has, in following Finny, denied the adult rules which regulate human relationships, and lapses back into his concern for authority. Falling into his "West Point stride," he says: "We'd better hurry or we'll be late for dinner." Phineas, however, objects to Gene's having forgotten what is exemplified in the jumping from the tree and trips Gene. After a brief scuffle the two boys resume their walk. Gene, then, acknowledges that he has succumbed to Finny. He says:
Then Finny trapped me again in his strongest trap, that is, I suddenly became his collaborator. As we walked rapidly along, I abruptly resented the bell and my West Point stride and hurrying and conforming. Finny was right.
To acknowledge visibly his giving up the rules of Devon, Gene now trips Finny, and the two are united in a boy's conspiracy to elude adulthood and its rules.
The progress of the novel after this joining of Phineas and Gene is the progress of Gene's growing envy of Finny. Incapable of the spiritual purity of Phineas, Gene finds himself jealous of Finny's ability to flout Devon rules in his quest to enjoy an "unregulated friendliness" with the adult world. Gene says apropos of several incidents involving Finny and the Devon rules:
I was beginning to see that Phineas could get away with anything. I couldn't help envying him that a little, which was perfectly normal. There was no harm in envying even your best friend a little.
This time he wasn't going to get away with it. I could feel myself becoming unexpectedly excited at that.
And when Finny does evade punishment, Gene thinks:
He had gotten away with everything. I felt a sudden stab of disappointment. That was because I just wanted to see some more excitement; that must have been it.
It is during a bicycle trip to the beach on the morning of the day on which Gene will push Finny from the tree that Finny confides to Gene that he is his best friend. Gene, however, cannot respond. He says: "I nearly did. But something held me back. Perhaps I was stopped by that level of feeling, deeper than thought, which contains the truth" (p. 38). The effect of this trip is to cause Gene to fail a trigonometry test and thereby to bring his hatred of Finny into the open. Inventing reasons to explain what exists only in his projecting it upon Phineas, Gene says as he realizes what he thinks is Finny's plot:
Then a second realization broke. . . . Finny had deliberately set out to wreck my studies. . . . That way he, the great athlete, would be way ahead of me. It was all cold trickery, it was all calculated, it was all enmity.
Later, just before he will shake Finny from the tree, Gene confronts Phineas with his suspicions. Finny's surprise at the charge is such that Gene realizes its falsity. Confronted with the evident truth of Finny's denial, Gene understands his inferiority to Phineas and his own moral ugliness, made the more so when juxtaposed to Finny's innocence. It is this realization that prompts his conscious shaking of the tree, which casts Phineas to the earth and which serves as Gene's initiation into the ignorance and moral blackness of the human heart.
Returning to the fall session without Phineas, Gene finds that peace has deserted Devon. And replacing the freedom of his careless summer are the rules of Devon, to which Gene now gives his allegiance.
Unable to take part in the boyish activities and sports of Devon because of his guilt, Gene attempts to find anonymity in a dead-end job as assistant crew manager. But here, confronted with the arrogance of Cliff Quackenbush (about whom there is an aura of undefined ugliness which separates him from the other boys), Gene is forced to defend Phineas from a slighting remark. This fight between Gene and Quackenbush concludes with their tumbling into the Naguamsett River.
Both the Naguamsett and the Devon flow through the grounds of the school; but it had been into the Devon, a familiar and bucolic river suggestive of Eden, that Finny and Gene had jumped from the tree. But after his fall from innocence, Gene experiences a baptism of a different sort as he plunges into the Naguamsett—a saline, marshy, ugly river "governed by unimaginable factors like the Gulf Stream, the Polar Ice Cap, and the moon."
In what Gene says after his fall into the Naguamsett is introduced the latter parts of the paired symbols that were discussed earlier—the winter, the Naguamsett, and the war (fight). Gene says of his fall:
I had taken a shower to wash off the sticky salt of the Naguamsett River—going into the Devon was like taking a refreshing shower itself, you never had to clean up after it, but the Naguamsett was something else entirely. I had never been in it before; it seemed appropriate that my baptism there had taken place on the first day of this winter session, and that I had been thrown into it, in the middle of a fight.
And just as Gene has gone from the innocence exemplified in the Devon River to the experience of the Naguamsett, so the peaceful Devon River itself, whose course "was determined by some familiar hills a little inland" and which "rose among highland farms and forests," ultimately must succumb to the cosmic force of the world; for it, after passing "at the end of its course through the school grounds," then "threw itself with little spectacle over a small waterfall beside the diving dam, and into the turbid Naguamsett" (p. 64).
The return of Phineas to Devon signals the rejuvenation and regeneration of Gene. Immediately prior to Finny's return, Gene had discovered in Brinker's announcement of his intention to enlist a chance to close the door on the pain that has haunted him since his crime against Finny. He says of enlistment and its offer to allow him to consecrate himself to the destruction of the war and to his own capacity for evil:
To enlist. To slam the door impulsively on the past, to shed everything down to my last bit of clothing, to break the pattern of my life—that complex design I had been weaving alone since birth with all its dark threads, its unexplainable symbols set against a conventional background of domestic white and schoolboy blue, all those tangled strands which required the dexterity of a virtuoso to keep flowing—I yearned to take giant military shears to it, snap! bitten off in an instant, and nothing left in my hands but spools of khaki which could weave only plain, flat, khaki design, however twisted they might be.
Not that it would be a good life. The war would be deadly all right. But I was used to finding something deadly in things that attracted me; there was something deadly lurking in anything I wanted, anything I loved. And if it wasn't there, as for example with Phineas, then I put it there myself.
But in the war, there was no question about it at all; it was there.
But with Phineas' return and Gene's realization that Phineas needs him to help him maintain his integrity, Gene finds moral purpose and determines to live out his life at Devon with Finny. He says:
Phineas was shocked at the idea of my leaving. In some way he needed me. He needed me. I was the least trustworthy person he had ever met. I knew that; he knew or should know that too. I had even told him. I had told him. But there was no mistaking the shield of remoteness in his face and voice. He wanted me around. The war then passed away from me, and dreams of enlistment and escape and a clean start lost their meaning for me.
With Gene's resolution, peace returns to Devon and the war is forgotten.
For Phineas, who had even before his fall denied the American bombing of Central Europe, the war is a make-believe—a rumor started by various villains who wish to keep the pure spirit of youth enslaved. Explaining to Gene his vision, Finny points to the roaring twenties "when they all drank bathtub gin and everybody who was young did just what they wanted," and then explains that "the preachers and the old ladies and all the stuffed shirts" stepped in and tried to stop it with Prohibition. But everyone got drunker so they then arranged the depression to keep "the people who were young in the thirties in their places." And when they found "they couldn't use that trick forever," they "cooked up this war fake" for the forties, the they now being "the fat old men who don't want us crowding them out of their jobs." (pp. 100-101.)
What is important in Finny's theory is that it makes of the war an adult device which curtails the enjoyment of youth and its gifts. To accept the war is for Finny to accept a fallen world. So persuasive is his own illusion and his own magnetic power that Gene is momentarily caught up in it and can deny the war, the denial, however, being occasioned not so much by Finny's explanation as it is by Gene's "own happiness" in having momentarily evaded the ugliness of the war.
The Phineas-inspired Devon Winter Carnival is the occasion during which Gene is to be paraded in all his Olympic glory, signifying that he, through consecrating himself to Finny's tutelage, has become like Phineas. About this winter carnival and his brilliant decathlon performance, Gene says:
It wasn't the cider which made me surpass myself, it was this liberation we had torn from the gray encroachments of 1943, the escape we had concocted, this afternoon of momentary, illusory, special and separate peace.
Yet even as this illusion is achieved, a telegram arrives from Leper, an "escapee" from the war, come back to destroy Gene's illusion of withdrawing from the war.
At Leper's home in Vermont, Gene finds himself accused of having been responsible for Finny's fall. Later, after the heat of the accusation has passed, the two boys walk in the snow-covered fields while Leper reveals the horror of the military. As he talks, Gene hears the "frigid trees . . . cracking with the cold." To his ears they sound "like rifles being fired in the distance." This paralleling of the trees (the scene of Gene's fall in particular and nature in general) with the war (and hence the ignorance of human heart, which is responsible for both war and private evil) is given reverberation at Gene's inquisition when Leper describes Gene and Finny as they stood in the tree just before Finny's fall. To Leper they looked "black as death with this fire [the sun] burning all around them; and the rays of the sun were shooting past them, millions of rays shooting past them like—like golden machine-gun fire" (p. 157). Nature then is presented as both damned and damning, with man's death and fall insured by nature's deadly fire and by his own inability to escape the savage within himself.
For Gene, as he listens to Leper, the ugliness of the war finally becomes so forceful that he must run, saying as he does: "I didn't want to hear any more about it. . . . Not now or ever. I didn't care because it had nothing to do with me. And I didn't want to hear any more of it. Ever." (pp. 134-35.)
What Gene wants is to return to the world of the winter carnival and his training for the Olympics, his and Phineas' withdrawal from the ugliness of the world. He says:
I wanted to see Phineas, and Phineas only. With him there was no conflict except between athletes, something Greek-inspired and Olympian in which victory would go to whoever was the strongest in body and heart. This was the only conflict he had ever believed in.
The reconciliation of Gene and Finny after Finny's refusal to accept Brinker's "f___ing facts" and his fall provides the culmination of the novel. Questioned by Finny, Gene denies that his pushing of Phineas was personal. Beginning to understand himself, Gene says: "It was just some ignorance inside me, some crazy thing inside me, something blind, that's all" (p. 174). And joined with this realization is Gene's admission that war, despite Phineas, does exist and that it grows out of the ignorance of the human heart. In rejecting Brinker's thesis that wars can be laid to one's parents and their generation, Gene says: ". . . It seemed clear that wars were not made by generations and their special stupidities, but that wars were made instead by something ignorant in the human heart" (p. 183). Gene has discovered that his private evil, which caused him to hurt Phineas, is the same evil—only magnified—that results in war.
Finny alone, Gene now knows, was incapable of malice. Reviewing his relation with Phineas, Gene tells of Finny's way "of sizing up the world with erratic and entirely personal reservations, letting its rocklike facts sift through and be accepted only a little at a time, only as much as he could assimilate without a sense of chaos and loss" (p. 184).
Because of his ability to admit only as much of the ugliness of life as he could assimilate, Phineas was unique. Gene says:
No one else I have ever met could do this. All others at some point found something in themselves pitted violently against something in the world around them. With those of my year this point often came when they grasped the fact of the war. When they began to feel that there was this overwhelmingly hostile thing in the world with them, then the simplicity and unity of their characters broke and they were not the same again.
Phineas alone had escaped this. He possessed an extra vigor, a heightened confidence in himself, a serene capacity for affection which saved him. Nothing as he was growing up at home, nothing at Devon, nothing even about the war had broken his harmonious and natural unity. So at last I had.
It is because of his having known and loved Phineas that Gene can recognize that hatred springs from a greater evil that is within. It is the realization of this that releases him from the hysteria of the war, which now moves from its controlling position off-stage onto the campus of Devon in the form of the parachute riggers.
Unlike his friends who had sought through some building of defenses to ward off the inevitability of evil, Gene has come to see that this enemy never comes from without, but always from within. He knows, moreover, that there is no defense to be built, only an acceptance and purification of oneself through love. Such a love did he share with Phineas in a private gypsy summer. And it is because of the purity of this love that he is able to survive his fall from innocence.
1. John Knowles, A Separate Peace (New York: Macmillan, 1960), p. 6. Subsequent references to this novel will be to this edition and will be incorporated into the text.
Ronald Weber (essay date fall 1965)
SOURCE: Weber, Ronald. "Narrative Method in A Separate Peace." Studies in Short Fiction 3, no. 1 (fall 1965): 63-72.
[In the following essay, Weber analyzes the critical comparisons between A Separate Peace and J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, concluding that Knowles's use of narrative allows for a better examination of internal self-exploration in its lead character.]
Professor Halio's recent appreciation of the two short novels of John Knowles was especially welcome.1 Knowles's work, and in particular his fine first novel, A Separate Peace, has not yet received the close attention it merits. In a time that has seen high praise for fat, awkwardly-managed novels, he stands out as a precise and economical craftsman. For this alone he demands serious consideration.
Although Professor Halio calls attention to this technical achievement—Knowles, he writes, "has brought back to recent fiction some of the clear craftsmanship and careful handling of form that characterizes our earlier and best fiction in this century" (p. 107)—he is not concerned to illustrate it. He is more interested in examining what he sees as Knowles's second strong point: a thematic concern with the individual's efforts to come to terms with himself as a prior condition to his coming to terms with his society. A reversal of this emphasis—focusing on technique and the relationship of technique to theme—can, I believe, add something to an understanding of Knowles's work. Unlike Professor Halio, however, who gives equal attention to Knowles's second novel, Morning in Antibes, I wish to limit my remarks toA Separate Peace.
Since the novel deals with young boys in a prep school setting, it inevitably calls to mind The Catcher in the Rye. Hoping to capitalize on this similarity, a paperback cover blurb declares it the "best since" Catcher.2 In a different vein, Professor Halio also makes passing reference to Salinger's novel:
In his first novel . . . Knowles achieves a remarkable success in writing about adolescent life at a large boys' school without falling into any of the smart-wise idiom made fashionable by The Catcher in the Rye and ludicrously overworked by its many imitators.
Although the two novels have some obvious similarities, they are fundamentally different books—different in technique, as the quotation suggests, and different in theme. In spite of this, a comparison ofA Separate Peace with Catcher—especially a comparison of the way narrative method relates to theme—offers a useful approach to Knowles's novel.
In both books the narrative is presented from a first-person point of view; both Holden Caulfield and Gene Forrester tell their own stories, stories in which they serve not only as observers but as narrator-agents who stand at the center of the action. Generally, first-person narration gives the reader a heightened sense of immediacy, a sense of close involvement with the life of the novel. This surely is one of the charms of Catcher and one of the reasons for its immense popularity. The reader, particularly the young reader, is easily caught up in the narrative and held fast by a voice and an emotional experience he finds intensely familiar. With Knowles's novel, however, this is not the case. While the reader may greatly admire the book, it does not engage him quite as directly or perhaps even as deeply as Catcher; throughout it he remains somewhat outside the action and detached from the narrator, observing the life of the novel rather than submerged in it. This difference in reader response, taking place as it does within the framework of first-person, narrator-as-protagonist telling, is, I believe, a highly-calculated effect on Knowles's part. It indicates a sharply different thematic intention, and one that is rooted in a skillful alteration of the conventional method of first-person telling.
Holden Caulfield never comes to an understanding of his experience. He never quite knows what it means; he only feels certain things about it. In the final paragraph of the novel, responding to D. B.'s question about what he now thinks of his experience, he says: "I didn't know what the hell to say. If you want to know the truth, I don't know what I think about it" (Little, Brown, pp. 276-277). At the end, as throughout the novel, Holden is much more aware of what he feels, in this case a broad sympathy for the people he has described. "About all I know is," he adds, "I sort of miss everybody I told about" (p. 277). Gene Forrester, on the other hand, arrives at a clear understanding—a deeply felt knowledge—of the experience he narrates. At the end of the novel he knows, unlike Holden, precisely what he thinks about it.
Understanding demands a measure of distance. We can seldom understand an experience, truly know it, until we are clearly removed from it—removed in time and removed in attitude. Holden achieves such distance only slightly, hence his understanding is slight at best. He tells his story at only a short remove in time from the actual experience of it. It all took place, the reader learns at the start, "around last Christmas" (p. 3). Just as there has been some lapse of time between the experience and the telling, there has also been some shift in Holden's attitude. At the end of the novel, when we again return to the opening perspective, the recuperating Holden now thinks he will apply himself when he returns to school, just as he now sort of misses the people he has told about. In both cases, however, Holden is not sufficiently separated from his experience, either in time or attitude, to admit any real mastery of it.
Holden's relation to the experience of the novel illustrates a major problem of first-person telling. Although the method, by narrowing the sense of distance separating reader, narrator, and fictional experience, gains a quality of immediacy and freshness, it tends for the same reason to prohibit insight or understanding. This latter point has been clearly noted by Brooks and Warren:
First-person narration tends to shorten the distance between the reader and the fictional character; for instance, the character narrating his own story tends to give us the world strictly in his own terms, in his own feelings and attitudes, and he can scarcely see himself in a large context. He tends to reveal himself rather than to pass judgment upon himself, to give comments about himself, or to analyze himself. Such judgments, comments, and analyses exist in such a story, but they exist by implication, and the reader must formulate them for himself.3
Understanding exists in Catcher, but not self-understanding for Holden. Because of the intense method of narration, narrowing rather than enlarging the sense of distance in the novel, understanding exists only for the reader, and then only by implication. This situation, as we shall see, is wholly congenial to Salinger's thematic intention; Knowles, however, seeks a different end, and therefore he must somehow modify the effect of his narrative method.
Unlike Holden, Gene Forrester is separated by a broad passage of time from the experience he relates. "I went back to the Devon School not long ago," Gene says in the novel's opening sentence, "and found it looking oddly newer than when I was a student there fifteen years before" (Macmillan, p. 1). That this lapse in time between the experience and the telling has brought understanding is also established early. "Looking back now across fifteen years," Gene says a few paragraphs later, "I could see with great clarity the fear I had lived in . . ." (p. 2). Although Knowles quickly leaves the distant perspective and turns to [the] immediate scene, he keeps the reader aware that Gene is looking back on the experience with a mature vision. At one point, for example, the distant perspective suddenly opens up at the end of a scene when Gene says: "But in a week I had forgotten that, and I have never since forgotten the dazed look on Finny's face when he thought that on the first day of his return to Devon I was going to desert him" (p. 95). Later, beginning a chapter, Knowles reestablishes the perspective with a long passage that again looks ahead of the present action:
That night I made for the first time the kind of journey which later became the monotonous routine of my life: traveling through an unknown countryside from one unknown settlement to another. The next year this became the dominant activity, or rather passivity, of my army career, not fighting, not marching, but this kind of nighttime ricochet; for as it turned out I never got to the war.
The distant point of the narration allows a detachment that permits Gene the mastery of his experience. Even when Knowles gives over the narrative wholly to [the] immediate scene the reader is reminded, sometimes with a phrase, at other times with an entire passage, of the perspective. The war, in addition, serves to create an increased sense of distance, a removal in attitude, within the story. Although the war touches Devon School only slightly—one of the joys of the summer session is that it seems totally removed from the world of war—it cannot be forgotten or ignored for long; it exists not only as an event that stands between the experience of the novel and Gene's telling, but as an event that, at the very moment of the experience, dominates the life of each character. "The war," Gene says in retrospect, "was and is reality for me. I still instinctively live and think in its atmosphere" (p. 31). The anticipation of war forces Gene and his companions into a slight yet significant detachment from their life at Devon—a life that, at times, seems unimportant and even unreal—and towards an unusual amount of serious, if carefully guarded, reflection. The relation between the fact of war and the atmosphere of detachment or removal in the novel—removal, again, necessary for understanding—can be seen in Phineas' disclosure that, despite his humorous disavowal of the existence of the war, he has been trying for some time to enlist:
I'll hate it everywhere if I'm not in this war [he tells Gene]! Why do you think I kept saying there wasn't any war all winter? I was going to keep on saying it until two seconds after I got a letter from Ottawa or Chungking or some place saying, "Yes, you can enlist with us. . . ." Then there would have been a war.
Similarly, the war serves to remove Gene from his immediate experience and to provoke serious self-scrutiny:
To enlist [he thinks in response to a day spent freeing snowbound trains in a railroad yard as part of the war effort]. To slam the door impulsively on the past, to shed everything down to my last bit of clothing, to break the pattern of my life—that complex design I had been weaving since birth with all its dark threads, its unexplainable symbols set against a conventional background of domestic white and schoolboy blue, all those tangled strands which required the dexterity of a virtuoso to keep flowing—I yearned to take giant military shears to it, snap! bitten off in an instant, and nothing left in my hands but spools of khaki which could weave only a plain, flat, khaki design, however twisted they might be.
The depth of insight revealed in the passage is made possible both by the narrator's removal in time from the experience and by the existence within the experience of the war as a focus of attention outside of him. Finally, the passage suggests how the central dramatic event of the story, Gene's involvement in the injury of Phineas, adds to the atmosphere of detachment in the novel. The injury, which occurs early in the story and underlies the bulk of the narrative, is another force thrusting Gene away from his immediate experience and towards self-scrutiny; as such, it combines with the distant point of the narration and the existence of war to create the broad quality of detachment that makes understanding both possible and plausible.
Gene comes to self-understanding only gradually through a series of dramatic episodes, as we shall see; the final extent of his understanding can, however, be indicated by a passage from the concluding chapter. "I was ready for the war," he says, thinking ahead to his entry into the army, "now that I no longer had any hatred to contribute to it. My fury was gone, I felt it gone, dried up at the course, withered and lifeless" (p. 185). This final awareness contrasts sharply with Holden Caulfield's lack of self-understanding at the end of Catcher. While Holden, looking back on his experience, thinks he may be somewhat changed, Gene is certain he is a radically different person. This differing response of the characters to the experience they relate is additionally underscored for the reader by the tone of their narration. In each case, Holden and Gene indicate their relation to their experience as much by how they speak as by what they say and when they say it. Holden's voice, uncertain at times and dogmatic at others, is always exuberant and emotional; it is a voice vividly responsive to the experience of the novel but one that suggests little mastery of it. Gene's voice, on the other hand, is dispassionate, reflective, and controlled; it is, in his own words, a voice from which fury is gone, dried up at its source long before the telling begins. If Holden's voice is that of the restless adolescent groping for an uncertain maturity, Gene's is a voice looking back on adolescence after the hard passage to maturity has been won.
It is clear that Knowles, to return to Professor Halio's phrase, does not fall into the "smart-wise idiom made fashionable" by Salinger's novel. He does not follow in Salinger's wake because of the important variation he works on the method of first-person narration used in Catcher. By attempting to maintain a sense of distance within a narrative method that naturally tends to narrow distance, he sacrifices some of the method's freshness to gain depth and insight. In Catcher the reader, with Holden, tends to respond to the experience with feeling rather than knowledge; understanding exists for him in the novel only by implication. InA Separate Peace the reader, with Gene, remains partially detached from the experience, able to examine and reflect upon it; and understanding can finally take the form of direct statement.
At this point we can begin to see some connection between Knowles's narrative method and his thematic concern. Again, comparison with Catcher is useful. Both novels, in a broad and very basic sense, are concerned with the response of the central character to an awareness of evil in the world; they are narratives in which the characters confront, during a concentrated period, part of the reality of life. In face of this reality Holden Caulfield suffers a severe physical and mental breakdown. At the end of the novel, when Holden admits he misses the people he has told about—the assorted phonies who represent the world—the reader is to understand that he now has begun to make some beginning accommodation with that world. Holden of course does not understand this change; it is, as we have said, merely a new feeling, a feeling of missing people he previously despised. Although it is clear that some change has taken place in Holden, it is important to see that it is explained in terms of other people; what must in fact be an inner change—Holden arriving at some peace within himself—is communicated in exterior terms.
In the course of his maturing process, Gene Forrester likewise must confront the fact of evil in the world. But in this case the location of that evil is quite different. At the very beginning of the novel, in a passage quoted earlier, Gene, looking back fifteen years, says he can see with great clarity the "fear" he had lived in at Devon School and that he has succeeded in making his "escape" from. Even now, he adds, he can feel "fear's echo," and this in turn leads him back to the direct experience of the story (p. 2). The meaning of this experience is to be found in the development of the words fear and escape—in Gene's growing realization of what they mean as well as what they do not mean.
When his friend and roommate Phineas breaks a Devon swimming record and then refuses to let anyone know about it, Gene is deeply troubled:
Was he trying to impress me or something? Not tell anybody? When he had broken a school record without a day of practice? I knew he was serious about it, so I didn't tell anybody. Perhaps for that reason his accomplishment took root in my mind and grew rapidly in the darkness where I was forced to hide it.
Later, during an overnight escapade on an oceanside beach, Phineas causes him another moment of uncertainty. Just before the two boys fall asleep, Phineas frankly declares that Gene is his "best pal."
It was a courageous thing to say [Gene reflects]. Exposing a sincere emotion nakedly like that at the Devon School was the next thing to suicide. I should have told him then that he was my best friend also and rounded off what he had said. I started to; I nearly did. But something held me back. Perhaps I was stopped by that level of feeling, deeper than thought, which contains the truth.
Gene's troubled feelings rise to the level of thought in a following scene during which he comes to the conclusion that Phineas, the school's finest athlete, envies him his academic success. This knowledge instantly shatters any notions he has had of "affection and partnership and sticking by someone and relying on someone absolutely in the jungle of a boys' school" (p. 42). He now sees that Phineas is his rival, not his friend, and this in turn explains his failure to respond properly when Phineas broke the swimming record and when he confessed his friendship. He now sees that he has been envious of Phineas too—envious to the point of complete enmity. Out of the wreck of their friendship this dual rivalry emerges as a saving bit of knowledge:
I found it [Gene says]. I found a single sustaining thought. The thought was, You and Phineas are even already. You are even in enmity. You are both coldly driving ahead for yourselves alone. You did hate him for breaking that school swimming record, but so what? He hated you for getting an A in every course but one last term.
Their mutual hatred not only explains Gene's inability to respond properly to Phineas, but it relieves him of any further anxiety:
I felt better. Yes, I sensed it like the sweat of relief when nausea passes away; I felt better. We were even after all, even in enmity. The deadly rivalry was on both sides after all.
Gene's sense of relief, it turns out, is of short duration. When Phineas, in a moment of seriousness, urges him to stick with his studies rather than come along on a campus diversion, Gene suddenly sees he has been wrong—Phineas has never envied him. During a scene immediately following, in which he and Phineas perch in a tree waiting to leap into a river below, Gene is overwhelmed by the implications of this new insight:
Any fear I had ever had of the tree was nothing beside this. It wasn't my neck, but my understanding which was menaced. He had never been jealous of me for a second. Now I knew that there never was and never could have been any rivalry between us. I was not of the same quality as he. I couldn't stand this.
It is at this moment that he causes Phineas to fall from the tree, an "accident" that cripples him and ends his athletic career. After watching Phineas crash through the branches of the tree and hit the bank, Gene jumps confidently into the river, "every trace of my fear of this forgotten." (p. 49)
It is Phineas' innocence that Gene cannot endure. As long as he can believe Phineas shares his enmity, he can find relief; but with this assurance gone, he stands condemned before himself and must strike out against his tormentor. Fear, again, is the key word. Fear in this instance is the emotional response to the discovery of hate, the vast depths of enmity that exist within the human heart. Gene loses his fear and achieves his separate, personal peace only when he acknowledges this fundamental truth. It is a truth that he must first recognize and then accept; he can neither avoid it, as he tries to do in his first encounter with Phineas after the accident (p. 53), nor flee from it, as he again seeks to do when Leper charges that he always has been a "savage underneath" (p. 128). He can find escape from fear only in the acceptance of its true source and the location of that source. Gene must come to see and endure the truth, as he finally does in a climactic scene just before Phineas dies from a second fall, that his fear is the product not of rivalry nor of circumstance but of "some ignorance inside me, some crazy thing inside me, something blind." (p. 174)
None of Gene's companions at Devon could bring themselves to face this inner source of their fear. When they began to feel this "overwhelmingly hostile thing in the world with them" (p. 184), they looked beyond themselves and felt themselves violently pitted against something in the outer world. When they experienced this "fearful shock" of the "sighting of the enemy," they began an "obsessive labor of defense" and began to parry the menace they thought they saw facing them. They all
constructed at infinite cost to themselves these Maginot Lines against this enemy they thought they saw across the frontier, this enemy who never attacked that way—if he ever attacked at all; if he was indeed the enemy.
The infinite cost in this case is the loss of self-knowledge. Only Phineas is an exception; only Phineas "never was afraid" because only he "never hated anyone" (p. 186). Phineas alone is free of the awareness of that hostile thing that is to be found not across any battlefield but within the fortress itself. As the archetypal innocent, he must serve as the sacrifice to Gene's maturity. "I was ready for the war," Gene says at the end, "now that I no longer had any hatred to contribute to it. My fury was gone. . . . Phineas had absorbed it and taken it with him, and I was rid of it forever." (p. 185)
Gene Forrester comes to learn that his war, the essential war, is fought out on the battlefield within. Peace comes only when he faces up to this fact. The only escape, the price of peace, is self-awareness. One finds the resolution of Holden Caulfield's war, on the other hand, beyond him, in his relation to society. As Holden flees a corrupt world he is driven increasingly in upon himself, but towards collapse rather than awareness. Salinger presents the hope that is finally raised for him not in terms of self-knowledge but in the ability to move out of himself. It is not, then, awareness that is offered for him so much as a kind of accommodation; he must somehow learn to live, as Mr. Antolini tells him, with what is sickening and corrupt in human behavior. Although this implies facing up to what is corrupt in his own nature, this is not Salinger's emphasis. He seeks to focus the novel outside Holden rather than within him; and for this the conventional method of first-person narration with its tendency to narrow and intensify the story, eliminating the sense of distance vital for the narrator's self-understanding, is admirably suited. Knowles, using a similar but skillfully altered narrative method, develops a very different theme—that awareness, to put it baldly, must precede accommodation, that to look without before having first searched within is tragically to confuse the human condition. To convey his theme Knowles modifies the first-person narrative to create for both narrator and reader an atmosphere of detachment that permits the novel to be focused within Gene, where, he shows, a basic truth of life is to be found.
While the reader may come to feel the experience of A Separate Peace somewhat less than that of Catcher, he eventually knows it more. While Salinger may give him a stronger sense of life, Knowles provides a clearer statement about life. Although the two novels work towards different ends with different means, they help finally to illustrate, in their separate ways, the close functional relation of meaning and method of telling in carefully-wrought fiction.
1. Jay L. Halio, "John Knowles's Short Novels," Studies in Short Fiction, 1 (Winter 1964), 107-12.
2. Dell edition, 1961.
3. Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, Understanding Fiction, 2nd ed. (New York, 1959), p. 664.
Paul Witherington (essay date December 1965)
SOURCE: Witherington, Paul. "A Separate Peace:AStudy in Structural Ambiguity." English Journal 54, no. 9 (December 1965): 795-800.
[In the following essay, Witherington discusses the ambiguous nature of appearances in A Separate Peace and contends that what seems simple in the novel often exists within a more complicated dual nature framework.]
The development and resolution of tensions between Gene and Finny provide the well-balanced structure ofA Separate Peace, as several critics have noted. What has not been appreciated, however, is the ambiguity of the boys' conflict in its several phases, an ambiguity expressed in both character and symbol. The story is not a simple allegory of man's fortunate or unfortunate fall from innocence, or even an extension of that theological debate to the process of growing up, though both of these arguments are in the novel. Rather, Knowles is investigating patterns of society as a whole, patterns consisting of ambiguous tensions between rigidity and flexibility, involvement and isolation, and magic and art. To understand the necessity of a broader interpretation of the novel than has been generally given, one must see that for Knowles opposite emotions and forces often only seem to face or move in contrary directions.
The relationship between Finny and Gene is said to be one of primitive innocence confronted with and eventually destroyed by the necessities of civilization. Natural, noble Finny, another of the durable procession of American Adams, is maimed and hounded out of Eden by the hatred he is finally forced to see in his best friend, Gene. On the other hand, Gene's emerging recognition of his guilt in Finny's fall from the tree signals his passage from childhood's innocent play to the responsible ethical concerns of adulthood. Phrased socially rather than theologically, there is a movement toward acceptance of the outside world—that of World War II—and corresponding acceptance of the fact that wars occur not only between nations but between individuals, sometimes even friends, and that the blame in either case can be traced to lack of understanding, an ignorance in the human heart.1
One difficulty in such interpretations is that Knowles resists defining innocence and evil and their interaction in simplified, allegorical terms. If there are parallels to Eden, they must surely be ironic, for Finny falls physically without sin whereas Gene falls spiritually without any recognizable physical discomfort. Finny's fall (he falls twice, actually, once from the tree and once on the steps at Devon) seems to represent an awareness of evil that is incompatible with his basic assumptions about unity and goodness; his gradual acceptance of Gene's hostility is accompanied by a physical decline which is strongest at the moments of greatest disillusion. But this awareness of evil remains merely physical in Finny. When asked how he knows that World War II is not real, he says, "Because I've suffered."2 It appears that nothing is learned after all, that Finny never really understands the world around him; his fall is sad, but nothing more. Gene, on the other hand, seems to endure and even to thrive on his knowledge of evil. His metaphysical fall is, after all, painless, for unlike Claggart in Melville's allegory of good and evil, Billy Budd, Gene is untouched by the thrust of mistreated innocence; his moments of mental anguish seem strangely inadequate when compared to those of his classmate, Leper. Greek drama develops in Western literature the notion of suffering as a means to understanding, and American literature is full of innocents who fall from purity only to gain a much more valuable wisdom, but the irony in Knowles is that the sufferer does not understand the nature or purpose of his suffering, and the one who does not suffer both understands and prospers. The world ofA Separate Peace is not the world of Hawthorne but the inverted, shifting mythos of Kafka, for example, the ambiguous moral atmosphere of "In the Penal Colony."
Apparently complicating matters still further is Finny's announcement near the end of the novel that he has really known there was a war all the time, that his pretending otherwise was his defense against being unable to go to war with his friends. Knowles may have gotten himself into a structural dilemma here; what seems at first in Finny a genuine misconception of human character, a metaphysical innocence, has become a rationalization, the suppression of an unpleasant fact; illusion becomes delusion, and the reader may conclude that Knowles has lost control of his character, that what started as a semiabstract personification of innocence has come to life as a fully realized character who says that, after all, the grapes really were sour.
The answer to these problems is that Finny is no more of a spiritually pure being than Gene is a spiritually depraved being. Both boys project their inadequacies onto others; Gene's transfer of his own hostility onto Finny is balanced by Finny's notion that wars are contrived by "fat old men" who profit from wartime economy: Moreover, Finny is a breaker of rules, not incidentally but systematically. Gene says, of Devon's rigid system of discipline, "If you broke the rules, then they broke you" (p. 88). Finny's anarchy, however, gives rise to a set of rules just as rigid as the school's and just as imperative; Gene describes Finny's pressure for misbehavior metaphorically: "Like a police car squeezing me to the side of the road, he directed me unwillingly toward the gym and the river" (p. 31). Finny's effort to entice Gene from his studies appears just as conscious as Gene's movement of the tree limb causing Finny's fall.
There is something almost diabolical about Finny's "innocence." His power over people is uncanny; Gene describes it as hypnotic, and it consists of inducing others temporarily to suspend their practical, logical systems of belief to follow his non-logical argument, acted out either verbally or on the playing fields. The answers he gives in class are "often not right but could rarely be branded as wrong" (p. 64), for they presuppose a world in which ordinary standards of judgment are impossible. Finny's pranks themselves—skipping classes and meals, wearing the school tie as a belt, playing poker in the dorm—are actually serious offenses only within the disciplinary framework of a prep school. The audacity is his defense of them which is always disconcerting because it is never relevant, or sometimes too relevant, as when he is being frank about a normally touchy subject. Finny's simplicity, by its very rarity, tends to shock and to threaten the established order of things, to throw ordinary people off balance.
Further ambiguity exists in the imagery of flow which Knowles uses to describe Finny's harmony with others and with his environment. Friendship to Finny is a harmony of equal tensions and movements. Like his idea that everybody always wins at sports, this notion of reciprocal benevolence naively presupposes a level of human interaction superior not only to individual selfishness but also to pressures and events of the actual world. "When you really love something, then it loves you back," he tells Gene (p. 136), but when Finny confesses his feelings for Gene on the beach, Gene is too embarrassed to answer. Finny cannot understand why people build walls between what they feel and what they let others know they feel; his benevolence, a two-way avenue between friends, is his reason for being. His walk, his play and even his body itself are described as a flow, a harmony within and without, a primitive attunement to natural cycles. The world of graduation, the draft, and adult necessity is oriented differently, however, and Finny's rhythm is broken in his fall into the civilized world: "There was an interruption, brief as a drum beat, in the continuous flow of his walk, as though with each step he forgot for a split-second where he was going" (p. 191). After Finny's second fall, on the stairs, he dies when bone marrow gets in the bloodstream and stops his heart.
Yet Knowles is careful not to oversimplify nor to sentimentalize Finny's stopped flow, the heart ruptured by a violent world. Like the Devon River, that clear, innocent center of summer fun in which the boys play their last summer of childhood, Finny is shut off from natural progress, dammed into isolation and perpetual youth. Below the dam the Naguamsett River, center of winter activity and symbolic setting of Gene's 'baptism" into the world of adulthood, is "ugly, saline, fringed with marsh, mud and seaweed" (p. 91), but it does flow into the world-encircling sea to be influenced by the Gulf Stream, the Polar Ice Cap, and the moon; like Gene it, eventually, after some difficulty, involves itself in world movements. The Devon and Finny are relics of some earlier, less complex era, self-sufficient but out of the flow of time, able to give rise and even direction to the stream of mankind, but themselves unable to follow into a mature involvement. There is irony in the fact that Gene's rigid, West Point stride endures, whereas Finny's graceful body breaks so easily; of course Finny risks much more, for his position is supported precariously by shaky illusions. Like Billy Budd's stutter which seems aggravated in the moments when he confronts evil in the world and has no adequate language to express his feelings about it, Finny's flawed flow steadily becomes worse with each new awareness of the hate around him.
Finally, love and hate are themselves ambiguous inA Separate Peace, from Gene's first suspicions of an undercurrent of rivalry till the time in the army when he wonders if the "enemy" he killed at Devon was really an enemy at all. Gene is never sure of his relationship with Finny because he—like the reader who sees the action through Gene's eyes—is never sure what Finny represents, whether he is a well-meaning friend who simply resists growing up, a pernicious fraud acting out of spite, or a neurotic who builds protective illusions.
Ambiguity, then, seems to be Knowles' method of showing that people and their emotions must be treated as complex rather than as simple. Good and evil, love and hatred, involvement and isolation, self and selflessness are not always clearly defined nor their values constant. Part of growing up is the recognition that the human condition is a dappled one, that the wrong we feel in things is often only some pattern erected by fear and ignorance, some rigidity that divides life into lifeless compartments. It remains to show how these patterns are fashioned in the novel and what their effects are on the central characters.
All the boys at Devon build barriers against the outside world; "Maginot Lines" Knowles calls them to emphasize their obsolescence and vulnerability. Leper, Devon's introverted biology student, hunts beaver far up the Devon River, detached and unconcerned, masking fear with a mechanistic approach to life symbolized by his movements on skis, those of a "homemade piston engine." His opposite type is Brinker, the class leader, too busy arranging and presiding over school activities to be frightened of the world outside. Like his father, who exploited service in World War I for its social advantages, Brinker treats war as a necessary but inefficient initiation into community leadership, summing it up in his "shortest war poem": "The war / is a bore." Neither case is meant to be typical, for Knowles is concerned with the poles of experience, not its midsection. Leper shows the fallacy of hiding so far from society that the return is a threat to sanity; the fantasy world he fashions turns into a nightmare in boot camp where he begins to have hallucinations in which things are turned "inside out." Brinker is too close to society to preserve any self-identity or to see others as real, separate people, and he is submerged in a kind of public fantasy. The major patterns, of course, are those described in Finny and Gene, ways of approaching the problems posed by growing up and adjusting to civilization, patterns for the two boys respectively of magic and naturalism.
For Finny, life is a continuous effort to control reality by creating comfortable myths about it. War is only make-believe on the fields and rivers of Devon: a game resembling football and soccer is invented and named, for its speed and devastating unpredictability, "blitzball;" snowball fights are staged as military operations; the tree hanging over the Devon River is a torpedoed ship that must be evacuated. But these games which at first seem to have the practical function of preparing boys mentally and physically for war actually become shields against reality, ways of sugarcoating the externals of war by making its participants invulnerable, like playful Olympian deities. Finny is unable to distinguish between playing and fighting, the forms of which seem similar within his romantic, naive frame of reference. Like his theory of reciprocal benevolence, his theory of games is based on the assumption that what should be true can be once the proper pattern is erected. It is true that Finny is a superb athlete who usually wins any physical contest, and it is also true that Finny often defines winning and losing—the rules of the game itself—during play, but the real basis for Finny's notion that everybody always wins at sports is his idea that the game consists in finding a proper method of play which then makes its outcome irrelevant. His rigidity in this respect is most apparent in a game he plays badly, poker. Following a plan that ought to win, Finny ignores the fact that he actually never does, even when the game is his own weird invention, like a child who asks and keeps asking a question, learning the language by which to frame it and seeming not to hear the answer that is given.
Finny appears essential to Devon's organized defense against war, not only because he directs the boys' last peaceful summer of play and infuses it with ideals of love and equal interaction, but because he seems to have the power to sustain this idyllic atmosphere beyond its natural limits. Described by Gene, Finny is a primitive, god-like priest celebrating the essential unity and indestructibility of man and nature and mediating between the two: "Phineas in exaltation, balancing on one foot on the prow of a canoe like a river god, his raised arms invoking the air to support him, face transfigured, body a complex set of balances and compensations, each muscle aligned in perfection with all the others to maintain this supreme fantasy of achievement, his skin glowing from immersions, his whole body hanging between river and sky as though he had transcended gravity and might by gently pushing upward with his foot glide a little way higher and remain suspended in space, encompassing all the glory of the summer and offering it to the sky" (p. 90). Even after he falls from the tree, Finny preserves this function as priest. His broken body makes winter seem inevitable but only temporary, and his creation of the winter carnival by fiat ["And because it was Finny's idea, it happened as he said" (p. 160)] is an act of magic designed to recreate the harmony of summer. The ritual is begun by burning the Iliad, not so much as a protest against war as a magical attempt to destroy war by destroying an early, typical account of it. Standing on a table at the ceremonies, hopping about on his one good leg in protest against war and deformity, Finny tries to represent life as he feels it should be; the others, intoxicated with their desire for earlier, less demanding forms of existence, allow Finny to lead them in this "choreography of peace" (p. 169), suggesting Hart Crane's line in The Bridge: "Lie to us—dance us back the tribal morn."
In Finny's universe all things are possible as long as the bulwark of illusion holds; as long as Finny can believe each morning, for example, that his leg has overnight been miraculously healed, there is evidence for all magic, not only his but that of a sympathetic universe. When reality does not meet his expectations, though, he is gradually forced into a defensive position. At Gene's "trial" by fellow students, Finny testifies that he believed the tree itself shook him out and tumbled him to the ground. This is more than a defense of Gene, just as the "trial" is more than Gene's; it is Finny's defense of himself, of his notions of reciprocal benevolence and of the inner harmony of all things, and of that supernatural world which sustains these illusions. The evidence convicts him as well as Gene, but—as his second fall shows—Finny cannot adapt to the fact of a Darwinian universe, a world where there are no absolute principles, but only the reality met in experience. The danger of building unsupportable myths like Finny's is shown in Knowles' second novelMorning in Antibes (1962); Nick, the central character, in a state of agony at losing his own hold on reality, "spontaneously" composes a poem illustrating his condition:
The tightrope walker is tired
Because he must always lean forward
To weave the rope
(Morning in Antibes, p. 168)
The fall comes—as in so many movie cartoons—not when one does the impossible, but when one realizes that he is doing what in fact is impossible. Finny dies when he realizes he has had no magic, that he can no longer, as Knowles puts it, exist "primarily in space" (p. 169). The other boys are propelled forward into the real world by the force of Finny's violent death, for spring inexorably comes in spite of his physical decay, and the correspondence between the priest and the object of his religion is broken.
Finny's imagination moves always from war to play, first grasping the game as a simile for war and then—when the thought of training for something which he cannot use becomes unendurable—playing the game as a substitute for war. The imaginations of the other boys move in opposite directions, from play to war, for that is the way of growing up, recognizing that the patterns of childhood are masks behind which stand the real patterns of life. One day at Devon these different imaginations, facing opposite directions, reach a high moment of dramatic tension in a mock snow war that prefigures Finny's death: "We ended the fight in the only way possible; all of us turned on Phineas. Slowly, with a steadily widening grin, he was driven down beneath a blizzard of snowballs" (p. 192). Afterwards on the way back to the gym, Finny remarks that it was a good, funny fight. Gene does not answer; he has for some time had conscious premonitions about things to come, about a turned-inside-out situation where games become real wars: "I didn't trust myself in them, and I didn't trust anyone else. It was as though football players were really bent on crushing the life out of each other, as though boxers were in combat to the death, as though even a tennis ball might turn into a bullet" (p. 102). This is a prelude to the awareness that world wars are but expansions of individual hatred and ignorance and therefore anticlimactic to the anguish of growing up. For Gene the war with Germany and Japan is a simile for his experiences at Devon, less intense because less personal.
The ability to see patterns between world wars and personal wars and between friendly and hostile conflict is to see at once the horrible depravity and the irony of the world where varying and even conflicting experiences often take on the same form. This consciousness of ambiguity, this appreciation of the variety and relativity of human experience, is what Gene learns. His movement, in short, is not toward the primitive, magical effort to control reality in the sense of making it fit preconceived ideas but toward the naturalistic effort to understand reality by relating it to forms of personal experience. As the patterns of experience are realized, they take on meaning, and this meaning itself is a kind of control, not that of the magician but of the artist who finds order and harmony in the structure of things rather than in categorical moral imperatives.
Rejecting Finny's magical view promotes in Gene a new awareness of self and a new self-responsibility. As the compulsive rituals of Finny give way to Gene's nonprescriptive view, and myth is conceived as serving experience rather than dictating it, Gene separates himself from his environment and recognizes in himself the capabilities for idealism and hatred he had formerly projected on the outside world. This emancipation is represented symbolically in Gene's changing relationship with Finny. At first he thinks of himself, rather guiltily, as an extension of Finny, but after becoming an athlete in his own right he sees Finny as smaller, both relatively and absolutely, like memories from childhood, like the tree at Devon which seemed "high as a beanstalk" and yet is scarcely recognizable years later. Finally Gene thinks of himself as including Finny ("Phineas-filled"), and this indicates his maturity: preserving the myth associated with Finny but only so it can serve him as it serves the artist, as a metaphor for experience.
Finny tries to construct a separate peace by explaining away the war as a fraud or by ignoring its content of violence, and Knowles' message is, of course, that this is impossible. Much as Finny's ideal world of changelessness, irresponsibility, and illusion is desirable—and Knowles does present it as desirable—one must eventually abandon it for the world of possibility. Gene's final comment, made on his return to Devon years after the major action of the novel, is the key to what he has learned from the tragedy of Finny: "Nothing endures, not a tree, not love, not even a death by violence. Changed, I headed back through the mud. I was drenched; anybody could see it was time to come in out of the rain" (p. 11). Gene frees himself from fear not by hiding from war and the ambiguities of the human heart, not by building barriers between youth and age, but by accepting the inevitability of change and loss. The act of coming in out of the rain, that ancient criterion distinguishing the idealist from the realist, represents the peace Gene finds, the treaty established between what the world should be and what it really is.
1. See, for example, James Ellis, "A Separate Peace: The Fall from Innocence," English Journal, 53 (May 1964), 313-318.
2. John Knowles, A Separate Peace (New York: Dell Publishing Company, Inc., 1961), p. 143. Hereafter, all page references are to this edition.
Sister M. Nora, SSND (essay date summer 1968)
SOURCE: Nora, Sister M., SSND. "A Comparison of Actual and Symbolic Landscape in A Separate Peace." Discourse 11, no. 3 (summer 1968): 356-62.
[In the following essay, Nora demonstrates how Knowles altered the real landscape of Phillips Exeter Academy, his alma mater, to suit the fictional needs of A Separate Peace.]
When Gene Forrester, in the opening scene of John Knowles' novelA Separate Peace, returns to the Devon School in New Hampshire fifteen years after his graduation, the landscape he encounters is immediately recognizable, almost to minute detail, as that of the famous boys' prep school, Knowles' alma mater, The Phillips Exeter Academy, Exeter, New Hampshire. In a letter to Mr. William J. Cox, Secretary to the Academy, dated December 14, 1959, Knowles wrote, "The setting on [sic] the novel is Exeter Academy, although I have called it 'Devon' for the usual reasons. The book is fiction and it is not a roman a clef, but I believe it would greatly interest people who know Exeter."1 But art does not use reality exactly as it is, or was, and a careful study of both the school in the novel and The Phillips Exeter Academy seems to reveal that the actual buildings, playing fields, and rivers have undergone an artistic process that combines elimination with heightening, during which they have suffered "a sea change / Into something rich and strange"—the symbolic, interior landscape of the Devon School.
Gene says at the beginning of the novel, "There were a couple of places now which I wanted to see. Both were fearful sites, and that was why I wanted to see them."2 The first is The First Academy Building.
Knowles uses it here in the opening scene, and later in much more detail as setting for the "inquiry" into Finny's fall, almost exactly as it still appears to the visitor today. In Latin, over the main entrance, there is the inscription, Here Boys Come to Be Made Men. The foyer, the marble staircase branching left and right, the two left turns to enter the Assembly Room with its black Early American benches and raised platform, are all there in reality and in the novel. In the portrait of "a young hero now anonymous who looked theatrical in the First World War uniform in which he had died,"3 Knowles has made a minor and unimportant omission, perhaps because he did not want to be specific about an actual person. Ensign Stephen Potter '15, who died in 1918, is fully identified on a plaque below his portrait. It reads, "First American Naval Aviator to bring down a German Plane in the World War. He lost his life in combat against seven enemy planes, April 28, 1918."
Knowles effects only one bit of very significant transformation of the realities of The First Academy Building. He gives both the Assembly Room and the foyer below it polished marble floors. Only the staircase is in reality marble. The foyer has always been finished with black and white blocks of rubber tile. The floor of the Assembly Room, also, has never been marble. Originally of small mahogany blocks, it was later changed to asphalt tile. By eliminating these more prosaic floors and heightening the hard, cold marble effect of his setting, Knowles the artist is translating mere realistic details into the language of symbol. He emphasizes that marble floors elsewhere in the school are treacherously dangerous for Finny when his leg is encased in a heavy cast. The marble staircase of The First Academy Building will break his leg a second time as he rushes headlong from the moment of truth that comes with Brinker Hadley's investigation. It is appropriate that the floor of the trial room should be marble also. Marble is Finny's enemy physically; it is also his enemy symbolically because it comes to mean that "something ignorant in the human heart"4 which kills Finny and makes wars.
Knowles again uses this technique of omitting what does not serve his artistic purpose and augmenting what is useful to it, when Gene, his protagonist, arrives at the second place he has come to see. This is the tree from which Finny, founder of the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session of 1942, suffers his ultimately fatal fall. Fifteen years after the incident, Gene, taller, successful, more secure, finds that the tree which "had loomed in my memory as a huge lone spike dominating the riverbank, forbidding as an artillery piece, high as the beanstalk,"5 is only one of "a scattered grove of trees, none of them of any particular grandeur."6 Here Knowles is being almost scrupulously true to the facts that Gene would have found on returning to the Academy in, as the book indicates, 1957 or 1958. There are today many trees along the bank of the river that Knowles calls the Devon, which could be the tree ofA Separate Peace. Several could qualify for age and size and even for limbs extending over the river. None can be identified by the "certain small scars rising along its trunk"7 which make Gene certain that he has found it. This is not because Knowles' jumping tree is purely fictional. Like almost all his other details of setting, it is, or was, real. Miss Wendy French, assistant at the Davis Library of The Phillips Exeter Academy, says that the tree of the novel was known to most Exeter youngsters during her childhood because they often swung out on a rope from its extending limb and jumped into the river which really is deep enough for diving. Like many other trees along the river bank, very much like it in appearance, the tree was cut down in the summer of 1963 or 1964 because it had Dutch elm disease.
The one fact about the tree that Knowles suppresses in his story is that, according to Miss French, it was about four feet to the right of a small concrete bridge which still crosses the river and which is labeled, "The Hill Bridge 1914" and "Gift of a Member of the Class of 1865."8 Knowles, it seems, did not report the presence of this bridge because it would only weaken the mood of secrecy and isolation that the Super Suicide Society needs for its illicit pranks.9 Instead Knowles concentrates on the all-important tree and exaggerates its size, color, shape, and importance in sixteen-year-old Gene's imagination. He does this in the first line of his flashback to the crucial summer of 1942, the flashback in which practically the entire novel takes place. Gene thinks, "The tree was tremendous, an irate, steely black steeple beside the river. I'd be damned if I'd climb it."10 Here Knowles has again passed from concrete reality to the heightened language of symbol, and the tree has begun its process of becoming the "focal center of the first part of the novel,"11 and "the Biblical tree of knowledge."12 Having passed through the writer's creative imagination, a tree which was one of many on a beautiful but quite ordinary New England river bank looms large and lonely, universal and appalling as the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the tree of both Gene's and Finny's tragic falls.
As Gene makes his way to the tree, in the opening section of the novel, he passes two buildings, the Gym and the Field House called "The Cage," which are the Thompson Gym and the Thompson Cage of the Academy. Then Knowles has Gene survey "the huge open sweep of ground known as the Playing Fields."13 Later he says, "Now they reached soggily and emptily away from me, forlorn tennis courts on the left, enormous football and soccer and lacrosse fields in the center, woods on the right, and at the far end a small river detectable from this distance by a few bare trees along its banks."14 It is a fact that one can see the real courts, fields, woods, and river of the Academy in exactly these positions, but the viewer has to pivot left and put "The Cage" directly in back of him. This minor detail Knowles omits, perhaps because the scene seems vaster when the fields are thought of as beyond, rather than beside, the buildings. Just beyond "The Cage" is a large Service Building, built in 1951. It is easy to understand why Knowles got rid of the latter completely. Even though Gene would have seen it in 1958, it was not there at the time of the conflict and would only be a useless and distracting interpolation.
It is the size of the Playing Fields that seems most to fascinate Gene, and it is only in some exaggeration of their size that Knowles has significantly changed reality. He speaks of Gene's "long trudge across the fields,"15 of "the enormous playing fields,"16 and "the endless green playing fields."17 And in his first reference to them, Knowles writes, "the playing fields were vast."18 Gene's trudge from "The Cage" across the baseball and lacrosse fields to the tree is a walk of about 350 yards. This seems to make the fields somewhat less than vast and endless. Also, Gene could have taken a gravel road to the tree and river bank instead of striking out across the fields, if he had walked down to the Service Building and turned left. Again Knowles is clearly heightening. By having Gene walk across muddy fields in the November rain, he makes the scene lonely, threatening, and uncharted. By increasing space, he augments significance, evokes a mood of vastness, and creates a mysterious setting for an action that will turn out to be enormous in consequences and universal in meaning.
Later Knowles will again perform the action of dismissal. He will remove the entire rest of the state of New Hampshire; all the cities and towns and settlements beyond Exeter will not exist in Gene's imagination. The second time the boys go to the tree, Gene thinks, "Beyond the gym and the fields began the woods, our, the Devon School's woods, which in my imagination were the beginning of the great northern forests. I thought that, from the Devon woods, trees reached in an unbroken, widening corridor so far to the north that no one had ever seen the other end, some where up in the far unorganized tips of Canada. We seemed to be playing on the tame fringe of the last and greatest wilderness."19 And so they are, symbolically. For on their "tame fringe" and "vast playing fields" they are faced with "the inevitability of evil,"20 and "come to see that this enemy never comes from without, but always from within."21 By the twin devices of suppression and intensification, Knowles has prepared his setting to bear the weight of so great meaning.
The Phillips Exeter Academy is, like the Devon School, "astride" two rivers. Called the Devon and the Naguamsett in the book, they are the Exeter and the Squamscott on the map of New Hampshire. The Exeter is fresh water, arises inland and joins the salt Squamscott which then flows on to the Great Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. There is a very accurate and quite true description of both in one paragraph ofA Separate Peace.
We never used this lower river, the Naguamsett, during the summer. It was ugly, saline, fringed with marsh, mud and seaweed. A few miles away it was joined to the ocean, so that its movements were governed by unimaginable factors like the Gulf Stream, the Polar Ice Cap, and the moon. It was nothing like the fresh-water Devon above the dam where we'd had so much fun, all the summer. The Devon's course was determined by some familiar hills a little inland; it rose among highland farms and forests which we knew, passed at the end of its course through the school grounds, and then threw itself with little spectacle over a small waterfall beside the diving dam, and into the turbid Naguamsett.22
Knowles changes the rivers amazingly little in the process of making them symbolic. All he does is constantly emphasize the sweetness and purity, the "dreaming summer calm"23 of the Exeter-Devon, and the saltiness and ugliness of the Squamscott-Naguamsett. Here he is exaggerating. Today, at least, the Exeter's water is browner and muddier than he makes it; the Squamscott's banks are cleaner. After Gene's quarrel with Cliff Quackenbush during which he falls into the salt river, Gene says, "I had taken a shower to wash off the sticky salt of the Naguamsett River—going into the Devon was like taking a refreshing shower itself, you never had to clean up after it, but the Naguamsett was something else entirely."24 Again it is by the technique of heightening the real physical characteristics of the two rivers that Knowles, as critics have noted, makes them major symbols of the vast difference between the Summer and Winter Sessions of the Devon School. James Ellis writes:
What happens in the novel is that Gene Forrester and Phineas, denying the existence of the Second World War as they enjoy the summer peace of Devon School, move gradually into a realization of an uglier adult world—mirrored in the winter and the Naguamsett River—whose central fact is the war. This moving from innocence to adulthood is contained within three sets of interconnected symbols. These three—summer and winter; the Devon River and the Naguamsett River; and peace and war—serve as a backdrop against which the novel is developed, the first of each pair dominating the early novel and giving way to the second only after Gene has discovered the evil of his own heart.25
There is an instance of Knowles' technique of omission in his use of the Squamscott River. Since the 1930's there has been a large Academy Boat House on the Squamscott, slightly below the dam at which it is joined by the Exeter. This is the Crew House of the story, the place where Quackenbush holds slightly sinister sway. Knowles does not include in his landscape the large Exeter Manufacturing Company which is on almost the exact opposite bank of the Squamscott and in full view of the Boat House. It is an old and fairly dreary industrial site, which would serve no purpose in Knowles' book. Mentioning it would only introduce the unnecessary life of the surrounding town into this essentially school story. It would not help the mood Knowles was trying to create.
In an article directed toward aspiring writers, which he wrote in 1962, John Knowles tells of the attitude toward writing which he had when he wrote his first novel,Descent to Proselito, which was never published. He says that he started by feeling that he had to "mark out the symbolic pattern of my book, and naturally the metaphysical paradoxes."26 Thornton Wilder later told him that the book was not good because he was "not interested" in it. Knowles continues:
I now began to write another novel calledA Separate Peace, and if anything as I wrote tempted me to insert artificial complexities, I ignored it. If anything appeared which looked suspiciously like a symbol, I left it on its own. I thought that if I wrote truly and deeply enough about certain specific people in a certain place at a particular time having certain specific experiences, then the result would be relevant for many other kinds of people and places and times and experiences. I knew that if I began with symbols, I would end with nothing; if I began with specific individuals, I might end by creating symbols. Yet they were not my concern.27
I think that Knowles did writeA Separate Peace in exactly this way. He took a specific boys' prep school that he knew intimately, and, while being amazingly true to almost all its physical realities, transformed certain of them into symbols that are never contrived, or artificial, or oppressive. As one critic has noted, and this inquiry undertakes to demonstrate, his setting has "both the vitality of verisimilitude and the psychological tension of symbolism."28
1. Quoted from a letter from John Knowles to Mr. William J. Cox, December 14, 1959.
2. John Knowles, A Separate Peace (New York, 1961), p. 6.
3. Ibid., p. 207.
4. Ibid., p. 252.
5. Ibid., pp. 10-11.
6. Ibid., p. 11.
8. Miss French's information is supported exactly by Knowles' statement that Gene, standing on the limb just before Finny's fall, can see the school stadium across the river. The Exeter Stadium is in exactly that position from the bridge and the tree as Miss French identified them. Miss French confesses to having been sentimental enough to have garnered for her scrapbook the tag which marked the tree of A Separate Peace for the ax because of Dutch Elm disease.
9. Later in the novel, on the night when Finny breaks his leg the second time, Knowles has Gene wander across the concrete bridge and spend the night in the school stadium. This time, with reverse technique, he uses the bridge and fails to mention its proximity to the tree.
10. Knowles, p. 11.
11. James Ellis, "A Separate Peace: The Fall from Innocence," English Journal, LIII (May 1964), 313.
13. Knowles, p. 9.
14. Ibid., p. 10.
16. Ibid., pp. 16-17.
17. Ibid., p. 32.
18. Ibid., p. 9.
19. Ibid., pp. 32-33.
20. Ellis, p. 318.
22. Knowles, p. 91.
23. Ibid., p. 86.
24. Ibid., p. 104.
25. Ellis, p. 313.
26. John Knowles, "The Young Writer's Real Friends," The Writer, LXXV (July 1962), 13.
28. Ellis, p. 313.
Marvin E. Mengeling (essay date December 1969)
SOURCE: Mengeling, Marvin E. "A Separate Peace: Meaning and Myth." English Journal 58, no. 9 (December 1969): 1322-29.
[In the following essay, Mengeling offers a critical reading of A Separate Peace, interpreting the novel as a modern Greek myth.]
As Americans we have always been hotly concerned with growth and process. In our literature, process often becomes the all-inclusive and sometimes lonely end in itself. Thus much American literature, growing in such native psychological soil, seems obsessively concerned with the process of individual maturation through search. Just as America's westward-shifting, geographical frontiers were chopped off piece by piece, tamed and civilized, so do some of the most representative characters of American fiction attempt to chop off, then understand and control, bits and pieces of their wild and shadowy selves. Then, at book's end, having moved toward greater self-understanding and psychological maturity, they may consider even farther horizons, perhaps those of man's most free and utopian dreams. The American wish-fulfillment, then, is not simply to preserve from attack that which we already possess, to freeze or can the first ripe fruits, but to arm ourselves mightily to harvest yet more, and after that, yet more again. This, after all, is much of what Melville's Moby Dick is all about. And this is no less true of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
In 1959 John Knowles stepped into this healthy American literary tradition of growth through search. And in his first and best novel Knowles has defined that farthest frontier vision toward which all Ishmaels, all Hucks, and perhaps all mankind, should be striving.A Separate Peace stands as a book of classic richness and meaning, one whose major worth as a work of art emanates from the subtle interaction of two chief levels of significance: the literal and the mythic.1 It is with the mythic level that I am most concerned.
Returning in 1957 to Devon preparatory school after an interval of fifteen years, Gene Forrester reflects that preserved along with the varnished, museum-like aspect of this New Hampshire boarding school, "like stale air in an unopened room was the well-known fear which had surrounded and filled those days, so much of it that I hadn't even known it was there."2 In the interval he has escaped this fear. His return to Devon has satisfied him about that. But what exactly was this fear, from what source did it take its root and derive its nourishment? To borrow a coinage from George Orwell, during those Devon years Gene Forrester suffered from "double-think"3 concerning the process of his own maturation. On the one hand, he wishes desperately to cut the maternal childhood cord and become emotionally adult. But before him stands the majestic and fearsome tree, at first symbolic of knowledge and that which Gene wishes to become, "those men, the giants of your childhood" (p. 5). But he was "damned" (p. 6) if he would climb it or jump from one of its outstretched limbs into the cold waters of the Devon River. "No one but Phineas could think up such a crazy idea" (p. 6) as some sort of cryptic initiation into adult life. But why not mature? Because growth and change in this quite hot summer of 1942 promises quick induction and involvement in World War II, and as Gene fears, probable destruction for himself. Truly, this would be a "crazy idea." "The hell with it" (p. 6). Gene's attempt at self-defense is a desire to establish individual stasis—to parry time and achieve permanence—and in this respect follows in the line of Faulkner's Quentin Compson. Only permanence could stave off war, could counter destruction and decay. It is a childish intuition because it is impossible, and yet Gene, as he walks the familiar paths of Devon, can still convince himself that he hears "over all, cool and matriarchal, the six o'clock bell from the Academy Building cupola, the calmest, most carrying bell toll in the world, civilized, calm, invincible, and final" (p. 10). Inadvertently it is Gene's irrepressible roommate without surname, Phineas, who causes Gene's mental clock to begin its endless round, who goads him up the tree, and who forces his first terrifying plunge into the startling waters of the Devon River in the baptismal step toward adult initiation. Gene, of course, would not hesitate if he too could be as he sees Phineas, a boy-man with an "unemphatic unity of strength," (p. 7) who shows no fear, and in himself representing the perfect "essence . . . of peace" (p. 16). Gene finds it increasingly more difficult to remain at peace with his own cowardice. Necessarily it is in Phineas that Gene begins to envy and hate those very attributes which he normally admires most, but which he does not possess the confidence or courage to attempt to grasp for himself: truthfulness, courage, and strength of body and spirit. Gene can, and to save his sanity must, project into Phineas all those mean dispositions that he senses brooding in himself: the pride, the envy, the hate. Phineas becomes the sacrificial scapegoat. This process of projection culminates in the scene in which Gene causes Finny to fall from the tree. This is the central action of the book, both physically and symbolically, for at the same time that the fall represents the beginning of the sacrificial function of Phineas, it also represents ironically the beginning of Gene's "fortunate fall" from ignorance. What had been a story of ignorance and hate becomes a tale of understanding and love, a story involving Gene's growth (in counterpoint to the physical decline of Phineas) toward a special maturity, a special roundness, which will come by his siphoning off bits and pieces of the Phineas spirit and world view, incorporating their stuff into himself, and thus rendering himself whole.
It was during their first climb up the formidable tree that Gene lost his balance and almost fell, but "Finny's hand shot out and grabbed my arm, and with my balance restored, the panic immediately disappeared" (p. 23). This scene is the book in microcosm; in essence, a physical enactment of Phineas' most important service to Gene. He will restore Gene's balance and shove into oblivion a large measure of his fearful panic and childish ignorance. Most importantly, he will teach Gene a major lesson of survival: ". . . a way of sizing up the world with erratic and entirely personal reservations, letting its rocklike facts sift through and be accepted only a little at a time, only as much as he could assimilate without a sense of chaos and loss" (p. 184).
This idea of a piecemeal assimilation of adulthood's violences is symbolically enhanced throughout the book by Knowles' use of wave imagery. Preceding the structurally central episode of the fall from innocence, Knowles presents an "Eden" (p. 39):
We reached the beach late in the afternoon. The tide was high and the surf was heavy. I dived in and rode a couple of waves, but they had reached that stage of power in which you could feel the whole strength of the ocean in them. The second wave, as it tore toward the beach with me, spewed me a little ahead of it, encroaching rapidly; suddenly it was immeasurably bigger than I was, it rushed me from the control of gravity and took control of me itself; the wave threw me down in a primitive plunge without a bottom, then there was a bottom, grinding sand, and I skidded onto the shore. The wave hesitated, balanced there, and then hissed back toward the deep water, its tentacles not quite interested enough in me to drag me with it.
Gene is not yet ready for the entangling "deep water" of civilization in much the same way that Nick Adams of Hemingway's "Big Two-Hearted River" (who also had made a "separate peace" with civilized violence and death) is not ready for "tragic" fishing in the swamp. Gene would have shied away from even the first plunge if Phineas had not, in a sense, forced his accompaniment. Later in the year Gene recognizes the implicit connection between these natural waves of water, in which one can literally sink or swim, and those heavy-handed waves of reality that rush in on the innocent from a harsh and violent globe: "So the war swept over like a wave at the seashore," he writes, "gathering power and size as it bore on us, overwhelming in its rush, seemingly inescapable, and then at the last moment eluded by a word from Phineas" (p. 95). Gene will learn to face the waves "a little at a time" (p. 184). Perhaps one day all men will be able to swim as Phineas. Perhaps they will learn and be sustained by the Phineas code.
In reviewingA Separate Peace for The Horn Book, Margaret Scoggin wrote that the character of Phineas is "never completely credible." Scoggin is quite correct in this estimate, but one would be wrong in viewing such a lack of "credibility" as a defect. For it is precisely this lack of literal credibility which allows Knowles to deepen his ultimate meanings, and which permits us to go beneath the simple psychological surface and discover in Phineas the epitome of human emotional response which John Knowles means him to be. Through Phineas, Knowles presents for serious consideration the humanistic goal to be sought on the farthest horizon of man's endeavor. And if such a goal or its exponent seems a bit romanticized or utopian at times, is it any wonder, being placed in a world that is belching out constant streams of fear and destruction, chaos and death? Simply, Knowles wishes us to experience and ponder this code-hero, this Ishmael's Queequeg, and perhaps be persuaded in the same direction as that in which he starts Gene. Certain questions, however, remain for exploration: what more than a boy is Phineas meant to be; and toward what the journey, what lower "lay"?
For John Knowles the mythic journey ofA Separate Peace involves a paradoxical quest for the ideals of the Golden Age of Greece; paradoxical in that a step backward chronologically in a search for value becomes for man a step forward emotionally.
We are informed from numerous sources that the character of the so-called "golden" Greek consisted of energy and experimentation, but never unaccompanied by the tempering agents of clear judgment and good reason. They were a people of deep curiosity concerning the natural world in which they lived. Study of nature led almost inevitably to an appreciation of its balance and essential simplicity. The Greek concept of the ideal life, then, was grounded in achieving harmony between one's abilities and interests. One should strive for that healthy and happy equilibrium which exists between action and thought. All attempts would prove impotent, however, if individual man did not avoid the dreaded hubris, that insolence and pride which separates man from his fellows and sets him at war with harmony. Truly, "man is the measure of all things," but only, to paraphrase Socrates, if man truly knows himself. Harmony and balance, far removed from the haunts of pride and insolence, are a portion of that humanism which Phineas offers Gene.
Phineas, of course, depicts more than just a generalized approach to life, for in a deeper, more exact sense he portrays a god, called by some the most Greek of all the gods, Phoebus Apollo. Phoebus Apollo, god of light and youth—represented in art as handsome, young, athletic—was a beautiful, glowing figure. He was not only the master musician but also the Archer god. Most significantly, Phoebus Apollo was the healer, the god who first taught man the healing art, a specialist in purifications who taught correct procedures for avoiding evils, ills, superstitions, and fears. He was the god of light; in him there was no darkness, no falsehood, but only truth. Due to such brilliant attributes Phoebus Apollo was quite probably confused by the later Greeks with Helios, Greek god of the sun, and for this reason is also known as the sun god, shown in much later art with rays of light shooting from his head. This point is of no small importance when one recalls the many scenes inA Separate Peace in which Phineas is directly connected to the sun, and especially those scenes in which rays of sunlight seem to burst from the form of Phineas in silhouette.
It was through the healthy creation of such deities as Phoebus Apollo that the Greek people somehow largely dismissed from their lives the most brutalizing of all human emotions—fear. A world which had been haunted for untold ages by dark and unknown terrors was somehow miraculously changed, in Greece at least, to a world with much beauty, reason, and common sense. It is from the black labyrinth of such a brutalizing emotion as fear that Phineas at last salvages Gene and starts him down the path to a humanistic loyalty, "beginning with him and me and radiating outward past the limits of humanity toward spirits and clouds and stars" (p. 33).
There is an obvious pattern of Greek allusions inA Separate Peace. At one important point Phineas is described as "Greek inspired and Olympian" (p. 136). He is athletic and beautiful, blazing with "sunburned health" (p. 13). He walks before Gene in a "continuous flowing balance" (p. 97) that acknowledges an "unemphatic unity of strength" (p. 7). Though Gene, as any boy his age, is often given to imaginative hyperbole (as we all are when our Gods are involved), there is no doubt that to him and the other boys Phineas is "unique" (p. 47). Behind his "controlled ease" (p. 33) there rests the "strength of five people" (p. 91). And even if he cannot carry a tune as well as he carries other people, Phineas loves all music, for in it, as in the sea and all nature, he seems to sense the basic beat of life, health, and regeneration. His voice carries a musical undertone. It is as naked and sincere as his emotions. Only Phineas has what to Gene is a "shocking self-acceptance" (p. 7). Only Phineas never really lies.
At the beginning of the book Phineas sets the stage for his own special function. On forcing Gene out of the tree for the first time, he says, "I'm good for you that way. You tend to back away otherwise" (p. 9).
Phineas knows that Gene must jump from the tree, because in some cryptic fashion which only he seems to understand, they are "getting ready for the war" (p. 14). Among the Devon boys only Phineas knows that they must be conforming in every possible way to what is happening and what is going to happen in the general warfare of life. The first necessary step toward successful confrontation of what is going to happen rests in self-knowledge.
One cold winter morning, after Finny's "accident," Gene is running a large circle around Phineas, being trained, as Phineas puts it, for the 1944 Olympic Games. With his broken leg Phineas knows that the Games are closed to himself; he will have to participate through Gene, who was always as disinterested in sports as Phineas seemed to be in his studies. Gene is huffing, his body and lungs wracked with tiring pains that hit like knife thrusts. "Then," he says, "for no reason at all, I felt magnificent. It was as though my body until that instant had simply been lazy, as though the aches and exhaustion were all imagined, created from nothing in order to keep me from truly exerting myself. Now my body seemed at last to say, 'Well, if you must have it, here!' and an accession of strength came flooding through me. Buoyed up, I forgot my usual feeling of routine self-pity when working out, I lost myself, oppressed mind along with aching body; all entanglements were shed, I broke into the clear" (p. 105). After finishing the grueling run Gene and his Olympian coach have the following significant and two-leveled conversation:
You found your rhythm, didn't you, that third time around. Just as you came into that straight part there.
Yes, right there.
You've been pretty lazy all along, haven't you?
Yes, I guess I have been.
You didn't even know anything about yourself.
I don't guess I did, in a way.
At one point Gene decides that Phineas' seemingly irrepressible mind (he ignored many of the small rules of behavior at Devon) was not completely unleashed, that he did abide by certain rules of conduct "cast in the form of Commandments" (p. 25). One rule is that you should not lie. Another is that one should always pray because there just might be a God. And there is the idea that is the key to the entire Phineas outlook: that "You always win at sports" (p. 25). To Phineas, sports were the absolute good, the measure of the balanced life. The significance that eludes Gene at this point, as it eludes most people everywhere today, is that everyone can and should win at sports, because in the Greek view of Phineas sports are not so much a competition against others—a matter of pride and winning at any cost—but a competition against oneself, a healthy struggle in which one measures his capacities without ego, fear, or hubris. We easily identify with Gene's total disbelief when Phineas privately shatters a school swimming record but wishes no public recognition. He says, "I just wanted to see if I could do it. Now I know" (p. 34). This is the Olympic Games spirit as it should be and as it perhaps once was. Phineas adds, "when they discovered the circle they created sports" (p. 27). And when they discovered the circle they also created the universal symbol for the whole man.
Using classical myth as a tool for understanding the present is hardly new to literature. James Joyce, for one, demonstrated with genius its relevance to modern life and art. InA Separate Peace, myth is molded and altered when necessary to fit Knowles' dramatic purposes. The episode concerning the Devon Winter Carnival, that special artistic creation of Phineas, not only provides excellent examples of Knowles' mythological method, but is thematically very important as marking the symbolic point of passage for the Olympic spirit—its flame of life—from Phineas to Gene. It is during the carnival scene that Phineas, leg in cast, dances a rapturous and wild bacchanal, his special, and last, "choreography of peace" (p. 120). For the briefest of moments in a drab world's drabbest season Phineas creates a world of Dionysian celebration that infuses Gene with divine enthusiasm. At this point, Knowles chooses to blend the figure of the young Phoebus Apollo (Phineas before the fall) with that of the resurrected Dionysus (Phineas after his fall; who has finally discovered what "suffering" is) (p. 101).
In ancient Greece the Dionysian festival began in the spring of the year with Greek women travelling into the hills to be "reborn" again through mystical union with the God of Wine. They danced, they drank, they leaped in wild frenzy as all restraint melted away. At the center of the ceremony they seized a goat, perhaps a bull, sometimes a man (all believed to be incarnations of Dionysus), and tore the live victim to shreds. A ceremony of pagan communion followed in which the victim's blood was quaffed and the flesh eaten, whereby the communicants thought their souls would be entered and possessed by their resurrected god. Knowles surely bore in mind the festival of Dionysus when erecting his superb carnival scene. In a sense, this invention of Phineas marks his resurrection, for it is the first project in which he has exhibited personal interest since his fall. At last, though briefly, the "old" Phineas seems to have returned somewhat in body and spirit. Amid a scene of mayhem, in which "there was going to be no government, even by whim" (p. 119), the boys circle around Brinker Hadley, throw themselves upon him, and forcibly take his jealously guarded cache of hard cider. They drink, they dance, they throw off the fear and "violence latent in the day" (p. 119), losing themselves completely in the festival of Phineas. Then, with the burning of Homer's book of war, The Iliad, a specialized version of the Olympic Games begins, a somewhat nicer type of "warfare." Soon, from the monarch's chair of black walnut—whose regal legs and arms end in the paws and heads of lions—Phineas rises to full height on the prize table, and at the "hub" (p. 116) of the proceedings begins his wild bacchanal. Gene says that "Under the influence not I know of the hardest cider but of his own inner joy at life for a moment as it should be, as it was meant to be in his nature, Phineas recaptured that magic gift for existing primarily in space, one foot conceding briefly to gravity its rights before spinning him off again into the air. It was his wildest demonstration of himself, of himself in the kind of world he loved; it was his choreography of peace" (p. 120).
Prior to the Carnival, Gene says he had acted simply as a "Chorus" (p. 119) to Phineas, but now the beautiful boy-god, sitting amid the tabled prizes, makes a request of Gene: on a physical level, to qualify for their Olympic Games; on a spiritual level, to qualify for salvation. During the past weeks Gene has made the Phineas outlook and spirit more and more a part of his own, and so infused, he now reacts to the request in the only way possible: ". . . it wasn't cider which made me in this moment champion of everything he ordered, to run as though I were the abstraction of speed, to walk the half-circle of statues on my hands, to balance on my head on top of the icebox on top of the Prize Table, to jump if he had asked it across the Naguamsett and land crashing in the middle of Quackenbush's boat house, to accept at the end of it amid a clatter of applause—for this day even the schoolboy egotism of Devon was conjured away—a wreath made from the evergreen trees which Phineas placed on my head" (pp. 120-21).
Somehow, Gene has mystically been passed the saving spirit and code of Phineas. His new growth and knowledge are immediately tested. The Carnival ends prematurely when Gene receives an ominous telegram from Leper Lepellier asking Gene to come to his winterbound home in Vermont. Gene suspects that the fruits of such an isolated meeting will not be pleasant ones, but he also knows that he must sometimes face certain harsh realities alone, even if only a little at a time. Also, he realizes that he has a chance to endure now, for the influence of Phineas, god of sun, light, and truth, is always with him. As he finally approaches Leper's house he thinks that, like Phineas, "The sun was the blessing of the morning, the one celebrating element, an aesthete with no purpose except to shed radiance. Everything else was sharp and hard, but this Grecian sun (my italics) evoked joy from every angularity and blurred with brightness the stiff face of the countryside. As I walked briskly out the road the wind knifed at my face, but this sun caressed the back of my neck" (p. 124).
Now Gene does not immediately dash away when learning the grim tale of Leper's Section-Eight. The summer before Gene would have run quickly from such unpleasantness back to the maternal and more secure confines of old Devon, but now he needs "too much to know the facts," (p. 129) and though he finally does run away in the "failing sunshine" (p. 130) from the horrible details of Leper's casualty, he has shown strong signs of significant progress. "I had had many new experiences," Gene says, "and I was growing up" (p. 140).
Physically, Phineas dies. The reasons are twofold. All gods must die physically; it is in their nature to be spiritual, and in the case of many, sacrificial. Phineas dies that Gene might live. Second, Phineas must be crushed physically to emphasize that the present world is really no place for the full-blown powers and principles which he represents in his symbolic guise of Phoebus Apollo. Changes in man's psychological makeup do not erupt like some overnight volcano of the sea. Such transition is always painfully slow, necessarily too slow. But perhaps now, in a ruptured world that is heaped with war's unromantic statistics and computerized cruelties, humanity will choose to reemerge from its emotional rubble. Gene always had the brilliance, the IQ, the "brains," but they were untempered by a proper emotional stance. He had envy and he had great fear. He had no balance. Phineas disappears in a physical sense, but his spiritual influence, a portion of his code, will endure in Gene—a tiny spark in the darkness searching for human tinder. The spirit of Apollo has possessed its prophet and will now speak through his mouth. Gene's self has become "Phineas-filled" (p. 185), and to Gene, Phineas was "present in every moment of every day" (p. 184) since he died. First Gene and then perhaps a few others will relearn the road to Greece. "I was ready for the war," Gene says, "now that I no longer had any hatred to contribute to it. My fury was gone, I felt it gone, dried up at the source, withered and lifeless. Phineas had absorbed it and taken it with him, and I was rid of it forever" (p. 185). Even fifteen years later when Gene returns to Devon he approaches the school down a street lined with houses to him reminiscent of "Greek Revival temples" (p. 2). The cause of wars within and without the individual, that "something ignorant in the human heart," (p. 183) has now been exorcised.
The purgated emotions of negative content had been fear, jealousy, and hate, emotions which result in wars both personal and global. The positive emotions which then must replace them are friendship, loyalty, and love toward all mankind and nature, emotions which result in peace and an appreciation of life and its beauty. Even though Phineas had broken every minor and stuffy Devon regulation, never had a student seemed to love the school more "truly and deeply" (p. 15). Edith Hamilton writes in The Greek Way that "To rejoice in life, to find the world beautiful and delightful to live in, was a mark of the Greek spirit which distinguished it from all that had gone before. It is a vital distinction." So although the world is not yet ready for the apotheosis of some golden Greek Apollo, perhaps it is prepared, after its most recent blood gluts and promises of human extinction, for the first faltering step toward a world full of the Phineas-filled, a step which must necessarily begin with the conquering of a small part of the forest of self—a step toward the far frontiers of ancient Greece.
1. With only slight modification, I use the term mythic in the sense Newton Arvin so ably defined it in his critical examination of Melville's Moby Dick: as an imaginative narrative in which one or more of the major characters are representative of gods or god-like personages, "engaged in symbolic actions amid symbolic objects; which embodies some form of the conflict between human wishes and nonhuman forces, and which has its roots in a philosophically serious desire to comprehend the meaning of nature and the destiny of man" Newton Arvin, Herman Melville (New York: Compass Books Edition, The Viking Press, 1957), pp. 181-82.
2. John Knowles, A Separate Peace (New York: Delta Book Edition, Dell Publishing Co., 1959), p. 1. All future quotes from A Separate Peace are from this edition.
3. In his novel 1984, George Orwell says that "Double-think means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them."
Peter Wolfe (essay date spring 1970)
SOURCE: Wolfe, Peter. "The Impact of Knowles's A Separate Peace." University Review 36, no. 3 (spring 1970): 189-98.
[In the following essay, Wolfe provides a thematic outline of the major events and motives in A Separate Peace.]
John Knowles's concern with morality colors all his books. This preoccupation finds its most general expression in a question asked inDouble Vision (1964), an informal travel journal: "Can man prevail against the bestiality he himself has struggled out of by a supreme effort?"1 Knowles's novels, instead of attacking the question head-on, go about it indirectly. They ask, first, whether a person can detach himself from his background—his society, his tradition, and the primitive energies that shaped his life.
The question is important because Knowles sees all of modern life shot through with malevolence. The sound the "frigid trees" make during a winter walk in A Separate Peace resembles "rifles being fired in the distance"; later, a character likens the rays of the sun to a volley of machine-gun fire.2 The book cries to be read in the context of original sin: its central event of a character falling from a tree: the snakelike rush of sibilants in "The Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session," an informal daredevil club whose founding leads to the novel's tragedy: an ocean wave that "hissed . . . toward the deep water" (37) after upending a character: the "dead gray waves hissing mordantly along the beach" (39) the next day.
This universal implication in guilt makes good a major premise of Knowles's fiction: that the condition of life is war.A Separate Peace describes the private battles of a prep school coterie boiling into the public fury of World War II. The individual and society are both at war again in Knowles's second novel,Morning in Antibes (1962), where the Algerian-French War invades the chic Riviera resort, Côte d'Azur.Indian Summer (1966) not only presents the World War II period and its aftermath as a single conflict-ridden epoch; it also describes civilian life as more dangerous than combat.
The Knowles hero, rather than tearing himself from his background, submerges himself in it. According to Knowles, man can only know himself through action; he learns about life by acting on it, not by thinking about it. The action is never collective, and it always involves treachery and physical risk.
A full life to Knowles is one lived on the margins of disaster. Brinker Hadley inA Separate Peace and Neil Reardon inIndian Summer are both actionists, but since their lives are governed by prudence and not feeling they can never probe the quick of being. In order to touch the spontaneous, irrational core of selfhood, man must act unaided. At this point Knowles's ontology runs into the roadblock of original sin. Whereas the characters in his books who shrink from a bone-to-bone contact with life are labelled either escapists or cowards, the ones who lunge headlong into reality are usually crushed by the reality they discover. That all of Knowles's leading characters smash their closest friendship and also fall sick conveys the danger of a highly charged encounter with life.
This danger increases because of the way they go about the problem of self-being. Instead of struggling out of bestiality, to use Knowles's metaphor from Double Vision, they sink back into it. The Knowles hero moves forward by moving backward.A Separate Peace mentions "the deep tacit way in which feeling becomes stronger than thought," (1) "that level of feeling, deeper than thought, which contains the truth," (38) and "that deep layer of the mind where all is judged by the five senses and primitive expectation." (130)
Prime being, then, is both sensory and prereflective, a tremor of uncensored energy. By obeying this dark urgency we can unleash a wildness that cuts down everything in its path. Gene Forrester insists that his shaking of his best friend, Phineas, out of a tree was prompted by "some ignorance inside me"; (174) later he says that "wars were made . . . by something ignorant in the human heart." (183) The first movers of our consciousnesses are "ignorant" in that they override reason and order. But unless we give them full rein we can never unroll our energies full force.
A Separate Peace shapes the problem of man's inherent savagery to American culture. In contrast to the characters of D. H. Lawrence, those of Knowles do not discharge their deepest impulses sexually. Instead they retrace the familiar American fictional pattern of immersing themselves in the past. But where Fitzgerald's Gatsby hankers after the glamor of first love and Miller's Willy Loman looks back to the days when salesmanship was adventurous, Knowles's Gene Forrester reaches back much further. He sounds the uncharted seas of our common humanity and in so doing both undoes the work of civilization and reawakens the wild meaninglessness of primitive man.
The novel's setting gives Gene's problem an American emphasis. InDouble Vision, Knowles discusses the primitive barbarism underlying American life: "The American character is unintegrated, unresolved, a careful Protestant with a savage stirring in his insides, a germ of American wildness thickening in his throat." This elemental threat, Knowles continues, is all the more lethal for being hidden: "American life has an orderly, rather dull and sober surface, but with something berserk stirring in its depths."3
Devon School in New Hampshire, "the most beautiful school in New England" (3) and a haven of gentility, sportsmanship, and academic honors, has the same sort of deceptiveness. Its tame surface and schoolboy remoteness from World War II make it an unlikely setting for violence. As he does with the smiling, boyish soldiers who appear in the last chapter of the novel, Knowles uses a prep school setting to show that even innocence and beauty cannot escape the corrosive ooze of evil. (Devon's Field House is called suggestively "The Cage," indicating that bestiality is already in force at the school.) Contributing to the irony established by the disjuncture of cause and effect, or setting and event, is Knowles's quiet, understated style. That violence should leap so suddenly out of Knowles's offhand, conversational cadences sharpens the horror of the violence. (In Double Vision, Knowles praises E. M. Forster for his ability to stir his readers without raising his voice.)4
The first chapter ofA Separate Peace shows Gene Forrester returning to Devon fifteen years after the key incident of his life—that of shaking his best friend Phineas out of a tree and shattering his leg. Mingling memory and fear, Gene is not only the archetypal criminal who returns to the scene of his crime or the American fictional hero who retreats into a private past. His return to Devon is purposive, even compulsive. His neglecting to mention his job, his family, or his home suggests that he has none of these things, even though he is past the age of thirty. He relives his act of treachery and the events surrounding it in the hope of recovering the separate peace of the summer of 1942.
Gene interests us chiefly because of his moral ambiguity: whereas he accepts his malevolence, he also resists indulging it at the expense of others. Fear of unleashing his inherent wickedness explains his inertia since Devon's 1942-43 academic year. It also explains his psychological bloc. His first-person narration is laced with self-abuse, special pleading, flawed logic, and evasiveness. As has been suggested, self-exploration is dangerous work, and Gene cannot be blamed if he sometimes cracks under the strain. Out of joint with both himself and his time, he subjects to reason an area of being which is neither rational nor reducible to rational formulas. Although the sum will not add, he has no choice but to try to add the sum if he wants to re-enter the human community.
Like the novel's memoir technique, Gene Forrester's name certifies thatA Separate Peace is his book. Of the forest, Gene is a primitive, bloodthirsty wood-lander; his occasional self-disclosures spell out the urgency of his deathpull: "I was used to finding something deadly in things that attracted me; there was always something deadly lurking in anything I wanted, anything I loved. And if it wasn't there . . . I put it there myself." (87)
The forest has negative associations throughout the book. At one point Gene is accused of undermining his health by "smoking like a forest fire." (112) Elsewhere the forest is equated with the raw icy wilderness stretching from the northern edge of Devon School to "the far unorganized tips of Canada." (22) As it is in Emily Dickinson, summer for Knowles is the time of flowing beauty and intensity of being. The Sommers family are the most vital characters in Indian Summer, and the gipsy spree of Gene and Phineas takes place during summer term.
Devon represents the last outpost of civilization to Gene. It wards off the primitive madness encroaching from the great northern forests, and it shields its students from the organized madness of World War II. Devon's 1942 summer term, the first in its history, is giving Gene and Phineas their last reprieve from a war-racked world. At sixteen, the boys and their classmates are the oldest students at Devon excused from taking both military subjects and preinduction physical exams.
In contrast to this freedom, winter brings loss, unreason, and hardness of heart. Nor is the heartless irrationality equated with Gene's forest background uncommon. His first name universalizes his glacial cruelty. While Phineas is a sport (who happens to excel in sports), Gene is generic, his barbarism deriving from his North American forebears. And the fact that he is a southerner shows how deeply this northern madness has bitten into American life.
The first object of Gene's return visit to Devon is the tree he ousted Phineas from fifteen years before. James Ellis places the tree in a Christian context by calling it "the Biblical tree of knowledge."5 His interpretation is amply justified by parallels between the novel and orthodox Christianity: everything in the boys' lives changes for the worst after the tree incident, the tree and Christ's crucifix are both wood, the slab of light under the door that announces Phineas's return to Devon is yellow, the color of Judas and betrayal, and Gene chins himself thirty times the next day in the school's gymnasium.
Yet Christian myth fails to exhaust the tree's meaning. Its rootedness in the earth, its riverbank location, and its overarching branches suggest organic life. Lacking a single meaning, the tree stands for reality itself. Knowles develops this powerful inclusiveness by projecting the tree to several levels of being. For the tree not only exists forcibly at more than one dimension; it also brings together different aspects of reality. Over the spectrum of Gene's life, it is by turns an occasion for danger, friendship, betrayal and regret. Remembered as "a huge lone spike dominating the riverbank, forbidding as an artillery piece," the tree is so much "smaller" and "shrunken by age" (5) fifteen years later that Gene has trouble recognizing it.
Nonetheless, as something more than a physical datum, it marks the turning point of Gene's life and colors the rest of his narrative. The furniture in the home of one of his teachers "shot out menacing twigs," (17) and the tree combines metaphorically with both the War and the aboriginal northern frost to create a strong impression of lostness. The tree's combining power, in fact, is as great as its power to halt or cut short. For while it marks the end of the gipsy summer of 1942, it also yokes Gene's past and present lives.
The victim of the tree incident, Phineas, is best summarized by a phrase Knowles uses inDouble Vision to describe modern Greeks—"a full life lived naturally."6 Nor is the classical parallel askew. Phineas's name resembles phonetically that of Phidias, who helped set the standard of all-around excellence that marked the golden age of Pericles. (The nickname, "Finny," suggests in another key a throwback to a morality earlier than our Christian western ethical system.) Although "an extraordinary athlete . . . the best athlete in the school," (7) Finny stands under five feet nine and weighs only a hundred and fifty pounds. His athletic prowess stems not from brawn but from his superb co-ordination and vitality.
Interestingly, the trophies he wins are for gentlemanly conduct. Finny's mastery goes beyond sports. His great gift is the ability to respond clearly and fully: his "unthinking unity of movement" (9) and his favorite expressions, "naturally" and "perfectly okay," express the harmony and interrelatedness of his life. Finny can afford casualness because he gives himself wholly to his undertakings. There is no room for self-consciousness in this dynamic life-mode. There is no room either for formalized rules. Finny's commitment to life overrides the requirements of reason and law, but not out of innate lawlessness. His responses strike so deeply that, while they sometimes make nonsense of conventional morality, they create their own scale of values.
Finny's organicism also sets the style and tempo of the free, unclassifiable summer of 1942. It must be noted that the separate peace Finny and Gene carve out is no idyllic escape from reality. By founding the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session, membership in which requires a dangerous leap into the Devon River, the boys admit both danger and death into their golden gipsy days. Accordingly, the game of Blitzball, which Finny invents the same summer, includes the bellicosity and treachery that perhaps count as humanity's worst features: "Since we're all enemies, we can and will turn on each other all the time." (29) Nevertheless, the boys rejoice in Blitzball and, while they sustain a fierce level of competition, they manage to avoid injuries.
For opponents do not inflict pain in the world ofA Separate Peace ; the worst menaces dwell not in rivalry but in friendship. Gene and Phineas become best friends, but Gene cannot live with Finny's goodness. Finny's helping Gene overcome fear and his opening his friend to bracing new adventures rouses Gene's worst traits. Man is a hating rather than a loving animal. Franziska Lynne Greiling summarizes deftly the stages leading to Gene's savaging of Finny:
At the beginning, Gene thought of himself as Phineas' equal, first in excellence, then in enmity. Discovering Phineas incapable of hatred, Gene has to face his own moral ugliness and then strikes down Phineas for inadvertently revealing it to him.7
The summary bears close scrutiny. What finally unlooses Gene's venom is Finny's magnanimity. Although Gene's treachery in Chapter Four strikes explosively, incidents in earlier chapters justify it dramatically. Finny's saving Gene at the end of Chapter Two when he nearly falls out of the tree during a mission of the Super Suicide Society compounds his felony. Gene turns the act of loyalty and sacrifice into an occasion for resentment. Instead of being grateful to Finny for saving his life, he blames his friend for tempting him to jump from the tree in the first place.
Chapter Three puts Finny beyond such commonplace resentment. Here he breaks the school's swimming record for the hundred-yard free style but insists that his feat be kept a secret. Chapter Four shows Gene incontestably that Finny has both outclassed and out-manned him. Whereas Gene bases all his human ties on rivalry, he must bolt down the knowledge that Finny is free of envy. This generosity upsets Gene's entire life-mode: "Now I knew that there never was and never could have been any rivalry between us. I was not of the same quality as he." (49)
Of all modern psychoanalytical theories, perhaps Adler's doctrine of masculine protest best explains Gene's malignancy. But even Adler falls short; Gene's cruelty is unconscious and it brings him no prizes. Nothing so simple as worldly success is at stake in the tree incident. For Gene is one of Devon's best students, and he knows that his gifts, although less spectacular than Finny's, are more durable.
Besides having time in his favor, Gene is already Finny's equal: "I was more and more certainly becoming the best student in the school; Phineas was without question the best athlete, so in that way we were even. But while he was a very poor student, I was a pretty good athlete, and when everything was thrown into the scales they would in the end tilt definitely toward me." (44-45)
By shaking his friend out of the tree, Gene obeys an urge deeper than reason or wounded vanity. But his act of aboriginal madness is empty. The things that happen to him after his treachery demonstrate the pointless waste of violence.
But they do not draw the sting of his violent tendencies. Gene's first reaction to Finny's shattered leg is complex. Since Finny's vitality diminishes Gene, he is glad to be rid of his friend. Finny's confinement in the Infirmary lets Gene become Finny. He calls Finny "noble" (50) and in the next paragraph, after putting on his friend's clothes, says that he feels "like some nobleman." (51) Even the relaxed, supple style in which he writes his memoir fits with his desire to merge with his male ideal.
Ironically, Finny is just as eager as Gene to switch identities. Rather than accusing him of treachery or languishing in self-pity, he tries to recover some of his lost splendor through his friend. Knowles says at one point in the book that a broken bone, once healed, is strongest in the place where the break occurred. The statement applies to Finny's recuperative powers. His athletic career ended, Finny acquires new skills and learns to exist on a new plane while preserving his high standard of personal loyalty.
Everything and nothing have changed. Buoyed up by his heroic ethic, he returns to Devon midway through the winter term and begins training Gene for the 1944 Olympic Games. His training a groundling athlete for a match that will never be held points up the strength of his moral vision. Finny denies the reality of World War II because he knows instinctively that man can only fulfill himself when the ordinary civilized processes of life are reasonably secure.
The two boys institute a routine based on their best gifts: while Finny coaches Gene on the cinderpath and in the gym, Gene helps Finny with his studies. The routine is kinetic. Finny's organizing of the Devon Winter Carnival, like the Blitzball and the Super Suicide Society of the previous summer, represents an acceptance of reality. But the Carnival reflects an even braver commitment to imperfection than the summer romps. It takes no special gifts to make merry in the summer. By celebrating winter, though, Phineas opts for life's harshness as well as its joys; and by choosing the northern reaches of the school as a site for the carnival, he certifies fun and friendship alongside the icy savagery clawing down from the unpeopled North.
Gene ends this regimen because he cannot forgive Phineas for submitting to his brutality. He determines to make his cruelty a counterforce to Phineas's loyalty and courage. After Phineas breaks his leg falling on the slick marble steps of the First Academy Building, Gene follows him to the Infirmary. But instead of showing compassion for his stricken friend, his thoughts turn inward. Astonishingly, his attitude is one of cool self-acceptance. "I couldn't escape a confusing sense of living through all of this before—Phineas in the Infirmary, and myself responsible. I seemed to be less shocked by it now than I had been the first time last August." (170)
Gene's detachment imparts the final horror to his actions. Yet Phineas can take his worst thrusts. Although he can no longer control his muscular reactions, his mind stays whole. His body breaks before his spirit; he accepts Gene's treachery, and when he dies he has transcended it. Nobody in the book can come near enough to him to kill him. He dies as he had lived—untouched by human baseness. While his broken leg is being set, some of the bone-marrow escapes into his bloodstream and lodges in his heart. In that bone-marrow produces the body's life-giving red corpuscles, Phineas dies from an overplus and a richness of animal vigor.
Gene's barbarism finds another outlet in Elwin "Leper" Lepellier. Although Leper is not so well perceived as Finny, he serves structurally as Finny's foil. Whereas Finny attracts people, Leper is an outsider; and Leper matches Finny's physical breakdown by cracking psychologically. A solitary at school, he is crushed by the tighter discipline and organization practiced by the Army. But the organized madness of the Army, while wrecking his sanity, sharpens his insight. He tells Gene, "You always were a savage underneath," (128) and later in the book he describes the tree episode with a poetic accuracy that lays bare the core of Gene's treachery.
Yet none of Leper's hearers can understand him. Finny, on the other hand, communicates by bodily movements and is always perfectly understood. Leper's oppositeness to Finny reveals two important things about Gene's savagery: its all-inclusive sweep and its static nature. Although Finny and Leper both grow, Gene is hunkered in his wickedness. In the same way that primitive societies are the least free, he can neither explain nor change himself once he gives in to his primitive drives. Not only does he rake his two best friends; he justifies his butchery: "a mind was clouded and a leg was broken—maybe these should be thought of as minor and inevitable mishaps in the accelerating rush. The air around us was filled with much worse things." (170)
The Leper-Finny doubling motif is but one example of Knowles's fondness for sharp contrast as a structural principle. The author also plays the carefree summer of 1942 against the winter term that follows. He manages his contrast by means of the various associations created by the intervening season, fall.
Finny's fall from the tree by the river, in ending the boys' summer, draws the warmth and light from Devon. Gene notices a chill in the air even before the start of the new term in September: "I knew now it was fall all right." (67) In a telephone call the same day, Phineas tells Gene that he was "completely over the falls" (71) the last time the two boys visited together. Even the elements seem convulsed, as the fight between Gene Forester and Cliff Quackenbush by the river suggests. The fight also underscores the emptiness of Gene's ravage upon Finny. As soon as Devon's winter term starts without Finny, Gene's status declines. The assistant crew manager's job Gene takes carries no prestige, and his fight with Cliff Quackenbush, one of Devon's most unpopular students, is just as pointless.
The daily character of life at Devon also expresses the darkening shift from summer to winter. The change in mood is observable the first day of winter term: "We had been an idiosyncratic, leaderless band in the summer . . . Now the official class leaders and politicians could be seen taking charge." (62) Gene's murder of the "simple, unregulated friendliness" (14) marking the summer term validates the need for restricting man's freedom. Like that of Hawthorne, Knowles's attitude toward the law is complex. If civilization is to survive, then man's intrinsic savagery must be bridled. Yet any formal legal system will prove unreliable. The members of the older generation described in the book cannot claim any natural or acquired superiority over their sons. They stand to blame for the War and also for the congressional investigating committees the novel attacks indirectly.
Rules and restrictions turn out to be just as poor a standard of civilized conduct as feelings. Knowles introduces the character of Brinker Hadley—a classmate of Finny, Leper, and Gene—to point up the murderous cruelty of the law. Significantly, Brinker does not enter the book until the 1942-43 winter term. He makes the distressing point that man tends to use the law not as a check to man's aggressiveness, but as an outlet. Legalistic, rule-bound, and calculating, Brinker only invokes the law in order to frustrate or to punish. Knowles mentions "his Winter Session efficiency" (74) and later calls him "Brinker the Lawgiver" (115) and "Justice incarnate." (151)
But he also reminds us that although Justice balances the scales of human conduct, she is also blindfolded. Brinker's blind spot is the life of feeling, his fact-ridden life having ruled out compassion. Brinker, who has a large posterior, or butt, presides from the Butt Room, a cellar which is both the dreariest and the lowest site on the Devon campus. Because Gene could not rise to the example set by Phineas, he must pass muster with Brinker's Butt-Room morality. The tree incident not only drives the boys indoors but also downward—both physically and morally:
The Butt Room was something like a dungeon . . . On the playing fields we looked like innocent extroverts; and in the Butt Room we looked, very strongly, like criminals. The school's policy, in order to discourage smoking, was to make these rooms as depressing as possible.
The structure ofA Separate Peace includes the same tensions, stresses, and balances. Chapter Seven, the middle chapter of the novel, is dominated by snow, a common symbol for death. Suitably, the big snowfall of Chapter Seven, like the tree incident of Chapter Four, occurs out of season. Chapter Seven also introduces Brinker Hadley and restores Phineas to Devon. As the chapter advances, the thickening snows envelop Gene; by the end of the chapter, they obstruct all of life.
On the day of Phineas's return, two hundred Devon students volunteer to shovel the snow from the tracks of a local railroad yard. The heavy work, the trainful of soldiers that passes by, and the sickly, quarrelsome foreman of the snow removal combine to make this "misbegotten day" (86) an epitome of death. Finny's coming back to school in November, finally, changes Gene's mind about enlisting. With Finny as a roommate, Gene does not need the War as an outlet for his aggressiveness.
Gene's visit to Finny's home in Boston in Chapter Five and his visit to Leper's in Chapter Ten contain enough striking similarities and differences to stand as mutually explanatory. In Chapter Ten Leper, painfully disoriented after his abortive tour of military service, accuses Gene of having deliberately knocked Phineas out of the tree the previous summer. Gene hotly denies the charge and goes on to abuse and then desert Leper during his crisis: "I was the closest person in the world to him now." (313) Chapter Five, curiously, shows Gene confessing the same treachery and Finny defending him to himself.
The two chapters mirror each other nearly perfectly: Gene reverses field completely, and Finny's self-command balances Leper's mental collapse. But Gene's shift in roles from self-accuser to self-defender is flawed. He shows Leper none of the kindness extended by Finny in Chapter Five, even though his moral situation in Chapter Ten is less difficult than Finny's was.
Gene's failure is one of moral escapism. When Leper reveals himself as a misfit in a world where nothing fits with anything else, Gene flees. Leper's description of the ugliness and disjointedness underlying life strikes Gene so hard that he must deny it in order to keep peace with himself: "I didn't want to hear any more of it. Not now or ever. I didn't care because it had nothing to do with me." (135)
Another pair of incidents whose variations clarify theme take place in Chapter Three and Chapter Eleven—the third chapter from the end of the novel. The element of Chapter Three is water: Finny breaks Devon's swimming record for the hundred-yard free style, and then swims for an hour in the ocean. By Chapter Eleven the water has frozen.
After walking out of a mock-serious investigation of the tree incident, Finny falls a second time and breaks his leg on the "unusually hard" (3) white marble steps of the First Academy Building. His flowing energy has been immobilized both by Leper's mental breakdown and the loveless efficiency of the investigation. A fact does not count for Finny until he experiences it personally; his head-on encounters with pain and heartlessness kill his belief in universal harmony, and he can no longer deny the ubiquity of war. His separate peace ended, he merges in the last paragraph of Chapter Eleven with the icy discord that gores all of life:
The excellent exterior acoustics recorded his rushing steps and the quick rapping of his cane . . . Then these separate sounds collide into the general tumult of his body falling clumsily down the white marble stairs.
The technique of the last chapter tallies well with both the events and the morality it describes. Knowles violates the unity of time by leaping ahead several months to June 1943; he also breaks a basic rule of fictional art by introducing an important character in his last chapter. These discordancies are intentional: a novel about disjointedness should have its components out of joint with each other. Accordingly,A Separate Peace extends a chapter after Phineas's death and funeral.
But instead of joining its dramatic and thematic climaxes, the last chapter has a scattering effect. Gene's class at Devon has just been graduated, and the boys are shipping out to various branches of the military. The new character, Brinker Hadley's father, is a World War I veteran whose lofty code of patriotism and service means little to the younger generation.
Mr. Hadley cannot, however, be dismissed as a stale anachronism. His argument implies that he knows something the boys have not yet learned. Combat duty is important to him, not as an immediate goal but as a topic to reminisce about in future years. Could Mr. Hadley be suggesting that maturity contains few pleasures and that only a heroic youth can make up for this emptiness? That the boys overlook this implication means little. The chapter is full of communication failures, including the generation rift Mr. Hadley introduces by visiting Devon.
Another new presence at Devon is the U.S. Army. Devon has donated part of its grounds to a Parachute Riggers' school. Appropriately, the sector of the campus used by the soldiers is the Northern Common. But Knowles pulls a stunning reversal by overturning this fine narrative stroke. For although the Army as the collective embodiment of man's aggressiveness invades Devon from the icy North, man's aggressiveness has already established a stronghold at Devon. Likewise, the convoy of jeeps driving through campus stirs no warlike fervor. The boyish troops are "not very bellicose-looking," (178) and the jeeps do not contain weapons but sewing machines.
The logic of the novel makes eminent sense of this unlikely freight: the sewing machines, which will service parachutes, allude to the novel's central metaphor of falling, and the young soldiers will lunge headlong into violence in the same way as Devon's Class of 1943. By the end of the book, the malevolence uncoiling from man's fallen nature has engulfed all.
Except, strangely, for Gene. His savagery already spent, he has no aggressiveness left for the Navy. Although his country is at war, he is at peace. Yet the armistice is false. A man so askew with his environment enjoys no peace. Gene's lack of purpose not only divides him from his country; it separates him from himself. Divided and subdivided, he is fighting a war just as dangerous as his country's. He has not killed his enemy, as he insists. (186)
His return to Devon in his early thirties and his memoir of Devon's 1942-43 academic year prove that his private struggle has outlasted the public holocaust of World War II. Just as the anvil can break the hammer, the tree incident hurts Gene more than it does Finny. The novel turns on the irony that the separate peace mentioned in its title excludes its most vivid presence—its narrator. Gene's fall 1957 visit to Devon fixes the limits of his fallen life. His self-inventory is either a preparation for life or a statement of withdrawal. But the question of whether he can convert his apartness into a new start goes beyond the boundaries of the novel.
1. John Knowles, Double Vision: American Thoughts Abroad (New York, 1964), p. 9.
2. John Knowles, A Separate Peace (New York, 1960), pp. 134, 157; all page citations hereafter will be included in the body of the text and will refer to this edition. The italics in quotations are mine.
3. Knowles, Double Vision, pp. 42-43.
4. Ibid., p. 17.
5. Ellis, p. 313.
6. Knowles, Double Vision, p. 200.
7. Greiling, p. 1271.
Ian Kennedy (essay date fall 1974)
SOURCE: Kennedy, Ian. "Dual Perspective Narrative and the Character of Phineas in A Separate Peace." Studies in Short Fiction 11, no. 4 (fall 1974): 353-59.
[In the following essay, Kennedy examines how Knowles utilizes the character of Gene in A Separate Peace to present a dual nature perspective through both Gene's juvenile and adult personalities.]
In the best available study of John Knowles's narrative method inA Separate Peace, Ronald Weber compares the novel to Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye in order to show how Knowles overcomes the limitations of conventional first-person narration.1 The Catcher in the Rye, he says, "illustrates a major problem of first-person telling. Although the method, by narrowing the sense of distance separating reader, narrator, and fictional experience, gains a quality of immediacy and freshness, it tends for the same reason to prohibit insight or understanding."2 And he suggests that Knowles has counteracted this tendency by separating the narrator from his narrative by such a long period of time—fifteen years—that Gene is endued with a detachment that enables him to understand and, therefore, to master the experiences he narrates. Weber concedes that this leads, in turn, to a loss of the intense immediacy that characterises Salinger's novel, but claims that "While Salinger may give [the reader] a stronger sense of life, Knowles provides a clearer statement about life."3
To suggest, however, that the author who uses a first-person narrator must choose between a character who is too close to the events narrated to interpret them reliably, and one who is too distant to convey their freshness and vitality, is to deny that one can eat one's cake and have it too; and this is the trick that Knowles pulls off so effectively.A Separate Peace is narrated by two Gene Forresters, one of whom conveys the actions, feelings, and thoughts of the moment, while the other looks back on that turmoil from a distance of fifteen years and provides intelligent and illuminating comments. Gene the boy is too close to his own experiences to understand them properly, and Gene the man is too removed to express effectively the vitality that characterizes adolescence, but between them they succeed in dissolving the limitations of conventional first-person narration. Although it is true that this method is not conventional, Knowles is not, however, breaking new ground; for after numerous explorations and experiments in first-person narrative, Dickens adopted this method of dual perspective in his telling of Great Expectations, in which there can be found much the same balanced oscillation between the narrations of Pip the boy and the commentary of Mr. Pip the man.
InA Separate Peace, just as in Great Expectations, the shift from one narrative perspective to another is rarely obvious, and so the distinct jump that occurs on page 6 of Knowles's novel4 is the exception rather than the rule. But perhaps because it is so distinct, this example provides a clear illustration of the difference between the two narrative voices. Gene the man says, "The tree was not only stripped by the cold season, it seemed weary from age, enfeebled, dry," and nine lines later Gene the boy describes it as "tremendous, an irate, steely black steeple beside the river." Thereafter, the distinction between Gene's two narrative voices becomes more blurred, but it is, nevertheless, quite evident on such occasions as, for example, his description of the recognition that Finny's heart was "a den of lonely, selfish ambition" (p. 48). Indeed, for several pages Gene the boy attributes to Phineas characteristics that Gene the adult knows to be entirely absent from his personality, and it is only when the adult voice chooses to reveal to us the absolute falsity of these misconceptions that we discover, as Gene did himself, that Finny is incapable of harboring evil thoughts and feelings towards others. We are deliberately kept unaware of this recognition in order that we can share the intensity of Gene's misguided feelings, and so the boy's voice, which possesses the power of evoking the immediate actuality of an experience, is the exclusive narrator of this section of the story, handing over to the adult only when it becomes important that we understand correctly the significance of what has been happening.
In general, it is the boy's voice that narrates what happens in the novel, and the man's voice that interprets and conceptualizes these events. Sometimes, however, as in the incidence just discussed, the younger Gene also provides us with his interpretations of the actions, thoughts, and feelings of the characters, and when he does so we must be aware of the unreliability of his opinions. Usually, Knowles structures the narrative so that we are misled by the boy's misconceptions only for as long as seems necessary to express the actuality of his thoughts and feelings, and then the course of events, or the adult voice, reveals to us that this adolescent interpretation is false. For example, when Mrs. Patch-Withers discovers at the headmaster's tea that Phineas is using the school tie as a belt, Gene says, "This time he wasn't going to get away with it. I could feel myself becoming unexpectedly excited at that" (p. 20). But then, of course, Finny does get away with it, and Gene tells us, "I felt a sudden stab of disappointment. That was because I just wanted to see some more excitement; that must have been it" (p. 21), a simplistic explanation that both the adult Gene and, retrospectively, the reader know to be an inadequate interpretation of a complex emotional reaction composed of admiration, envy, disappointment, and latent hatred. Again, when Gene comments on Finny's sensational performance in blitzball, it is clear that although he does not understand the nature of his own reaction, the reader and Gene's older self are meant to recognize it as another indication of his developing resentment of his roommate. "What difference did it make? It was just a game. It was good that Finny could shine at it. He could also shine at many other things, with people for instance, the others in our dormitory, the faculty; in fact, if you stopped to think about it, Finny could shine with everyone, he attracted everyone he met. I was glad of that too. Naturally. He was my roommate and my best friend." (p. 32). Moreover, the fact that this is the voice of the boy narrator is emphasized by the obvious difference in tone of the next paragraph, the narrator of which is clearly the adult: "Everyone has a moment in history which belongs to him. . . . For me, this moment—four years is a moment in history—was the war. The war was and is reality for me" (ibid.).
There are occasions, however, when the adult narrator does not later intervene to rectify young Gene's misconceptions, nor does the course of events serve to reveal the unreliability of his comments, and these are the instances when as readers we must be most careful not to accept Gene's interpretations without first scrutinizing them closely. This is particularly true of comments about Phineas. The short novel is primarily about Gene; but since Finny is the catalyst for Gene's developing personality, one must understand Phineas to understand the novel. With the exception of Peter Wolfe,5 commentators6 have been content to regard Finny as a static character, naive and romantic, who embodies all innocence, youthfulness, and purity, who cannot survive a collision with evil and violence, and who therefore denies the reality of war and is inevitably crushed by the adult, civilized, real, nasty world. This view accepts at face value such comments of young Gene as that which begins Chapter 11: "I wanted to see Phineas, and Phineas only. With him there was no conflict except between athletes, something Greek-inspired and Olympian in which victory would go to whoever was the strongest in body and heart. This was the only conflict he had ever believed in" (p. 144). But Gene is at this point suffering from the shock of Leper's madness, and so, to counteract that violent reality, he idealizes Phineas and invests him with a dignity and order, in contrast to Leper's savage chaos, which he does not really possess. And this should be evident from the next sentence in the text: "When I got back I found him in the middle of a snowball fight" (ibid.). Nor is this even an ordered snowball fight, since Finny organizes sides only so that he can turn on his original allies, double cross his new allies, and so utterly confound all loyalties that "We ended the fight in the only way possible; all of us turned on Phineas" (p. 146).
The snowball fight is important for two reasons. First, because it provides an example, other than the Winter Carnival, of Phineas's celebration of winter—Peter Wolfe has written: "By celebrating winter. . . . Phineas opts for life's harshness as well as its joys."7 And second, because it exemplifies, as does blitzball, Finny's attitude to sports. Gene tells us that his friend's attitude is "'You always win at sports,'" and goes on to add, "This 'you' was collective. Everyone always won at sports. When you played a game you won, in the same way as when you sat down to a meal you ate it. It inevitably and naturally followed. Finny never permitted himself to realize that when you won they lost. That would have destroyed the perfect beauty which was sport. Nothing bad ever happened in sports; they were the absolute good" (pp. 26-27). But this reflection belongs to Gene the boy; it has been formed "As we drifted through the summer" (p. 26), and may not, therefore, be reliable. In fact, Finny's behavior at sports suggests that it is only partially true. Neither in blitzball nor in the snowball fight is there anything tangible to be won or lost. There is no goal at which the players can arrive, nor can one team in any way defeat another since both activities are anarchic, based only on "reverses and deceptions" (p. 31), betrayal and treachery. Finny excels at blitzball, but he is delighted to lose, in so far as anyone loses, in the snowball fight, just as "he couldn't ask for anything better" (p. 11) when Gene "jumped on top of him, my knees on his chest" (ibid.) on the way back from the fatal tree. We never see Finny engaged in a sport in which some are clearly victorious and some as clearly defeated. All his awards are for good sportsmanship rather than for being the victor in this sport or that. It therefore seems that, as far as Phineas is concerned, there is no goal in sports except the sheer enjoyment of the activity itself; just to participate is to win, and since everyone can participate no one need ever lose.
Nor is it only with reference to sports that we may see Finny to represent a denial of the need that most people feel to divide life into such opposing categories as win and lose, good and evil, fantasy and reality, truth and illusion, self and other. As Paul Witherington has pointed out, "His walk, his play, and even his body itself are described as a flow, a harmony within and without, a primitive attunement to natural cycles."8 Gene, on the other hand, describes his own life as "all those tangled strands which required the dexterity of a virtuoso to keep flowing" (p. 92); but when, in his running, he suddenly finds his rhythm, breaks into the clear, arrives where Finny has always been, he says, "all entanglements were shed" (p. 112) as mind and body become one and he learns what it is to be an integrated personality. This above all is what Finny is, an integrated personality; just as "peace is indivisible" (p. 115), so is Phineas, and this means that he transcends the divisive categorizations that Gene, like most of us, attempts to impose on an indivisible universe. Not only is Finny frequently described in terms of flow,9 he is characterized as being possessed of extraordinary honesty,10 "simple, shocking self-acceptance" (p. 8), "uninterrupted, emphatic unity of strength" (p. 8), and great loyalty. All these attributes suggest that integrity, in the fullest meaning of that word, is the keystone of Phineas's character, for even his loyalty is comprehensive: "Finny had tremendous loyalty to the class, as he did to any group he belonged to, beginning with him and me and radiating outward past the limits of humanity towards spirits and clouds and the stars" (p. 34). And again, "He was too loyal to anything connected with himself—his roommate, his dormitory, his class, his school, outward in vastly expanded circles of loyalty until I couldn't imagine who would be excluded" (p. 72).
This loyalty, however, is only one expression of Finny's perception of the universe as an integrated and indivisible unity. From this perception comes his desire to celebrate winter as well as summer; his ability, after his accident, to think of Gene "as an extension of himself" (p. 171), and to transfer to him the athletic abilities that he is now incapable of exercising; his idea that "when they discovered the circle"—the universal symbol of completeness, wholeness, integrity—"they created sports" (p. 28); his assertion that "when you really love something then it loves you back, in whatever way it has to love" (p. 103); and his realization that war is a violation of sanity. Leper's madness is a confirmation of Finny's assertion that "the whole world is on a Funny Farm now" (p. 108) because the world is engaged in breaking in pieces the natural integrity of life, and Finny is able to recognize this because he has fallen victim to that "something ignorant in the human heart" (p. 193) which has "broken his harmonious and natural unity" (p. 195). Indeed, it is perhaps precisely because he knows what war is really like that Finny denies its existence, both to protect his own sanity—Leper goes mad when he meets the inverted disorder that is war—and to shelter his friends for as long as possible from its violent ravages. Nor is this possibility contradicted by Finny's revelation that he has all along been attempting to enlist in some branch, any branch, of the service. His intense loyalty compels him to do so, but Gene is, of course, absolutely correct in his recognition that this loyalty could never be limited only to Phineas's allies, but would naturally extend to the enemy as well.
For much of the novel Gene seems to regard Finny's personality as full of contradictions: "a student who combined a calm ignorance of the rules with a winning urge to be good, who seemed to love the school truly and deeply, and never more than when he was breaking the regulations, a model boy who was most comfortable in the truant's corner. (p. 16.) But Gene's development throughout the course of the novel includes a gradual acquisition of understanding which culminates in his recognition of Phineas's "way of sizing up the world with erratic and entirely personal reservations, letting its rocklike facts sift through and be accepted only a little at a time, only as much as he could assimilate without a sense of chaos and loss" (p. 194). Finny realizes that facts are not everything, and that to attempt to reduce reality to a collection of facts, to accept facts as equivalent to reality, as Brinker Hadley does, is to accept a chaotic part in place of an ordered whole and hence to suffer "a sense of chaos and loss." Phineas may often seem to contradict himself, but to such an accusation there is Whitman's reply:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes).
"Song of Myself," 51, 1324
It need not necessarily be the case, therefore, that Finny represents a way of looking at life that is so limited, so idealistic, so ignorant of actuality, that contact with reality inevitably shatters it. Instead, he is perhaps possessed of a transcendent clarity of perception that is capable of taking a larger view of life than is normal, and dies only because he is eventually outgunned by the forces that limit, reduce, and fragment the comprehensive integrity of existence.
It is, however, only possible to entertain such a view of Phineas's character and role in the novel if one first recognizes that some of the interpretations that we have of his actions, his feelings, and his thoughts derive from the unreliable commentary of Gene the boy. In order to overcome the limitations of conventional first-person narration, Knowles has divided the narrator's function between two versions of the same person, and there are, as one would expect, considerable differences in perception and understanding between the seventeen-year-old boy who conveys the immediacy of the experiences he narrates and the thirty-two year old man whose interpretations of those experiences provide the basis for our understanding of the novella. It is important, therefore, that when the boy narrator does comment on the significance of the action, we exercise greater than usual skepticism before we accept the validity of his opinions.
1. Ronald Weber, "Narrative Method in A Separate Peace," Studies in Short Fiction, 3 (Fall 1965), 63-72.
2. Ibid., p. 65.
3. Ibid., p. 72.
4. All references are to the paperback Bantam edition of the novel since it is now the most readily available.
5. Peter Wolfe, "The Impact of Knowles's A Separate Peace," University Review, 36 (Spring 1970), 189-198. Wolfe sees Phineas preeminently as the man of action who gives "full rein" to his basic impulses, the "first movers of our consciousness" which "override reason and order," and who must, therefore, rush into violent contact with life, only to be crushed by its realities.
6. See, for example, the articles by James Ellis, "A Separate Peace: The Fall from Innocence," English Journal, 53 (May 1964), 313-318; and Paul Witherington, "A Separate Peace: A Study in Structural Ambiguity," English Journal, 54 (December 1965), 795-800.
7. Wolfe, p. 194.
8. Witherington, p. 797.
9. The word flow is used specifically on pp. 15, 31, 103 and 145.
10. See, in particular, pp. 16 and 104.
Mildred K. Travis (essay date September 1975)
SOURCE: Travis, Mildred K. "Mirror Images in A Separate Peace and Cat and Mouse." Notes on Contemporary Literature 5, no. 4 (September 1975): 12-15.
[In the following essay, Travis identifies commonalities between A Separate Peace and Gunter Grass'sCat and Mouse.]
MIRROR IMAGES IN A SEPARATE PEACE AND CAT AND MOUSE
Considering John Knowles' short novelA Separate Peace 1 and Gunter Grass' novelle Cat and Mouse,2 one is surprised that the numerous mirror images in the two short works have not been noted.3 The setting of the latter reflects many properties of the former. Among them are school, compact proximity of neighborhood streets and homes, playing field, figures of leader and followers, references to diving, background of the same war, mention of troop ships, a precociousness in the leader's voice (with Finny, it's a "cordial, penetrating voice, that reverberant instrument in his chest"; with Mahlke, the prominence of the Adam's apple), binding friendship between the two main figures in each novelle, and gramophonic music where the fellows gather (dormitory of the earlier work; subterranean alcove of the later).
The character Mahlke resembles Phineas not only in his sincerity, innocence, and tendency to be followed, but also in the specific problems at school, where he—like Phineas—encounters disciplinary difficulties with faculty. Whereas Phineas is not forgiven for missing a meal, Mahlke has psychologically similar disputes over underwear. In both cases the "calm ignorance" and "careless peace" disturb the instructors. Numerous other delineations of character are comparable. An emblem worn by Phineas and admired by all is reflected in the screwdriver suspended from Mahlke's neck. In each story the narrator feels complimented by being chosen as the leader's best friend; yet both Gene and Pilenz view with suspicion if not envy the absence of sarcasm in their "best" friends. While Mahlke acquires only later in youth the skill inherent in Phineas, both characters are excellent athletes. Further, the habit of diving for wreckage among torpedoed ships seems significantly to imitate the game of diving into the swimming hole on the ground of Devon School. And both characters so skillful in their specialties show modesty in the face of prowess. Neither Phineas nor Mahlke practices his athletic skills simply for the sake of exhibition. Rather each tests himself to please his own goals.
Regarding the action, the incident of AWOL exists in both books. Phineas, of course, does not go into the military service; and at this point the action between the two works moves in separate ways. In Knowles' novelle, Lepeller is the fellow who takes absence without leave from the armed services. While the hero Phineas makes his separate peace, so to speak, on the school grounds. Neither one survives his "separate peace", however. Likewise, in Cat and Mouse, the one who attempts to quit war on his own terms does not survive his separate peace. There, the hero, Mahlke, as adept at destroying Russian tanks as he has been capable of diving for wreckage, suddenly manifests a complete reversal of role and deserts his military duties, the fatal move.
Finally, in both cases each leader—Mahlke as well as Phineas—becomes the victim of his best friend's ambiguous but effective ineptness, characterized by lack of sensitivity and by misunderstanding. Gene not only once but also a second time—if never quite consciously—causes Phineas' fall (both literal and symbolic), where the second one from the steps proves fatal. Pilenz, in Grass' novelle, likewise in the pose of helping his friend, actually contributes to Mahlke's implicit demise. While apparently aiding the chum's escape to a subterranean hideaway, where—one infers—he might survive indefinitely, Pilenz is ultimately revealed to remain on shore with the can-opener. The significance of the image, if the intent of Pilenz remains somewhat ambiguous, is that Mahlke without the device will perish from starvation, parallel symbols of castration notwithstanding. Thus in each story the leader is destroyed not by the enemy in combat but by his best friend to whom he withdraws in a separate peace.
The related images of the two works imply a tour de force by Grass. He creates a universal culpability that transcends and seemingly absolves ethnic guilt. The revealed foil of innocence, implicitly mythic yet drawn concretely in an ethnic setting, is a mirror image of the same quality in another ethnic setting. By mirroring faults and virtues in Knowles' myth of innocence from an American setting, Grass tends to reconcile the paradox and irony of history, where the animosity of two cultures are not so guilty for the destruction of the enemy (by violence and war crimes) as the more profoundly inherent adverse tendencies of human nature are guilty for all destruction: of enemy, friend, and self. Meanwhile—the theme states—man's judgment so errs in its effort that oft man cannot distinguish between enemy and friend, whereupon he kills or is killed by his own kind. Nor—the theme continues—is such error the respecter of any nation. Thus, in mirroring Knowles' work, Grass not only underscores the theme of misjudgment inA Separate Peace, but he also raises the myth of innocence and guilt from a concrete, ethnic setting to the level of universal significance. And in so escaping time and place, he not only surpasses the master from whom inspiration is evidenced but also does great credit to his "master" as he illuminates the earlier work in a more significant light.
1. John Knowles, A Separate Peace (New York: Macmillan, 1960). The writer of this article has used the paper-bound edition (New York: Bantam, 1966) which contains the complete text of the original hard-cover edition.
2. Gunter Grass, Katz und Maus (Neuwied und Berlin: Hermann Luchterhand GbH, 1961). The author of this note has used the translation by Ralph Manheim (New American Library, 1964).
3. Notice, however, Robert Weber, "Narrative Method in A Separate Peace," Studies in Short Fiction (Fall, 1965), 63-72, and W. G. Cunliffe, "Gunter Grass: Katz und Maus," Studies in Short Fiction (Winter, 1966), 1974-185. Ronald Weber brings to attention "a precise and economical craftmanship" in the narrative method of A Separate Peace. He points out the condition that, unlike the form of Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace reflects studied distance in point of view. W. G. Cunliffe maintains that Katz und Maus, among Grass' works, achieves superiority by a quality of objectivity that gives "the author better opportunity to impose form and pattern on his material." Cunliffe notices that the narrator of the novelle, not really understanding his chum Mahlke, is nevertheless aware of Mahlke's being "different from his fellows and in danger of being victimized." This narrative style, then, according to Cunliffe, succeeds in raising the significance of Katz und Maus to the level of myth, where the Adam's apple or "mouse" becomes a symbol of mythic innocence. While no connection is drawn between the two novelles, these separate critiques offer praise based on uniquely similar merits. It is quite possible that the praiseworthy craftmanship of Knowles' work inspired (sparked) the observed merits of Grass' novelle.
Wiley Lee Umphlett (essay date 1975)
SOURCE: Umphlett, Wiley Lee. "The Death of Innocence: The Paradox of the Dying Athlete." In The Sporting Myth and the American Experience: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, pp. 130-45. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1975.
[In the following excerpt, Umphlett compares A Separate Peace to Mark Harris's Bang the Drum Slowly, arguing that both novels utilize the plot device of having an athlete die in his prime as a catalyst for the self-reexamination of the supporting characters.]
it seemed clear that wars were not made by generations and their special stupidities, but that wars were made instead by something ignorant in the human heart.
—John Knowles,A Separate Peace
Dying old is in the cards, and you figure on it, and it happens to everybody, and you are willing to swallow it but why should it happen young to Bruce?
—Mark Harris, Bang the Drum Slowly
The aura of innocence surrounding the traditional figure of the sporting myth is compellingly dramatized through the image of the dying athlete in both John Knowles'sA Separate Peace (1959) and Mark Harris's Bang the Drum Slowly (1956). The predicament of dying young when contrasted with the sporting hero's quest for immortality is strikingly used in these novels to comment on the meaning of individuality in our day. In both works this definition grows out of the interrelationship of their two main characters—that between Gene and Phineas inA Separate Peace and Henry Wiggen and Bruce Pearson in Bang the Drum Slowly. In both novels, too, the death of one character results in self-knowledge for the other, who in both cases happens to be the narrator. While Gene Forrester gains a fuller understanding of the evil that separates man from man, Henry Wiggen acquires a greater respect for the worth and dignity of the individual.
Essential encounter inA Separate Peace, while set against the larger background of World War II, focuses on the minor wars declared among the schoolboys of Devon, a prominent New England preparatory school, in order to explain the larger question of why wars come about. The friendship between Gene and Phineas, two offsetting personalities in that the former is a superior student and the latter an accomplished athlete, is eventually disrupted by what at first appears to be a trifling incident but is later expanded to support the novel's inherent theme: wars are caused by "something ignorant in the human heart."
In schoolboy literature related to the sporting myth, the major conflict exists between the ivory tower and the playing field, or authority and self-expression; thus much of the significance ofA Separate Peace is projected through the imagery and metaphor of the game. It is appropriate to observe here, too, that because they provide opportunity for self-expression, the playing fields of Devon are equated with the traditional wilderness of the sporting myth. As Gene informs us near the beginning of the novel:
Beyond the gym and the fields began the woods, our, the Devon School's woods, which in my imagination were the beginning of the great northern forests. I thought that, from the Devon Woods, trees reached in an unbroken, widening corridor so far to the north that no one had ever seen the other end, somewhere up in the far unorganized tips of Canada. We seemed to be playing on the tame fringe of the last and greatest wilderness. I never found out whether this is so and perhaps it is.1
The playing field as representative of the forest in microcosm becomes the great, good place, or the "last and greatest wilderness," where the inherent innocence of Phineas can find true expression. As Gene sees it, Finny believed that
"you always win at sports." This "you" was collective. Everyone always won at sports. . . . Finny never permitted himself to realize that when you won they lost. That would have destroyed the perfect beauty which was sport. Nothing bad ever happened in sports; they were the absolute good.
The game of blitzball, which Finny himself invents to perk up a dull summer at Devon, is more than an example of his ingratiating manner with his fellow students; the game is a symbol of his very being:
He had unconsciously invented a game which brought his own athletic gifts to their highest pitch. The odds were tremendously against the ball carrier, so that Phineas was driven to exceed himself practically everyday when he carried the ball. To escape the wolf pack which all the other players became he created reverses and deceptions and acts of sheer mass hypnotism which were so extraordinary that they surprised even him; after some of these plays I would notice him chuckling quietly to himself, in a kind of happy disbelief.
Phineas has a Hemingwaylike devotion to enjoyment of sporting endeavor as a thing in itself. His breaking a school swimming record and not reporting his feat for the record emphasize both his uniqueness as an individual and his role as a type of the sporting hero, in that to Phineas the pursuit is more important than the goal. But his athletic accomplishments also add to the fear already present in the inner being of Gene, his roommate, and his best friend. Gene tells himself: "You and Phineas . . . are even in enmity. You are both coldly driving ahead for yourselves alone" (p. 45). But the interrelationship of both characters is structured to bring about the novel's tragic denouement and dramatize its basic theme.
As the story develops, Gene's gnawing but unfounded fear that Phineas, out of envy, is seeking to destroy his reputation as a student causes him to mistake Phineas's real intentions. The upshot of this is a betrayal by Gene that results eventually in the death of Phineas but ultimately in the self-education of Gene. The Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session is another one of Finny's improvisations that not only brings out his athletic ability but also further endears himself to his adventure-starved classmates. To become a member of this "secret" organization one must merely leap from a tree limb that hangs treacherously over the river skirting the Devon campus. But Finny, ever the daredevil, proposes that he and Gene jump together. Gene, for some unaccountable reason, which he later explains to Phineas as "just some ignorance inside me, some crazy thing inside me, something blind," jounces the limb, causing Finny to fall to earth and break a leg. Still the innocent, Phineas, even though now physically through with sports, vicariously continues to identify with the sporting encounter through Gene: "Listen, pal, if I can't play sports, you're going to play them for me." To which command Gene feels that "I lost part of myself to him then . . . this must have been my purpose from the first: to become a part of Phineas" (p. 77).
If, like many another figure in American literature, Phineas becomes a victim of his own innocence, then Gene, through his confrontation with the force of evil, gains self-knowledge at the expense of his own happiness, a state symbolized by his former relationship with Phineas. A dominant theme in our literature, the death of innocence results from the growth of experience. From the time of breaking his leg on, Phineas's existence, both physically and symbolically, becomes a slow death; and as Gene progresses in self-knowledge, Phineas diminishes in force as individual while increasing as image and symbol. A central trait of Gene's makeup is revealed when he says:
I was used to finding something deadly in things that attracted me; there was always something deadly lurking in anything I wanted, anything I loved. And if it wasn't there, as for example with Phineas, then I put it there myself.
Contrast this outlook with that of Phineas, who, Gene observes, is "a poor deceiver, having had no practice," and in whom there "was no conflict except between athletes, something Greek-inspired and Olympian in which victory would go to whoever was the strongest in body and heart" (p. 144). In becoming a part of Phineas, though, Gene is made more aware of the difference between his own nature and Finny's, of the distinction between good and evil, of the contrast between illusion and reality.
Phineas, then, is the incarnation of the sporting hero before the fall, and in his world of the game there is no reminder of the real war going on in the outside world. When he is training Gene in his place for the '44 Olympics, Finny refutes Gene's observation that there will be no Olympics in 1944 with: "Leave your fantasy life out of this. We're grooming you for the Olympics, pal, in 1944." Phineas's flat denial of a schoolmaster's remark that "Games are all right in their place . . . but all exercise today is aimed of course at the approaching Waterloo" is not only indicative of his natural antipathy toward the authoritarian attitude of the academician, but also exemplifies his philosophy of a world without war or, in effect, a world of Edenic innocence. Perhaps the one activity in the novel that best illustrates Phineas's special genius for maintaining his sense of the way the world should be is his organization of a winter carnival, a kind of comic bacchanal performed in the dead of the New England winter. Because of it, Gene tells us that a "liberation" had been "torn from the gray encroachments of 1943, that an escape had been concocted, this afternoon of momentary, illusory, special and separate peace" (p. 128). In this womanless world of the Devon School for boys, Phineas's outlook asserts that the innocent state can be retained for as long as one can separate self from the manmade or obligatory realities that engulf it. However, Knowles implies that the seeds of discord are inherent in man, and we sense that it is only a matter of time before Finny's ideal world will be destroyed.
Paradoxically, it is Leper Lepellier's departure as "the Devon School's first recruit to World War II" that serves as the catalyst for Gene's encounter with self and prepares the way for the novel's denouement. Leper, viewed as an oddball by his classmates, is a romantic who finds personal identification with the simple realities of nature. Thus he is easily persuaded by a recruiting movie about the ski troops that at least one area of the war experience has its fine moments. However, Leper's sensitivity is undermined by his contact with the military, and after fleeing this alien existence for the security of his Vermont home, he sends for Gene, a friend he believes he can confide in. Now, though, with a more realistic perspective on life, Leper is moved to remind Gene of his evil act: "'You always were a savage underneath. I always knew that only I never admitted it. . . . Like a savage underneath . . . like that time you knocked Finny out of the tree'" (p. 137). Leper, once an innocent himself, can now recognize evil for what it is, and Gene, although fearful of the truth, in yet another step toward self-awareness must return to Devon and Phineas to discover it for himself. Phineas, still holding onto his "separate peace," reveals to Gene an even more heightened contrast between illusion and reality. As Gene says:
I found Finny beside the woods playing and fighting—the two were approximately the same thing to him—and I stood there wondering whether things weren't simpler and better at the northern terminus of these woods, a thousand miles due north into the wilderness, somewhere deep into the Arctic, where the peninsula of trees which began at Devon would end at last in an untouched grove of pine, austere and beautiful.
Once again the sporting figure is identified with the primal virtues of the wilderness, and standing on the edge of Finny's snowball fight, Gene is hesitant as to which side to join, his outlook reflecting his present state of being—a Hegelian sense of self-alienation in which a dialectical development controls the individual consciousness and its progress from innocence to maturity. Having become increasingly aware of two antithetical ways of looking at experience, Gene, at this point, can say of his own experience that he no longer needed a "false identity; now I was acquiring, I felt, a sense of my own real authority and worth, I had had many new experiences and I was growing up" (p. 148). Now, "growing up" demands the renunciation of the illusory world of the child, and in terms of Gene's new experience, Phineas and what he stands for must "die." During a secret court in which Gene is placed on trial, the truth of what actually happened in the tree is about to be revealed, but Finny, in one last effort to cling to the significance of his world, rushes from the room, falls down a flight of stairs, and reinjures his leg. Complications set in, and a few days later he is dead.
The death of Phineas is necessary to Gene's experience, because, even though Phineas had thought of Gene as an "extension of himself," Gene's contact with the real facts of existence compels a break with the way of life Phineas represents. As Gene puts it concerning Phineas's funeral: "I could not escape a feeling that this was my own funeral, and you do not cry in that case" (p. 186). The death of innocence—the world of illusion and Edenic reverie—has instilled in Gene a new way of "seeing." After one of his last talks with Phineas, Gene feels that he now has to "cope with something that might be called double vision," since the familiar objects of the campus have taken on a different appearance:
I saw the gym in the glow of a couple of outside lights near it and I knew of course that it was the Devon gym which I entered every day. It was and it wasn't. There was something innately strange about it, as though there had always been an inner core to the gym which I had never perceived before, quite different from its generally accepted appearance. It seemed to alter moment by moment before my eyes, becoming for brief flashes a totally unknown building with a significance much deeper and far more real than any I had noticed before . . . and under the pale night glow the playing fields swept away from me in slight frosty undulations which bespoke meanings upon meanings, levels of reality I had never suspected before, a kind of thronging and epic grandeur which my superficial eyes and cluttered mind had been blind to before.
Gene's new vision now focuses on complexities where there had formerly been a simple plain of existence equated with the innocent world of sporting endeavor. With the death of Phineas, then, Gene's essential encounter is complete, and at the end of the story he tells us:
I was ready for the war, now that I no longer had any hatred to contribute to it. My fury was gone, I felt it gone, dried up at the source, withered and lifeless. Phineas had absorbed it and taken it with him, and I was rid of it forever.
Phineas, whose special attitude would have made him a casualty, escapes the disintegrating effect of war, whether it be between individuals or nations, escapes even the fact of losing his basic innocence and growing into a Christian Darling or a Rabbit Angstrom. The "separate peace" declared by Phineas is genuine, for as Gene observes in comparing Phineas with his other classmates:
Only Phineas never was afraid, only Phineas never hated anyone. Other people experienced this fearful shock somewhere, this sighting of the enemy, and so began an obsessive labor of defense, began to parry the menace they saw facing them by developing a particular frame of mind.
In contrasting two complementary types of the sporting myth,A Separate Peace meaningfully dramatizes the dangers involved when the individual encounters this inner enemy, for it is a powerful and mysterious foe, one that demands a special kind of defense.
Like Phineas, Bruce Pearson of Mark Harris's Bang the Drum Slowly is an innocent type, but a Jack Keefe kind of innocent, who apparently commands little respect from his associates and who ironically knows that he is going to die. Unlike other sporting figures, Bruce has little status as a third-string catcher for the New York Mammoths (he is a big-league player however), while the story's narrator, Henry Wiggen, is a starting pitcher for the club. But we shall see that such a relationship is essential to the story's theme. Apparently feeling that Henry is the only person he can confide in, Bruce calls him during the off-season with the news that he is in a hospital in Rochester, Minnesota. Upon his arrival there, Henry discovers that Bruce is suffering from Hodgkin's disease and is given not too long to live, or, as Bruce puts it, "I am doomeded." Henry, who has never really been too friendly with Bruce before (he has strange habits like urinating in hotel washbowls and spitting tobacco juice out of the windows), feels compelled now to take Bruce under his wing. In order that Bruce not be dismissed from the club and may bow out gracefully, Henry resolves not to tell anyone on the team of Bruce's condition during what may be his final season in baseball. It is this special knowledge of Bruce's tragic predicament that bring's about Henry's experience of encounter, for now he begins to observe things and events in a new light. Upon leaving Minnesota for Bruce's home in Georgia, Henry hears the station attendant who puts anti-freeze in their car remark that "This will last you a lifetime." Henry is moved to reflect on this statement:
You would be surprised if you listen to the number of times a day people tell you something will last a lifetime, or tell you something killed them, or tell you they are dead. "I was simply dead," they say, "He killed me," "I am dying," which I never noticed before but now begun to notice more and more. I don't know if Bruce did. You never know what he notices nor what he sees, nor if he hears, nor what he thinks.2
As an innocent, Bruce is seemingly oblivious to the social significance of what goes on around him. His is an instinctive nature that finds itself most at home in familiar surroundings, and the closer they get to Bruce's home near Bainbridge, the more emotionally intense become his recollections of the playing fields of his youth. As Henry puts it, to Bruce "Georgia is a special place, different than all the others"—another reference to the great, good place that seems solidly imbedded in the subconscious of the sporting figure, a place where he "would of give most anything to settle down forever on . . . , never mind the fame and the glory, only give him time to live" (p. 27). Thus, during his stay at home, Bruce is moved to ask Henry a question that has perplexed the philosophers of all ages:
tell me why in hell I clumb to the top of the mill a million times and never fell down and killed myself, and why I never drowneded in the river, and why I never died in the war, and why I was never plastered by a truck but come clean through it all and now get this disease?
It is a question, of course, that Henry cannot answer, but one that gives him an even more sensitive insight into Bruce's plight: "He stood a chance of living a long time yet, not too long but long enough, and I tried to keep him thinking of things yet ahead" (pp. 41-42). If, as usual, the theme of the dying athlete stresses the brevity of life, in this case it also lays emphasis on the unique worth and dignity of the individual. When Henry tells his wife, Holly, of Bruce's situation, he reveals that "she always liked him. She always said, 'Add up the number of things about him that you hate and despise, and what is left? Bruce is left'" (p. 14).
To Henry, the competitive nature of the game of baseball itself reflects the intrinsic worth of any human being, even when he exists as opponent: "'The man you are facing is not a golf ball sitting there waiting for you to bash him. He is a human being, and he is thinking, trying to see through your system and trying to hide his own'" (p. 72). In answer to Bruce's admission that he has "never been smart," Henry praises those natural instincts of Bruce that distinguish him from other individuals:
You been dumb on one count only. You left somebody tell you you were dumb. But you are not. You know which way the rivers run, which I myself do not know. . . .
You know what is planted in the fields and you know the make of cows. Who in hell on this whole club knows one cow from the other? I could be stranded in the desert with 412 cows and die of thirst and hunger for all I know about a cow.
Dutch Schnell, the manager of the Mammoths, is aware of something strange about the relationship between Henry and Bruce, and is fearful of what their actions might do to his team's pennant chances. A holdout at the beginning of the season, Henry, before signing, has a clause put into his contract insuring that he and Bruce "will stay with the club together, or else go together." Dutch is determined to get to the bottom of the matter, since he feels that his catching department is weak anyway. In fact, he hates putting Bruce in the lineup, because he always errs in receiving and giving signs. Consequently, Bruce is a kind of nonentity to Dutch, who never "spoke to him when he seen him around. But he carried him along. To him Bruce was a spare part rattling in the trunk that you hardly even remember is there between looks" (p. 78).
In this work, which owes so much to the Mark Twain-Ring Lardner vernacular tradition, Harris has used irony in such a controlled manner that he manages to avoid the pitfall of sentimentality. The drama of the story is heightened by the process of Bruce's slow death being played out against the background of a championship pennant race, Henry's finest pitching record in several seasons, and Holly's giving birth to Henry's first child. The skillful interweaving of these events creates a poignant situation in which the significance of Bruce Pearson's role and identity is sharpened to its most meaningful extent. The meaning of life takes on more immediacy because of the fact of impending death. It should be noted also that Henry's position as a life insurance salesman during the off-season adds much to the basic framework of the story, where in the beginning he informs us that he has already sold Bruce a $50,000 policy, the kind Henry refers to as "North Pole coverage" because it "covers everything except sunstroke at the North Pole." It is the role of this insurance policy in Bang the Drum Slowly that affords us still another example of the strained relationship between sporting figure and woman.
Naïve, and lacking in self-awareness, Bruce has fallen in love with a prostitute named Katie, whom he wants to marry. Katie, who runs a lucrative business at her place, is not interested in marrying someone "dumb from the country," but she is interested in Bruce's insurance policy. Apparently aware of his dying condition, she urges him to change the beneficiary to her name and then she will marry him. Bruce presents her request to Henry a number of times, but Henry, wise to Katie's designs, always manages an excuse. He also successfully wards off Katie's temptations, one of which is a "golden lifetime pass" to her establishment. To Katie's observation that life is short, so "why not live it up a little?" Henry replies:
"I do not know," I said, and that was true, for I did not. Do not ask me why you do not live it up all the time when dying is just around the corner, but you don't. You would think you would, but you don't. "I do not know why," I said.
Some of the other team members, who have always looked upon Bruce as a fall guy, begin to "rag" him concerning either his "pending" marriage with Katie or his unseemly relationship with Henry. Finally, in an attempt to curtail some of the jokes about Bruce, Henry tells Goose Williams about his condition. Goose is sworn to secrecy, but he tells his roommate, and after Bruce suffers an attack, Henry urges his teammates to let up on him. It is not long before the entire club learns of Bruce's predicament. Their collective attitude at this point is akin to that of Henry's when he condemns his own selfish thoughts:
When your roomie is libel to die any day on you you do not think about bonus clauses, and that is the truth whether anybody happens to think so or not. Your mind is on now if you know what I mean. You might tell yourself 100 times a day, "Everybody dies sooner or later," and that might be true, too, which in fact it is now that I wrote it, but when it is happening sooner instead of later you keep worrying about what you say now, and how you act now. There is no time to say, "Well, I been a heel all week but I will be better to him beginning Monday" because Monday might never come.
Now painfully aware of one individual's mortality and his role in life, the team begins to recognize Bruce's unique contribution to the success of their pennant drive. Although weak at detecting signs, Bruce is a dependable hitter, and Dutch feels compelled to put him in the lineup for this ability alone. The fact that Bruce is playing a position for which he is not suited (Henry attests to this fact throughout the novel) adds to his functional significance in the story. Furthermore, the juxtaposition of Bruce's plight with the devil-may-care attitude of his replacement, Piney Woods, lends emphasis to yet another irony of life—some individuals taunt the very image of death and still go on living. When he is not playing baseball, Piney gives Dutch gray hairs by driving motorcycles in such reckless fashion that one player remarks, "With all the ways of dying you would think a fellow would wait for them, not go out looking." But near the end of the season death comes looking for Bruce Pearson, and he finishes up on the bench as cadaverous in appearance as the image of the cowboy in Piney's song, parts of which periodically appear in this section of the story:
O bang the drum slowly and play the fife lowly,
Play the dead march as they carry me on,
Put bunches of roses all over my coffin,
Roses to deaden the clods as they fall.
At the close of the novel, after Henry's having served as a "pallbear" at Bruce's funeral, his eulogy exists as a reminder that his encounter, or education in learning to respect the worth of the individual, is over:
He was not a bad fellow, no worse than most and probably better than some, and not a bad ballplayer neither when they give him a chance, when they laid off him long enough. From here on in I rag nobody.
It is significant that both narrators of the novels examined in this section grow as individuals through their intimate relationship with the experience of the other, more tragic figures. Bang the Drum Slowly is infinitely more than a dirge or eulogy for a fallen sporting hero. It is a humanistic hymn that, in recognizing man's fallibility and mortality, also praises his identity in the common experience of all men.
1. John Knowles, A Separate Peace (New York: Bantam Books, 1966), p. 23.
2. Mark Harris, Bang the Drum Slowly (New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1962), p. 11.
Gordon E. Slethaug (essay date fall 1984)
SOURCE: Slethaug, Gordon E. "The Play of the Double in A Separate Peace." Canadian Review of American Studies 15, no. 3 (fall 1984): 259-70.
[In the following essay, Slethaug maintains that A Separate Peace attempts to embody and contrast the two conceptions of play—that of agon and paidia—in the two main characters of Gene and Phineas.]
By Johan Huizinga's account in Homo Ludens, play is present in a broad range of cultural activities, including religious observance, poetry, philosophy and organized combat: "The spirit of playful competition is, as a social impulse, older than culture itself and pervades all life like a veritable ferment. Ritual grew up in sacred play; poetry was born in play and nourished on play; music and dancing were pure play. Wisdom and philosophy found expression in words and forms derived from religious contests. The rules of warfare, the conventions of noble living were built up on play-patterns."1 Later critics such as Roger Caillois and Jacques Ehrmann, however, find this definition too narrow, for one thing because Huizinga retains only one characteristic of play, agon, its competitive aspect, whereas another important consideration is paidia, spontaneous play.2 These are two important kinds of play, each with a beginning and end, a magic circle of activity, players, the goal of winning, and certain rules, the violation of which is without question foul play. Through the device of the double, John Knowles inA Separate Peace compares two fundamentally different conceptions of the game of life, Gene's, which is a great, hostile and crushingly serious agon for domination, and Phineas' which is flippantly playful, truly paidiac.
Although this handling of play is unique toA Separate Peace, the nature of the double itself follows customary usage. As Milton F. Foster points out, the book shares a common basis with such works as The Secret Sharer and Heart of Darkness where the narrator is the main character but where the other character, his alter ego, occupies most of his thoughts.3 This view of the second self as a projection of the protagonist's unconscious is fully elaborated both by Otto Rank and Ralph Tymms who see this phenomenon in Freudian terms as Narcissism.4 In these works, there is a significant sense in which one character parallels or contrasts with another in a deliberate and obvious way, so that the two are seen to be complementary or warring aspects of a central self or identity. In the romances of Conrad these characters may resemble each other, oftentimes exactly although sometimes in fierce opposition, but in more realistic works such as The Sun Also Rises, The Great Gatsby andA Separate Peace, these characters (Jake Barnes and Robert Cohn, Gatsby and Nick, Gene and Finny) will not wholly resemble each other physically but will still have enough affinity that there is no mistaking their relationship nor the resultant implied character-ideal projected by the conflict. In this respect,A Separate Peace and these predecessors perfectly illustrate Rank's and Carl Keppler's thesis that the significant literature of the double results from a notion of twinship, either the twin as evil persecutor or beneficent savior.5 But this book carries the issue even further: Gene is the persecuting double, bent upon his own selfish will to power and desired annihilation of Finny, while Finny is the beneficent double, through his sacrificial death bringing about hope and spiritual growth for Gene.
Knowles's purpose in creating this double is to explore two radically different ways of relating with people and coping with an environment. These ways, agon and paidia, contrast the contestable, competitive attitude and warlike spirit in which the playful is largely absent with a lighthearted, carefree and joyful spirit of play in which the competitive, battling element is sharply reduced. Gene's is the spirit of agon, serious rivalry tantamount to war where the spirit of friendliness and play is buried, and Phineas' is the attitude of paidia, a generally more ludic vision, where human relations are characterized less by competition and more by the spirit of true joy and unfettered play.
The book's story line is deceptively simple. The narrator, Gene Forrester, and his friend, Phineas (Finny), are both students at Devon, an eastern American private school. The narrator is the more conscientious student of the two, but Phineas is the more gifted athletically and socially. Because Phineas is so well liked and because he seems often to draw Gene away from his studies, the narrator becomes more and more anxious and competitive, finally causing crippling injury to his friend. The book concludes following a kangaroo court session in which Gene is accused of deliberately injuring Finny and after which Finny, rushing from the session, reinjures himself and dies during corrective surgery.
Knowles creates the notion of the double both with respect to the symbolic setting and time of the tale as well as to the characters themselves. The New England setting of the story, the magic circle of the game, is punctuated by the private school and its situation between two rivers, the Devon and the Naguamsett. These two rivers, one pure and fresh, the other ugly, dirty, marshy and salty are divided by a dam. As James Ellis concludes, the Devon suggests Eden, a place for prelapsarian joy and happiness, while the Naguamsett indicates a landscape destroyed by the fall.6 The school itself stands as a paradox with a double sensibility much like the rivers. Gene describes this sensibility as "opulant sobriety."7 Although the buildings are unadornedly built of typically New England College red brick and white clapboard shutters, the inside exceeds and undermines the puritan exterior. The inside consists of pink and white marble with heavy ornamentation and crystal chandeliers. The two styles belie one another and suggest radical dissonance. (This dissonance, of course, reflects the notions of games for Gene and Phineas. Gene's is the serious, practical, Puritan view, while Phineas' is the ebullient, baroque and whimsical.)
The time and seasons of the story carry similar connotations of yoked, apparently irreconcilable polarities. Beginning during the lazy summer of 1942 before America was completely geared up and committed to the war, this part of the story stresses the idyllic, peaceful, relaxed and non-conventional school term tragically concluded by Finny's injury that leads into the formal, conventional austere Fall and Winter terms during which the warfront is brought to the fore of everyone's conscious and subconscious life. Consequently, summer and peace are opposed to winter and war, though both are seen as necessary, partially tragic, bondings of opposites. The Second World War where man's competitive games are carried to their most comprehensive and devastating conclusions, is the controlling metaphor of the book. This metaphor, expanded to its fullest, becomes, as James L. McDonald notes, the theme of war, embracing the conflict of nations which results from the conflicts and misunderstandings of individuals such as Gene and Finny that ultimately stem from an unresolved conflict within the self, something primal and ineradicable within every man.8
This conflict is best seen through the characters of Gene and Finny, one from the North and one from the South, who are highlighted against the background of Devon. As their friend Leper notes when seeing them together in the tree before Finny's fall, they "looked as black as—as black as death standing up there with this fire burning all around them" (p. 157). At that moment the two stand virtually indistinguishable and harmonious: neither exists independently of the other. In fact, the purpose of their presence in that fatal tree is to take the "double jump," in which the two boys, identical in age, height and build, are to establish a new record by jumping together. To a great extent, the boys have a special intuitive twin-like rapport, and this jump is designed to cement that bond which has been seen before, for instance when Finny intuitively knows that Gene is afraid to jump, and when he openly expresses admiration for Gene's tan while Gene is secretly admiring his.
This quality of the second self knowing what the first is thinking is one of those attributes of the double tradition, for it marks the inexplicable, almost magical sympathy between the two personalities.9 At this point in the relationship the bonding of the ludic and agonic is still wholesome. Gene's agon has not yet grown uncontrollable, though it will shortly do so. The two tend to be viewed as doubles also by their classmates even after the fall and Finny's disabling, as indicated when Gene applies as assistant manager of the team and Quackenbush refers to him as maimed, and later at the kangaroo court when Brinker snidely comments that Finny seems to have Gene's words in his mouth. Together the two could have been strongly supportive, a blending of highly diverse and contrary elements within human nature, but as they stand, the triumphs and achievements of Finny tend to gall Gene, pushing him toward the precipice of catastrophe that typifies the realistic double.10 Gene sees Finny as a tempter, while the reader sees Gene as the typically malevolent betraying pursuer of the double tradition. An irrational opposition exists between them even as does an irrational attraction. As is typical of the human context, in this fictional world the polarities are not permitted to merge, blend and unite. Rather, they pull apart, largely due to Gene who sees a growing threat in the person of Finny, even while he is attracted to him and held by their friendship. It is Finny in fact through whom Gene comes to define and understand himself.
The spirit of paidia, Phineas is described as a green-eyed, five foot eight and one half inch athletic youth who balances "on one foot on the prow of a canoe like a river god, his . . . body a complex set of balances and compensations, each muscle aligned in perfection with all the others . . . his whole body hanging between river and sky as though he had transcended gravity and might by gently pushing upward with his foot glide a little way higher and remain suspended in space, encompassing all the glory of the summer and offering it to the sky" (p. 63). His combined good looks, fine sense of balance and tremendous energy create the sense of an adamic, unfallen youth or some Dionysus whose physical beauty predates and transcends his twentieth-century context and whose playful attitude has not been corrupted by any negative spirit of competition.11 His athletic triumphs reinforce this picture, for without much exertion Finny manages to take several prizes for football, hockey and other bodily-contact sports. In one especially telling instance, he swims the pool with only Gene present, earning a better time than the champion swimmer but refusing to divulge the results for public acclaim or to repeat the incident in front of others. He does things for himself, not for public approval and congratulation. In effect, he has no spirit of competition; he simply tests himself within the rules of the game and performs as well as he can. For him the game itself is in most respects his opposing player. He has no particular wish to compete with and win over another person.
When Finny feels that the rules of the game need to be abandoned or changed, he does so with delight for he is not one to be tied to unnecessary and inconsequential rules: he is "a student who combined a calm ignorance of the rules with a winning urge to be good, who seemed to love the school truly and deeply, and never more than when he was breaking the regulations, a model boy who was most comfortable in the truant's corner" (p. 15). In this way he is, as Claire Rosenfield points out, the "good-bad boy" in the sentimental American tradition.12 When he bends or breaks the rules and shows his unconventionality, he does so with no animosity and so wins others to his opinion, no matter how outrageous the occasion. Only he can with impunity skip dinner after dinner or sleep at the beach when he should be in his room studying. Only he can wear a pink shirt in 1942 and not be called a fairy. And only he can wear the Devon school tie incorrectly as a belt and not be punished by the headmaster. He is equally imaginative and successful in creating his own games and rules. In effect, as the spirit of play, his mind is continually inventive, thinking up new games which will serve as amusement and joy for others. It is he who thinks up the game of Blitzball and the rules for jumping from the trees. Finny is also the one who, even after his leg has been splintered, invents the winter carnival, a sort of boys' school Mardi Gras where invention and chaos take primacy over convention and order. Finny is the spirit of playful inventiveness and freedom from circumscribing rules.
Finny's manic quality extends into every corner of his personality and life. His seemingly careless abandonment of the rules results from a fundamentally spontaneous, antic, Hellenistic nature which is not limited or distorted by sharply defined intellectual or moral prescription. He feels and enjoys without holding his emotions in reserve or fearing the social repercussions of his gaiety. Quite naturally in the midst of his joy, he tells Gene of his affection for him, to which the narrator admits: "It was a courageous thing to say. Exposing a sincere emotion nakedly like that at the Devon School was the next thing to suicide. I should have told him then that he was my best friend also and rounded off what he had said. I started to; I nearly did. But something held me back. Perhaps I was stopped by that level of feeling, deeper than thought, which contains the truth" (p. 38). Gene's level of feeling, deeper than thought, is agonistic, founded on personal antagonism and even subconscious dislike. Finny's level of feeling, deeper than thought, is one of complete joi de vivre, love and support, whatever the occasion: when Gene lashes out at him for interfering with his studies, Finny is most gracious in backing off; when Gene almost falls out of the tree, Finny risks saving him; when it becomes clear to Finny that Gene has pushed him from the tree, Finny is deeply hurt but ultimately forgiving. His sense of play is morally and physically uplifting for him and others.
Although Finny's self-expression is instinctual and uninhibited by social rules or intellectual restrictions, he is neither morally unconscious nor ignorant. He does nothing dishonest, and he does not lie, never intending deliberately to deceive people or to make himself look good. What may in certain instances seem deceptive is mere playfulness and gamesmanship. Even his declaration that there is no war in Europe is less a stubborn refusal to see reality than a means of sustaining a group joke and snubbing his nose at a war that is radically changing his environment from one of youthful innocence and sportiveness to one of adult experience and cynicism. Of course, his refusal to admit the war into his sphere of reality is also, as he says, a means of protecting his feelings: he desperately wants to participate in this heroic enterprise but is refused because of his splintered leg. Rather than growing negative and bitter, self-accusing and accusing of others, he playfully says there is no war and by that means buoys up his own spirit as well as his classmates'. In short, Finny is an exquisite, unique, prelapsarian youth with "an extra vigor, a heightened confidence in himself, a serene capacity for affection. . . . Nothing as he was growing up at home, nothing at Devon, nothing even about the war had broken his harmonious and natural unity. So [the narrator adds] at last I had" (p. 184). The narrator's tribute to Finny is truly touching, capturing as it does the "liberation we had torn from the gray encroachments of 1943, the escape we had concocted, [the] . . . momentary, illusory, special and separate peace" (p. 121). Finny encapsulates all that is best and highest in youth, all that is possible when filled with the sense of the ludic, and Gene with his guilt-ridden knowledge of having destroyed him represents the tragic vision of conflict that opposes the playful one of comedy and peace.
Although Finny calls Gene his best friend, Gene is unable to return the compliment despite his later coming to realize the inherent value of the relationship. But until just before Finny's death, Gene cannot let go of his opposition to Finny. With his distinctly Spartan sensibility, he must see everything as agon, as a competition to the death. Finny and Gene are much alike, but at the same time they are polar opposites as much as the Devon and the Naguamsett are physically or as much as Summer differs from Winter. Although the book centers first on Finny (Gene is not even named for the first twenty-seven pages), the reader is always interested in Gene's reaction to Finny because Gene is the narrator and because he obviously has changing reactions to his friend, ranging from love and adulation to envy, mistrust and hate. Of the same height and build as Finny, Gene can wear his clothing. But unlike Finny, Gene is not especially athletic and mistrusts himself and others in sports. He maintains, "I didn't trust myself in them, and I didn't trust anyone else. It was as though football players were really bent on crushing the life out of each other, as though boxers were in combat to the death, as though even a tennis ball might turn into a bullet" (p. 72). For him harmless sports become harmful combats, tennis balls turning into bullets, paidia into agon.
Consequently, Gene initially considers himself capable of serving only as an assistant team manager, though when Finny later trains him he seems capable of something better. Similarly, he does not have the energy and endurance of Finny and tends to be fearful of jumping out of the tree until Finny shames him into it, fearful of missing dinner or spending an illegal night on the beach, and fearful of dropping an examination. Gene's laurels are not garnered in the world of sports but in academia where he aims to be the best in the class, not just a good student, but an exceptional one. He puts his mind to this task in a cynical way, knowing that his rival, Chet Douglass, is "weakened by the very genuineness of his interest in learning" (p. 44). Gene has no genuine interest in learning but only in becoming the head of the class; his is a single-minded, competitive spirit where he aims not to improve himself and his mind or to test himself against the subject matter, but rather to pit himself against all oncomers, all academic contestants, and to defeat them, to crush the life out of them. Gene lives by his intellect, by his rational side, with the edge of competition sharply honed to keep him in isolation.
Gene feels this competition and rivalry to be quintessential Devon. He notices those instincts in himself, and he attributes them to others as well. So, he aims at being head of the class because he assumes that Finny aims at being the best athlete in order to subvert Gene's own triumph. Early in the summer of '42 he comes to this "realization": "I found it. I found a single sustaining thought. The thought was, You and Phineas are even already. You are even in enmity. You are both coldly driving ahead for yourselves alone. You did hate him for breaking that school swimming record, but so what? He hated you for getting an A in every course but one last term. You would have had an A in that one except for him. Except for him" (p. 43). Furthermore, he says of Finny: ". . . I had detected that Finny's was a den of lonely, selfish ambition. He was no better than I was, no matter who won all the contests" (p. 46). Contrary to what Gene believes or wishes to admit, what he discloses in these thoughts is not Finny's competitive nature but his own because he is a youth who sees everything as competition and rivalry and everyone as an enemy striving to win a battle.
Because Gene regards everyone as a rival or an enemy, he maintains even fifteen years later that "The war was and is reality for me. I still instinctively live and think in its atmosphere" (p. 31). To some extent, Gene's pushing Finny off the branch, setting in motion the circumstances leading to Finny's death, is integrally tied to his own view of life as war. Guiltily, he notes: "I never killed anybody [in the Second World War] and I never developed an intense hatred for the enemy. Because my war ended before I ever put on a uniform; I was on active duty all my time at school; I killed my enemy there" (pp. 185-86). Because Gene perceives his classmates as enemies, he adopts the secretive cunning of a fighter who feels that the game of life does not consist of right or wrong but of the vanquishers and the vanquished, the winners and the losers. He believes that "The thing to be was careful and self-preserving" (p. 143).
He will lie implicitly or explicitly to preserve his image; so, he puts pictures above his bed which will lead people to believe that he is landed gentry from the deep South; and when he is put on trial at the kangaroo court, he lies about not being in the tree when Finny fell so that his crime will not be discovered. He also has a kind of animal cunning which allows him to think that, because Leper has become psychotic and has been given a dishonorable discharge from the war, his testimony against Gene will not be believed by his classmates. Of course, he is wrong about that one, but the incident still illustrates the devious, circumlocutional quality of his mind and morality. Leper, in fact, sees right through him when he remarks: "You always were a lord of the manor, weren't you? A swell guy, except when the chips were down. You always were a savage underneath" (p. 128).
Gene finally wants to win so badly that he will violate the rules of the game, undermining and even abolishing the game element. Civilized play gives way to savage carnage. Huizinga has noticed that the truly agonistic often borders on meanness, and will, in certain instances, subvert the joy of the game: "Tension and uncertainty as to the outcome increase enormously when the antithetical element becomes really agonistic in the play of groups. The passion to win sometimes threatens to obliterate the levity proper to a game."13 Since Gene understands so little about paidia, the spirit of play, the idea of winning supersedes his respect for the skill and honor of playing and winning or losing by the rules. As a result, he engages in several forms of combat which are considered non-paideiac and non-agonistic and which, ultimately, subvert the game: "The surprise, the ambush, the raid, the punitive expedition and wholesale extermination."14 For him playful competition gives way to a lust for power.
Given his attitude to life as agonistic conflict, ultimately war itself, and his view of ethics as survival tactics, Gene's mode of operation at Devon and his undermining of Finny are characteristic. He is fearful of authorities and does not wish to challenge their rules directly, nor does he wish to lose face with his comrades. He does not want others to know that he is subverting the game's rules, even the game itself. As a result, he often feels caught in a dilemma, caught between supporting the established rules and saving face with Finny who cares little about rules. When faced with that dilemma, he inwardly resents Finny and does his best to subvert him. Even when Finny saves him from falling out of the tree, he is at first thankful and then scornful, first praising and then blaming him. Because Gene cannot learn openness, cannot back away from his rationalized, protective view of life, his jealousy and resentment of Finny grow. Instead of being a "harmonious and natural unity" as is Finny, he becomes fragmented and unnatural. When that unnaturalness and fragmentation intensify, Gene must destroy Finny by pushing him out of the tree; Finny is his rival double that must be destroyed.
The act of pushing Finny has two direct consequences: it makes a cripple of Finny, forcing him to reassess his view of life; and it subjects Gene to a considerable amount of guilt and a new perception of himself in relation to Finny. Physically, Finny's fall is tragic, partially crippling him. Metaphysically, the fall is even more tragic but necessarily human, as was Adam's in eating the fruit or Donatello's of Hawthorne's Marble Faun in murdering the model.15 But the difference in these falls is that Finny is not responsible for his own whereas Adam and Donatello were. Nevertheless, in all cases a new standard of behavior is imposed and a world view revised. Finny is, of course, physically harmed by the fall, his leg splintered in such a way that he cannot participate in sports. His sphere of play is sharply circumscribed. Still, his attitude is, for the most part, one of cheerful optimism. He does not blame Gene, and he continues to laugh and joke.
At certain times, however, he shows a growing negative sensitivity to his wounding; he acknowledges that he now understands the world and human motivation (the fat old men who organize the war) because he has suffered. And some of his jokes have a cynical, cutting edge: there is no war for him because he is crippled and cannot be accepted into the military. Yet, he does not fully suffer until he realizes the extent of Gene's conscious betrayal of him, until he realizes that Gene viewed him as an enemy and pushed him from the tree out of hate, until he realizes that Gene has wantonly destroyed the very game itself. When he comes to the painful awareness that Gene wanted to hurt him, he almost despairs, but Gene's confession to him brings him around once again to an acceptance of their friendship and life, to his belief in the continuing beneficence of their game and friendship. Finny can come to this acceptance because he himself bears no guilt.
Gene, however, comes to bear a hideous sense of shame as a result of breaking the understood rules of the game, try as he may to suppress that fact. Initially, he manages to conceal from himself the implications of his act. He forgets that Leper had watched him push Finny, and he does not consciously assimilate the fact that Leper has withdrawn from him. Nor does he fully realize the extent to which his classmates blame and mistrust him, though he is certainly given a strong indication in the Butt Room. Not until Leper goes away, escaping from the military, and Gene visits him, does Gene realize Leper's resentment about his responsibility. Gene, however, strangely rationalizes his role in Finny's fall and begins to feel that he has in some way taken the place of Finny. He becomes the overreacher who tries to destroy his double and usurp his function. In terms of game theory, he has taken Finny out of the game and attempts to serve as a stand-in. He tries to play two roles simultaneously.
Consequently, it is hardly accidental that, after maiming Finny, Gene begins to wear his clothing, even his pink shirt. He remarks with satisfaction: "when I looked in the mirror it was no remote aristocrat I had become, no character out of daydreams. I was Phineas, Phineas to the life. I even had his humorous expression in my face, his sharp, optimistic awareness. 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" (p. 51). Gene now thinks of himself as truly aristocratic and complete, as having altogether usurped the role of, and therefore destroyed, his opponent. Gene even affects the athletic aspirations of Finny, thinking, ". . . I lost part of myself to him then [when Finny says Gene has to play sports now that he cannot], and a soaring sense of freedom revealed that this must have been my purpose from the first: to become a part of Phineas" (p. 72). To their "joint double amazement," Gene shows promise as an athlete when trained by Finny. He even starts to resemble Finny's grimacing when irritated. And at Finny's funeral, Gene thinks of it as his own, admitting to himself that what Finny felt, knew and understood has somehow become what Gene now feels, knows and understands. A clutching, grasping player, he dominates and absorbs his friend, so that he can alone survive this game.
Finally, however, Gene puts things into better perspective. How long that takes is uncertain, but he has achieved that new perspective sometime between his graduation and his return to Devon fifteen years after the accident. During that time, his perception, the way in which he sees reality, especially himself, has undergone a great transition. By that time, he knows how complementary he and Finny were, and also how much his guilt has transmuted the full horror of his deed into something relatively worthwhile. Finny's fall from the tree has symbolically become Gene's fall from grace, his entry into the world of pain and suffering from which he can escape only by guilt and expiation. As a result of his breaking the rules of one game, another, more difficult game is introduced.
Initially, Gene refuses to accept all the implications of his deed. It is true that he tries to tell Finny of his guilt, but when Finny thinks of Gene as momentarily crazed, Gene does not dispute that position and suppresses his guilt. This guilt remains suppressed until the time of the kangaroo court when it is dredged up and finally confronted. Ironically, the motto over the building in which the trial takes place is the Latin inscription for "Here Boys Come to be Made Men" (p. 148). Here, too, another game begins, the trial itself in which Gene finds himself opposing the rest of the class. On this occasion Gene must finally surrender his pretenses and lies, placing himself fully within the confines of this new game, becoming honest with himself and Finny, so that Finny can finally accept Gene's private apology to him and his statement that he belongs with Finny, his veiled statement of love. When Gene can admit that there is something deadly in his love for everything, something for which he alone can be held responsible, then he can begin to profit morally and spiritually from his fall, his own Felix Culpa.
With that admission, the hell that he has been experiencing and the game that he has been playing—represented so aptly by the winter weather that "paralyzed the railroad yards"—and the unseemliness of the Butt Room and the kangaroo court, begin to abate. He comes to learn that "feeling becomes stronger than thought," that his relationship with Finny could have been based not upon rivalry but playfulness and instinctual love, and that the conflict between the opposing forces or doubles might have been resolved. As he says on coming back to Devon: "Everything at Devon slowly changed and slowly harmonized with what had gone before. So it was logical to hope that since the buildings and the Deans and the curriculum could achieve this, I could achieve, perhaps unknowingly already had achieved, this growth and harmony myself" (p. 4). At this time in Gene's life, he seems to have reconciled his past with the attributes that make up his personality—though the reader must still remember that Gene does say that for him life is still a war, agonistic conflict projected to a universal level.
What Gene must finally understand—and in this respect his knowledge is deeper and more profound than Finny's who for a long time locked out awareness of Gene's deceitfulness and guilt—is that the root of his hate, the root of the rivalry and competition so prevalent in Devon, and the root of the war which to him represents America, is in fact "something ignorant in the human heart" (p. 183). And that ignorance has nothing to do with the lack of knowledge or intelligence but with some intrinsically selfish quality that willfully destroys such games of peace and innocence as Finny and Devon contained in the summer of '42. With that understanding, Gene may be able to reach out to others in the way Finny did; he may be able to show love; he may be able to establish fidelity and trust; he may be able to play with honesty the games of human relationships; he may be able to work toward balance and harmony in order to bring the double aspects of the human being into alignment. But, as Jake Barnes qualifies of Brett's optimistic statement about the possibility of their love at the end of The Sun Also Rises: "Isn't it pretty to think so?"
Unfortunately, we do not see this new possibility put into practice after that fifteen-year hiatus between the end of school and Gene's return. Finny is dead, so the peace that Gene achieves will of necessity be a separate peace. He is apart from the conflict of the human heart, but, tragically, he cannot share that peace with the one whose death brought it into existence. And he may not be able to share that understanding with anyone else. Insofar as he recognizes Finny's worth and insofar as he takes the blame on his own shoulders, there is hope that the narrator ofA Separate Peace has in fact achieved a lasting peace which he can share with others, a peace which replaces war-like competition and so brings paidia and agon together. The perception itself may be illumination enough to bring about the hoped for understanding and change.
1. Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture, trans. and intro. George Steiner (London, 1970), p. 198.
2. Jacques Ehrmann, "Homo Ludens Revisited," Yale French Studies 41 (1968), 31.
3. "Levels of Meaning in A Separate Peace," The English Record, 18 (April 1968), 34-40.
4. Otto Rank, The Double: A Psychoanalytic Study, trans. and intro. Harry Tucker, Jr. (New York, 1971), pp. 69-86, and Ralph Tymms, Doubles in Literary Psychology (Cambridge, 1949), pp. 40-41.
5. Otto Rank, Beyond Psychology (New York, 1941; repr. 1958), p. 78, and C. F. Keppler, The Literature of the Second Self (Tucson, 1972), pp. 14-26.
6. James Ellis, "A Separate Peace: The Fall from Innocence," The English Journal, 53, No. 5 (May 1964), 315.
7. John Knowles, A Separate Peace (New York, 1959), p. 95.
8. James L. McDonald, "The Novels of John Knowles," The Arizona Quarterly, 23, No. 4 (Winter 1967), 335-42.
9. Keppler, p. 11.
10. Keppler, p. 28.
11. Franziska Lynn Grailing, "The Theme of Freedom in A Separate Peace," The English Journal, 56 (Dec. 1967), 1269-72, finds that this use of Greek imagery is central to the book's notion of the individual's freedom to fulfill his own excellences.
12. Claire Rosenfield, "The Shadow Within: The Conscious and Unconscious Uses of the Double," in Stories of the Double, ed. Albert J. Guerard (Philadelphia, 1967), p. 326.
13. Huizinga, p. 68.
14. Huizinga, p. 111.
15. James Ellis discusses the motif of the fall in the book (pp. 313-18).
Hallman B. Bryant (essay date March 1986)
SOURCE: Bryant, Hallman B. "Symbolic Names in Knowles's A Separate Peace." Names: Journal of the American Names Society 34, no. 1 (March 1986): 83-8.
[In the following essay, Bryant attempts to find symbolic meaning in the names of Gene and Phineas, the two main characters of A Separate Peace.]
John Knowles's popular novel,A Separate Peace, has a New England boys' school as the unlikely backdrop for a book whose themes are the loss of innocence and original sin. American writers have treated the subject of the fall of man from the very beginning of our literature, and thus Knowles follows a long tradition, but neither this fact nor the larger allegorical structure of the novel is my concern here.
The point I wish to make concerns Knowles's use of descriptive names inA Separate Peace, which seems so obvious that I wonder why, so far as I know, no one has yet made it. The two main characters in the novel are two teenaged school boys named Gene and Phineas, and it is the significance of their names that I want to explicate.
In the case of Gene (whose surname is Forrester), his given name is obviously a shortening of Eugene, from the Greek meaning "well-born," implying that the bearer of the name is genetically clean and noble, or at least fortunate in health and antecedents. The idea behind the name ultimately derives from the word eugenes from which comes "eugenics," the science that deals with the improvement of the hereditary qualities of individuals and races. The implications of Gene's name are apparent in light of his role in the book. He is the narrator as well as the protagonist. His growth and development vis-a-vis his relationship with Phineas provide the basic theme. Gene is the ambitious scion of a Southern family whose home is not precisely located but seems to be in Georgia. The Forresters we presume are well off or at least able to afford an expensive eastern prep school for Gene. Thus Gene's surname fits very well with his given name because he does indeed appear to be a well-born Southern aristocrat. Forrester is an English surname that can be traced back to the early Middle Ages, c. 1200's. It derives from the occupation or office of forester, the warden whose duty it was to protect the woods of a lord. The officer was an enforcer, keeper, and custodian. Thus, even Gene's last name suits his role in the novel because he literally becomes a "keeper," first of the dark secret of his guilty act, which crippled Finny; then he keeps up Finny's athletic feats by participating in his stead, and finally he keeps the faith in life that Finny has instilled in him.
It is not only in a social sense that Gene is well born; he is also bright and good at sports, though not so good an athlete as his friend Finny; he appears to embody the Greek ideal of a sound mind in a healthy body, mens sana in corpore sano. Gene's appellation also has an ironic aspect because he lacked much while he was growing up despite being well born. From the narrator's account of what he was like when a student at Devon School fifteen years earlier, we learn that he has improved a great deal since the summer of 1942. He has gotten over the fear that haunted him during those years, and he has come through World War II without any scars, either mental, moral, or physical. Gene says, "I began at that point in the emotional examination to note how far my convalescence had gone." As he walks across the campus he notes the way the architecture blends together and wonders, "I could achieve, perhaps unknowingly already had achieved, this growth and harmony myself" (John Knowles,A Separate Peace, Batan paperback edition, p. 4; hereafter all page references are to this edition).
Gene now has "more money and success and 'security' than in days when specters seemed to go with me" (p. 3). He has at last come to terms with himself, yet his rehabilitation was due in no small part to Phineas. Thinking of what he owes his former friend, Gene says, "During the time I was with him, Phineas created an atmosphere in which I continued now to live . . ." (p. 194).
Several critics have noted the source and resolution of the tensions that develop between the two boys as well as the numerous Christian symbols in the novel.1 Much of the ambiguity in their relationship is explained in terms of an allegory of the fall of man. It seems certain that Knowles has an allegorical intention in mind in a plot that features a tree and a series of falls both in the literal, physical and spiritual sense. It seems likewise certain that he chose the names of the two central characters with careful regard for their symbolic meaning as we have already seen in the case of Gene. The choice of the name Phineas even more fully satisfies the meaning of the character's role in the novel. In the first place Phineas is one of those characters in literature and folk culture like Tarzan, Shane, McTeague, and Beowulf who has no last name, which calls attention to the given name and endows it with an added dimension of significance. Secondly, the name Phineas is rare in the United States. Even in New England where it was a popular name through the Puritan period, it has steadily died out in the 18th and 19th centuries, and would have been an extremely odd name in the 1940's (see G. R. Stewart, The American Dictionary of Given Names: Their Origin, History and Context, New York: Oxford, 1979, 213 pp.).
In literary history the name appears in the titles of two of Anthony Trollope's lesser known novels, The Phineas Finn, the Irish Member (1869) and Phineas Redux (1874). Jules Verne also gave the name to his central character in Around the World in Eighty Days (see p. 8), Professor Phineas T. Fogg. There are more remote literary antecedents for the name in Greek mythology, where numerous writers of antiquity, but most prominently Ovid in his Metamorphosis mentions a "Phineas" who was a soothsayer-king of Thrace. He was afflicted with blindness by Zeus who was angered because he revealed the future to mortals. Other versions of the myth say Poseidon blinded Phineus for directing Jason and the Argonauts through the Clashing Rocks (see Cromwell's Handbook of Classical Mythology, New York, 1970, pp. 474-75).
One must go to biblical history, however, to find the kernel of meaning which most applies to the character in Knowles's novel. In the Old Testament there are three figures named Phinehas. The name means "oracle" in Hebrew or "mouth of brass" and is first mentioned in Exodus (6:25). This Phinehas who is the son of Aaron is a judge and priest; a devout keeper of the covenant with the Lord, he gave rise to a line of priests known as "the sons of Phinehas." There is another person named Phinehas, but he is not so exemplary. He is the youngest son of Eli, a rebellious youth who was a rule breaker; he redeemed himself by protecting the Ark. The third individual who bears the name Phinehas is an angel, and it is this figure who has the most bearing upon the Phineas in the novel. In the book of Judges (2:1) the youngest of the 72 angels of the Lord "who comes up from Gilad" is called Phinehas. This angel's "countenance glowed like a torch when the light of the Holy Ghost rested upon it," the Scripture says. It is interesting to note at this juncture that an angel is by definition a presence whose powers transcend the logic of our existence. Also as St. Augustine wrote, "Every visible thing in this world is put under the charge of an angel." (See Gusta Davidson, A Dictionary of Angels (New York: Macmillan, 1967, p. 224).
While it might be possible to make a tangential application of the careers of the first two biblical characters to the situation of Phineas in the novel, it is the shared nature of the angel Phinehas in the Bible and the boy Phineas in Knowles's book that I wish to examine.
I do not think that it is stretching a point to say that Gene has come to believe that Phineas was his guardian angel. After Phineas has died Gene says "he [Phineas] was present in every moment of every day . . ." (p. 194). He at this point is convinced that his friend "Finny" has given him a standard of conduct and credo that will save him from the negative emotions created by a world at war. At the end of the novel as the Army Parachute Riggers school marches in to set up operations at Devon, Gene falls into step with their cadence count; however, he is really marching to the beat of a different drummer: "My feet of course could not help but begin to fall involuntarily into step with the coarse voice [of the drill sergeant]," but "down here [in his soul] I fell into step as well as my nature, Phineas filled, would allow" (p. 196). Although Gene will walk to the cadence that the world calls, he will also keep step to the credo of the good and guileless Finny, who like an angel was really too good to live in this world. As Gene declared earlier, speaking to Finny in the infirmary shortly after his fall down the marble steps, "You wouldn't be any good in the war, even if nothing had happened to your leg." What Gene means here is that Finny's spirit was naturally benevolent rather than bellicose; he adds, "They'd get you some place at the front and there'd be a lull in the fighting, and the next thing anyone knew you'd be over with the Germans or the Japs, asking them if they'd like to field a baseball team against our side. . . . You'd get things so scrambled up nobody would know who to fight any more" (p. 182).
Finny shares numerous other angelic traits with his namesake. The angel Phinehas was remarkable for his compelling voice and his face with glowing features. Phineas is described in the early chapters in remarkably similar terms. Gene says of his voice, "It was the equivalent in sound of a hypnotist's eyes" (p. 6). And again, speaking of Finny—"He rambled on, his voice soaring and plunging in its vibrant sound box . . ." (p. 14). Describing Finny participating in class discussions, Gene says, "When he was forced to speak himself the hypnotic power of his voice combined with the singularity of his mind to produce answers which were not often right but could rarely be branded as wrong" (p. 40). In addition to a remarkable voice, Finny's glowing green eyes light up his face. When excited his green eyes widen and he has a maniac look; we are told that his "eyes flash green across the room and that he blazed with sunburned health" (p. 14). In the longest description given of Finny's face Gene notes his friend's odd appearance: "Phineas had soaked and brushed his hair for the occasion. This gave his head a sleek look, which was contradicted by the surprised, honest expression which he wore on his face. His ears, I had never noticed before, were fairly small and set close to his head, and combined with his plastered hair they now gave his bold nose and cheekbones the sharp look of a prow" (p. 19).
When one reviews the peculiar physiognomy of Phineas as well as the suggestions raised by his hypnotic voice, vivid blue-green eyes (p. 39), and his extrasensory hearing (p. 11), it seems that the evidence of an angelic parallel is inescapable. Angels traditionally are endowed with supernatural and seeming magic powers of voice and eye which they use to enthrall their listeners; also, angels according to medieval lore have fine ears in order to hear the music of the spheres. Furthermore, the sleek, shiplike features of Phineas are in keeping with early Christian angel iconography as is his skin, "which radiates a reddish copper glow" (p. 39). Finally, there is one more facet of analogy that pertains here. Angels, according to the doctrines of the early church, were immortal but not eternal. Also it was held that virtuous men could attain angelic rank. While no mention is made of Finny in the next world inA Separate Peace, it is apparent that he was an influence, if not necessarily a supernatural one, a nonetheless benevolent one who in the role of Gene's savior plays the part of an angel in deed as well as in name.
Whether Knowles intended for Phineas to be linked with precursors who bore this name in scripture, myth, and Christian legends of angels, it is not possible to say. However, it is a matter of record that Knowles writes to challenge the reader. In an essay entitled "The Young Writer's Real Friends," he says, "I think readers should work more. I don't want to imagine everything for them" (p. 12).2 In the same essay he tries to answer critics who charged him with writing over-intellectualized novels and he refers directly to how he wroteA Separate Peace :
. . . if anything as I wrote tempted me to insert intellectual complexities I ignored it. If anything appeared which looked suspiciously like a symbol, I left it on its own. I thought that if I wrote truly and deeply enough about certain people in a certain place at a particular time having a certain experience, then the result would be relevant to many other kinds of people and places and times and experiences. . . . I know that if I began with symbols, I would end with nothing; if I began with certain individuals I might end up by creating symbols.
Thus it is that the names of both Gene and "Finny" are aptly chosen; whether by design or "a grace beyond the reach of art," they seem perfectly natural and inconspicuous names on the literal level and yet also function symbolically, focusing the theme of the novel even more clearly, if what is in the name is understood.3
1. See James Ellis, "A Separate Peace: The Fall from Grace," The English Journal, 53 (1964), 313-318; Paul Witherington, "A Separate Peace: A Study in Structural Ambiguity," The English Journal, 54 (1965), 795-800; and James M. Mellard, "Counterpoint and 'Double Vision' in A Separate Peace," Studies in Short Fiction, 4 (1966), 127-135.
2. John Knowles, "The Young Writer's Real Friends," The Writer, 75 (July, 1962), 12-14.
3. Recently Fowles wrote a sequel to A Separate Peace entitled Peace Breaks Out (New York: Holt, Rhinehart & Winton, 1981). As the first novel was about the efforts of Devon students to deal with the pressures of a world at war, the second book shows another group of students trying to find a basis for life in the post-war world. The prep school is again a microcosm, as the nation having defeated external enemies now moves to destroying internal foes. Here the enemy is depicted as those who would corrupt the "Devon Spirit." The plot centers on the conflict between a boy named "Wexford," a nascent fascist type, and a boy named "Hochschwender," a disagreeable non-conformist. While the use of onomastic naming is not as central to Fowles's technique of characterization as in A Separate Peace, it is apparent that Wexford's name, which is Anglo-Irish, is indicative of the growing or "waxing" temper of intolerance in America towards those who are perceived as different and therefore dangerous. Hochschwender, on the other hand, is a German or Dutch name which indicates that he is a highly suspect person—a Schuwender or person subject to shunning. In fact, a group of boys led by Wexford go beyond this form of persecution and actually kill Hochschwender.
Where the use of name symbolism in A Separate Peace was understated and implied, here it is more obvious and events and characters are used in a schematic and predictable manner.
Hallman Bell Bryant (essay date 1990)
SOURCE: Bryant, Hallman Bell. "The Scene." In A Separate Peace, pp. 23-33. Boston, Mass.: Twayne Publishers, 1990.
[In the following excerpt, Bryant traces the creation of the setting of the Devon School in A Separate Peace by drawing upon printed interviews with Knowles, essays, and Knowles's early short stories.]
Several things are obvious from a study of the chapter outlines and the original manuscript ofA Separate Peace : the author had an early grasp of the nature and motivations of his characters, he had decided on the general sequence of events, and his own attitude toward the material was already shaped. For one thing, by the time he started to compose the novel, Knowles had to some degree formed a notion of the history of his main characters. In May 1956, Knowles published a short story entitled "Phineas," which, in a much more compressed form, covers the events of the novel's opening chapters from the first jump up to Finny's injury.1 It deals with events of the summer at Devon but does not go beyond the episode at the tree. The story does, however, use the same flashback-framing device. It opens with Gene standing in front of the door to Finny's bedroom in his hometown, where Gene has come to visit his convalescing friend. The scene shifts back in time by three months to the beginning of the summer, when Finny and Gene become roommates and good friends at Devon School.
As in the novel, one of Finny's prominent characteristics is his unusual baritone voice. Finny's attitude is outgoing and forthright; he divulges his beliefs about God, religion, and girls at their first meeting, while the more diffident Gene reserves comment on such confidential matters. The upshot of Finny's disarming candor is to make Gene feel inadequate and dull-witted, "as though he had never had an original thought. . . ." The sectional differences in the two boys are also stressed in the short story. Gene's southern accent and his lime-green, short-sleeved sports shirt with the bottom squared and worn outside the pants, although much admired in the South, are not the eastern prep school fashion. Like the novel, Gene's suspicious nature is established by his resentment of Finny's attempt to "yank out all my thoughts and feelings and scatter them around underfoot" as he has scattered the clothes from his suitcase. Finny is described as a person with many foibles: his inability to sing on-key, his amazing way of dressing, and his poor showing as a student. Another detail in the story that reappears later in the novel is Finny's pink shirt, which he wears to class to "memorialize" the bombing of Ploesti oil fields. He wears it on several other occasions in the story to italicize other victories—a grade of C on a history test, the retirement of the school dietitian, and the battle of Midway. The shirt is thus already used by Knowles as more than an item of apparel; it is an emblem of Finny's special psychological makeup. As in the novel, Gene dons this shirt in the aftermath of the accident when he dresses in Finny's clothing.
Finny is an excellent athlete, but he has the odd notion that an athlete is "naturally good at everything at once." He participates in games like soccer, hockey, and lacrosse, disdaining those more prestigious sports like football where the plays are preordained and have a geometrical order. His personal athletic code demands a sport where the players are free to create, to invent without any previous plan. An enmity develops between Gene and his roommate because Gene supposes that Finny, who is the best athlete and most popular boy in school, is interfering with Gene's studies to drag him down to Finny's academic level. The last part of the short story deals with the boys jumping from the tree, the formation of the super suicide society, and Gene's treachery.
Incidentally, Knowles has confirmed in a New York Times interview that there was a Super Suicide Society while he was at Exeter whose members made jumps into the river.2 Although no one was ever seriously injured while making leaps such as those described in the story, Knowles himself got a cut as a result of a jump and was on crutches most of the summer of 1943.
In almost every respect the short story is an abstract of the first six chapters of the novel. One evening Finny, the narrator, and three other boys go to the river with the intention of jumping from a tree that leans out over the river's edge. Finny jumps into the river impetuously, expecting the others to follow. Everybody refuses except the narrator, who "hated" the idea but jumps anyway because he does not want to be outdone by Phineas. Phineas has the idea to form the "Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session," inscribing his name and the narrator's as chapter members, and enrolling Chet, Bobby, and Leper as trainees. The society meets almost every evening, and all members are required to attend and jump.
Before a French examination, Phineas goes to the narrator's room and asks him to attend a meeting of the Suicide Society because Leper has finally agreed to jump. Gene, although irritated, agrees to go, saying sarcastically, "Okay, we go. We watch little lily-liver Leper not jump from a tree, and I ruin my grade." Finny is taken aback at this and says simply, "I didn't know you needed to study. . . . I thought it just came to you." The narrator realizes for the first time that Phineas had assumed that the narrator's intellectual capacity came as easily as his own natural ability at sports. Truth dawns on the narrator, and he understands that Phineas has never been jealous of him or considered him a rival. This realization that Finny is so superior to him causes the narrator to shake the tree's limb, making Phineas fall into the river with a "sickening natural thud." One of his legs is shattered in the fall and Phineas is maimed for life.
Afterwards, when the narrator goes to see Phineas at the infirmary, his guilt almost makes him reveal the truth. When he asks Phineas if he remembers how he fell, Phineas answers, "I just fell, that's all." The narrator finally realizes that he has not been jealous of Phineas's popularity, background, or skill at sports—he has envied Finny's total and complete honesty. The story ends with Gene going to Finny's home in Boston to make a full confession of his guilt.
Knowles makes his earliest use of Devon School as the setting for his fiction in a story entitled "A Turn in the Sun." 3 The main character in this story is a boy named Lawrence Stuart, whose anxious nature seems to anticipate that of Gene Forrester. He has the same sense of social insecurity and intense ambition to win academic and athletic distinctions. In both stories there are certain parallels between the fictional events and the experiences of Knowles himself. For instance, Knowles has written that he found Phillips Exeter to be a cold and unfriendly place when he first arrived. He recounts how he arrived there on his birthday, 16 September 1942, and rather than receiving a kind word, was invited in by the house master to listen to a recitation of the school rules.4 Knowles, like his character, was also displaced by being demoted to the "lower middler" (tenth grade) class rather than entering with his age group as a junior because he was not deemed academically ready to do work at that level at Exeter.
The plot of "A Turn in the Sun" concerns the attempts of Lawrence Stewart to break the barrier of the "foggy social bottomland where unacceptable first year boys dwell." Lawrence, the protagonist, has entered Devon in the fall in the fourth form and instantly finds out that he is not outstanding enough to be accepted by his "sophisticated" peers. He is from an unknown, small Virginia town, he lacks outstanding athletic ability, his clothes are wrong, his vocabulary is common, and he talks about the wrong topics. He is assigned to live in a small house with "six other nebulous flotsam" rather than in a dormitory.
Lawrence, however, soon shows signs of becoming a person to be considered. One day when standing on a bridge, he makes a sudden, unplanned dive into the river, and his dive is so remarkable that when he breaks the surface of the water he has become to his peers a boy to be regarded. His achievement results in an invitation to dinner from Ging Powers, a senior from his own town who, before his dive, had religiously avoided him.
The dinner that evening is Lawrence's downfall. Ironically, he is sure that this is the beginning of a new career at Devon. He meets his host and his friends at a corner table in the Devon Inn. There he is introduced to Vinnie Ump, the vice-chairman of the senior council, and Charles Morrell, an outstanding football, baseball, and hockey player. During the course of the conversation, Lawrence realizes that Ging is a social climber and immediately feels superior to him. He also understands by looking at Morrell that the important aspect of the athlete is not his ability but his unique personality, the "unconscious authority" that his diverse skills give him. Lawrence's visions of being accepted by these campus bigwigs get the better of him and he lies, "I have some cousins, two cousins, you know—they're in clubs at Harvard. . . ." Aware that the others are impressed, Lawrence goes on with his diatribe on the social clubs of Harvard and winds up boasting of his dive from the bridge. When Morrell remarks, "I saw you do it," Lawrence is flattered because the most important athlete in school saw him in his moment of triumph, and he talks excitedly about anything he can think of to make himself sound important. His downfall occurs when he asks which of the men at chapel on the first day of school was the dean; when the other boys describe him, Lawrence responds in his loudest voice, "Like my beagle, that's the way he looks, like the beagle I've got at home, my beagle looks just like that right after he's had a bath." The three seniors then call Lawrence's attention to the elderly couple making their way toward the door; his questions—"Was that the dean? . . . Did he hear me?"—go unanswered, and Lawrence, deeply embarrassed, slips under the table. Only then does Lawrence realize the ridiculousness of his position, "under a table in the Anthony Wayne Dining Room of the Devon Inn, making a fool of himself." Immediately, Ging Morrell and Vinnie make excuses and leave the humiliated Lawrence, his chance to be "regarded" now totally destroyed.
When Lawrence returns to Devon after the spring break, the bleakness of winter has given way to the beauty of early spring. He unaccountably begins to slip in his studies, but in sports he achieves a "minor triumph" when he scores his first goal for his intramural team; the accomplishment, however, does nothing to further his quest to be "regarded." The day of his minor triumph turns out to be the final day of his life. After a shower Lawrence goes to the trophy room and fantasizes that 1954 will be the year that he will win the Fullerton Cup, the trophy awarded to the outstanding athlete of the year. All at once he realizes the "finiteness of the cup" and that with the passage of time the cup and the inscriptions on it will all fade from human memory. The room suddenly feels like a crypt, and he steps outside to the freshness and aroma of spring. That night Lawrence dives from the bridge and drowns in the river. Two classmates who have gone swimming with him try to save him but fail. At a conference two days later one of the boys tells the headmaster that Lawrence "had looked different" before he dived, suggesting the possibility of suicide.
"A Turn in the Sun," like "Phineas," anticipatesA Separate Peace in style and substance. Structurally, all three plots begin in medias res; each work employs a serene setting against which violent or tragic events take place, and each creates a nostalgic atmosphere that is kept up throughout. In "A Turn in the Sun," as inA Separate Peace, everything that the characters do is set against the backdrop of changing seasons and the beauties of nature, which—in the naturalistic convention of Hardy and Crane—is indifferent to the human plight. There is also the same use of recurring motifs and important images—the water, the broken heart, the leap, and the quest for acceptance—which figure in both stories as symbols. And, again as inA Separate Peace, Devon is made into a microcosmic setting. The use of repetitive scenes figures in the short story as well as in the novel. The two dives from the bridge in "A Turn in the Sun" parallel each other most obviously, the one leading to Lawrence's being "regarded" and the other to his death, and they anticipate the two falls that figure as structural and symbolic devices inA Separate Peace.
Another piece of writing that probably informed and shaped Knowles's depiction of life in a New England prep school was the article he wrote for Holiday magazine in 1956, which brought him back to the Exeter campus. It doubtlessly caused him to rethink his experiences as a schoolboy and to consider anew the special pressures of spending one's adolescence in a place where the academic, social, and athletic competition complicated an already difficult phase of life.
There are several interesting notations in this article that would strike any reader ofA Separate Peace. For example, Knowles reveals that Phillips Exeter Academy, unlike the fictional Devon school of the novel, does not have an old school tie, but, aside from this, the parallels between the two schools are readily apparent. He mentions the bell in the high cupola of the Academy Building whose ring could never be forgotten by anyone who has lived there. "It does not joyously peal nor portentously toll. . . . Throughout the school years of Exeter boys the bell rings the changes in their lives." There are other passages in the article that seem to anticipate lines in the novel. Knowles, the returned old grad who is visiting the alma mater for the first time in over a decade, writes: "Then I knew that Exeter hadn't changed. The look of it hadn't changed, I had noticed that at once. In the eleven years since I had graduated there were just a few structures—a long, low maintenance building, an artificial hockey rink, a new art gallery. Nothing to disturb the reminiscing alumnus except a picture-windowed, ranch type someone had tacked onto the simple, venerable first Academy Building. Aside from the outrage it was all as it had been."5 The same attitude toward the modern modifications in architecture is reflected by the narrator ofA Separate Peace in his first impressions of the changes that have occurred on the grounds of the Devon school during his absence.
Writing in Holiday about the subjective sense of place with which the school endows its students, Knowles says Exeter has a secluded, even provincial quality about it: ". . . I always felt that we were up at the north country, and that our woods extended on into the not-yet-completely-tamed wilderness."6
Striking another motif that runs throughA Separate Peace —that of change in seasons and individuals—Knowles closes out his article with these evocative sentences: "The changes of season are more emphatic than almost anywhere in the country. Fall arrives with sharp-edged decision, and a luminous sky spreads over Exeter, so that in the crisp clarity of the air the autumn colors stand out sharply. . . . Then, in a month or so, the light goes out of the countryside, the edge of coolness is lost in a general chill, and the look and feel of Exeter dulls. But after Christmas, if it is one of the good old-fashioned winters, a still dry cold crackles around the school, and the ground is clamped beneath a congealed crust covering a foot or more of snow. . . . When spring breaks out, after such a winter, it is plain miracle and it sweeps a whole new way of life into the school."7 In the last paragraph Knowles draws a parallel between the variety and change in the cycle of the seasons with the boys who also fluctuate and change in these surroundings, coming to a maturity that is rich and lasting as a result of their experiences at this place.
One last piece of ancillary material that forms a part of the creative matrix ofA Separate Peace is an essay that Knowles wrote for the Yale literary magazine, entitled "A Protest from Paradise." 8 Here he argues that a loss of paradisiacal happiness, such as happened in the summer of 1942 to Gene Forrester and Phineas, may contribute to a writer's attempt to create a fictional image that will make the loss of the actual experience "very much less than complete." He begins the essay with this question: "Are many novels based on the theme of Paradise lost? Are they writers out of a personal sense of longing in the novelist for a real paradise which he once knew, and a real loss he once suffered?" This rhetorical question is answered in the affirmative. He says that writers like Proust, Austen, Tolstoy found themselves in a more perfect world in their youth, where they were entranced by "the sheer joys of living—the weather, people, their own being which made existence seem sublime." Knowles conjectures that, because all of them "possessed strong imaginations and complex apparatuses for responding to the world," this paradisiacal experience "imprinted itself on them with a peculiar force." This magical phase of life eventually ends; something occurs in life to take it away. When this period is gone the author has to confront life as it really is, but the recollections of things past remain and form a permanent assumption of theirs . . . "a feeling about the possibilities of life." Knowles's exposition inA Separate Peace is done with realistic accuracy; the scene is recognizable at once to anyone familiar with the grounds of the Phillips Exeter Academy; as one commentator has shown, Knowles made only a few alterations in his fictional adaptation of the prep school backdrop.9 The three principal sites mentioned in the first chapter are actual places. The Academy Building with its Latin inscription over the portal is in fact the very same as at Exeter, with the exception that the foyer is not marble-floored, although the staircase is. The playing fields and the gym are all very close to the way they were when Knowles was a student in the early 1940s. The actual tree that the boys used to swing from is now gone, but there are others still growing along the bank that would serve the purpose. Knowles altered some facts to heighten the atmospheric effects he wanted to achieve. He mentions, in the article for example, that the river is in reality spanned by a small bridge and that it is not as remote as it seems in the novel from the campus, being only a few hundred yards from the gym and easily reached by a gravel road. Interestingly, Knowles also changed the historical chronology to suit his fictional purpose. The accelerated academic program that allowed boys to finish early by going to summer school did not begin in Exeter until 1943, while at the Devon school it begins in 1942. Perhaps Knowles's purpose was to distance himself from the fictional situations by having his characters one class ahead of his own. Also, by moving up events to 1942, the outcome of the war was not so certain as it would have been a year later, creating a greater sense of anxiety. One senses that in this first novel Knowles was chary of seeming too autobiographical. In the margin of the book's manuscript, he scrawled a note to himself saying that "the narrator is not the writer nor are events in the novel based on events that actually happened." By 1972 he was less reticent about admitting how he specifically adapted real people and events. He revealed in an interview with Phillips Exeter's school newspaper that he projected facets of his own personality into the main characters ofA Separate Peace. Knowles said that he was not a top student like Gene and had no ambitions to be. Although he could have done better academically, he was not interested in doing any better than was necessary to keep his family, his teachers, and the dean off his back. The character of Phineas was based on a boy named David Hackett who was a regular student at Milton Academy and only attending Exeter for summer session; he was not Knowles's actual roommate, since enrollments in the summer session were so low that boys had single rooms. Finny's natural charm and athletic prowess were inspired by Hackett, but the death of Finny was derived from the case of another Exeter student named Bob Tate, who died on the operating table in the school infirmary on Christmas day when Knowles was a senior, his death the result of a blood clot caused by bone marrow escaping to the brain. Brinker Hadley, a minor character who is the typical "big man on campus" type, was based on another classmate of Knowles's, Gore Vidal, who, Knowles recalled, was an "unusual and thriving" person as a schoolboy, although he did not know him very well.10 Other characters in the novel were more generic prep school types than specific individuals. For instance, Leper would be a prototypical nonconformist—or "nerd," in today's slang.
Obviously, the genesis of the novel had a profound relationship to the personal life of the author and was grounded in life experiences that have significant meaning to him. Knowles reveals an acute knowledge of certain kinds of people, problems, and issues, and while his experiences and observations are nourished by these special facts, they are given a significance for the world at large.
In an article that Knowles wrote in 1962 entitled "The Young Writer's Real Friends," he describes his mistakes with his first novel,Descent to Proselito. He started the novel by outlining its "symbolic pattern" and its "metaphysical paradoxes" but gave up on the advice of Thornton Wilder, because he had begun with symbols before having a story that he was interested in telling or creating people that he really cared about. This led Knowles to write another novel,A Separate Peace, about which he says, "if anything as I wrote tempted me to insert artificial complexities, I ignored it. If anything appeared which looked suspiciously like a symbol, I left it on its own. I thought that if I wrote truly and deeply enough about certain specific people in a certain place at a particular time having certain specific experiences, then the result would be relevant for many other kinds of people and places and times and experiences. I know that if I began with symbols, I would end with nothing; if I began with specific individuals, I might end by creating symbols.11
There can be little doubt that Knowles wroteA Separate Peace with this purpose in mind and following this authorial strategy. Though D. H. Lawrence warns us not to take writers at their word, there is no reason not to think thatA Separate Peace was the result of Knowles's new approach to fiction. He started with a setting that he knew well, a New England boys' school, and developed episodes and characters taken from his own experiences at that place, thereby constructing a story that communicates with true conviction a concern about a universal human dilemma—the perplexities that attend change and growing up, as we go from the illusions and self-ignorance of childhood to the reality and self-knowledge of adulthood. While being faithful to the physical realities of the persons and places, Knowles transformed his materials, as one critic put it so usefully, into a work of fiction that has "both vitality of verisimilitude and the psychological tension of symbolism."12
1. John Knowles, "Phineas," Cosmopolitan (May 1956), 74-79.
2. "Interview with Knowles," New York Times 8 October 1972, sec. 2, p. 21.
3. John Knowles, "A Turn in the Sun," Story: The Magazine of the Short Story in Book Form, no. 4 (1953); also in Phineas: Six Stories (New York: Random House, 1968), 3-27.
4. John Knowles, "A Naturally Superior School," Holiday 18 (December 1956): 70-72, 134-38.
5. Knowles, "Superior School," 73.
6. Knowles, "Superior School," 138.
7. Knowles, "Superior School," 138.
8. John Knowles, "A Protest from Paradise," Art and the Craftsman: The Best of the Yale Literary Magazine, 1836-1961, ed. Joseph Harned and Neil Goodwin. (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1961), 201-2.
9. Sister M. Nora, "A Comparison of Actual and Symbolic Landscapes in A Separate Peace," Discourse 11 (Summer 1968): 356-62.
10. John Knowles, "Interview with Editors of Exonian," Exonian, 1 November 1972, 2.
11. John Knowles, "The Young Writer's Real Friends," The Writer 75 (July 1962): 12-14.
12. James Ellis, "A Separate Peace: The Fall from Innocence," English Journal 53 (May 1964): 13-18.
Thomas Reed Whissen (essay date 1992)
SOURCE: Whissen, Thomas Reed. "A Separate Peace." In Classic Cult Fiction: A Companion to Popular Cult Fiction, pp. 202-06. New York, N.Y.: Greenwood Press, 1992.
[In the following excerpt, Whissen explores the enduring popularity of A Separate Peace by focusing on the relationship between Gene and Phineas and the appeal it holds for teens.]
A Separate Peace may not be in a class by itself, but within the genre of novels about adolescent male friendships, it stands out from the others for reasons that are not immediately apparent. Like J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, its popularity has not diminished since its original publication; it has never gone out of print, and it continues to sell at a steady pace. But more than that, it continues to exert a powerful influence on the young people who read it. The reasons for the success of this type of story are fairly predictable, but the singular success of this particular version of a familiar conflict bears closer scrutiny.
One possible reason for its special status in the United States is that it is easily the best version of this story written by an American. For this reason, young American readers can identify more closely with it than they can with the conventional English "public school" version, or with such foreign classics of the genre as Thomas Mann's Tonio Kröger or Hermann Hesse's Narcissus and Goldmund. Although the latter is familiar to many American readers, much of its popularity is owing to the cult status of its author, whose best-known books, namely Steppenwolf, Demian, and Siddhartha, have become such classics in themselves that his other works are relegated to a lower tier.
As with The Catcher in the Rye,A Separate Peace reveals the loneliness of an adolescent boy attempting to come to terms with the world and with himself. Although both novels deal with prep school life and take place at about the same time, the differences are more significant than the similarities. Holden Caulfield may be a child of the forties, but there is no mention in his story of war or of anything going on outside the small, stifling world Holden inhabits. InA Separate Peace, Gene Forrester's inner turmoil is set within the framework of the turmoil of World War II.
It is difficult enough to grow up during ordinary times when society is relatively stable, but when this maturing process takes place during a time of war, the instability of society only aggravates the insecurities that torment the adolescent mind. Gene Forrester is fighting his own private war. He is torn between remaining within the safety and seclusion of Devon School or abandoning this security for the confusion of the adult world. At the same time he is struggling to resist the influence of his best friend, Finny, and his undisciplined approach to life. Throughout the novel, Gene is tormented by the tensions within himself, by the conflict between him and Finny, and by the growing awareness of the unreal world of Devon School in contrast to a world at war.
Gene Forrester is a character whose worst enemy is himself. Although he is a capable athlete and an excellent student, Forrester is unable to prevent the dark side of his inner self from perverting and distorting his enjoyment of the world and the people around him. Like Holden Caulfield, Forrester always finds something bad in the things around him, and if he does not find it, he invents it. It is a paranoid proclivity that speaks to the reader—especially the young, impressionable reader—whose trust in those around him has been shaken or even shattered.
At one point in the novel, Gene is convinced that Finny is out to get him, that he is deliberately trying to destroy Gene's scholastic success. Since in reality Finny is totally indifferent to Gene's academic ambitions, there is no foundation for this suspicion; but Gene harbors it anyway because he would rather imagine Finny as a rival than accept that he really does not care. Like an abused child who prefers being beaten to being ignored, Gene prefers Finny's rivalry (even if imaginary) to his indifference. This is a feeling cult readers respond to completely, for if there is one fear that is common to most adolescents, it is the fear of being ignored. Recognition they crave, of course; rejection they can handle; but to be treated as if they did not exist, especially by someone they admire or love, is torment beyond endurance.
Once he has convinced himself of Finny's perfidy, Gene decides that he must somehow get even. He does this by causing Finny to fall from a tree and break a leg. The tree is no ordinary tree; it is a special tree that the schoolboys like to climb to jump into the river. Gene and Finny are the youngest ever to try this feat, and once they succeed, Finny organizes the Summer Suicide Society, whose sole purpose is to initiate new members by having them jump into the river. At each initiation, Gene and Finny jump first, but Gene never loses his fear of jumping. Near the end of summer, under pressure of exams and the growing conviction that Finny is undermining his scholastic endeavors, Gene jumps up and down on a limb, causing Finny to fall and break a leg. As it turns out, the leg is so shattered that Finny may not walk again, let alone participate in any sport.
At first Finny refuses to think that Gene had anything to do with the accident, even after Gene confesses. Eventually, there is an inquiry into the matter, and as he sees Gene being accused, Finny leaves the assembly room in a state of extreme agitation. He is so upset that he falls down the stairs and breaks the same leg again. When Gene appears at his bedside the following day, Finny has come to realize that Gene did indeed cause him to fall from the tree, and he asks Gene why. Gene is powerless to explain, blaming it on some mysterious blind impulse. But cult readers know, and their anguish is for the feeling between the two boys that cannot be expressed. And when, a short time later, marrow gets into Finny's bloodstream and he dies suddenly, Gene grieves but does not cry, for he feels that he, too, has died and that it is not fitting to cry over one's own death.
The loss of a friend through one's own excessive feeling is a common adolescent misfortune. It is fraught with irony, for the ultimate loss is precipitated by the fear of loss. How, one asks, do I hang on to this friend whom I love more than he loves me? If he should die, then he would never leave, and I could carry with me the melancholy memory of a friendship frozen in time. To be responsible for the death of that friend is closer to suicide than to murder—at least in the mind of the tormented one. Like some sort of weird reworking of Romeo and Juliet, the two star-crossed friends find peace in the permanence of death. In this case, however, the one responsible for the accident lives on, unpunished except by his own guilt, a guilt he aggravates into an abiding pain that sustains him the way mortification of the flesh sustains the flagellant.
The relationship between Gene and Finny is representative of the sort of symbiotic relationship to be found in much modern literature including many cult novels. Mann deals with it definitively in TonioKröger, and it is prominent in several of the Hesse novels mentioned earlier. There are reminders of it in the contrasting personalities to be found within the gangs in S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders, in Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange, and in Oakley Hall's Warlock. There is even a hint of it in the teacher/learner relationship in Carlos Castaneda's The Teaching of Don Juan, and more than a hint of it in the mutually destructive relationship between Hunter Thompson and his Samoan lawyer in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
In these relationships, one person usually symbolizes what the other person wants to be. Emil Sinclair wants to be Demian, Tonio Kröger wants to be Hans Hansen, and Gene Forrester wants to be Finny. In mythology, the object of idealization is a god, and the only way to become that god is to overcome him, sacrifice him, devour him, symbolically cannibalize him. Christ on the cross is an enormously pathetic figure, but He is also a comforting one, for now the tables are turned, the Savior needs our protection, and at last we can unburden ourselves of an obligation too great to bear. This interpretation may seem extreme, but it is the only one that gets at the heart of a story in which one friend kills another out of love.
Gene loves Finny so much that he must either become him or get rid of him. And since he cannot nail him to a cross and then partake of his flesh and blood, he must do away with him. Gene's suppressed homoerotic feelings only intensify his extreme idealization of the god Phineas. Finny is the guy who can do everything, can construct a world all his own out of his imagination. It is Finny who invents new games to play, and it is even Finny's idea to jump from the tree into the river. Finny is all spontaneity.
His one flaw—his tragic flaw, as it were—is that he cannot face unpleasant realities. It is the fate of most tragic heroes that they are blind to an essential truth, the very truth that eventually leads to their downfall. At the end ofA Separate Peace, Finny is forced to confront the truth about Gene's perfidy, and he runs away from it. Dealing with this reality seems to break Finny's will at the novel's end. Of course, then, he must die. How could Gene stand it if Finny were to remain alive, remembering? Would Finny accuse him, forgive him, or, more likely, ignore him?
Finny's death is necessary to the novel, but it is also a dead giveaway. Beyond resolving the plot and concluding the story, it betrays a homosexual fantasy in which the beloved dies a young and tragic death, leaving the lover with a memory that is more secure than reality. This, then, is the separate peace that appeals to dreamy young readers half in love with the captain of the soccer team.
The finishing touch to this unsettling study in the labyrinths of adolescent psychology occurs at Finny's burial when Gene cannot cry because he has the feeling that part of himself is being buried with his friend. What is being buried, of course, is not just his guilt over Finny's death but the guilt he feels about those dark impulses that brought on his actions in the first place. When, later, Gene enlists and goes off to war, he does so without any strong feelings, almost as if his emotions have been anesthetized. In symbolically killing the enemy inside himself, he has effectually excised his capacity to feel anything at all. It is a curiously merciless resolution to the problem, as if the penitent, through pain and tribulation, has driven not only the devils into exile but the angels as well.
It is bitterly ironic that Gene's torment will be the awful torment of indifference, the very thing he most feared from Finny. For, as John Donne says, "When God's hand is bent to strike, 'it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God'; but to fall out of the hands of the living God is a horror beyond our expression, beyond our imagination."
For Further Reading
Bryant, H. B. "Phineas's Pink Shirt in John Knowles's A Separate Peace." Notes on Contemporary Literature (November 1984): 5-6.
Bryant, Hallman B. "Symbolic Names in Knowles's A Separate Peace." Names: Journal of the American Name Society (March 1986): 83-88.
Reed, W. Michael. "A Separate Peace: A Novel Worth Teaching." Virginia English Bulletin (Winter 1986): 95-105.
Slethaug, Gorden E. "The Play of the Double in A Separate Peace." Canadian Review of American Studies (Fall 1984): 259-70.
James Holt McGavran (essay date 2002)
SOURCE: McGavran, James Holt. "Fear's Echo and Unhinged Joy: Crossing Homosocial Boundaries in A Separate Peace." Children's Literature 30 (2002): 67-80.
[In the following essay, McGavran attempts to construct a clearer definition of the relationship between Phineas and Gene in A Separate Peace, discussing whether Gene wanted to be like, be with, or become Phineas.]
At the beginning of John Knowles's great novel of male adolescence,A Separate Peace, narrator Gene Forrester revisits Devon, the New Hampshire boys' boarding school where fifteen years earlier, during World War II, his best friend Phineas had died. He is overcome first with memories of fear, "like stale air in an unopened room, . . . the well known fear which had surrounded and filled those days" (1). He continues: "I felt fear's echo, and along with that I felt the unhinged, uncontrollable joy which had been its accompaniment and opposite face, joy which had broken out sometimes in those days like Northern Lights across black sky" (2). By focusing on Gene's joy as well as his fear, I believe we can find a new way of looking at Gene and his friendship with Finny.
What did Gene fear at Devon? Unlike Finny and most of the other students, he comes from a less elitist part of the country than New England (apparently West Virginia, Knowles's home state) but affects, with indifferent success, the speech and attitude of an aristocrat from "three states south of . . . [his] own" (148). At one point, when Gene says "I don't guess I did," Finny responds, "stop talking like a Georgia cracker" (112-13). But Gene is not socially disadvantaged at Devon by competition with blue-blood preppies from Boston or New York; not only is he the class brain and a more than passable athlete, but conservative student leader Brinker Hadley wants Gene to be his best friend—and so does emotionally disturbed Leper Lepellier.
Nor do I uncritically accept the idea, though there is much textual and critical support for it, that self-divided, willful, guilt-haunted Gene finds jealousy and fear to be integral parts of his friendship with Finny, whereas beautiful, totally integrated, guileless Finny, portrayed symbolically as both a Greek god (Mengeling) and a Christlike sacrificial savior and victim (Bryant, War Within 86), lives on an altogether higher plane of moral and emotional purity and love.1 Granted, Gene says he always hated jumping with Finny into the river from the high branch of a tree but felt compelled by Finny to do it (25-26). And granted, he feels jealous shock as well as admiration when Finny breaks a school swimming record but magnanimously refuses to let Gene publicize it: he comments first to Finny, almost Judas-like, "You're too good to be true" (36), and then to himself more than half-confessionally, "there were few relationships among us at Devon not based on rivalry" (37). And the central action of the book, where Gene's jostling of their tree branch causes Finny to fall and break his leg, seems causally though unintentionally connected to Gene's almost disappointed recognition that Finny had not been plotting to ruin his academic performance at the school but simply hadn't realized that his brainy friend needed to study before taking tests (50). Nevertheless, as Paul Witherington has observed, writing on the ambiguities and complexities of Knowles's novel, "Finny is no more of a spiritually pure being than Gene is a spiritually depraved being" (Karson 81). A closer look at the text will show that the boys trade roles as upholders and subverters of both their own relationship and the codes of society. Finny, for all of his innocent beauty and grace, also experiences inner fears and conflicts, and just as often Gene feels entirely at peace both within himself and with regard to Finny. As Gene recognizes, the fear and joy are experienced mutually, shared.
Unlike Witherington, who argues that as he matures Gene distances himself from Finny (Karson 88), I would locate the key to understanding this exchange of roles and feelings in the growing recognition on Gene's part throughout the novel, as both boy and man, that he wants not only to love Finny but to be Finny, to become part of his friend, body and soul, and in Finny's acceptance and encouragement of this merging of identities both before and after the crippling fall that ends his athletic career and fatally endangers his life. Like a reciprocal Jungian integration of shadow selves, this union, highlighted when Gene wears Finny's pink shirt, reaches its zenith at the symbolically important Winter Carnival—Bostonian Finny's necessarily frosty version of a Mardi Gras celebration—where Gene, now clearly Finny's alter ego, is crowned Carnival king in a Bakhtinian exchange of roles.2 Finny has always been a breaker of rules—game rules, school rules, the rules of a society at war that say that no one should be having fun now. But Gene's desire to break the boundaries of their separate human identities is finally still more radical. I don't think Finny's death is Gene's fault, but this desire to absorb his friend completely seems to require either Finny's actual death, which of course occurs, or the death of all difference between them, which I will argue also occurs.
We can better understand the difficult dynamic of these crossed boundaries of identity if we analyzeA Separate Peace not only in Jungian terms of integrated shadows or in Bakhtinian terms of temporarily liberating role-exchanges but in the context of gender theory. The translation of Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality in the late 1970s introduced English-speaking readers to his parallel ideas that gender, desire, and sexual preference are inherently unstable and fluid and that it is the various discourses of a predominantly heterosexual society that, by policing alternative sexualities, make gender roles seem fixed and unchangeable (see Berger, Wallis, and Watson, eds., Introduction, 5-6). Beginning with the publication of Gender Trouble (1990) and continuing with Bodies That Matter (1993), Judith Butler extended these concepts by arguing that our understanding not just of gender but of sex itself, traditionally thought of as biologically fixed, results instead from a variety of performative strategies.
Foucault's emphasis on the policing of alternative sexualities had been taken up earlier in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's pathbreaking work on what she calls male homosocial desire. Sedgwick's theorizing about men's relationships in patriarchal societies, recorded in Between Men (1985) and Epistemology of the Closet (1990), is based on the cultural paradox that while boys and men are expected to study, play, work, and fight together—both in competition and cooperation—they are absolutely forbidden to engage in sexual relations with each other. Thus the flip side of male homosocial bonding is homophobia, an irrational loathing of homosexuality, and what Sedgwick calls homosexual panic, the terrible fear that sets in whenever a man even unconsciously feels attracted to another male, feels the other may be attracted to him, or thinks that anyone else may suspect them of sexual feelings for each other (Between Men 1-5, 88-89). In other words, such traditional patriarchal societies as those of the white English-speaking world—and most certainly that of the elite boys' boarding school—almost set up boys and young men to fall in love with each other and yet threaten them with social ostracism and mental and physical abuse if they express their feelings openly. Sedgwick says tellingly, "For a man to be a man's man is separated only by an invisible, carefully blurred, always-already-crossed line from being 'interested in men'" (Between Men 89).
A Catch-22 situation for adolescent boys, this double bind, more than his embarrassment at his not-quite-Southern origins or any alleged satanic jealousy of Finny's superior body or soul, explains the combined memories of fear and joy that Gene discovers upon returning to Devon, especially when we recall Foucault's and Butler's insistence on the natural fluidity of desire and the performative and thus unstable aspect of gender roles. This paradox also explains why, for his part, Finny seems always to be reaching beyond the rules of school, games, and a society at war to carve out a "separate peace" for himself and Gene. It explains why the other boys at Devon, led by Brinker and supported by Leper, are so eager to put Finny and Gene on trial after the carnival: the real though unspoken motivation for that ultimately fatal event is not justice or truth—to find out who made Finny fall or to force him to accept his disability, as Brinker claims (152)—but the other boys' combined homophobic fear and jealous curiosity at the closeness of his relationship with Gene and what the two of them might have been able to get away with. Finally, it explains why Gene asserts at the end of his narrative that he neither mourns nor has lost Finny, particularly if we reference another essay by Butler, "Melancholy Gender/Refused Identification" (Constructing Masculinity 21-36). In this remarkable piece Butler uses some of Freud's ideas on mourning and ego-formation from The Ego and the Id to argue that homophobia often forces the would-be same-sex lover symbolically to reject the unacceptable love-object and yet simultaneously to bear him/her, neither possessed nor mourned, within the societally constituted, and thus outwardly heterosexual, self.3
I do not mean to imply by any of this that either Gene or Finny can be simply and reductively construed as gay; indeed labeling is only negatively related to what this gratifyingly deep book is about. I have a hunch, however, that had Finny lived longer, or had the Carnival mood not been interrupted by Leper's telegram, either boy might have seen the patriarchal proscription on homosexual activity as just another rule to be broken; one might have suggested such an experiment to the other; and the other might have accepted. But I do not suggest that we readA Separate Peace as even a failed coming-out story. While there are some hints, as I will show later, that Gene has had homosexual experience since Finny's death, Knowles leaves open the question of Gene's adult sexual orientation, I believe intentionally and partly for historical reasons. Knowles was recreating a World War II-era experience in the late 1950s, a decade before the Stonewall uprisings of 1969 commonly used to date the start of the late-twentieth-century gay liberation movement and a time when both the now-current vocabulary of liberation and the editorial will to publish such stories were lacking. But I hazard a guess that Knowles had a second reason for his silence regarding Gene's subsequent orientation: according to the current general understanding, "coming out" refers to a one-time, one-way move from the safe side of Sedgwick's always-already-crossed line to the other whereas, as Sedgwick herself and others argue, and as Knowles's text seems to support, gender roles and sexual identity are in reality far more fluid and contingent. Many young men and women experiment with same-sex intimacy, especially in adolescence, but later become committed partners in heterosexual relationships; and of course, for some the reverse can also be true. In what follows I will look first at some of Gene's and Finny's expressions of love for each other, then at Gene's growing sense of identification with Finny and Finny's reciprocating responses, and finally at three moments in the novel—their clandestine overnight trip to the beach, their last conversation before Finny's death, and Gene's final summation of his friendship—where the homoerotic tide seems to flow the highest.
As the time of the novel shifts to the past, Gene begins to remember Finny's physical presence, and he remembers this in great detail. First it is his voice: "'What I like best about this tree,' he said in that voice of his, the equivalent in sound of a hypnotist's eyes, 'what I like is that it's such a cinch!' He opened his green eyes wider and gave us his maniac look, and only the smirk on his wide mouth with its droll, slightly protruding upper lip reassured us that he wasn't completely goofy" (6). Then it is his athletic body: "We just looked quietly back at him, and so he began taking off his clothes, stripping down to his underpants. For such an extraordinary athlete . . . he was not spectacularly built. He was my height—five feet eight and a half inches. . . . He weighed a hundred and fifty pounds, a galling ten pounds more than I did, which flowed from his legs to torso around shoulders to arms and full strong neck in an uninterrupted, unemphatic unity of strength" (8). Gene comes back again and again, as the narrative progresses, to these or similar details of Finny's physical appearance. He realizes that Finny's beauty lies less in his actual shape or dimensions—"he was not spectacularly built"—than in the way he inhabits his body, the energy that flows through him in a "unity of strength." This energy, which Gene later, at the Winter Carnival, calls Finny's "choreography of peace" (128), informs nearly everything Finny does: "He could also shine at many other things, with people for instance, the others in our dormitory, the faculty; in fact, if you stopped to think about it, Finny could shine with everyone, he attracted everyone he met. I was glad of that too. Naturally. He was my roommate and my best friend" (32). It seems Gene both is and is not jealous of his friend's attractiveness: there is pain as well as joy in that stand-alone "Naturally."
Later, during the period when he wrongly suspects Finny of wanting to subvert his studying and spoil his grades, he still burns with love for him, and years later, recalling this time when fear and joy clashed, the grown-up Gene cannot help writing a passionately poetic litany of love:
Sometimes I found it hard to remember his treachery, sometimes I discovered myself thoughtlessly slipping back into affection for him again. It was hard to remember when one summer day after another broke with a cool effulgence over us, and there was a breath of widening life in the morning air—something hard to describe—an oxygen intoxicant, a shining northern paganism, some odor, some feeling so hopelessly promising that I would fall back in my bed on guard against it. It was hard to remember in the heady and sensual clarity of these mornings; I forgot whom I hated and who hated me. I wanted to break out crying from stabs of hopeless joy, or intolerable promise, or because these mornings were too full of beauty for me, because I knew of too much hate to be contained in a world like this.
More of a realist than Finny—on the surface at least—Gene knows this joy cannot last; what he knows about both nature and human society tells him that each day. Later, when Finny returns to Devon on crutches, Gene feels his life once again turning to joy in the midst of fear: "For the war was no longer eroding the peaceful summertime stillness I had prized so much at Devon, and although the playing fields were crusted under a foot of congealed snow and the river was now a hard gray-white lane of ice between gaunt trees, peace had come back to Devon for me" (101). Peace—inner peace, at least—and Finny are inseparable for Gene.
Gene's love for Finny clearly is reciprocated. After their first jump from the tree into the river, when Leper and some other boys refuse to try it, "'It's you, pal,' Finny said to me at last, 'just you and me.' He and I started back across the fields, preceding the others like two seigneurs" (10). They wrestle with each other, partly for the fun of it, partly for the excitement of the physical contact, partly to be deliberately late for dinner. Finny always wins these skirmishes, until Gene sneak-attacks: "I threw my hip against his, catching him by surprise, and he was instantly down, definitely pleased. This was why he liked me so much. When I jumped on top of him, my knees on his chest, he couldn't ask for anything better. We struggled in some equality for a while, and then when we were sure we were too late for dinner, we broke off" (11). Caught by surprise? Finny's obvious delight at having Gene on top of him suggests that this was his goal all along. Much later, calling long distance from his home near Boston, Finny is relieved to hear that Gene has not chosen another roommate (75-76). Back at Devon, Finny watches with keen interest as Gene undresses after a grueling day of shoveling snow in a nearby railroad yard, criticizing all of his clothes but the stinking, sweaty undershirt next to his skin: "'There. You should have worn that all day, just that. That has real taste. The rest of your outfit was just gilding that lily of a sweat shirt'" (96). But Gene has a stronger (because not veiled in irony) proof of Finny's love the next morning, when Finny hears that Gene has told Brinker he will enlist and enter the war: "'Enlist!' cried Finny. . . . His large and clear eyes turned with an odd expression on me. I had never seen such a look in them before. After looking at me closely he said, 'You're going to enlist?'" (99). Gene realizes the full significance of Finny's response and immediately gives up all thought of joining the war:
Phineas was shocked at the idea of my leaving. In some way he needed me. He needed me. I was the least trustworthy person he had ever met. I knew that; he knew or should know that too. I had even told him. But there was no mistaking the shield of remoteness in his face and voice. He wanted me around. The war then passed away from me, and dreams of enlistment and escape and a clean start lost their meaning for me. . . . I have never since forgotten the dazed look on Finny's face when he thought that on the first day of his return to Devon I was going to desert him. I didn't know why he had chosen me, why it was only to me that he could show the most humbling sides of his handicap. I didn't care.
Gene no longer cares about the war, but Brinker does, and he will have his revenge at being jilted by Gene later, in the mock-trial that leads to Finny's death.
Gene's desire to become part of Finny, implicit in some of the passages already quoted, becomes explicit soon after Finny's fall, sometimes with clear homoerotic implications. Dressing for dinner one night, Gene has an odd but irresistible temptation to try on Finny's clothes, most notably his bright pink shirt: "But when I looked in the mirror it was no remote aristocrat I had become, no character out of daydreams. I was Phineas, Phineas to the life. I even had his humorous expression in my face, his sharp, optimistic awareness. . . . I would never stumble through the confusions of my own character again" (54). This identification gains in significance if we remember that earlier, when Finny first showed him the shirt, Gene had exclaimed, "Pink! It makes you look like a fairy!" and Finny had mildly replied, "I wonder what would happen if I looked like a fairy to everyone" (17).4
Later, when the crew manager Cliff Quackenbush calls Gene a "maimed son of a bitch" (71), Gene reacts immediately and violently: "I hit him hard across the face. I didn't know why for an instant; it was almost as though I were maimed. Then the realization that there was someone who was flashed over me" (71). Shortly thereafter, when Gene tells him on the telephone that he is "too busy for sports," Finny groans melodramatically for some time and finally says: "'Listen, pal, if I can't play sports, you're going to play them for me,' and I lost part of myself to him then, and a soaring sense of freedom revealed that this must have been my purpose from the first: to become a part of Phineas" (77). This is Gene's clearest, most explicit statement of his desire to merge permanently with his friend.
Gene later describes the rank air of the Devon gym in oddly nostalgic detail and ends with a surprisingly intimate comparison: "sweat predominated, but it was richly mingled with smells of paraffin and singed rubber, of soaked wool and liniment, and for those who could interpret it, of exhaustion, lost hope and triumph and bodies battling against each other. I thought it anything but a bad smell. It was preeminently the smell of the human body after it had been used to the limit, such a smell as has meaning and poignance for any athlete, just as it has for any lover" (105). Gene never speaks of his postwar, post-Finny personal life. That very silence, coupled with this association of male sweat and lovemaking, opens the possibility that he has at least experimented with homosexual activity because of the desire that Finny first awoke in him. But Knowles does not make this explicit, presumably for the reasons mentioned earlier.
After Gene accedes to Finny's demand to play sports for him, a number of things happen rather quickly. First, Gene replies "not exactly" when Finny says the gym is the "same old place" (106). He further recalls: "He made no pretense of not understanding me. After a pause he said, 'You're going to be the big star now,' in an optimistic tone, and then added with some embarrassment, 'You can fill any gaps or anything'" (106). Then Finny does three things: he starts Gene doing chin-ups; he tells him his fantasy that there isn't any war; and when Gene quizzes him as to why he alone knows there is no war, Finny lays himself open to Gene in a way he never has before: "The momentum of the argument abruptly broke from his control. His face froze. 'Because I've suffered,' he burst out" (108). This is the beginning of Finny's training Gene to become a star athlete and Gene's tutoring Finny in his studies (111), and it leads to Gene's miraculous self-discovery when he gets a second wind and, though he does not say it, for a moment feels like Finny: "I lost myself, oppressed mind along with aching body; all entanglements were shed, I broke into the clear" (112). Shortly afterward, Gene comments: "He drew me increasingly away from . . . all other friends, into a world inhabited by just himself and me, where there was no war at all, just Phineas and me alone among all the other people in the world, training for the Olympics of 1944" (119).
But before those never-to-be-held Olympics, Finny has another brain-child which he does bring off: the Winter Carnival. Although many arrangements are made, much hard cider is drunk, and several of their friends participate, there are two focal points of the carnival, and they involve Finny and Gene, respectively. The first is Finny's one-legged dance on top of the Prize Table: "Under the influence not I know of the hardest cider but of his own inner joy at life for a moment as it should be, as it was meant to be in his nature, Phineas recaptured that magic gift for existing primarily in space, one foot conceding briefly to gravity its rights before spinning him off again into the air. It was his wildest demonstration of himself, of himself in the kind of world he loved; it was his choreography of peace" (128). The second is Gene's weird, Finny-directed solo decathlon: "it wasn't cider which made me in this moment champion of everything he ordered, to run as though I were the abstraction of speed, to walk the half-circle of statues on my hands, to balance on my head on top of the icebox on top of the Prize Table . . . to accept at the end of it amid a clatter of applause . . . a wreath made from the evergreen trees which Phineas placed on my head" (128). By giving Gene all his athletic expertise, Finny gets back for a moment his own more-than-athletic grace and then happily sees Gene all but outdo him in goofiness, in "Finnyness." The Jungian/Bakhtinian switching of identities could only be more complete if we knew that Finny started to make A's on all his tests—but sadly, there is not time for that to happen. The pent-up jealousies and suspicions of Brinker and Leper lead to the trial, with its Lenten atmosphere of accusation and doom, and thus to Finny's death.
A high point of their Edenic summer, shortly before Finny's wounding, is the forbidden bicycle trip to the beach that Finny proposes to Gene, perhaps the most overtly homoerotic sequence in the novel. Gene is aware that Finny "did everything he could think of for me" (39): he entertains Gene on the way by telling stories and jokes, doing bicycle gymnastics, and singing; after they get there and Gene gets tumbled in a wave, Finny plays in the surf for an hour, but all for Gene's amusement. Later, after eating hot dogs, they stroll along the beach and are keenly aware of each other's youthful beauty:
Finny and I went along the Boardwalk in our sneakers and white slacks, Finny in a light blue polo shirt and I in a T-shirt. I noticed that people were looking fixedly at him, so I took a look myself to see why. His skin radiated a reddish copper glow of tan, his brown hair had been a little bleached by the sun, and I noticed that the tan made his eyes shine with a cool blue-green fire.
"Everybody's staring at you," he suddenly said to me. "It's because of that movie-star tan you picked up this afternoon . . . showing off again."
Gene's very next comment, spoken to himself after this declaration from Finny, sounds almost Sunday-schoolish: "Enough broken rules were enough that night" (39). Gene says this ostensibly with regard to drinking beer—each boy has only one glass—but it is also as if he knows he has had a proposition from Finny and is simply too frightened to accept. Then, before they go to sleep under the stars, Finny repeats his love song to Gene:
The last words of Finny's usual nighttime monologue were, "I hope you're having a pretty good time here. I know I kind of dragged you away at the point of a gun, but after all you can't come to the shore with just anybody and you can't come by yourself, and at this teen-age period in life the proper person is your best pal." He hesitated and then added, "which is what you are," and there was silence on his dune.
Again Gene isolates himself from the totally open intimacy Finny expresses, but this time he can't entirely refuse to understand it:
It was a courageous thing to say. Exposing a sincere emotion nakedly like that at the Devon School was the next thing to suicide. I should have told him then that he was my best friend also and rounded off what he had said. I started to; I nearly did. But something held me back. Perhaps I was stopped by that level of feeling, deeper than thought, which contains the truth.
What can that deep, truthful level of feeling be but that the boys, far more than "best friends," are in love with each other? And what can stop the sexual expression of such love but what Sedgwick calls homosexual panic?
The same forces are at work in their last conversation before Finny dies. Both boys are crying as Finny finally confronts Gene's having made him fall out of the tree and Gene confronts their mutual love and desire:
"Then that was it. Something just seized you. It wasn't anything you really felt against me, it wasn't some kind of hate you've felt all along. It wasn't anything personal."
"No, I don't know how to show you, how can I show you, Finny? Tell me how to show you. It was just some ignorance inside me, some crazy thing inside me, something blind, that's all it was."
He was nodding his head, his jaw tightening and his eyes closed on the tears. "I believe you. It's okay because I understand and I believe you. You've already shown me and I believe you."
Gene's agonized, desperate "Tell me how to show you" provides, in what turns out to be the last hours of Finny's life, his affirmative answer to Finny's naked emotions of love and desire expressed during their night on the beach. But now it is Finny's turn to demur; it is not clear whether his reply, "You've already shown me," should be read as a renewal of his own homosexual panic—here expressed in the magnanimous implication that their love is bigger than sex—or simply as an indicator of his extreme physical weakness.
Later that day he dies, leaving readers with many unanswered questions. If Finny had not thus absolved Gene before his death and Gene had not offered himself to Finny, could Gene have even gone on living for fifteen years, let alone return to Devon saying, as he does at the beginning of the novel (2), that he has finally escaped his boyhood fear? But if Finny had lived and they had expressed their love physically, would even closer bonding have resulted, or would homophobia have reasserted itself in bitter division? Gene's comment on his grief, or rather the lack of it, strongly buttresses Butler's application of Freud's ideas on inner mourning to the repression of same-sex desire and the establishment of an outwardly heterosexual adult identity: "I did not cry then or ever about Finny. I did not cry even when I stood watching him being lowered into his family's strait-laced burial ground outside of Boston. I could not escape a feeling that this was my own funeral, and you do not cry in that case" (186). Of course these same words simultaneously confirm that Gene's union with Finny is complete and will always remain intact.
Trying to summarize Finny's continuing presence in his life at the end of the book, Gene writes a eulogy that underlines the fluidity and potential subversiveness of Finny's character—and thus, he seems to realize, of his own: "During the time I was with him, Phineas created an atmosphere in which I continued now to live, a way of sizing up the world with erratic and entirely personal reservations, letting its rocklike facts sift through and be accepted only a little at a time, only as much as he could assimilate without a sense of chaos and loss" (194). Still, Gene says that Phineas alone escaped the hostility of the world: "He possessed an extra vigor, a heightened confidence in himself, a serene capacity for affection which saved him" (194-95). The tone here and even the vocabulary are remarkably close to the benediction that Nick Carraway pronounces upon Jay Gatsby at the beginning of F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous novel of the 1920s: "If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away" (Fitzgerald 2). Or compare the final words spoken by Henry, the narrator of David Guy's novel of adolescence Second Brother, about his best friend Sam, with whom he did share one homosexual experience: "My memory of Sam Golden is a talisman for me. I pick it up and hold it and it brings me luck. . . . When I think of how to live my life, not the things I want to do but the way I want to do them, I think of him. . . . I am glad I knew him. I am glad he lived" (Guy 264). Like Henry with Sam, like Nick with Gatsby, Gene is glad he knew Finny, glad he lived; there was something gorgeous about him. And, since Finny's "serene capacity for affection," coupled with his "choreography of peace" (128), now resides inside Gene, it saves him too, perhaps not from some continuing sense of loss, but from his feelings of guilt and fear.
Given the continuing strength of homophobia and homosexual panic in Western society, such a saving can still seem almost providential; but it has been almost half a century since Leslie Fiedler noted the paradox that our homophobic society somehow keeps a soft spot in its heart for texts like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that inscribe homoeroticism and compulsory heterosexuality side by side ("Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey!" 3-6). In another essay ("Wordsworth, Lost Boys, and Romantic Hom[e]ophobia") I have argued that some well-known and often-taught books for teenage boys let them down because the writers, probably affected by societal homophobia themselves, fail to explore same-sex relationships thoroughly and honestly.A Separate Peace is an exception: like Huckleberry Finn, Knowles's inscription of the love of Gene and Finny sets forth a brilliant and teachable example of the clash between the fluidity of gender and the restraints of homophobic discourse as it is played out on the adolescent male body.
1. While I have no quarrel with his use of alter-ego to describe Finny's and Gene's friendship, I will implicitly refute, in what follows, Gordon E. Slethaug's main argument that Gene is Finny's evil twin, driven almost to the end by competition or rivalry (265) and Hallman Bryant's analysis of Gene's development in Judeo-Christian terms of fall and recovery (War Within, see chapter headings pp. 41, 69, 103). Finally, I cannot even begin to see Finny as the proto-Nazi villain of the novel as Joseph E. Devine has argued.
2. For a summary of Mikhail Bakhtin's ideas about Carnival and its potential for liberating role-exchanges, see Bristol 348-53.
3. Georges-Michel Sarotte precedes me in recognizing the homosexual theme in A Separate Peace; however, since I see Gene's and Finny's love as not only mutual but finally very positive—the fear yielding to the joy—I cannot agree with Sarotte's much more negative assessment of Gene's motives and actions as an example of "the mutilation of the American virile ideal" (295), or with his assertion that "their friendship changes into hatred out of fear of its changing into love" (45).
4. For the history of this shirt, first sold by Brooks Brothers in the early 1940s, see Bryant's "Phineas's Pink Shirt."
Berger, Maurice, Brian Wallis, and Simon Watson, eds. Constructing Masculinity. New York: Routledge, 1995.
Bristol, Michael D. "'Funeral Bak'd-Meats': Carnival and the Carnivalesque in Hamlet." In Hamlet, ed. Wofford, 348-67.
Bryant, Hallman Bell. "Phineas's Pink Shirt in John Knowles' A Separate Peace." Notes on Contemporary Literature 14 (1984): 5-6.
——. "A Separate Peace": The War Within. Boston: Twayne, 1990.
Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex." New York: Routledge, 1993.
——. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.
——. "Melancholy Gender/Refused Identification." In Constructing Masculinity, ed. Berger, Wallis, and Watson, 21-36.
Devine, Joseph E. "The Truth about A Separate Peace." English Journal 58 (1969): 519-20; rpt. in Readings, ed. Karson, 122-24.
Fiedler, Leslie. "Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey!" In A Fiedler Reader. New York: Stein and Day, 1977. 3-12.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 1925.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, vol. 1. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage, 1990.
Guy, David. Second Brother. New York: New American Library, 1985.
Karson, Jill, ed. Readings on "A Separate Peace," San Diego: Greenhaven, 1999.
Knowles, John. A Separate Peace. New York: Bantam, 1966.
McGavran, James Holt. "Wordsworth, Lost Boys, and Romantic Hom[e]ophobia." In Literature and the Child: Romantic Continuations, Postmodern Contestations, ed. James Holt McGavran. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999. 130-52.
Mengeling, Marvin E. "A Separate Peace: Meaning and Myth." English Journal 58 (1969): 1322-29.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.
——. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.
Slethaug, Gordon E. "The Play of the Double in A Separate Peace." Canadian Review of American Studies 15 (1984): 259-70.
Witherington, Paul. "A Separate Peace: A Study in Structural Ambiguity." English Journal 54 (1965), 795-800; rpt. in Readings, ed. Karson, 79-88.
Wofford, Susanne L., ed. Hamlet. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1994.
Eric L. Tribunella (essay date 2002)
SOURCE: Tribunella, Eric L. "Refusing the Queer Potential: John Knowles's A Separate Peace." Children's Literature 30 (2002): 81-96.
[In the following essay, Tribunella reflects upon possible readings of A Separate Peace within its context as a "school story" and examines Gene's rejection of homosexual desire for perceived heterosexual normality.]
John Knowles'sA Separate Peace (1959) follows in the tradition of the school story, a genre supposedly established a century earlier by Thomas Hughes's Tom Brown's School Days (1857).1 According to Beverly Lyon Clark, school stories are "so marked by gender that it becomes vital to address questions of both the instability and potency of gender in the school story" (11). Clark recognizes that while schooling, and hence stories about schooling, are implicated in various social hierarchies, they also allow "some possibility of subversion, some possibility for giving one perspective on the marginal, on class, gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality." School is, she suggests, "a site for working out contrary impulses" (8). Kathy Piehl argues for consideration ofA Separate Peace as school story in her comparison of the novel with Hughes's own children's literature classic, and it is suggested elsewhere that one of the "ideal" types of contemporary adolescent fiction focuses on the burgeoning of one's sexuality, frequently in the school setting (Roxburgh 249). Given both the importance of gender and sexuality to the school story, a genre to whichA Separate Peace seems clearly to belong, and the persistent use of this novel in the secondary-school classroom, an understanding of how it reinforces or potentially resists social hierarchies is crucial to deciphering its pedagogical function.
The social significance of novels taught in school is manifested by the contention that surrounds many of them.2 A Separate Peace has not escaped controversy. It has been the object of attempted censorship in several cases throughout the United States brought by parents who for various reasons have found its content objectionable (see Foerstel 1994, Sova 1998). Parents, who before the late nineteenth century "were ready to accept the most ardent degree of affection between boys [in school stories] if it involved no physical expression (except a chaste deathbed kiss)," eventually came to be horrified by the mere possibility of same-sex genitality (Quigly 126). The availability ofA Separate Peace to a queer reading was understood by the parents of a Vernon-Verona-Sherrill (New York) School District student who in 1980 contested the use of the novel because of its "underlying theme" of homosexuality. They claimed that the book actually encouraged homosexuality. As a result, it was removed from classroom use (Sova 213).3
Although educators have touted the novel as a useful tool for imparting patriotic and ethical values, teachingA Separate Peace involves a potentially troubling application vis-à-vis same-sex desire. To the extent thatA Separate Peace reinforces hegemonic mechanisms of marginalization, such as homophobia and heterosexism, its usefulness for imparting "democratic ideals" cannot be understood without examining how these mechanisms and their effects in fact constitute those ideals. The book does, however, present possibilities for readings that resist such a use, as the complaint of the plaintiffs in the 1980 case attests.
In a 1983 edition of the Connecticut English Journal devoted to rationales for commonly challenged books used in the classroom, Diane Shugert writes that these rationales set out to explain howA Separate Peace "relates to the democratic ideal of the educated citizen, prepared to make her own decision" (2). Richard Hargraves, author of a course outline entitled Values, suggests that a system of values "should encompass recognized universal but functional ethical codes and modes which provide a basis for conduct in contemporary, American society" (4).A Separate Peace figures as one of the primary texts in this curriculum, which seeks to foster a personal value system including positive self-images, the ability to differentiate between tolerance and intolerance, a sense of the centrality of freedom and personal independence, and the importance of truth and reconciliation. W. Michael Reed proposes thatA Separate Peace "offers adolescents some important perspective upon the nature of human experience" (102). In Reed's view, students should valueA Separate Peace because of its insights concerning methods by which adolescents interact with one another. Other apologists cite the novel for its "universal" lessons about moral development and the human ideal.
I would argue, however, that the rhetoric of ethics, values, and patriotism in which rationales for this book are steeped masks its more insidious use as a tract for inscribing the "appropriate" gender and sexuality in adolescent males. These rationales, written in part as a response to attempts to censor the novel's use, represent reaffirmations of its potential to inspire normative development. Gene's "maturation" throughout the novel represents his movement away from an effete intellectualism and "adolescent" homoerotic relationship. His "moral" progression involves abandoning the queer possibility and accepting a hegemonic and necessarily heterosexual masculinity that adolescent readers of the novel are tacitly encouraged to emulate and valorize. The novel has been recruited as representative of universal adolescence in part because of its heterosexist developmental narrative, which does not simply reflect adolescent experience but contributes to the discourse compelling that experience. The themes ofA Separate Peace do indeed represent American cultural values, including, quite significantly, heterosexuality and masculinity in men.
The novel is framed by the narration of Gene, who returns to Devon School fifteen years later to reminisce about his coming of age. By beginning and concluding the novel with the insights of an adult Gene, Knowles preestablishes the inevitable culmination of the story's movement—Gene as a man. The reader is allowed to glimpse who Gene will become, and the story told as a flashback provides the map of the course Gene follows. Hence, the process of gendering the boy to "be a man" lies at the heart ofA Separate Peace, and the conflicts and actions it details serve to further this process as its central project.
Finny's and Gene's relationship is characterized by a subtle homoeroticism in which Gene eroticizes Finny's innocence, purity, and skill, and Finny eroticizes the companionship provided by Gene. With World War II serving throughout the novel as the backdrop against which the "peace" of Devon is contrasted, the boys initially engage in the ritual of taking off their clothes and jumping from a tall tree into the river below as practice for the possibility of having to jump from a sinking ship in battle. Jumping from the tree acquires special significance for Finny and Gene; it serves as a sign of loyalty and as an act that cements their bond and stands in for sexual play.
To describe their relationship this way is not to cite a germinal or inchoate homosexuality or to suggest that either Finny or Gene has simply failed consciously to admit an essential homosexual status. It is, however, to note, as Eve Sedgwick does, "that what goes on at football games, in fraternities, at the Bohemian Grove, and at climactic moments in war novels can look, with only a slight shift of optic, quite startlingly 'homosexual.'" It is not, she continues, "most importantly an expression of the psychic origin of these institutions in a repressed or sublimated homosexual genitality. Instead, it is the coming into visibility of the normally implicit coercive double bind" (Between Men 89). The "coercive double bind" of which Sedgwick writes is the simultaneous prescription of intimate male homosocial bonds and proscription of homosexuality (see Between Men 88-89 and Epistemology 185-86): "Because the paths of male entitlement, especially in the nineteenth century, required certain intense male bonds that were not readily distinguishable from the most reprobated bonds, an endemic and ineradicable state of what I am calling male homosexual panic became the normal condition of male heterosexual entitlement" (Epistemology 185). The boys' very presence at a school like Devon not only underscores their access to a specifically classed and gendered entitlement, but the school itself also serves as a space in which to prepare them for claiming that entitlement. It is a space in which this double bind is particularly highlighted since boys will make their earliest connections to other boys here, as well as perhaps their first sexual explorations. In order to make visible fully this double bind, it is necessary to shift the optic whereby the homoeroticism of the boys' relationship comes into view: "For a man to be a man's man is separated only by an invisible, carefully blurred, always-already-crossed line from being 'interested in men'" (Between Men 89).4
Finny demonstrates his interest in sharing intimate moments with Gene when he encourages him to skip class and spend a day at the beach. Finny reveals in his characteristically honest way that Gene is the "proper" person with whom to share such moments as they settle down to sleep on the sand. Gene considers such a naked emotional expression to be next to suicide at Devon, and he remains unable to reciprocate Finny's admission. Gene does, however, notice Finny's physical attractiveness even if he must project this sentiment onto the anonymous passersby: "I noticed that people were looking fixedly at him, so I took a look myself to see why. His skin radiated a reddish copper glow of tan, his brown hair had been a little bleached by the sun, and I noticed that the tan made his eyes shine with a cool bluegreen fire" (39). Gene notices Finny's appearance, though Finny is the first to say about Gene, "Everybody's staring at you. It's because of that movie star tan you picked up this afternoon . . . showing off again" (39). While Gene reciprocates Finny's feelings, he cannot bring himself to admit them as Finny does. Gene's self-preserving silence allows him to resist both the possibility and the threat of consummating his platonic friendship with Finny, whereas Finny's willingness to expose his emotional vulnerabilities predicts his eventual expulsion from a context that forbids such expressions.
Gene allays the confusions that result from his affection for Finny and the tumult of emotions such forbidden feelings arouse in him by first causing the accident that forces Finny's disappearance from Devon and then incorporating Finny into himself. Following their trip to the beach, the night they spend alone there, and Finny's intimate expression of his fondness for Gene, Gene finds himself growing increasingly suspicious of Finny and attributes this reaction to the possibility that Finny plans to sabotage his grades. Finny and Gene later return to the tree where, after undressing, Finny suggests that they jump together hand-in-hand (163), an act that could substitute for a strictly forbidden sexual act between the boys. They climb the tree and prepare to jump, but in a moment of panic, Gene jounces the limb and sends Finny crashing to the ground, thereby setting a series of events in motion that culminates in Finny's death. His realization that Finny's intentions are not dishonest after all, coupled with Finny's suggestion that they take the jump together, ignites the moment of homosexual panic. Gene responds to Finny's advances with an act of violent separation. Finny's attempt to take Gene's hand triggers the need in Gene to conform to the heterosexual imperative that forecloses the possibility of same-sex desire by forcibly detaching himself from Finny.
Judith Butler suggests considering gender as a kind of melancholy, the unfinished process of grieving a loss that cannot be acknowledged. The lost object is incorporated and preserved in the ego as a constitutive identification in order to defer suffering the loss. She proposes that this melancholic identification is central to the process by which a subject's gender is constructed. She quotes from Freud's The Ego and the Id: "an object which was lost has been set up again inside the ego—that is, that an object-cathexis has been replaced by an identification . . . when it happens that a person has given up a sexual object, there quite often ensues an alteration of his ego which can only be described as setting up of the object inside the ego" ("Gender" 22). The internalization of the object offers an alternative means of possessing the object without violating the codes that prohibit and prevent its external possession. The act of jouncing the limb, which causes Finny to fall, represents a literal acting out of Gene's rejection of Finny as an object of desire. The injuries Finny incurs ensure his separation from Gene and the loss of the prohibited homosexual attachment. Gene's refusal, however, to acknowledge the loss translates into the installation of Finny, the barred object of desire, as part of Gene's ego. The loss is refused and Finny is preserved by this process of internalization, which involves Gene's accessibility to penetration by Finny in such a way that avoids the repercussions of a genital contact: "I decided to put on his clothes. . . . When I looked in the mirror it was not a remote aristocrat I had become, no character out of daydreams. I was Phineas, Phineas to the life. I even had his humorous expression on my face, his sharp, optimistic awareness. 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 confusion of my own character again" (54). When Finny does return temporarily to Devon, he attempts to aid Gene in completing the transformation. Since Finny had been a star athlete prior to the fall, he sets about attempting to train Gene to take his place and actualize the element of himself that Gene internalizes. Gene initiates the process whereby he establishes the idea of Finny at the core of a reconstituted self and, in this instance of initiative, already demonstrates a quality originally belonging only to Finny. As Gene approaches his goal, Finny gradually fades until his death coincides with Gene's ultimate success.
In Butler's view, masculinity and femininity are accomplishments that emerge in tandem with the achievement of heterosexuality ("Gender" 24). Gene's homosexual panic might then be ascribed not only to the prohibition of homo-desire but also to the related fear of being feminine or feminized. His rejection of the external possession of Finny represents not only a rejection of the homosexual attachment but also his desire to achieve a heterosexually defined masculinity by which he can bring himself into accordance with the ideal of the proper man. The "I never loved him, I never lost him" uttered by a man forms the core of his tenuous heterosexuality and hence his masculinity ("Gender" 27). Moreover, renunciation does not abolish the desire but establishes the desire as the fuel for its perpetual renunciation. If masculinity is achieved through a heterosexuality predicated on the renunciation of the homosexual attachment, then homo-desire serves as the necessary possibility that allows for its renunciation: "The act of renouncing homosexuality thus paradoxically strengthens homosexuality, but it strengthens homosexuality precisely as the power of renunciation. Renunciation becomes the aim and vehicle of satisfaction. And it is, we might conjecture, precisely the fear of setting loose homosexuality from this circuit of renunciation that so terrifies the guardians of masculinity in the U.S. military. For what would masculinity 'be' were it not for this aggressive circuit of renunciation from which it is wrought?" ("Gender" 31). A heterosexual man thus becomes the man he "never" loved and "never" grieved, and his masculinity is founded upon the refusal to acknowledge this love and its incorporation as an identification within his ego ("Gender" 34). Gene becomes a man through his repudiation of the consummation of his relationship with Finny—"holding hands in a jump."
By killing Finny, Gene assumes his own place in this "aggressive circuit of renunciation." Following Finny's first departure from Devon School and Gene's incorporation of the loss as an identification within his own ego, Gene determines along with Brinker to enlist in the war effort and, in doing so, the masculine environs of the military and battlefield. The war propels the boys forward, away from their adolescent shelter and toward the final phase of their initiation into manhood. The return of Finny forestalls Gene's entrance into the war, and the reemergence of the queer possibility effectively suspends Gene's enlistment and the verification of his masculinity. The threat posed by Finny becomes evident. His presence, in fact, his continued existence, defers indefinitely Gene's "ascension" to a proper manhood. Finny must therefore die to prevent any further return and to allow Gene to claim finally his masculinity and complete the gendering process that is ongoing throughoutA Separate Peace.
Mark Simpson has described the buddy war film as a compilation of lessons about masculinity and how to take one's place in patriarchy (214). Simpson's analysis of such films can be used to examine Knowles's novel, since the lingering war provides the context for Finny's and Gene's homoerotic friendship. Simpson describes the intimate relationship between same-sex desire and death established in the war film as the necessary condition for any expression of homodesire:
In war films of the buddy type the deadliness of war is not glossed over. But it is portrayed not in the death of the enemy, who are often faceless or even unseen, but in the death of the comrades and buddies. Classically, the moment when the buddy lies dead or dying is the moment when the full force of the love the boys/men feel for one another can be shown. And, for all the efforts of the conscientious film maker, the deadliness is thus attached not as much to war as to the queer romance of it all.
Paul Fussell similarly suggests that the connection between war and love assumes a distinctly homoerotic form on the battlefield: "Given this association between war and sex, and given the deprivation and loneliness and alienation characteristic of the soldier's experience—given, that is, his need for affection in a largely womanless world—we will not be surprised to find both the actuality and the recall of front-line experience replete with what we can call the homoerotic" (272). Fussell even makes the direct connection between the homoerotic desires of English officers during the Great War and their experiences at English public schools: "It was largely members of the upper and upper-middle classes who were prepared by public-school training to experience such crushes, who 'hailed with relief,' as J. B. Priestley remembers, 'a wholly masculine way of life uncomplicated by Woman'" (273). Fussell reports finding in soldiers' recollections of frontline experiences "especially in the attitude of young officers to their men . . . something more like the 'idealistic,' passionate but nonphysical 'crushes' which most of the officers had experienced at public school" (272).
According to Simpson and Fussell, the battlefield is a place in which queer love can be expressed, albeit in a sublimated form, because it occurs alongside and in the context of death. Gene allows himself to admit his tender feelings for Finny only as Finny lies broken on the marble steps following Gene's trial. Seeing another student wrap a blanket around Finny, Gene recalls, "I would have liked very much to have done that myself; it would have meant a lot to me" (170). That Gene's expression of tenderness fails to find a more explicit articulation attests to that very impossibility. Simpson writes, "But pain and death are not just a price that has to be paid—it is as if the caress, the kiss, the embrace were the fatal blow itself" (214). If the jounced tree limb is read as the act that ultimately kills Finny, then it is Finny's attempt to grab Gene's hand and to jump with him—this symbolic moment of touch—that incites the homosexual panic in Gene. According to Simpson, the cathartic deadly climax satisfies the audience and allows for the homoerotic impulse of the characters while rein-scribing a heterosexual economy that calls for the unattainability of the queer attachment. The desire is expressed for only an instant, and even then it is a love that is never truly acknowledged. Its full actualization is staved off by death. InA Separate Peace, the possibility of consummation is canceled by Finny's death, ensuring that their "boyish love" remains eternal and unsullied by the transgression of a compulsory heterosexuality. Simpson writes: "They live by love, but one of them, the most 'sensitive' and the 'queerest', must die to save the others and the world from the practice of it, also to demonstrate the 'proper' way it should be sublimated: 'Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends'" (227). Finny is, surely, the queerest of the Devon boys.
Gene's participation in the war effort is fueled by this disavowed loss of the homosexual attachment, and if Gene's development is taken to represent a collectively experienced process by which boys are made men, then it might be said that the war itself is predicated on the ungrieved loss of homosexual attachment. On the battlefield, men can place themselves in positions to be killed by the enemy such that death comes from without, and mourning one's comrades in war can stand in for mourning the homosexual attachment that was lost. The trauma of war as a purely masculine pursuit serves as a pretext for the grief that cannot be experienced at home during peacetime. One can love one's comrades and grieve their loss with the displaced love and loss "never" felt for the original same-sex object. Any resistance to the imperative that demands such an oppressive masculinity formed on the disavowal of homo-desire can be directed towards the enemy, and any guilt suffered over one's own compliance can be transformed into a hatred of this enemy. War might be described as the only appropriate place for experiencing this grief, and the possibility of eliminating this motivation for war (as it certainly is not the only motivation) presents a useful rationale for refusing the loss of homosexual attachment and for changing the conditions that initially demand its loss.
The context of Devon School during wartime conflates the school and the battlefield. Seeking to act out the war, Finny invents the game of Blitzball in which the boy with the ball must run from one side of the field to the other without being tackled. At any point in the game, the player holding the ball could pass it on to another player who would then become the object of attack for the other boys. One must pass the ball according to Finny, who invents a game with no teams. Each player is simultaneously an adversary and an ally, so these terms effectively have no meaning in the context of Blitzball in which players fluidly shift between roles never fixed in relation to other players. One can never identify allies or enemies in Blitzball, making it a queer game resisting the fixity of identities.5 Rather than enforcing the strict dichotomization of sides, Finny rejects this fundamental attribute of competition, thereby creating a space from which to expose it as not inevitable. Finny also adopts this resistant tactic during a snowball fight when he again begins switching sides so that "loyalties became hopelessly entangled" (146). A classmate follows suit, leading Gene to describe him as a eunuch (146).
Finny repeatedly produces the central symbols of the novel. He initiates the practice of jumping from the tree, a practice that acquires significance as a site for both the sealing of Finny's friendship with Gene and their separation. During Finny's temporary return to Devon following his injury he begins training Gene for the Olympics in which he himself had wished to participate. Despite the impossibility of such a goal, Finny's encouragement persists in maintaining it as a realistic possibility in their minds, again demonstrating his authority over the boys' fantasies. Finny also determines the symbolic value of the pink shirt, which he dons as an emblem ostensibly to demonstrate his pride in the Allied victories over Central Europe. Gene expresses concern that Finny's pink shirt might cause others to "mistake" him for a "fairy," a concern to which Finny responds "mildly, . . . I wonder what would happen if I looked like a fairy to everyone" (17). Finny's lack of concern is itself queer in the homosocial context of a boys' school where, by the 1940s, such a label might incur a significant cost to one's social status, if not physical safety. The pink shirt, moreover, proves central to Gene's attempt to become Finny. Wearing the shirt completes Gene's incorporation of Finny into his own self following Finny's first absence from Devon. That Finny originates each of these symbols signifies a phallic authority ultimately claimed by Gene as the story's narrator.
In contrast to Gene, his schoolmate Leper fails to undergo the same process by which Gene achieves manhood. Leper is—as one might predict from his name—an outsider, never fully participating in the boys' society, never playing their games, preferring instead to wander alone in the woods. He finally leaves Devon to enlist, "escapes" from the army, and returns to school to testify in Gene's mock trial. In this allegory of gender construction, Leper represents the boy who neither refuses the loss of homosexual attachment nor consummates a potential union. He therefore never incorporates the possible object of desire within his ego, thereby proving malformed and dysfunctional as a result of his failure to adhere to the normative developmental trajectory followed by Gene. When Finny first jumps from the tree Leper refuses to join in the ritual with the other boys. In response to Finny's insistence on Leper's participation, Gene recalls that "Leper closed his mouth as though forever. He didn't argue or refuse. He didn't back away. He became inanimate" (9). Leper simply watches and so bears witness to the symbolic attachment created as an unrealized possibility between Finny and Gene. At the crucial moment when Gene jounces the limb and sends Finny crashing to the ground in a violent moment of homosexual panic—the refusal of the queer possibility—Leper stands by as the only witness to the event, silently observing the mechanisms by which Gene undertakes to assume his masculinity and authorized position in patriarchy. Although the other boys work clearing snow from the railroad yard to permit trains carrying new military recruits to pass, Leper abstains from this contribution to the war effort, choosing instead to keep his distance and explore the forest trails. Ultimately Leper enlists in the army only to suffer a mental breakdown and go "psycho."
At the climax of the novel when the boys try Gene for maiming Finny, Leper arrives to present the damning evidence, his testimony that Gene deliberately caused Finny's accident. Faced with this evidence, Finny flees from the truth and finally dies at the end of the sequence of events put in motion by Gene. In the context of the trial, Leper occupies the place of the critic, the one who reads through the allegory and exposes the underlying mechanisms motivating Gene's violent act. Leper stands as a figure that warns the reader to avoid reading too closely or looking too intently to uncover the reason for Gene's violence. The processes of achieving heterosexuality and masculinity cannot be completed properly in the witness if he becomes too aware of their workings. The figure of Leper functions in the story to present the potential risk of insanity to the student who might be drawn to the position of the critic. The student should not be a witness who observes directly these mechanisms of gender construction since insanity looms as a possible punishment.6
In his report of a panel discussion held to discuss literary criticism and the teaching ofA Separate Peace, Jack Lundy quotes panelist Betty Nelick as saying that the novel is concerned with "Gene's slow and painful dying to the world of adolescence into the world of manhood, through the outward pressures of a world at war and the inward pressure of the realization of fear and evil within himself" (114). Diane Shugert claims that books likeA Separate Peace are taught because "the book's point of view bears upon democratic and American values," whichA Separate Peace quite clearly accomplishes through its valorization of Gene's coming-of-age, his rejection of a possible homosexual attachment, and his ascension to proper manhood at the cost of the death of his all-too-queer best friend (4). The failure of many of these critics to acknowledge explicitly the sexual politics of the novel represents the success of Leper's warning against precisely this attention.A Separate Peace thus serves the education of the American ideal well—a heterosexual and "properly" gendered ideal.
The popular characterization of same-sex desire as a confusing adolescent experience at a stage that must be successfully negotiated in order to achieve a more "adult" heterosexuality lends descriptive validity to Butler's formulation in which the homosexual attachment is lost and incorporated. But this psychosocial process by which heterosexuality is achieved need not be understood as either inevitable or innate, but rather it may be understood as produced. The widespread belief that youth might experience same-sex desire during an early developmental stage that they are expected to outgrow functions as a self-fulfilling prophecy at the cultural level. Adolescents learn that they must restrict their potential object-choices by learning to understand other-sex desire as appropriate and expected, while learning to interpret any indications of same-sex desire as the product of rampant hormones, inexperience, or confusion.A Separate Peace encourages the understanding of this lesson. The process of gender construction allegorized inA Separate Peace does not fully precede the use of such texts as propagandistic media. Rather such texts might be said to collectively contribute to the discourse that materializes the phenomena they describe. When teachers take texts to be "realistic" and present them as such, they unwittingly popularize this discourse, a discourse that is generative rather than simply representational. Such texts are thought to document a psychosocial process; however, the process might instead be understood as the collective effect of those texts, an effect ensured through the perpetual repetition of their use and the insistence on their realism. The contribution ofA Separate Peace to the procedure by which same-sex desire is constructed as adolescent positions the book at a crucial site of cultural production, that of the "adult" heterosexual and the "ideal" democratic citizen.
The lingering question still posed by students, however, is "Why must Finny die?" (Wacht 7). If the question is motivated by a desire to see Finny live, then it marks a potential impetus for the student to produce a resistant reading of the text. The question, "Why does Finny have to die?" could represent the student's desire to see the homosexual attachment completed, or at least not entirely foreclosed before the possibility of consummation is realized. Finny must die precisely because he refuses to reject the possibility of loving Gene. Even when Gene attempts to confess his guilt, Finny struggles to deny Gene's need to push him away: "it was like I had all the time in the world. I thought I could reach out and get hold of you." But Gene responds by flinching violently away from him: "To drag me down too!" (57). Even here when Finny speaks of his previous desire to grab hold of Gene, Gene can only recall such a wish as the desire to drag him down and prevent him from attaining a heterosexually defined manhood. Finny must die so that Gene can become a proper man, yet as Butler writes, "There is no necessary reason for identification to oppose desire, or for desire to be fueled by repudiation" ("Gender" 35).
Knowles's text, if exposed as a coercive tract for propagating normative constructions of gender, might be employed to interact with adolescents' impulse for transgression. The excessive warning away from an overly perceptive reading symbolized by a psychotic Leper might serve to provoke a desire to reveal what one is warned against revealing. The very prohibition used to enforce Gene's conformity might be eroticized in such a way that its very transgression becomes desirable. In this sense, the warning away might potentiate the desirability of the forbidden object and serve the function of drawing one closer to it. The inverted prohibition, one that attracts the subject to the prohibited object, could function to destabilize the force of the prohibition so that it ultimately loses its effect to either warn away or entice. Finny would not have to die if Gene rejected a "proper" and fixed identification. Had he refused the need to bring about and disavow this loss, Gene might have avoided foreclosing the queer potential.
I would like to thank Kenneth Kidd and Maya Dodd for their careful readings and thoughtful comments.
1. In Regendering the School Story Beverly Lyon Clark seeks to debunk the notion that Tom Brown was the first school story, while still crediting it as having influenced hundreds of subsequent school stories, popular culture, and mainstream literature for adults (11).
2. The uncertain status of John Knowles's A Separate Peace as children's, or adolescent, literature reflects the instability of these terms. First published in 1959, A Separate Peace predates S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders, which many cite as initiating the genre. Initial reviews in the New Yorker, New Statesman, Saturday Review, and Time made no reference to the book as being specifically for young adults, and its review in the Horn Book Magazine, a publication concerned with literature for children and young people, appeared in a section intended to highlight current adult books of interest to high school students.
A Separate Peace has, however, arguably entered the popular imagination as particularly well suited for young adults. In a 1992 article that considers adolescent novels written before 1967, A Separate Peace is favorably noted as one read and enjoyed by adolescents and teachers of adolescents ("Still Good Reading" 87). The frequent use of A Separate Peace in high school English classrooms might contribute to the perception that it belongs in the young adult category. As it continues to be taught, more adults will recall their first experience with the novel as having taken place in school. The fact that its protagonists are themselves adolescents certainly compounds the perception that it is for adolescent readers.
3. The novel has also been challenged for containing "unsuitable language" and "negative attitudes" and for encouraging undesirable behavior, such as skipping class, breaking school rules, and trespassing (Foerstel 181, Sova 214). In spite of this occasional opposition, A Separate Peace has been regularly taught in high school English classrooms since the early sixties. An early apology for its use applauded it as recommending itself immediately to high school instruction (Crabbe 111). Its popular use has been accompanied by a series of rationales that attempt to justify this use specifically in the wake of such cases as the one in New York.
4. The school story as same-sex love story is a possibility explored by Isabel Quigly. The readiness with which these stories lend themselves to such readings supports Sedgwick's contention and represents a tradition that provides the context for such an approach to A Separate Peace. In two of the three school stories Quigly describes as typical of the school love story, one of the boys dies. In all three, one of the boys is enormously handsome and athletic while the other is rather plain, slightly too scholastic, and perhaps a bit too nervous as well. A Separate Peace is thus easily placed in this tradition.
While working on this essay I came across a free New York City gay magazine, HX, in which a dance club advertisement depicted a number of sexual situations involving cartoon men in a library. Several books, having been pulled from the shelves, lie strewn on the floor. The texts are ones commonly known to be available to "homoerotic" readings: Leaves of Grass, Moby Dick, Billy Budd, Lord of the Flies, and A Separate Peace. What this ad demonstrates is the widespread recognition that A Separate Peace is in fact available for such a reading. A popular gay audience, at least, does not need such a reading to be pointed out to it. It is not my aim to say merely that the possibility of reading the text this way exists. Rather, given this possibility, I am interested in how teachers have written about the text's use, in the processes that seem to underlie this homoeroticism, and in what else the text might be saying about these things.
5. The term "queer" of course cannot—and should not—be reduced to some simplistic notion of fluidity. A number of scholars have taken up the possible implications of the term—not so much its "meaning," which must remain contingent if it is to be put to use in contesting normative regimes. See, e,g., Butler's "Critically Queer" in Bodies That Matter; Doty's Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture, xv; Sedgwick's "Queer Performativity" in GLQ; Michael Warner's introduction to Fear of a Queer Planet; de Lauretis's "Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Studies: An Introduction" in differences.
6. It is also the case that Finny might not have fled had Leper not arrived to present his testimony. Perhaps this could be read as a warning that the critic's own words might be used to further the process being critiqued, for Leper's testimony was appropriated and used by Brinker, a student political leader representing conservative thought at the school.
Balliett, Whitney. "Review of A Separate Peace." New Yorker 36.159 (April 2, 1960): 340.
Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. New York: Routledge, 1993.
——. "Gender Melancholy/Refused Identification." In Constructing Masculinity. Ed. Maurice Berger, Brian Wallis, and Simon Watson. New York: Routledge, 1995.
Clark, Beverly Lyon. Regendering the School Story: Sassy Sissies and Tattling Tomboys. New York: Garland Publishing, 1996.
Crabbe, John K. "On the Playing Fields of Devon." English Journal 52 (1963): 109-11.
de Lauretis, Teresa. "Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Studies: An Introduction." differences 3 (summer 1991): iii-xviii.
Doty, Alexander. Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
Foerstel, Herbert N. Banned in the U.S.A.: A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in Schools and Public Libraries. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994.
Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.
Hargraves, Richard. B. Values: Language Arts. Miami, Fl.: Dade County Public Schools, 1971.
Hicks, Granville. "Review of A Separate Peace." Saturday Review 43.14 (March 5, 1960): 800.
Knowles, John. A Separate Peace. New York: Bantam, 1959.
Lundy, Jack T. "Literary Criticism and the Teaching of the Novel." University of Kansas Bulletin of Education 21.3 (1967): 112-15.
Piehl, Kathy. "Gene Forrester and Tom Brown: A Separate Peace as School Story." Children's Literature in Education 14.2 (summer 1983): 67-74.
Quigly, Isabel. The Heirs of Tom Brown: The English School Story. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Reed, W. Michael. "A Separate Peace: A Novel Worth Teaching." Virginia English Bulletin 36.2 (1986): 95-105.
"Review of A Separate Peace." Time 75.96 (April 4, 1960): 550.
Richardson, Maurice. "Review of A Separate Peace." New Statesman 57.618 (May 2, 1959): 210.
Roxburgh, Steve. "The Novel of Crisis: Contemporary Adolescent Fiction." Children's Literature 7 (1978): 248-54.
Sarotte, Georges-Michel. Like a Brother, Like a Lover: Male Homosexuality in the American Novel and Theater from Herman Melville to James Baldwin. Trans. Richard Miller. Garden City: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1978.
Scoggin, M. C. "Review of A Separate Peace." Horn Book Magazine 36.421 (October 1960): 200.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.
——. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.
——. "Queer Performativity: Henry James's The Art of the Novel." GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 1.1 (spring 1993): 1-16.
Shugert, Diane P. "About Rationales." Connecticut English Journal 15.1 (1983): 1-4.
Simpson, Mark. "Don't Die on Me, Buddy: Homoeroticism and Masochism in War Movies." In Male Impersonators: Men Performing Masculinity. Ed. Mark Simpson. New York: Routledge, 1994. 212-28.
"Still Good Reading: Adolescent Novels Written before 1967." English Journal 81.4 (April 1992): 87-90.
Sova, Dawn B. Banned Books: Literature Suppressed on Social Grounds. New York: Facts on File, 1998.
Wacht, Francine G. "The Adolescent in Literature." Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Teachers of English, San Diego. November 1975.
Warner, Michael. Introduction. In Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory. Ed. Michael Warner. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
Bryant, H. B. "Phineas's Pink Shirt in John Knowles' A Separate Peace." Notes on Contemporary Literature 14, no. 5 (November 1984): 5-6.
Assesses the symbolism of Phineas's pink shirt in A Separate Peace.
Karson, Jill, editor. Readings on "A Separate Peace." San Diego, Calif.: Greenhaven Press, 1999, 144 p.
Presents a selection of critical readings and analyses on A Separate Peace.
Reed, W. Michael. "A Separate Peace: A Novel Worth Teaching." Virginia English Bulletin 36, no. 2 (winter 1986): 95-105.
Offers a statistical approach to critiquing A Separate Peace.
Sherrill, Helen Cecil. "The Quality of Childhood Consciousness and Its Significance." Dissertation Abstracts International 52, no. 4 (October 1991): 2342B.
Considers the treatment of narcissism and child development issues in A Separate Peace.
Additional coverage of Knowles's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 12; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 10; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 2; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 3; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1968-1988 ; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20R, 203; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 40, 74, 76; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 4, 10, 26; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 6; DISCovering Authors ; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition ; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors, Novelists ; Exploring Novels ; Literature Resource Center ; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vol. 2; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers ; and Something about the Author, Vols. 8, 89, 134.