A view occasionally voiced among literary critics is that most writers have but a single message to share, and they simply repeat it in various guises from work to work throughout their writing careers. Such a judgment might be made concerning the majority of the novels and short stories of John Knowles. In his extended nonfiction piece Double Vision: American Thoughts Abroad, he asserts that “the American character is unintegrated, unresolved, a careful Protestant with a savage stirring in his insides.” Knowles views life in American, Western culture as having “an orderly, rather dull and sober surface but with something berserk stirring in its depths.” It is this duality of character, this coexistence of the moderate, the gentle, and proper with the treacherous urge to destroy what cannot be controlled, that Knowles repeatedly presents to his readers for their understanding.
Knowles has placed his novels in settings that influenced his own worldview. He has made repeated use of the emotionally charged environment of boarding institutions such as he attended during his secondary and college years, finding there an ideal milieu for illustrating the effects of cultural duality. In such settings, characteristically ricocheting between the opposing demands of undisciplined and frequently cruel peer expectations and constrictive adult regulations, he found a microcosm of the wider society he wished to illustrate.
A particular talent of Knowles is the evocation of atmosphere through the careful presentation of physical details of a setting and the use of associative imagery. He stages his plot action using techniques similar to those of the theater set designer. The hot, turgid atmosphere of the summer Riviera reflects the emotional state of characters in Morning in Antibes; the ever-deepening grayness of the West Virginia coal town of A Vein of Riches mirrors the grim descent to poverty of the wealthy mine owner’s family. In A Separate Peace, Knowles employs meticulously developed details of landscape, such as a single great tree and two rivers, as symbolic devices around which he weaves his plot.
Knowles’s skillful use of imagery and his grace of phrase and metaphor are generally acknowledged by critics as his greatest strength. While praising him as a fine craftsman of language, these same critics are equally agreed that his shortcoming as a novelist is a lack of convincing character development. His protagonists, with the notable exception of Phineas of A Separate Peace, are seen as mediocre creations—as passive, ruminating characters, more acted upon than acting, unable to arouse reader empathy. There may be several sources for such a judgment.
Perhaps, having created the marvel of Phineas in his first novel, Knowles reached a level of characterization that he has not been able to achieve again, and all of his characters therefore seem pale in Phineas’s shadow. To have achieved that height even once in a literary career is far beyond the capacity of many writers. It may also be that critics view as underdevelopment the very qualities of character which Knowles strove to achieve. The men and women of his works are not exceptional beings of peerless courage and unassailable virtue. They are persons meagerly shaped by the meagerness of their environment; as sharers in the imperfect human condition, they search for the truth of themselves amid the savagery and greed of humankind masked by twentieth century hypocrisy. Their victories are small, the victories of ordinary people facing ordinary difficulties. Perhaps it is that very ordinariness that acts as a barrier to reader empathy; it is not comfortable to see one’s own experience as merely ordinary.
A few analysts of Knowles’s work label his novels, especially the later ones, as trite, disjointed, and derivative, stating that he reworks elements from his own and other writers’ works. What is viewed by some as derivative, however, is seen by others as placing Knowles significantly within the mainstream of key American literary traditions: the young hero’s search for the true center within the self, the self-testing of an imposed view of life, the fall from moral innocence through the tragic experience of evil in one’s self and in trusted friends. John Crabbe, author of a critical review of A Separate Peace, calls Knowles’s works “a treatment of American innocence in the tradition of [Ernest] Hemingway, [F. Scott] Fitzgerald and [J. D.] Salinger.” To his list might be added Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Henry James, and many others.
Morning in Antibes clearly echoes the sense of rootlessness and the alienation from one’s homeland that is found in many of Hemingway’s works and particularly in The Sun Also Rises (1926). The young, iconoclastic hero of Knowles’s The Paragon bears close resemblance in word and action to the gullible, love-blinded Jay Gatsby of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925); Phineas, too, is akin to Gatsby in directing his actions by substanceless dreams and paying the same price of life itself. Though much has been suggested concerning the similarities between Gene in A Separate Peace and Holden Caulfield in Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Gene realizes the root of evil within and reconciles himself with that knowledge, whereas Holden views evil only as a threat from without and seeks refuge from it in a temporary mental breakdown.
Knowles does come alarmingly close to reprising his own material in Peace Breaks Out, a rather weak rewriting of his highly successful A Separate Peace. He repeats the setting, character types, plotting, and resolution from the earlier work, and none of these elements is improved in the reworking. Indeed, one reviewer saw Peace Breaks Out as a stain on an otherwise unblemished career and wondered how Knowles could have allowed the novel to be published. In assessing Knowles’s writings, however, it is finally less important to consider whether such resemblances are to be censured as being too derivative than it is to approach them as the attempt by a writer of cultivated style and craftsmanship to demonstrate once again humankind’s enduring efforts to find meaning within the flawed human condition. The overall positive acceptance of Knowles’s work by the reading public is an acknowledgment of his success in achieving just such an end.
A Separate Peace
First published: 1959
Type of work: Novel
In a world at war a young schoolboy must fight his own inner moral battle and make peace within himself to achieve full maturity.
With its publication in the United States in 1960 (it was first published in England), John Knowles’s short novel A Separate Peace became an instant success with young readers. Within that year, the book was granted three awards: the first William Faulkner Foundation Award, the Rosenthal Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and the National Association of Independent Schools Award.
The novel has a simple story line presented initially in the first-person...
(The entire section is 2960 words.)