John Knowles Short Fiction Analysis
John Knowles wrote about environments he himself had experienced, and his descriptive technique is one of his most appealing qualities. Frequently he uses place description to indicate the environmental shaping of his protagonists’ personalities. He ties this to the themes in his work. Knowles was interested in the self-knowledge derived from his protagonists’ continual attempts to integrate the two elements of the American character, savagery and cautious Protestantism, into a reasonable whole. His later novels continue to explore the strategies his protagonists invent to reconcile this dualism.
Phineas consists of six stories, “A Turn with the Sun,” “Summer Street,” “The Peeping Tom,” “Martin the Fisherman,” “Phineas,” and “The Reading of the Will,” which are not linked thematically but which possess a universality that leaves the reader with an insight into the condition of man. Structurally, all the stories are orthodox and follow the traditional plot structure, but their final effect is aimed at more than one level, a symbolic timelessness coming from the context of each story. The plot is only half of each story; the other half is the matrix of the earth from which the author, the story, and the phenomenon of life emerge.
“A Turn with the Sun”
The first story in the volume, “A Turn with the Sun,” is set in New Hampshire, and, although the immediate locale is Devon, a sophisticated prep school, nature plays a larger role in the story. The plot is simple and concerns the attempts of Lawrence Stewart to break the barrier of the “foggy social bottomland where unacceptable first year boys dwell” and to win a close friend. Lawrence, the protagonist, has entered Devon in the fall in the fourth form and instantly finds out that he possesses nothing distinct to make him accepted by his “sophisticated” peers. Like Knowles himself, he is from an unknown and small West Virginia town, he does not have outstanding athletic ability, his clothes are wrong, his vocabulary is common, and he engages in conversation about the wrong things. He is assigned to live in a small house with “six other nebulous flotsam,” and as early as his fourth day at school, Lawrence shows signs of becoming a person to be considered. Lawrence is standing on the bridge and does not have anything in mind when he dives from it. He is similar to other Devon students when he initially plunges from the bridge, an unknown newcomer, but 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 is capped by an invitation to dinner from Ging Powers, a senior from his own town who, previous to his dive, has religiously avoided him.
The dinner that evening is Lawrence’s waterloo. In his own mind he is sure that this is the beginning of a new career at Devon. As he walks into the dining room, he sees his host and his friends huddled at a corner table. Ging then introduces him to Vinnie Ump, the vice-chairman of the senior council, and Charles Morrell, the sportsman laureate of Devon, 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. Then his own visions of being the next Captain Marvel get the better of him, and he lies, “I have some cousins, two cousins, you know—they’re in clubs at Harvard. ” Suddenly aware that the others are interested, Lawrence goes on with his diatribe on the clubs of Harvard, capping it eventually with a restatement of his dive from the bridge. When Morrell asserts that “I saw you do it,” Lawrence is overwhelmed because the most important athlete in school saw him in his moment of triumph. He envisions the distinct possibility of becoming Morrell’s protégé and jumps at the chance by talking continuously about his house and family and anything he can think of to make himself sound important.
His downfall occurs when he asks which of the men at chapel 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 consternation of the three seniors calls 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 momentarily, and Lawrence responds symbolically by slipping 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 begin to leave. Morrell asks Lawrence, “Are you British?” and “Is that why you talk so queer?” Numbed, Lawrence can only smother his sobs and keep his anguish to himself.
After this evening, all Lawrence’s attempts to be “regarded” backfire, until suddenly with the change of seasons he is redeemed to an extent. He plays intramural football and makes the junior varsity swimming team; that winter his housemates start accepting him and calling him “Varsity.” Yet there are still sensitive incidents, and he has confrontations with several of his housemates regarding his undistinguished background.
When Lawrence returns to Devon after the spring break, the bleakness of winter has given way to the peripheral beauty of spring. Then unexpectedly he begins to slip in his studies. For two successive French classes he is unprepared, but the undercutting from his peers does not bother him. Soon after this he achieves a “minor triumph” when he scores his first goal for his intramural team, but the event is actually of little magnitude and does nothing to further his quest to be “regarded.” The day of this “minor triumph” turns out to be the final day of his life. After a shower...
(The entire section is 2547 words.)