John Knowles Short Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2547

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...

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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

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 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 each year. Then he suddenly 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, a good swimmer, accidentally drowns in the river that flows between the playing fields. Bruce and Bead, who have gone swimming with him, try to save him, but fail. At a conference two days later Bruce remembers distinctly that Lawrence “had looked different, standing up there on the bridge.” The dean asks if Lawrence had looked happy. “Something like that. He wasn’t scared, I know that,” Bruce answers, unable to fathom the enigma.

Structurally “A Turn with the Sun” is a modern short story following in the mode of such writers as Katherine Mansfield, James Joyce, and Sherwood Anderson and sharply distinct from the contemporary mode of stories with a surreal surface structure. The story begins in medias res with Lawrence scoring a winning goal in a spring lacrosse game. Then the story recounts how he made a remarkable dive the previous September on his fourth day at Devon. There is no formal introduction or exposition. The positioning of words in the first sentence, however, together with the punctuation and the soft vowel sounds grouped together, suggests the softness of dusk and is in direct contrast to Lawrence’s experience. Moreover, the serene setting sets the area of thematic concern. The atmosphere created in the first sentence is maintained throughout the story. Everything that Lawrence does or experiences is set against a backdrop of changing seasons, of a beautiful nature indifferent to the upheavals around it. The important images and recurring motifs`—the steamy heat, the bridge and the stream, the quest for athletic glory—come together at the end of the story to symbolize how Lawrence never “found” himself during his short stay at Devon. Thus “A Turn with the Sun” achieves microcosmic proportions not through the story line, but by repetitive patterns. Parallel scenes (the two dives), motifs, and events juxtaposed with each other create metaphors and achieve symbolic levels; thus Lawrence’s accidental death assumes universal meaning.

“Phineas”

The narrative technique of flashback which Knowles deploys in “A Turn with the Sun” is also used in the title story of the volume. The flashback in “Phineas” is framed by a prologue and an epilogue in the present tense designed to link the narrative to the present moment. The setting is Devon, the same as that used in the earlier story, and the cast of characters includes the narrator and his roommate, Phineas or “Finny.” Thematically the focus in this story is more on the process of initiation of the young narrator than on the quest to be “regarded.” When the narrator arrives at Devon during the summer session, he is thrown off by the outgoing attitude of his roommate, Phineas. At the very moment of arrival, Finny lectures him on all subjects, “beginning with God and moving undeviatingly through to sex.” The narrator chooses not to reveal his own confidences, however, because he takes an immediate dislike to Phineas.

Phineas is an excellent athlete. He excels in soccer, hockey, and lacrosse and has the queer notion that an athlete is “naturally good at everything at once.” When the narrator asks him why he chose these teams, he replies nonchalantly that they give him the freedom to develop and display his individual talent—“to create without any imposed plan.” This lack of discipline makes Finny a weak student, and the narrator begins to suspect that Finny is interfering with his studies because “He hated the fact that I could beat him at this. He might be the best natural athlete in school, the most popular boy, but I was winning where it counted.” The narrator suddenly feels that he is equal to Finny and that Finny has human frailties after all.

One evening in summer, five students, including Finny and the narrator, go to the river with the intention of jumping into it from a tree which leans out slightly 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 “lose” to Phineas. A similar tree episode is the central incident in Knowles’s novel A Separate Peace. Soon after this event, Phineas draws up a charter for the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session, inscribing his name and the narrator’s as charter members and enrolling Chet, Bobby, and Leper as trainees. The society meets almost every evening and all members are required to attend and jump.

On a Thursday evening, the day before a French examination, Phineas goes over to the narrator’s room and asks him to attend a meeting of their select society because Leper has finally agreed to jump. The narrator is visibly irritated and says 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 has assumed that the narrator’s intellectual capacity comes as easily as his own natural ability at sports. Truth dawns on the narrator and he realizes that Phineas has never been jealous of him or considered him a rival—he has simply considered himself a far “superior” person. This realization causes the narrator, as they both climb the tree by the river, to shake the limb, and Phineas falls into the river with a “sickening natural thud.” One of his legs is shattered in the fall and he is maimed for life.

Later, 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 has a total conception of Phineas’s character and realizes that he has not been jealous of Phineas’s popularity, background, or skill at sport—he has envied Finny’s total and complete honesty.

“Phineas” also has a universal quality stemming from its classic initiation theme. The narrator is initiated into the ways of men within three months of his first meeting with Phineas. Phineas himself is not only the touchstone but also a symbol of an ideal state of being. His lack of human frailties sets him apart from the snobbish class struggle and the Machiavellian quest for athletic fame which Knowles satirizes in “Phineas” and in “A Turn with the Sun.” This quest is responsible for the undertone of pessimism in both stories, for it makes victims not only of the involved, but also of the innocent. Thus Lawrence is drowned and Phineas is maimed for life, a victim of his roommate’s moment of jealousy in a self-seeking, hostile world.

This negative view of human striving contrasts sharply with the serenity of nature in Knowles’s stories. Unlike Thomas Hardy’s nature, which reflects the aimlessness of human life, Knowles’s nature is beautiful, peaceful, and distant. “Phineas” opens with a nostalgic description of an old Massachusetts town with its “ancient impregnable elm” and proceeds to Devon where the pace of summer is sketched in a beautiful metaphor: “Summer moved on in its measureless peace.” The story ends with the approach of dusk, which seems to have a special meaning for Knowles; similarly, “A Turn with the Sun” opens with a soothing detailed description of the sun going down, and “Martin the Fisherman” ends with the “warm crimson glow” of the sun setting over the ocean. This peaceful beauty is in stark contrast to the social and moral conflict in the stories and symbolizes the other half of life—the latent allure beneath the external conflagration of life.

Epiphany is an element common to all of Knowles’s stories. The sudden realization, the dawning of the truth, is quite marked in “Phineas” but is more subtle in “Martin the Fisherman,” a short vignette in which the patron of a Basque fishing boat finally sees the problem of his crew from their perspective after he gets an accidental dunking in the sea. In “The Reading of the Will,” Christopher Curtin realizes that his father did not leave him anything because he, Christopher, did not need any help. Everything was left to Christopher’s mother, except a mysterious manila envelope. This was left to Ernie, Christopher’s older brother. When Christopher brings the envelope to Ernie’s hospital room in Cairo, he has to sit outside while Ernie opens it.

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