Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1771
All John Knowles’s novels deal with one major theme: that of men finding themselves, without destroying too much of themselves, and eventually coming to discover the ability to love. The author uses surroundings and issues that touched his own life at one time or another. Several works are set at the Devon School, a boys’ preparatory school, much like the school Knowles attended in his youth. Other novels, such as Indian Summer, A Stolen Past, and The Paragon, are set at Yale, Knowles’s alma mater.
A Separate Peace
Known as Knowles’s greatest work, A Separate Peace is considered a classic and has become widely read in American schools. It has sold millions of copies. Unfortunately, none of the author’s later works acquired critical acclaim equaling that of his first work. Many critics consider this novel to be a perfect piece of writing, one of precision and craftsmanship. A Separate Peace was derived from Knowles’s own schoolboy experiences at Phillips Exeter and is a traditional coming-of-age story. The title is taken from writer Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929), and the work itself has been compared to J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951).
The setting for A Separate Peace is the Devon School, a boys’ private school in New Hampshire. Devon educates its students to become soldiers for World War II. The novel is set in the year 1942, and patriotism is at an all-time high. Gene Forrester arrives at Devon believing that there he will develop his manhood and his moral identity. His roommate, Phineas, known as Finny to his friends, is a bright, athletic boy who seems to conquer any obstacle that is placed before him. The boys develop a close friendship, but surrounding it is an atmosphere of jealousy and mixed emotions.
Readers experience the story through the eyes of Gene, the narrator. He is the intellectual, while Phineas is the natural athlete destined for greatness. At the beginning of the novel, the boys are considered insignificant by the older students preparing for the war. The two still have time to live and gather lessons learned by others before them. Finny is a master of high jinks who enjoys continually testing the system. Not liking to play alone, Finny draws Gene into his world. Finny does everything with grace and style, while Gene, trying to keep up, flounders in his fear. Finny subjects Gene to all sorts of physical tests, even inventing a new game with Gene as the target. Although the mischief is fun at first, Gene begins to believe that Finny is trying to reduce the academic competition and corrupt Gene’s chances to become valedictorian. In an impulsive move, Gene causes Finny to fall out of a tree, and the fall injures him severely enough to end Finny’s hopes of an athletic career. Living with his guilt is difficult for Gene: Eventually this leads to a half-confession, which Finny refuses to believe.
Rumors fly through the school; accusations are spoken. Fortunately for Gene, another boy has caused a stir by suffering a mental breakdown while at war and deserting back to Devon. However, this story diverts the students’ young minds only for a while, that is, until Finny returns to school. With his entrance back to Devon, Finny is confronted by others about his accident. Some of the boys decide to have their own mock trial, with Gene as the defendant. As questions and accusations are batted about the room, Finny becomes upset by some of the questions asked but not answered. He storms out of the room, only to fall down the steps leading outside. Injured again, he is rushed to the infirmary, but this time he does not survive his injury.
Many critics have touted this novel as a great exploration of early manhood and the competition that goes with it, the battle of the athlete versus the scholar. Critic Jay L. Halio wrote that “the prevailing attitude seems to be that before man can be redeemed back into social life, he must first come to terms with himself.” Gene coming to peace within himself is the issue at the heart of A Separate Peace.
Gene experiences many conflicting emotions toward Finny—admiration, jealousy, even love. Indeed, whether or not it was Knowles’s intention, his masterpiece is suffused with covert sexuality. His descriptions of Phineas reveal the underlying problem that Gene may be facing—being in love with Finny. While preparing to go out, Finny is described in the novel by Gene as a boy whose “nose to cheekbones had the sharp look of a prow.” Even at the moment of Finny’s announcement that Gene is his best friend, Gene cannot openly reply, for he is “stopped by that level of feeling, deeper than thought, which contains the truth.” Gene is threatened by Finny not only as a competitor but also as a man who has made him see himself differently. Only by eliminating his obstacle to success and emotional stability—Finny—can Gene come to terms with himself and achieve a separate peace.
Morning in Antibes
Three years after A Separate Peace, Knowles produced Morning in Antibes. The novel is set during the Algerian War of 1954-1962 and deals with the Algerian struggle to be liberated from French colonization. The main character’s inner struggle for freedom does not compare in dramatic intensity to the protagonist’s struggle in A Separate Peace.
Indian Summer, Spreading Fires, and A Vein of Riches
Knowles’s next work of fiction, after a travel book, came in 1966. Indian Summer repeats the kind of tragic friendships between two males of A Separate Peace, only here the boys are replaced by men. The story has been criticized as too fragmented and too unbelievable. Spreading Fires has been considered Knowles’s attempt at bringing sexual emotions to the table. Set in southern France, the novel explores deeply rooted sexual attitudes, leaving one critic, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, to label the piece an “unresolved Oedipal rage.”
A Vein of Riches emerged on the literary scene to poor reviews; some critics stated that the novel held no redeeming virtue. The book uses a series of letters written by a minor character to convey information, turning the novel into a sort of documentary. The work lacks all Knowles’s previous gifts for language, becoming a flat, less-than-compelling vision of life.
Peace Breaks Out
Knowles’s next work, Peace Breaks Out, is a companion to A Separate Peace. Set four years later, the reader is once again at the Devon School. This time, a former student and World War II veteran, Pete Hallam, has returned to teach, only to find that the innocence of his school days has faded. He is told upon arrival that the students he will confront are “aware” of life much more than when he was at Devon. The book focuses on several of Pete’s history and physical-education students: Eric Hochschwender, indifferent to others and a believer in the good done by the Nazi Party; Wexford (never called by his first name), school editor and antagonist; and Tug Blackburn, school athlete and daredevil. The characters are classified by the author as the “Lost Generation” and the “Just Missed.”
The year is 1946, and Devon will be producing its first class of graduates who will have the opportunity to expand their minds, not just their manhood. Pete is grateful that his students will not have to prepare to fight a war, unaware that the absence of war abroad does not mean that conflict cannot be manufactured at home. The lack of wartime conflict confuses the boys as to their purposes in life. Traditionally, boys would prepare for war, then fight for their country. Now, with no concrete foreign enemy, the boys create one at home. Hochschwender provokes many of the boys with his unpatriotic views, to the extent of asking for morning chapel attendance to be voluntary instead of mandatory. In retaliation, and enraged by his callousness toward the investment people have placed in patriotism, Wexford uses the school paper to voice his views. He proposes a stained-glass window be placed in the chapel as a memorial to all those who died in the war. Soon after, the window is mysteriously broken, and trouble begins. Accusations are made, and lines are drawn. Students are categorized by their ethnicity; “war” is taking place at Devon.
Tug is accused of breaking the window, due to his being drugged in the infirmary and not remembering his whereabouts at the time of the vandalism. After he is ruled out as a suspect, the students turn their attention to Hochschwender. With his outspoken views of the chapel and of the United States, Hochschwender is interrogated by the boys. He is repeatedly dunked in the river and beaten. Unaware of his health problem, the boys are startled when Hochschwender stops breathing. Rushed to the infirmary, Hochschwender cannot be saved, and he dies. Weaving a web of deceit, the boys lie about the incident and take no responsibility for their actions. Unknown to the boys, they have become pawns for someone else: Wexford had broken the window himself to even the score with Hochschwender and to have others dirty their hands for his views. Pete exposes Wexford’s actions and the boys’ part in Hochschwender’s death, but he cannot prove that a crime has been committed. Alas, the most frightening part is Wexford’s inability to take personal blame for his actions. Pete realizes that new monsters are being created around the world, even at Devon, and it will be these monsters who may one day give a new generation a more clearly labeled enemy.
A Stolen Past and The Private Life of Axie Reed
In 1983, A Stolen Past brought the reader back to Yale and the struggle between the rich and the middle class. A bildungsroman, the work examines the life of a writer, Allan Prieston, as he struggles to find his literary voice. His constant battle to free himself of others’ opinions, especially that of his mentor, famed novelist Reeves Lockhart, is resolved only by the acceptance of others’ failings.
The Private Life of Axie Reed is a memoir in which the narrator reminisces about his cousin Axie. Like most of Knowles’s novels, it met with mixed reviews. Many critics felt that Knowles reached his peak performance level with his first novel, and the rest of his novels missed the mark. Even so, Knowles’s collection is certainly worth attention, for the stories are laced with meticulously detailed reality and reflection on the human condition.