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John Knowles 1926–
American novelist, short story writer, and essayist.
Fascinated by the era affected by World War II, Knowles often places his fiction during that period. He writes of young heroes facing the tests of modern life. His young male protagonists arrive at a painful awakening, the realization of...
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- Critical Essays
John Knowles 1926–
American novelist, short story writer, and essayist.
Fascinated by the era affected by World War II, Knowles often places his fiction during that period. He writes of young heroes facing the tests of modern life. His young male protagonists arrive at a painful awakening, the realization of the evil in society and in themselves. Knowles perceives this realization as their major step toward manhood.
Knowles's most famous novel, A Separate Peace, is characteristic of his greatest concerns. This fictional account of a young man's moral and emotional maturation has been consistently popular with young adults since its publication in 1960. Like most of Knowles's other works, A Separate Peace portrays two protagonists who battle with the love/hate relationship that evolves out of their strikingly different views of life. Gene and Phineas exemplify Knowles's use of doubles to portray the dichotomy in the American personality, which Knowles characterizes as "a careful Protestant with a savage stirring in his insides."
Following A Separate Peace, almost universally considered a classic, beautifully wrought novel, Knowles wrote several works which failed to attain the critical acclaim of this first novel. Even his recent Peace Breaks Out, which shares the elite prep school setting and a similar theme with A Separate Peace, does not fulfill its promise.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, 10; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.; Something about the Author, Vol. 8; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 6.)
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 501
[A Separate Peace], modest as it is in tone, is likely to leave you thinking. The misuse of science now makes it necessary to articulate a new and purely practical form of Pacifism, a Pacifism which, free of crankiness and owing nothing to religious sensitivity, depends entirely on simple common sense. From now on, people must say, war will mean not only a shortage of cakes and ale but the end of everything. It is this form of protest, of personal withdrawal from political folly which, among other things, makes such pleasant reading of John Knowles's A Separate Peace. It is the story of two friends at a smart American preparatory school (for 'preparatory' read 'public' in this country) at the time when America first joined the Second World War. In the beginning the younger boys are more or less ignored while their elders are hurriedly prepared for the blood bath; but as time goes on the whole school is efficiently geared to the conditioning of cannon-fodder, and every aspect of work and play comes to be valued, by masters who are themselves too old to fight, only in so far as it is a preparation for the trial to come…. Gene, the intellectually inclined narrator, has a fit of insane resentment and causes his athletic friend, Phineas, to break his leg. Phineas, so badly crippled that he will be out of the war in any case, broods over the separate peace thus forced upon him and eventually decides that the war is entirely spurious, that the whole thing has been thought up by Roosevelt, Churchill and the authorities in gen-eral simply because they are old men jealous of youth and pleasure….
Phineas, of course, is in part rationalising his annoyance at being out of something; but the more sensitive Gene accepts what he says as an important truth. So privately and together they resist the war and all it implies until reality makes itself felt—sickeningly so—in its own good time…. In emphasising the wider theme of this book, I have done less than justice to other matters—the quietly told story of the boys' relationship and its crises, the sweat and hopeless melancholy which pervades the whole. But then the real importance of Mr. Knowles's novel does indeed lie in its account of the attempt, made by two powerless individuals, to dissociate themselves from them and the follies for which they are responsible. It is an attempt strictly in accord with the principles of the 'commonsense' pacifism I described above—but an attempt doomed to painful failure unless everyone makes it. How silly the Generals on both sides, how silly they would look then. But Mr. Knowles makes it plain enough (if we hadn't guessed already) that quiet common sense is a feeble match for reality and the Generals: they are sure of the last word.
Simon Raven, "No Time for War," in The Spectator (© 1959 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 202, No. 6827, May 1, 1959, p. 630.∗
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[A Separate Peace] is, indeed, a novel of altogether exceptional power and distinction. [Mr. Knowles] writes of a New England preparatory school—what over here would be called a public school—and of two sixteen-year-olds in particular, Finny and Gene, the narrator, who looks back on his wartime schooldays from the standpoint of his present adulthood.
It would be easy to say that Finny is the brilliant, outward-looking athlete, Gene the first-class brain and subtle self-analyser, and that from the element of latent, hardly formulated antagonism which is present in their close friendship springs the tragedy which causes Gene the man to write: "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."
It would be easy, but it would be an over-simplification. Mr. Knowles's world is the real world where black-and-white character-contrasts rarely lie conveniently to hand. Gene and Finny can slip in and out of each other's roles and yet remain entirely themselves while doing so. Their relationship has that subtle elusiveness which is entirely human and which novelists, with good reason, find desperately difficult to convey.
The other characters—masters and boys—are all given life and individuality. The school itself, gradually losing something of its relaxed, patrician manner as the war draws closer, is described with precision and economy. There is no gush. There is no smut. If this is Mr. Knowles's first novel it shows an astonishingly firm grasp of the right end of the stick.
"School Reports," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1959; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 2983, May 1, 1959, p. 262.∗
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A Separate Peace is a short, thoughtful, ambitious American study of a fatal relationship between two upper-class schoolboys in late adolescence during the war…. There are several abrupt and pleasing variations from conventional American attitudes, including a pretence that the war does not exist. Mr Knowles has clearly worked hard on this novel, modelling it carefully on the best neo-Forsterian, Trillingesque lines. Yet somehow it just fails to convince. The school background exerts none of the fascination that generally belongs to these most compelling of institutional frameworks. Gene and Finney seem to be performing their odd psychological warfare in a vacuum. Gene is particularly unsatisfactory; he has almost none of the ego-sense that you expect in a first-person narrator and it makes him difficult to identify with.
Maurice Richardson, in his review of "A Separate Peace," in New Statesman (© 1959 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LVII, No. 1468, May 2, 1959, p. 618.
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"A Separate Peace," John Knowles' first novel, is a consistently admirable exercise in the craft of fiction—disciplined, precise, witty and always completely conscious of intention and effect—and yet, in spite of these rare assets (or perhaps because of them), the novel's final effect is one of remoteness and aridity. The theme, that of the corroding flaw in friendship between young males, has engaged the talents of such disparate writers as Thomas Mann, William Maxwell and Scott Fitzgerald. Having chosen a theme which echoes in every sensitive man's experience, Mr. Knowles chooses further to isolate it from the mainstream of life, almost as if he were examining one case of a disease which rages in an epidemic throughout the rest of the world. All that intelligence and industry, tact and talent can bring to his novel are here, but its virtues breed its defects as the story unfolds….
The force and grief which might have charged "A Separate Peace" with an electric depth are diluted by the restrictions the author has chosen to impose upon his story (especially the deliberate exclusion of parents and backgrounds, as if boys arrive at school from a vacuum) and a somewhat cautious approach which insists upon gazing from a distance upon the seething cauldron of adolescent nature. The sorrows, the guilts, the uncertainties and the exuberance of youth pass in shadow here, sketched with irony and conscious artistry, but it is we the readers who must provide the substance from our response to personal experience in similar relationships.
Harding Lemay, "Two Boys and a War Within," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), March 6, 1960, p. 6.
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[A Separate Peace, Knowles's] excellent first novel, is remarkable not only for the virtues it possesses but for the faults it lacks. There is little of the melodrama customary in books about adolescence. There is no Wolfeian confluence of the literary and the pituitary—the youthful poet growing an inch a month on a diet of a book a day. The author is no more sentimental or romantic about his hero than Stephen Crane was about the protagonist of The Red Badge of Courage. The books are similar in kind and (to a considerable extent) in quality: Author Crane's young soldier had to endure the discovery of fear, and Author Knowles's schoolboy must face the discovery of hatred—a bitter and homicidal knot of hatred in himself. (p. 96)
To insist on a single explication for a book as subtle and brilliant as Author Knowles's would be idle. But one of the things the novelist seems to be saying is that the enemy Gene killed, and loved, is the one every man must kill: his own youth, the innocence that burns too hotly to be endured. (p. 98)
"The Leap," in Time (copyright 1960 Time Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission from Time), Vol. 75, No. 14, April 4, 1960, pp. 96-98.
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[It is] heartening to see a few like John Knowles who, taking his cue from [Ernest Hemingway's] The Sun Also Rises rather than from [Hemingway's] For Whom the Bell Tolls, 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)
[Before] man can be redeemed back into social life, he must first come to terms with himself, he must first—as has been said so often of American writers—discover who and what he is. That we must look inward and learn to face honestly what we see there and then move onwards or anyway outwards is necessary if in the long run we are to salvage any part of our humanity—if, indeed, humanity is in the furture to have any meaning or value. This is the enterprise carried forward in contemporary literature by such novelists as Angus Wilson in England and Saul Bellow at home; and alongside their novels John Knowles has now placed two brilliant pieces of fiction, A Separate Peace (1960) and Morning in Antibes (1962 …). His gift is different from theirs as theirs is different from each other, for he speaks with a voice that is at once personal and lyrical in a mode that, with the possible exception of Bellow's The Victim, neither of the others has as yet attempted. In his first novel, moreover, 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.
A Separate Peace is the story of a small group of boys growing up at an old New England prep school called Devon during the early years of World War II. The principal characters are the narrator, Gene Forrester, and his roommate, Phineas, or "Finny," who has no surname. As yet but remotely aware of the war in Europe or the Pacific, the boys give themselves up during Devon's first summer session to sports and breaking school rules under the instigations of the indefatigable Finny. It is the last brief experience of carefree life they will know, for most of them will graduate the following June. But within this experience, another kind of war subtly emerges, a struggle between Gene, who is a good student and an able competitor in sports, and Finny, who is the school's champion athlete but poor at studying. Believing Finny's instigations aim at ruining his chances to become valedictorian of their class—and so upset the delicate balance of their respective achievements—Gene awakens to a mistaken sense of deadly enmity between them. (Anyone who has attended such schools will immediately recognize this conflict between intellectual and athletic glory.) Impulsively, Gene causes his roommate to fall from a tree during one of their more spectacular games, and cripples him. This is the central episode of the novel, and the fear which lies behind such destructive hatred is its major theme.
How Gene eventually loses this fear, and so is able to enter that other war without hatred, without the need to kill, is the business of the succeeding episodes. Confession by Gene of deliberate viciousness is alone insufficient release; indeed, far from bringing release, it causes deeper injury to Finny and to himself because of its basic half-truth. Freedom comes only after an honest confrontation of both his own nature and that extension of it represented by Finny, whose loss at the end of the novel he must somehow accept and endure. For if, as the book shows, Finny is unfit for war, and hence unfit for a world engaged in a chronic condition of war, it is because of his fundamental innocence or idealism—his regard for the world not as it is, but as it should be—that renders him unfit. Under Finny's influence, most of the summer of 1942 was, for Gene, just such a world; and it is briefly restored during the following winter when, after convalescing, Phineas returns to Devon. But the existence of this world, and the separate peace this world provides, is doomed. In Finny's fall from the tree Gene has violated, or rather surrendered, his innocence, and he learns that any attempt to regain it, to "become a part of Phineas,"… is at best a transient experience, at worst a gesture of despair. Nor will either of the twin expedients, escape or evasion, serve him. Escape, as it presents itself to Gene after Finny's second fall, the final crisis in the novel, is rejected as "not so much criminal as meaningless, a lapse into nothing, an escape into nowhere."… And evasion—any recourse into the various dodges of sentimentality, such as aggressive arrogance, insensitive factionalism, or self-protective vagueness as variously portrayed by other boys at Devon—such evasion, Gene comes to realize, is only a mask behind which one does not so much seek reality, as hide from it, for it is a mask to cover fear. "Only Phineas never was afraid, only Phineas never hated anyone," the book concludes. The essential harmony of his nature could not allow such emotions, and his "choreography of peace" in a world he alone could create and sustain, as for example during Devon's first, only, and illegal "Winter Carnival," is not the dance of this world. His death, coming as it does on the eve of graduation, is, then, for Gene a kind of necessary sacrifice before he can take the next step. And his forgiveness is Gene's way of forgiving himself for what he at last recognizes is "something ignorant in the human heart,"… the impersonal, blind impulse that caused Finny's fall and that causes war. It is an acceptance, too, the acceptance (as [T. S.] Eliot shows in Four Quartets) of a reality which includes ignorance and prepares for humility, without which the next step remains frozen in mid-air.
In Morning in Antibes, Knowles prepares to take the next step—or to complete the first—the step that leads to the possibility of human encounter, of real and fruitful meetings with others. But before actually taking this step, he repeats much of what he has already presented in A Separate Peace. Perhaps this repetition is necessary for the shape of the novel, which ostensibly is not a continuation of the first (as part of a trilogy, for example) and must tell its own story. But to readers of Knowles's first book, Morning in Antibes unavoidably appears as a retelling, in part, of what he has already demonstrated; and so it drags a bit, if only just slightly. The novel opens with the separation of a young couple, Nicholas and Liliane Bodine, after a brief and unhappy marriage. Nick has left Liliane in Paris for the pleasures and transparent lures of the Riviera and for the love he mistakenly hopes to find there; but his unfaithful wife, now deeply troubled and wanting to reconcile, follows him to Juan-les-Pins. It is the summer of 1958, and reflected against this portrait of impending marital dissolution is the mounting struggle of Algeria to free itself from France during the last days of the Fourth Republic: as in A Separate Peace, the private and the public war are clearly related. Before reconciliation is possible, however, or even desirable, both Nick and Lili must suffer an agonizing inward look, recognize their self-limitations with neither exaggeration nor minimizing, and with this knowledge of both good and evil in the human heart, discover the means and the will to forgive, and to love. (pp. 107-10)
[Significantly, a character] enters Nick's life, a young man called Jeannot, whom Nick at first distrusts implicitly: he is an Algerian and all Algerians in France are naturally suspect. But Nick's distrust gradually gives way before Jeannot's gentleness and his profound need to be treated as a human being, even though he is an unemployed Algerian in France during her most stressful period since the War. Nicholas learns a great deal from Jeannot during Liliane's absence, much of it having to do with Jeannot's love for the country which has misprised and misused him. (p. 110)
For it is through Jeannot as much as by his wife's absence—to go on a prolonged cruise with a cynical, degenerate French nobleman—that Nicholas begins to understand what love means and what it demands. Through Jeannot, Nick learns that love begins by valuing (or loving) ourselves justly; only then can we take others at their own just evaluation. Love prevents either party from imposing false valuations upon themselves. In this way Nick's relationship with Jeannot grows and flourishes. (p. 111)
As a second novel, Morning in Antibes stands up well against A Separate Peace, although readers will doubtless recognize the superior achievement of Knowles's first book. Finny's fall from the tree, while it makes use of old and familiar symbolism, loses none of its power but gains instead by its complete integration within a realistic design. By contrast, Nick's skin-diving episode just before Liliane returns to Juan-les-Pins, though it draws upon equally ancient symbols, parallels too closely Jake Barnes' deep dives off San Sebastian in The Sun Also Rises. Here, as in other places, such as a few clipped passages of dialogue, or some detailed descriptions of French cuisine, a purely literary recollection intervenes, detracting from the reader's experience of the presentation and robbing it of some of its felt reality. Nevertheless, in his second novel Knowles retains much of the individual voice mentioned earlier; despite the occasional ventriloquism, it is still there. Moreover, he demonstrates an important development of his theme, and we may well wait for what he has to say next with aroused expectations. (p. 112)
Jay L. Halio, "John Knowles's Short Novels," in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1964 by Newberry College), Vol. 1. No. 2, Winter, 1964, pp. 107-12.
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To read A 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. (p. 313)
Described as "… tremendous, an irate, steely black steeple," 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. (pp. 313-14)
What Finny represents … 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….
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….
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. (p. 314)
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."… 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….
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." (p. 315)
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…. 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…. 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. (p. 316)
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 the 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."… Nature then is presented as both damned and damning, with man's death and fall insured by nautre'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….
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. (p. 317)
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."… 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."… 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. (pp. 317-18)
Because of his ability to admit only so 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. (p. 318)
James Ellis, "'A Separate Peace': The Fall from Innocence," in English Journal (copyright © 1964 by the National Council of Teachers of English; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Vol. LIII, No. 5, May, 1964, pp. 313-18.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2902
Professor Halio's recent appreciation of the two short novels of John Knowles [see excerpt above] was especially welcome. 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" …—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. (p. 63)
[A] comparison of A Separate Peace with [The Catcher in the Rye]—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…. 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."… 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…. 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."… That this lapse in time between the experience and the telling has brought understanding is also established early…. Although Knowles quickly leaves the distant perspective and turns to 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."… (pp. 64-6)
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 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."… 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…. (p. 66)
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 source, withered and lifeless."… 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. In A 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,… 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…. 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. (pp. 67-9)
[Gene] 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."… He now sees that he has been envious of Phineas too—envious to the point of complete enmity. (p. 69)
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. 70)
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 …, nor flee from it, as he again seeks to do when Leper charges that he always has been a "savage underneath."… 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." (pp. 70-1)
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,"… 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."… 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. (p. 71)
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. (pp. 71-2)
Ronald Weber, "Narrative Method in 'A Separate Peace'," in Studies in Short Fiction (copyright 1965 by Newberry College). Vol. III, No. 1, Fall, 1965, pp. 63-72.
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The development and resolution of tensions between Gene and Finny provide the well-balanced structure of A 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. (p. 795)
Knowles resists defining innocence and evil and their interaction in simplified, allegoric 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." 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 [Herman] 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. (pp. 795-96)
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…. Finny's anarchy, however, gives rise to a set of rules just as rigid as the school's and just as imperative…. 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,"… 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…. 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…. 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…. 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…. Finny's flawed flow steadily becomes worse with each new awareness of the hate around him.
Finally, love and hate are themselves ambiguous in A 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. (pp. 796-97)
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…. [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…. 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 … is an act of magic designed to recreate the harmony of summer. The ritual is begun by burning [Homer's] 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,"… 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 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."… 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…. [Gene] 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."… 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."… 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. (pp. 798-800)
Paul Witherington, "'A Separate Peace': A Study in Structural Ambiguity," in English Journal (copyright © 1965 by the National Council of Teachers of English; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Vol. 54, No. 9, December, 1965, pp. 795-800.
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Indian Summer is a selection of the Literary Guild, and in the Guild's bulletin for August, Knowles says that the book "came about through the collision in my mind of two things: a strange little town I knew in Connecticut, and the friendships I have formed with people who later turned out to be very rich." This, however, was not the whole story: "But in essence what I tried for in Indian Summer was neither a novel of place nor a novel about great wealth. I wished instead to express the plight, and the wide dreams, of a certain kind of young American, one who has had to come down in the world."
It is with the young American, Cleet Kinsolving, that the novel begins—on the day in 1946 on which he was discharged from the Army Air Force. Although he didn't know exactly what he wanted to do, he was full of optimism….
Not much of a mixer, Cleet has had one close boyhood friend, Neil Reardon, heir to a large fortune, and that is how the rich come into the story. Neil, who has come out of the service with political ambitions, lectures at a nearby college and Cleet goes to see him. Immediately Cleet is seized upon by the Reardons, and the next thing he knows he is back in Wetherford, Connecticut.
Knowles does fairly well with Wetherford…. Although it still looks like an old New England town, most of the old families have vanished, and their houses are inhabited by newcomers. It is the kind of town that can help a nouveau riche family such as the Reardons to believe that it has roots. We can see the town clearly enough and even make a guess at the identity of the place Knowles has in mind.
At first he seems to be doing rather well with the Reardons, too. He describes their huge house, High Farms, with its haphazard enlargements and incongruous adornments and innumerable servants. But the more he tells us about the Reardons, the less we understand them. In the end about all he has to report concerning the rich is that, as Hemingway said to Fitzgerald a long time ago, they have more money than the rest of us. It does seem to me that the Reardons aren't very bright, but that is true of a lot of people who aren't rich.
In any case the only Reardon who particularly concerns us is Neil, who is somewhat more comprehensible than his parents. He has recently married a girl of proletarian tastes, as he puts it, and at the moment he is satisfied with her because she is pregnant and is, he is sure, about to bear him a son. The girl, Georgia, is somewhat interesting, and so are her parents, who appear in the latter part of the story. But I find it hard to believe that Neil would have married such a girl as Georgia. In fact, Neil puzzles me in many ways. For the sake of his political career he advocates a welfare state, but, it seems clear to Cleet at any rate, he doesn't believe what he is saying and writing. The idea of a millionaire demagogue might have been worth developing, but Knowles does little with it.
What Knowles does work at is the relationship between Neil and Cleet, which is a little like the relationship between Gene and Finney in A Separate Peace. Through their boyhood Neil "had no friends except his peculiar, unlettered, shrewd, erratic, dreaming, lifelong pal, Cleet." Like Finney, Cleet is a spontaneous person, a true individual, and that is why Neil looks up to him but at the same time has to try to dominate him.
I can understand after a fashion what Neil sees in Cleet, but I cannot understand why Cleet is attracted to Neil. In fact, Cleet is a mystery whatever way I look at him. In the passage I have quoted, Knowles speaks of Cleet as "one who has had to come down in the world." But coming down doesn't seem to me the point at all. Cleet is simply an old-fashioned rugged individualist who finds himself out of place in the modern world. (p. 23)
Much is also made of another trait that may or may not be part of Cleet's Indian heritage: "When it came to understanding people he had a peculiar kind of talent." Something of the sort is said three or four times, and I suppose Knowles believes it's true; whereas the story seems to me to demonstrate that all along Cleet has been mistaken in his judgments of the Reardons, especially Neil.
I assume that Indian Summer is intended to be light fiction—vacation reading, so-called—but I found it heavy going. Having just read two novels that in different ways make tremendous demands on the reader—John Barth's Giles Goat-Boy … and Bernard Malamud's The Fixer,… I may have less patience than usual with books such as Knowles's. Both Barth and Malamud have made imaginative efforts of the highest order, and if they ask a lot from the reader, they give a lot. Indian Summer, on the other hand, seems something that Knowles just tossed off—and might better have tossed away. (p. 24)
Granville Hicks, "Blandishments of Wealth," in Saturday Review (© 1966 Saturday Review Magazine Co.; reprinted by permission). Vol. XLIX, No. 33, August 13, 1966, pp. 23-4.
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It may be too early to attempt more than a tentative appraisal of the overall achievement of John Knowles. Certainly one can say that he ranks among the most promising young American novelists; and one can recognize the obvious fact that A Separate Peace … has become a small classic among college students and seems likely to last for some time. His other novels, however, have only been noticed in passing: Morning in Antibes and Indian Summer have not really been analyzed and evaluated. Nor is there any substantial critical commentary on Knowles's work as a whole.
I would like to begin such a commentary; and I propose to do so by placing Knowles, as it were—by relating him to the American literary tradition which I see him working within. He is writing what Lionel Trilling has called "the novel of manners"; and it seems to me that there are affinities between his aesthetic preoccupations and those of Henry James and F. Scott Fitzgerald. An examination of his subjects, themes, and techniques should show this affinity; and I hope that it will also provide a basis for a reasonably sound estimate of Knowles's stature as a novelist.
From the beginning of his career, Knowles—like James and Fitzgerald—has written about manners, about what Trilling defines as "a culture's hum and buzz of implication … the whole evanescent context in which its explicit statements are made." In Knowles's first novel, A Separate Peace …, the "explicit statements" are the Second World War and its moral effect on American society; the "context" is made up of the precarious situation of American prep-school students who will soon be combatants, and of the moral responses that they, their teachers, and their parents make to this situation.
As many critics have noted, A Separate Peace can be viewed as a war novel, drawing its title from Frederic Henry's personal declaration of personal armistice in [Ernest Hemingway's] A Farewell to Arms. Knowles's concern, however, is not with the direct confrontation of the obvious realities of the battlefield; rather, it is with the impact of war on the minds and sensibilities of individuals who are not, as yet, immmediately involved. The novel examines the cultural upheaval created by the war, and shows how the resulting moral climate affects the thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and actions of Gene Forrester, Phineas, Leper, Brinker, and the others. The novel deals, then, with culture, and with the sensibility of the individual as it is formed by a particular culture: like James and Fitzgerald, Knowles draws the reader's attention to the individual's efforts to adjust to cultural change, and to the quality of his moral responses as he attempts to cope with the disruption of his formerly stable world.
Particularly Jamesian in this novel is Knowles's use of point of view. The narrator, the principal character, is Gene Forrester. On the surface, it appears that he is telling his story honestly, attempting to grapple with his past and forthrightly informing the reader of its significance. Yet, like the narrators of James's "The Liar" or The Aspern Papers, for example, Forrester frequently seems either unaware of or deliberately unwilling to acknowledge the moral nature and consequences of his attitudes and actions. There is, then, a discrepancy between Forrester's judgments and the actions and attitudes he is judging. The reader's awareness of this discrepancy is enforced by the dramatic statements of other characters in the novel, especially by the comments of Leper.
Thus the reader's judgments are not always the same as the narrator's; and so the reader is led to question the narrator's motives and interpretations. Should Forrester be taken at his own evaluation? Or is really, as Leper charges, "a savage underneath" his pose of refined, dispassionate, reflective survivor and recounter of the ordeal? (pp. 335-36)
The complexity—or the ambiguity—of the novel is precisely here, and so is Knowles's debt to James. Neither novelist merely uses his narrator to direct the narrative. Both, instead, use the narrative as the scene and occasion of a complex, dramatic confrontation between the narrator and his past which the reader participates in. For James and Knowles, the aesthetic effect of this type of novel depends on a dramatic interplay between the narrator's judgments and the reader's; and, in this sense, the narrator is the story.
The locale of Knowles's second novel, Morning in Antibes …, naturally leads the reader to think of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Knowles's sleek, sparkling Riviera reminds one of the destructive playground evoked in Tender Is the Night. The similarity extends to the quality of observation: Dick Diver himself might have described the "very young couple" that Nick Bodine sees early in Knowles's novel: "… the girl angelically lovely, tanned and formed for love, the boy like a nearly naked matador."… Knowles's concentration on manners also is akin to Fitzgerald's. Both writers keenly perceive "tone, gesture, emphasis, or rhythm … the arts of dress or decoration" as signs of cultural trends; and they use these signs to indicate the moral implications of cultural norms and fashions…. (p. 337)
The actual situation and themes of the novel, however, are closer to those of James than to Fitzgerald's. Morning in Antibes offers the classic Jamesian situation of the innocent American encountering the complexities of European culture. The thematic lines of the novel follow James's typical pattern: a conflict between American innocence and European experience is drawn. The naïveté and vitality of the Americans, Nick and his wife Liliane, are juxtaposed to the worldliness and moral sterility of the Europeans, Marc de la Croie and his sister Constance.
The narrative line of the novel revolves around the struggle between these two worlds for the soul of Liliane; and the struggle is drawn in terms of a sharply defined political situation: the rise of De Gaulle in opposition to French Fascism during the Algerian crisis. But the "evanescent context" of manners is all-important in this novel. Liliane's rejection of Marc de la Croie is, of course, a stand against his decadent Fascism: she realizes that he has been "dead for fifteen years," and that in him "nothing survives except the wish to kill."… But she is also repudiating the affluent, corrupt cultural norms and attitudes that he represents. (pp. 337-38)
Politically, the novel, then, raises the question "who will rule France?" But it also asks what moral positions are involved in this struggle for power; and Knowles tries to define the cultural attitudes which are desirable and necessary if the individual is to survive and maintain his integrity. It seems to me that Knowles has advanced beyond the achievement of A Separate Peace. The issues are drawn more precisely; his subject has a greater range; and his evaluation of the material is much more clear than it was in his first novel.
Knowles's latest book, Indian Summer …, is his most ambitious attempt to establish himself as a novelist of genuine stature. In it, he takes up the theme which has obsessed so many major American writers—"the American Dream." And, in dealing with this theme, he seems deliberately to force the reader to think of F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby.
Certain affinities between Cleet Kinsolving, the hero of Indian Summer, and Fitzgerald's Nick Carraway are immediately discernible. Both encounter the world of the rich, the wealth and luxury, the success and the good life to which so many Americans aspire. Both act as stewards to the rich: Nick to Gatsby and the Buchanans, Cleet to the Reardon family. (pp. 338-39)
The narrative of Indian Summer is constructed on a series of gradual discoveries about the disintegration of the American Dream. Cleet and Georgia, Neil Reardon's wife, slowly come to an understanding of the cultural and moral realities of wealth; they learn what money and privilege have done to the rich. Their discovery is remarkably close to Nick Carraway's realization that the Buchanans were "careless people" who "smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness … and let other people clean up the mess they had made." Cleet encounters the same carelessness, the same ruthlessness. So does Georgia. (p. 339)
It is a case of wealth hideously and dangerously misused. Success has been attained; but the Reardons, like the Buchanans, have lost the American Dream of greatness, the vision of the ideal, which inspired it….
The American Dream now exists only as a memory of what once might have been…. The American Dream has vanished, and now, "as America started into the second half of the twentieth century," Georgia knows that there is no dream worthy of the dreamer, that "the world had become too mechanized for his [Cleet's] kind of nature, he asked too much of life…. What a pity, what a waste, what a tragedy…. He was like a beautifully armored warrior facing a tank."… (p. 340)
Knowles, however, adds another dimension to Cleet Kinsolving. As Georgia realizes, Cleet is "one of the few remaining heirs to a far older tragedy" than the unfulfilled promise of the American Dream. His face, expression, and impassivity exhibit "the last vestiges and relics of his Indian blood … that persistent strain in his nature making him sometimes utterly bewildered by this America today …" (pp. 340-41)
As such, then, Cleet is an embodiment of the "Adamic Myth" which so many critics have seen as characteristic of American literature. And, as such, he can be related to the "bound and affronted" heroes of Henry James, struggling honorably for life amidst those forces which stifle it. He stands with Christopher Newman, Isabel Archer, Adam Verver, and Milly Theale…. (p. 341)
Clearly, Indian Summer is another step forward for Knowles. He has dared to treat a theme which has been dealt with by some of the masters of American fiction—[James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville, Mark Twain, Henry James, Theodore Dreiser, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner], for example. Few contemporary novelists would be willing to risk the obvious comparisons.
It would be foolish, of course, to claim that Knowles belongs in the select company of Fitzgerald and James, to contend that Morning in Antibes and Indian Summer are comparable in quality to Tender Is the Night and [James's] The Ambassadors. But I think that he is an enormously promising novelist, and that he has already achieved a genuine stature. He has exhibited the courage to tackle large subjects and significant themes; and he has treated them with taste, understanding, and considerable technical skill. He certainly deserves more attention than he has received up until now. (pp. 341-42)
James L. McDonald, "The Novels of John Knowles," in Arizona Quarterly (copyright © 1967 by the Arizona Quarterly), Vol. 23, No. 4, Winter, 1967, pp. 335-42.
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The topic of this article will be not innocence but freedom, the Greek theme of A Separate Peace. (p. 1269)
Knowles is concerned with the implications of certain Greek ideas: the necessity and effects of freedom, and its corollary ideal of arete: the individual's fulfillment of his own excellences—moral, physical, intellectual, and political. In the first half, Phineas reflects these concerns.
Phineas has a love of excellence and fulfills his ability in the discipline of athletics. When Finny understands that Gene must study to satisfy his ability as a scholar, he says:
We kid around a lot and everything, but you have to be serious sometime, about something. If you're really good at something, I mean if there's nobody or hardly anybody, who's as good as you are, then you've got to be serious about that. Don't mess around, for God's sake….
Phineas represents Greek ideas more than Christian in another way. One of the basic contrasts between the two philosophies is that the Christians trust in God while the Greeks believed in man. In John 14:6, Jesus says: "I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man cometh unto the father but by me." Hippocrates, who took medicine from the care of the gods to scientific study by man, said: "Life is short, art is long, the occasion instant, experiment perilous, decision difficult." The contrast emphasizes the Greek awareness of the limitations and the greatness of man. Finny represents Greek more than Christian ideas when he respects the individual, not inviolable rules. He trusts too much, however. Finny lacks Hippocrates' mature awareness that while there is much to respect in man, he is vulnerable to time and ignorance.
Phineas' respect for others is one of the reasons he lives successfully outside the rules. Finny loves freedom because in it, he can create "a flow of simple, unregulated friendliness … and such flows were one of Finny's reasons for living."… Finny's charm and his delight in giving pleasure to others allow him to lead other people to break the rules…. Finny himself does not need rules to keep him good; he has an inner harmony, a humanity which allows him to respond with affection and generosity to even the rule-givers who must punish him. Phineas assumes that others would be his equals if only they would ignore the rules. He cannot understand that rules protect individuals from their own and others' weaknesses. He does not comprehend fear, envy, rage at one's own moral ugliness, nor the desire for revenge; so he uneasily ignores these in the individual and in their public manifestation—the war. In Phineas is an idealism and innocence which protect him from seeing life as it is, but these also cause him to try to create around him his ideal world. In the novel, the best and last example of this special ability is Finny's Winter Carnival. Here, Finny's denial of war, of evil really, is most successful, and the festival has risen to anarchy and inspiration…. Appropriate to his defensive innocence, Phineas begins the games by burning The Iliad. And here is his flaw, Phineas does not fulfill one of the most prized Greek virtues—intellectual excellence. To Phineas, "freedom" is not the opportunity to "Know thyself."
Perhaps his imperfection makes him all the more Greek. Yet Phineas does partake of the combination of moral and physical beauty that Plato described in The Republic…. Phineas' physical beauty and personal harmony remind one of two fifth-century Greek sculptures: Myron's Discobolus and Polyclitus' Doryphorus. The body of the Discus Thrower is slender and competent, the face is serene, revealing an inner calm. The agony of violent effort is absent in this disciplined athlete. The Doryphorus depicts an athlete after performance who, like the Discus Thrower, is unmarked by effort. He walks with a unified, flowing movement, and his face reveals a quiet, inner fulfillment. Both statues reflect a Greek idealism and both express a Greek poise: pride without egotism and self-confidence without complacency. Phineas' poise, like that of fifth-century Greece, is vulnerable. As the Greeks feared, the weakness was in man's inadequate knowledge of himself and his world. During the decline of Greece, the resulting loss of confidence is evident in sculpture. In the Laocoon, heavily muscled figures struggle against inevitable defeat. These subjects have no harmonious relationship with the cosmos. In A Separate Peace, Gene destroys Phineas' unity by committing an act which Phineas cannot assimilate into his view of life…. Like the figures of the Laocoon, Phineas is unable to survive when he is betrayed. Gene's is the agonized struggle.
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. Rules are unnecessary and restricting for Phineas, but Gene has need of the rules, for he lacks the humanity to make the generous response to others. Gene fails the high demands of freedom, accepts himself as evil, and retreats to the rules. (pp. 1269-71)
But there is more goodness in Gene than he knows. Phineas, in his need, gives Gene the opportunity to do good and unknowingly gives Gene the self-confidence to be free once more. For Gene's act had damaged Phineas' athletic excellence and, worse, threatened the basis for Phineas' humanity; and Phineas uses his remaining strength to deny this loss. He proceeds to recreate his world through Gene's friendship and athletic development. In this experience, Gene, freed now of envy and despair, understands himself and Phineas.
In fulfilling this second gift of freedom Gene achieves a tragic victory. He is the only one in the book to know himself….
It is Gene, the scholar, who understands that his sin against Phineas was due to an ignorance of his own nature and that war is a manifestation of a general defensive ignorance in mankind…. Gene redeems his guilt with understanding. So, at the end of the book, Gene more than Phineas embodies the Greek ideal. He has arete; he has unity. Gene has penetrated the appearances which deceive others and made a harmony of his own that is more profound and more stable than Phineas'.
As pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart and in our despite, against our will, comes wisdom to us from the awful grace of God.
Franziska Lynne Greiling, "The Theme of Freedom in 'A Separate Peace'," in English Journal (copyright © 1967 by the National Council of Teachers of English; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Vol. 56, No. 9, December, 1967, pp. 1269-72.
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Youth is dominant in five of the six stories comprising this distinguished collection [Phineas and Other Stories]. The title story and "A Turn With the Sun" are set in a boy's boarding school. In both Mr. Knowles gives a nostalgic view of memorable boys and the educational system. "The Peeping Tom" is a painfully personal drama of a young man's meaningless life. While "Martin the Fisherman" is little more than a vignette, "The Reading of the Will" is a suspenseful story of a father's bequest, a sealed envelope, and two brothers who inherit different things. This collection of superior stories by one of America's most appealing writers should be welcomed by adult readers and by young adults.
Robert H. Donahugh, in his review of "Phineas and Other Stories," in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, September 15, 1968; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company); copyright © 1968 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 93, No. 16, September 15, 1968, p. 3156.
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John Knowles's first book, "A Separate Peace," was one of those legendary adolescent novels, passed hand to hand around the dormitories at Groton, buoyed into successive paperback editions by that most valuable of commercial assets, an underground reputation. It was a very special book, about a special type of Eastern prep-school kid, and it was notable for two qualities: a complete absence of humor and a curious air of self-seriousness, as if it had been composed in the service of a 16-year-old boy's romantic self-image. "A Separate Peace" was a schoolboy tragedy seen entirely in schoolboy's terms. Its protagonist was the classic prep-school hero, a sort of eccentric Hobie Baker, innocent, straight, the victim of someone else's destructive complexity. For all its tragedy and blood-guilt, Knowles's first novel was squarely in the tradition of Dink Stover and the Boys Own Paper. Like many cult books, its success derived from a perfect coincidence between an author's preoccupation and that of his audience.
Knowles subsequently published two novels and a travel book ["Double Vision"]. The novels were as humorless and as self-important as "A Separate Peace"; neither had its mystique, and certainly neither had its success. His new book ["Phineas"], a collection of six stories which one hopes was put together at his publisher's insistence, exhibits the same weaknesses as well as a certain sense of reprise.
The title story is actually an old sketch from which "A Separate Peace" was ultimately developed, outlining the themes of the novel and its initial action, but stopping short of the final confrontation and tragedy. And there is another Devon School story, a sidelong glance at another schoolboy tragedy, which has virtually the same plot as Fitzgerald's "The Freshest Boy" except that in Knowles's version the young misfit dies.
The rest of the collection deals with what I suppose might be called the author's central theme, personal insecurity and the fear of displacement…. All of them are accurately, if conventionally motivated and oddly, though unobtrusively, self-important. None of them is memorable.
The difficulty is not that Knowles writes badly; it is that he is essentially a writer of sub-New Yorker stories who once wrote a novel that found a response. That novel was not especially contemporary, although it could be called timeless…. But the people who read it grew up and found other preoccupations, while Knowles's preoccupations remained the same. The adolescent's sense of his own significance cannot be expected to serve a great many situations.
Sally Kempton, "De Vries, Auchincloss, Knowles, O'Hara, All Doing Their Thing," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 24, 1968, p. 4.∗
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[Phineas is] concerned mainly with the psychological problems of American male adolescents. Admirers of Mr. Knowles's well-known novel, A Separate Peace, will recognize in the title story, as well as in "A Turn in the Sun," much of the source material for A Separate Peace. Competent, sophisticated, and a master of place description, Mr. Knowles also dramatizes as well as anyone I know the torments—especially the torments of ostracism—suffered by the sensitive and intelligent male adolescent. But when he gets off this subject he seems lost. In "The Peeping Tom," for example, he seems desperately and unsuccessfully to be searching for a subject worthy of his ambition and talent. (pp. 275-76)
James P. Degnan, "Sex Ex Machina and Other Problems," in The Kenyon Review (copyright 1969 by Kenyon College), Vol. 31, No. 2, 1969, pp. 272-77.∗
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John Knowles's concern with morality colors all his books. This preoccupation finds its most general expression in a question asked in Double Vision …, an informal travel journal: "Can man prevail against the bestiality he himself has struggled out of by a supreme effort?" 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. (p. 189)
[It is Knowles's major premise] 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 …, where the Algerian-French War invades the chic Riviera resort, Côte d'Azur. Indian Summer … 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 in A Separate Peace and Neil Reardon in Indian 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. (pp. 189-90)
[Prime being] 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….
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…. [Gene Forrester] 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. In Double 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." (p. 190)
[And 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. (pp. 190-91)
The first chapter of A 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 interest 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 that A Separate Peace is his book. Of the forest, Gene is a primitive, bloodthirsty woodlander; 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." (p. 191)
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" [see excerpt above]. (pp. 191-92)
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. (p. 192)
[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 in Double Vision to describe modern Greeks—"a full life lived naturally." 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…. 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 coordination 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" … and his favorite expressions, "naturally" and "perfectly okay," express the harmony and interrelatedness of his life…. 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."… 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 of A 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. (pp. 192-93)
Of all modern psychoanalytical theories, perhaps [Alfred] 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."… (pp. 193-94)
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 demonstrates 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" … and in the next paragraph, after putting on his friend's clothes, says that he feels "like some nobleman."… 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….
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. (p. 194)
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."… (pp. 194-95)
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 over-plus 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,"… 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….
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. (p. 195)
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."… Gene's murder of the "simple, unregulated friendliness" … marking the summer term validates the need for restricting man's freedom. Like that of [Nathaniel] 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….
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 structure of A Separate Peace includes … 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. (p. 196)
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."… 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." (p. 197)
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,"… 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…. (pp. 197-98)
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. (p. 198)
Peter Wolfe, "The Impact of Knowles's 'A Separate Peace'" (copyright 1970 The Curators of the University of Missouri; reprinted by permission of the author), in University Review, Vol. 36, No. 3, March, 1970, pp. 189-98.
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John Knowles has written a beautiful, funny, moving novel about a young man in trouble. If "The Paragon" is flawed—and I think it is—the cracks may shorten its life but they won't seriously impair the pleasure of reading it. Knowles, who got his medals for "A Separate Peace," is an intelligent man telling us things we need to know about ourselves. He tells them well.
The title is important. It's not "A Paragon." It's "The Paragon." And Knowles's model or pattern of perfection for youth and manhood is a seeking, nonconforming, erratically brilliant and socially maladjusted college student. For Knowles the perfect model must be less than perfect. Not an irony. A moral position.
"I think readers should work more … a novel should be an experience," Knowles once said in the pages of this review. Experiencing the character of Lou Colfax, Knowles's paragon human being, is the joy and trial of the novel. Lou's screwy behavior is also muddy. No matter how hard we work beside Knowles, we can't see clearly to the depths of Lou Colfax….
The important episodes in the novel—important in exploring the character of Knowles's confused paragon, important for lovely language—have to do with Lou's relationship with his relatives, and with Lou's love affair with Charlotte, an English actress.
Knowles commands language to feel. This is Charlotte the night she thinks she is conceiving Lou's child: "She felt this act between them as wondrously new, limitlessly meaningful and so as though carried out in slow motion, that all its profound movements and their meanings and clamoring excitements might be clear, its stages so fully expressed that they could be carved in stone for—yes, for future generations…. She slept as though wrapped in soft gauze, layer on layer."
Lou's mother dies. His father suffers a debilitating stroke. They've been bad for his psyche. Lou's other relatives—a cheap politician, a bad actress, a stupid minister—have left scars on him. But Knowles can't make us—me, at least—sense the consequences of these scars because he doesn't show scars happening. In Knowles's imagination Lou's awful childhood somehow prevents his giving Charlotte a child and leads to his mad kidnapping of her baby after she has married. I don't think Knowles knows how Lou got the way he is—and he may not especially care. The family business is melodramatic scenery. What Knowles does care about is the richness of Lou's bizarre personality and his dilemmas of commitment.
Here lies the present relevancy of "The Paragon." Knowles shows us a young man confused by choice. The choices are real: to love and fulfill love or to run from its risks; to kick a no-good past or to live programmed for catastrophe; to play with knowledge or to convert it to effect; to be Lou Colfax or someone society requires.
Lou makes his choices. They come out a draw. We believe him. We recognize his state because it's our own. A magnificent fiction would show all the tendrils leading to Lou Colfax's condition. An intelligent novel would make Lou's condition credible. "The Paragon" is intelligent.
Webster Schott, "The Surface of Lou Colfax, Complete with Scars," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 31, 1971, p. 6.
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[In The Paragon Knowles] again shows empathy with young people. With considerable freewheeling humor and light irony he depicts the Yale University scene and Louis Colfax, a decided original in spirit and behavior, as he seeks to express his assorted doubts and talents and strives to surmount the strangeness and failure that he considers inescapable in his family heritage. Characterization often slips into caricature, less so with Louis himself and young Charlotte—whom he loses because he feels unready to give her the child she desires—than in the case of Louis' wealthy, haughty, insensitive roommate, the roommate's glamorous, earthy, outspoken former stepmother, and Louis' radical Afro-Brazilian friend.
A review of "The Paragon: A Novel," in The Booklist (reprinted by permission of the American Library Association; copyright © 1971 by the American Library Association), Vol. 67, No. 15, April 1, 1971, p. 641.
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A Separate Peace proves that John Knowles is a good writer. Spreading Fires does not. It begins like a travelogue (the setting is Cannes, a town that lends itself to the picturesque), changes into a psychological study, and ends up a thriller. The main character, Brendan; his sister, Miriam; their mother, Marietta; and Miriam's lover, Xavier make up a villa-full of flawed personalities trying to cope with a psychotic servant, Neville. They cope badly, supposedly highlighting their own problems. It doesn't come off. There are too many vibrations trying to become subplots and never quite making it. Perhaps the characters simply need more time, more space to develop. The reader is left with loose ends, questions—not those a skillful writer imbeds in an inquiring mind, but those left when a novelist simply doesn't do his job.
Larry Gray, in his review of "Spreading Fires," in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, June 1, 1974; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company); copyright © 1974 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 99, No. 11, June 1, 1974, p. 1564.
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Did you admire John Knowles's first novel, "A Separate Peace"? After floundering somewhat in his three subsequent novels ("Morning in Antibes," "Phineas" and "The Paragon"), Mr. Knowles seems to be in firm control again in "Spreading Fires." At least for a while, he does. A lot of tension builds on the surface of this story about a strange cook named Neville who comes with a villa in the South of France that Brendan Lucas has rented for the summer. As long as Brendan stays alone at the villa, Neville is merely compulsively neat and industrious; but when Brendan's sister and fiancé arrive, Neville starts venting rage and paranoia; and when Brendan's overdomineering mother arrives, Neville starts fondling his butcher knife and meat cleaver. Tension builds beneath the surface too, as Mr. Knowles skillfully mirrors in the Mediterranean landscape the smoldering homosexual fires that spread among the villa's occupants.
But midway through the novel something goes wrong. Superficially, Mr. Knowles plays his trump card too soon: Neville the cook goes berserk around page 100, and the last third of the plot is dissipated in the incredible mechanics of Neville's comings and goings between a local mental hospital and the villa. But beneath the surface, Mr. Knowles plays his hand too reluctantly: he never goes beyond signifying that Neville is Brendan's doppelgänger, acting out Brendan's unresolved Oedipal rage at his mother and approaching a commitment of homosexuality. Surface and subsurface seem out of phase with each other. The murderer stalks too soon to kill anyone, while the fire spreads too slowly to burn anything. We are left with the frustrated wish that Mr. Knowles had either stuck to writing a straight thriller about a cook who gradually goes insane or gone further in exploring the homosexual passions that burn beneath his abortive thriller.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "Scalpels and a Gay Blade," in The New York Times (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 11, 1974, p. 39.∗
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West Virginia in the boom days of the coal industry is the locale for [A Vein of Riches, a] rather pedestrian novel which opens in 1909 when coal has made Middleburg a "city of a hundred millionaires," among them the Catherwood family. Clarkson, the husband and father, head of one of the larger companies, is too engrossed in business affairs to pay much attention to his son, Lyle, an only child, or Minnie, his wife, who finds escape in a "born again" religious experience…. A romance of sorts between Lyle and the widow of one of his father's assistants does little to enliven a novel whose characters are basically uninteresting people and whose pace is lethargic.
Agnes C. Ringer, in her review of "A Vein of Riches," in Library Journal (reprinted from Library Journal, February 15, 1978; published by R. R. Bowker Co. (a Xerox company); copyright © 1978 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 103, No. 4, February 15, 1978, p. 482.
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John Knowles, author of the highly acclaimed A Separate Peace, has now written a soap operatic historical novel about a coal baron's family in West Virginia that loses its money but discovers "things that really mean a lot more." That A Vein of Riches refers not just to the novel's coal boom setting but also to these newly plumbed human feelings and values is a point Knowles wants very badly for us not to miss….
By relentlessly spelling everything out, Knowles demonstrates little confidence in his own or in his readers' imagination. If he thinks we may miss a symbol, he identifies it for us: "Clarkson surveyed the scene, a formidable figure in his vested navy blue suit with high stiff collar, watch chain, all the symbols of business power." When waxing allegorical, Knowles not only perpetrates clichés but sometimes capitalizes them: "It seemed to him that a door, the one opening on a room known as Good Clean Fun, was closing in his life." And he even labels epiphanies: "These words broke over him with the force of an epiphany."
When reading the first few pages of a novel as trite as this, one has a perverse feeling of comfort, a sensation that at least our sensibilities are not going to be taxed. After a while though, the experience becomes embarrassing and a bit depressing.
Jack Sullivan, in his review of "A Vein of Riches," in Saturday Review (© 1978 Saturday Review Magazine Co.; reprinted by permission), Vol. 5, No. 10, February 18, 1978, p. 33.
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Coal mining has yielded literary riches for several generations, and John Knowles strikes yet another solid vein in this tale of his native West Virginia [A Vein of Riches]. Knowles exercises masterful discrimination, both in his choice of characters and in his selection of the details to portray those characters, making the novel richly readable. The Catherwoods are the wealthiest and most influential family in Middleburg, West Virginia, depicted at the height of their power—during the coal boom of 1910–1920. Forming a kaleidoscopic backdrop for the family, the turbulence of the First World War, the scandal of the Harding administration, and the bloody fight for unionization in the mines all contribute to the tale, while never dwarfing the personal crises of the Catherwoods.
Clarkson, the head of the Catherwood family, is a smugly satisfied businessman…. Minnie, his nervous, ineffectual wife, faces the glittering world through an opiate haze, dressing only in white to convey a spiritual aura to her son. But in the dark days to come, it is Minnie who draws upon inner reserves, coping with the grim realities of economic ruin strongly and courageously. Lyle, the only child, grows into manhood with the burden of his father's wealth pressing heavily upon him…. A readable book, vividly recreating a time that is no more.
Diane J. Swanbrow, in her review of "A Vein of Riches," in West Coast Review of Books (copyright 1978 by Rapport Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. 4, No. 2, March, 1978, p. 27.
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[In "Peace Breaks Out"] Pete Hallam—class of '37—returning to the Devon School in New Hampshire in the fall of 1945 as a teacher, hopes to recover there from wartime traumas. But the boys in the class of '46 are an edgy bunch, frustrated and guilty because they won't be graduating from the prep school to the armed forces like the classes before them. There's a simmering air of violence among them during the long winter as Pete in his low-keyed way tries to help them cross the threshold to adulthood. The students include the familiar types … but Knowles makes each one a unique and vulnerable character. This may not be the virtuoso performance that "A Separate Peace" was, but it's a sympathetic and nostalgic recreating of a vanished academic oasis.
A review of "Peace Breaks Out," in Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the February 6, 1981 issue of Publishers Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1981 by Xerox Corporation), Vol. 219, No. 6, February 6, 1981, p. 368.
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In Peace Breaks Out, John Knowles revisits Devon School, the New Hampshire prep school that provided the setting for his 1950s best seller, A Separate Peace. Perceptively and sensitively written, A Separate Peace movingly chronicled the struggle between two adolescents who, too young to enlist, discover the enemy not in Europe or in the Pacific, but in themselves. Unfortunately, Knowles' new novel lacks the power and tightly wrought structure of his earlier work.
The time of Peace Breaks Out is September 1945; the war has ended, and veteran Pete Hallam returns to his alma mater to teach American history. From the beginning the book disappoints. As a veteran, Pete must of necessity reflect on his experiences at the front, but those reflections are gratuitous, vague and literary. His anguish is reported and cursorily analyzed rather than felt.
Knowles' intentions are lofty. Like W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, C. Day Lewis and other British writers who just missed the Great War, Knowles hopes to dissect the fear and loathing of a new lost generation, those for whom the second Great War ended too soon. But Knowles' adolescents strike the reader as neither lost nor alienated, but quite normal. Rowdy, well-fed, friendly, deceitful, charming, they cut sports, detest The Scarlet Letter, affect sophistication, and cruelly bait one another.
The irony of Knowles' title is that in the post-war era peace does not exist. Like the adolescents of A Separate Peace, and the youngsters of William Golding's Lord of the Flies, Knowles's characters find that the battlefield is within. Wexford, a precocious, manipulative and indulged Devon senior, declares war on the scholarly, Germanic Hochschwender, who in Pete's first class proclaims his abhorrence of America. At once Hochschwender is labeled a Nazi sympathizer, and both students and reader await the inevitable explosion.
Instead of breaking into open conflict, the novel smolders interminably. Knowles takes the reader through two extraneous ski trips, Wexford's superfluous jaunt to New York (vaguely reminiscent of Holden Caulfield's sojourn), several issues of the school newspaper that any right-minded headmaster in the '40s would have instantly and justifiably scotched, and a number of vapid dialogues between students and between students and teachers. Finally a climax nears as Wexford spearheads a drive to raise funds for a window in honor of Devonians slain in World War II….
Why does Peace Breaks Out fail? There is of course no pat answer. Knowles' descriptions of the New England countryside are at times inspired. His vision of moral ambiguity—the uncertainty with which we live—is valid. However, the return to Devon may have been unwise; successor novels seldom live up to expectations. Perhaps Knowles' biggest problem is with viewpoint. Through Gene, the narrator of A Separate Peace, Knowles imprinted upon the reader an unforgettable vision of adolescent life during World War II. Irony was always within reach as Gene labored to justify his actions by self-deceptive rationalizations. The narrative technique in Peace Breaks Out, shifting so frequently from character to character, lacks tension and subtlety. Too often Knowles loosely reports and informs when he should dramatize.
Paul Piazza, "A School for Scandal," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1981, The Washington Post), March 15, 1981, p. 8.
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The continuing appeal of "A Separate Peace" has little to do with its wartime atmosphere, though that is well handled. Rather, the attraction is its central character, Phineas, the 16-year-old epitome of "schoolboy glamour" who is done to death over the course of a school year. Phineas, with his gift for fantasy, capacity for affection and sheer physical grace, must stand somewhere between [F. Scott Fitzgerald's] Gatsby and [John Irving's] Garp in the spectrum of American white middle-class culture heroes. Tragically, as the force of Phineas's natural superiority impinges on his impressionable roommate, Gene, Gene reacts with panic and an unconscious need to play the part of Judas in Phineas's life. Gene, the narrator of "A Separate Peace," tells the story of his betrayal of his friend with Calvinist conscientiousness, connecting his discovery of the destructive potential in himself with the greater destructiveness of the world conflict.
No wonder the book is a teen classic. Moved by the desire to be like Phineas and the fear of turning out like Gene, the young reader is ravaged; and it's no secret we love best the books that ravage us, particularly in adolescence.
The even more slender "Peace Breaks Out" also takes place at the Devon School, this time in 1946. Again the focus is on the senior class, and again a boy dies when accidental factors combine with the destructive impulses of a classmate. And once again there is a distressing suggestion that herd behavior, so often a part of student life at isolated, sexually segregated schools, contributes to the tragedy. (p. 3)
The story quickly comes to focus on the feuding of two boys—both clever, neither well liked by their classmates—who have clashed from the time of their first encounter in Pete's American history class. Hochschwender, from Wisconsin, professes pro-German sympathies and describes America as "a mongrel country getting bigger and bigger and winning wars because the land they've got is so rich in resources that they can defeat superior countries." This is pretty offensive stuff, but only the self-described "Anglo-Irish" Wexford takes it personally; the rest of the students at least dimly surmise that Hochschwender—who courts their dislike after a weak heart bars him from athletics, the only sure route to popularity at Devon—is likely to grow less obnoxious in time.
But Wexford, who is editor of the school paper, carries his dislike of Hochschwender fatally far. Something of a monster of opportunism and manipulation, Wexford makes the harrying of Hochschwender his principal senior activity and stops at nothing to bring him down, finally desecrating the school chapel and making it appear that it was Hochschwender who smashed the new stained-glass War Memorial window. Of course the intended irony, which works quite convincingly, is that the two boys have a lot in common. Each is an outsider who will never be invited into the inner circle of Devon sports heroes and top boys.
Where the book goes rather askew is in the portrayal of Wexford. He is limned with something like hate; John Knowles dwells obsessively on his physical quirks (such as the way he works his mouth), on his many vices, his dishonesty, his wealthy, cynical, Roosevelt-hating father…. In short, the school editor is presented as too loathsome a hypocrite. Beyond a certain point, we're tempted to cry, "C'mon now! The kid is only 17."
But for John Knowles, Wexford is much more than a creepy schoolboy. With his flair for self-advertisement, his compulsion to manipulate other people, his lack of moral scruples, his utter unlovableness, and, in consequence, his tendency to make dangerous mischief, Wexford may represent one face of the American future. The career of troublemaking begun at Devon in 1946 may well proceed and develop until by the '70s or '80s, the same Wexford, hollowest of hollow men, stalks the corridors of power, putting his awful mouth to the ear of the mighty. Maybe. Yet showing what rotten kids the Wexfords of this world were at school seems something of an exercise in futility. (pp. 3, 37)
There are many good things in "Peace Breaks Out," among them the spare prose and the skillful plotting, which blends the routine and the remarkable to persuade us that a whole year of school has been lived through before Graduation Day. (p. 37)
Julian Moynahan, "More Trouble at Devon School," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 22, 1981, pp. 3, 37.
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Despite several virtues—some good writing and good observations about how boys live at school—"Peace Breaks Out" suffers from its author having told such a similar story so much better before [in "A Separate Peace"]. A moral mystery of this kind requires, if not the first-person narration of the earlier version, then at least a unified point of view. I suspect Knowles once meant to provide one in the person of his teacher and at some point sensed that his teacher is too dull to sustain it. Worse, his story requires that the culprit go free—which means in this case that neither police nor coroner may take an interest in the victim. The particular strength of "A Separate Peace" lay in Knowles's inspired conception of his characters: of a victim who in no way resembles a victim and a murderer who does not know he is one until after the event. By contrast, in this recension the boys are neither likable nor believable. Going back to your old school is always a risky business: the old pranks you used to play will never work again. (p. 92J)
Peter S. Prescott, in his review of "Peace Breaks Out," in Newsweek (copyright 1981, by Newsweek, Inc,; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XCVII, No. 16, April 20, 1981, pp. 92H, 92J.
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It has been twenty years since Knowles' classic A Separate Peace first appeared. Now the author returns to Devon, that same New Hampshire boys' school, for his latest novel, Peace Breaks Out. While World War II provided the background for the Gene and Phineas story, in the new novel the war is over and a Devon graduate, Pete Hallam, returns from the war to teach history at the school. Devon serves as a place for Pete to rest and halt time a bit as he tries to sort out a broken marriage and the horror of the war. What Pete meets at Devon is a new group of teenagers who have been brought up with the war but now seem confused, upset, bewildered, and shortchanged because the war has ended and questions about their future are no longer clear-cut….
As in A Separate Peace, an accidental death occurs, and the elite sports heroes of Devon are enveloped in a cloud of guilt. There's the same kind of follow-the-leader corruption that appears in Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War.
The writing in Peace Breaks Out is superb. The book does not depend on A Separate Peace, but lives on its own. It will take its place alongside the earlier book as a fine novel. (p. 75)
Dick Abrahamson, "Old Friends with New Titles," in English Journal (copyright © 1981 by the National Council of Teachers of English; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Vol. 70, No. 5, September, 1981, pp. 75-7.∗
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 194
Twenty-one years of real time have passed since John Knowles wrote his classic, A Separate Peace. Three years of novel time have passed with the emergence of the companion book Peace Breaks Out. It is 1945, the war is over, and Pete Hallam returns to Devon as an instructor. He needs to regain his perspective on life and recover from the war, his wounds, and a broken marriage. Hallam's attempt at a retreat is thwarted when two students clash in his first class in American history, and a power struggle is begun within the school. The ensuing violence is carefully and masterfully developed and is reflective of the horror that can occur when a talented leader misuses his/her ability and manipulates others. The book is carefully called a companion piece and not a sequel, and should be judged on its own merit. The story is strong and compelling and will be appreciatively read by high school students.
M. Jean Greenlaw, in her review of "Peace Breaks Out" (copyright 1981 by the International Reading Association, Inc.; reprinted with permission of the International Reading Association and M. Jean Greenlaw), in Journal of Reading, Vol. 25, No. 3, December, 1981, p. 286.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 161
Knowles surely has been urged many times over the years to write a sequel to his most successful novel, the much admired A Separate Peace, set at the Exeter-like academy called Devon School. [Peace Breaks Out] is that sequel. Devon alumnus Pete Hallam has returned to his alma mater to teach, having survived the Second World War—just starting in the first book—in a prisoner-of-war camp. Knowles knows Devon's turf thoroughly, and, as in the earlier book, his keen eye for examining the ambitions and motivations of his student foils gives more than average interest to his tale. Yet his heart clearly isn't in this project, the attractive economical prose style of A Separate Peace here reduced to almost a shorthand, as if there were a pressing need to finish and be done with it.
A review of "Peace Breaks Out," in The Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1982, by The Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 58, No. 1 (Winter, 1982), p. 20.