Identity Crises in A Separate Peace

Identity Crises in A Separate Peace

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World War II, the major historical event during the life of John Knowles, the author of A Separate Peace, started in 1939. Germany instigated the war, and shortly afterward was joined by Japan and Italy. America, however, fought on the side of The Allies, England and France. Although the United States was still recovering from the Great Depression, it entered the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The military drafted men into the war, and women took their places in the work force, people abandoned the old way of life and looked forward to a new one. American literature reflects this transition, as the novels written in the post-war period are far more ambitious, expanding past the bounds of traditional literature. Modernism, a major movement at that time, was stimulated by World War II, severing ties with the past and embracing the changes of the future. *Knowles in A Separate Peace illustrates the identity crisis of teenage boys with Gene Forrester?s hypocrisy, Phineas? duality, and Elwin Lepellier?s insanity.
Knowles reveals Gene?s hypocritical love towards his closest friends, especially Phineas (Finny). Gene attends every meeting of Finny?s ?Super Suicide Society? during the summer session, even though Gene would much rather be studying. Gene wants to do well in school and is resentful of Finny always pulling him away from his books, however, instead being honest with Finny, Gene behaves as though he enjoys the meetings. Gene, an adolescent struggling to be sincere in his relationships, says, ?I went along, I never missed a meeting?acting against every instinct of my nature, I went without thought of protest? (Knowles 34). Gene refuses to let Finny know how he actually feels about the meetings, and despite his outward love toward Finny, Gene allows bitterness to take root inside of him. Knowles also depicts Gene?s hypocrisy through his response to Finny?s fall. After Finny falls, Gene calmly jumps from the tree branch into the Devon River. Later, when Finny is lying in a hospital bed, Gene misleads Finny, telling Finny that he tried to help him and keep him from falling. What Gene says is false, because Gene is, in fact, guilty of causing Finny?s fall. Gene says, ?I tried, you remember? I reached out but you were gone, you went down through those little branches underneath, and when I reached out there was only air?

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(Knowles 65). Instead of giving Finny an accurate account of what happened in the tree, Gene tells his friend a lie to avoid having the truth exposed.
Knowles, in addition to Gene?s hypocritical love, discloses the hatred and jealousy that Gene holds towards Finny. Gene thinks that Finny wants him to fail in his schoolwork. He knows that Finny is better at sports than him, and Gene assumes that Finny also wants to get better grades than him. In his mind, they are both competing for the same thing: to be the best. Gene thinks, ?You (Gene) and Phineas are even already. You are even in enmity. You are both coldly driving ahead for yourselves alone? (Knowles 53). Gene has deceived himself into believing that he and Finny are the bitterest of enemies rather than the closest of friends. Gene knows that Finny is someone special, someone who lives his life unrestrained by the demands of society. Finny refuses to live in obscurity. Gene regrets and envies the fact that he is not of the same quality as Finny. Gene says, ?Nothing as he (Finny) 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? (Knowles 203). Gene breaks the steady rhythm of Finny?s life, first by causing Finny?s fall, then by indirectly causing Finny?s death. Although he often makes Finny the victim of Gene?s struggles, Knowles leaves much mystery pertaining to the actual existence of Finny.
The physical attributes of Finny are far more manifest after his fall. Gene discerns the weakness and handicap that Finny suffers from daily. Finny struggles to muster the strength to do even the simplest of things. Gene sees this while he is walking to the gym with Finny. Gene observes:
By the time we had reached it sweat was running like oil from Finny?s face, and when he paused involuntary tremors shook his hands and arms. The leg in is cast was like a sea anchor dragged behind. The illusion of strength I had seen in our room that morning must have been the same illusion he had used at home to deceive his doctor and his family into sending him back to Devon. We stood on the ice-coated lawn in front of the gym while he got ready to enter it, resting himself so that he could go in with a show of energy. Later this became his habit, I often caught up with him standing in front of a building pretending to be thinking or examining the sky or taking off gloves, but it was never a convincing show. Phineas was a poor deceiver, having had no practice. (Knowles 112-113)
Phineas tries to keep others from seeing his physical shortcomings, Gene alone is allowed to witness them. Gene helps him with the most humbling areas of his handicap. When Brinker Hadley offers to help Finny with his shower, Finny refuses, insisting that he can do it on his own. Once Brinker has left, Finny asks Gene to help him. Finny will never have the strength he used to have, he has been crippled for life by the fall.
Knowles also reveals the physical attributes of Phineas in his description at the beginning of the novel. Gene describes him in detail. He compares Finny to himself, giving the reader the impression that Finny is an actual character. When the reader can create an image of Finny, Finny?s actual existence is more believable. Gene says, ?He (Finny) was my height?five feet eight and a half inches?He weighed a hundred and fifty pounds, a galling ten pounds more than I did, which flowed from his legs to torso around shoulders to arms and full strong neck in an uninterrupted, unemphatic unity of strength? (Knowles 16). Along with emphasizing Finny?s physical characteristics, this description gives the reader the idea that Finny?s build is rather unimpressive. He is not tall, nor is he so large that he would draw attention to himself. He is built almost identically to Gene, only slightly stronger in the upper body. This precise description of his stature detracts from his mystery as a character.
Knowles, however, leaves much probability to Finny?s intangible presence. After the fall, Finny?s identity remains the same. Although the fall shattered his leg, his will stayed strong. Phineas lives on, and Gene begins blend into the character of Phineas. Phineas became part of Gene, and Gene became more like Phineas. Gene says, ??I lost part of myself to him (Phineas) then, and a soaring sense of freedom revealed that this must have been my purpose from the first: to become a part of Phineas? (Knowles 85). Phineas does not respond to his injury in a human way, rather, except for the absence of sports, life for him continues as though almost nothing has changed. He competes vicariously in sports though Gene, insisting that Gene go to the 1944 Olympics in his place. Knowles also creates Phineas as a character able to strongly influence others to make aberrant decisions. He helps Gene accomplish athletic feats that Gene does thinks impossible, he arranges a winter carnival, and he talks classmates into jumping from a tree into the Devon River. Phineas influences people like thoughts do, convincing his colleagues and teachers to accept and do actions uncharacteristic of them. Paul Witherington, in ?Moral Ambiguity?, writes, ?His (Phineas?) 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 this non-logical argument, acted out either verbally or on the playing fields? (81). This comment clearly explains the influence Phineas held, and this power he held over others creates a mysterious aura about him. Knowles, in contrast to ethereal Phineas, designs Elwin (Leper) Lepellier, a character who although existing in reality, refuses to accept it.
Knowles describes Leper?s reluctance to acknowledge reality through his avoidance of conflicts and difficulty. Leper alone refuses to be swayed by Finny. Although Finny encourages him, Leper refuses to jump into the Devon River with the rest of the boys. He also refuses to compete in the game ?blitzball? invented by Phineas. In blitzball, one player is passed a medicine ball, and all the other players rush to tackle him. Leper, walking by, is passed the ball and shies away, not even touching it. Gene, describing the scene, says, ?Taken by surprise, Leper looked up in anguish, (and) shrank away from the ball? (Knowles 39). Henceforth that moment is labeled the ?Lepellier Refusal.? Leper is unable to cope with change and wants to go through life at his own pace. He will resist anyone who tries to rush him, because then he risks missing even the slightest detail. His way is to proceed with caution, rejecting situations that might involve a risk. Leper?s attitude is revealed when he complains to Gene the concerning latest changes in his favorite sport: skiing. Leper says, ?It?s part of the whole wrong idea. They?re ruining skiing in this country?You get carted up, and then you whizz down. You never get to see the trees or anything. I just like to go along and see what I?m passing and enjoy myself? (Knowles 150). This statement by Leper perfectly describes his perspective on life.
Knowles portrays Leper?s insanity even more vividly when Leper enlists in the American Ski Troops. Leper leaves Devon unexpectedly, enlists, and goes to boot camp. However, during his time in training camp, Leper realizes that the military is not at all how he expected it to be. He is unable to cope with this rude awakening, and begins to have hallucinations. Leper escapes from the military before being discharged and returns to his parent?s home in Vermont. Witherington says, ?Leper shows the fallacy of hiding so far from society that the return is a threat to sanity, the fantasy world he fashions turns into a nightmare in boot camp where he begins to have hallucinations in which things are turned ?inside out?? (84). Leper must either leave his fantasy world behind and accept reality, or live forever in an unrealistic world that cannot be shared by anyone else. When Gene visits Leper, Leper relates his story to Gene. He describes his experience in the barracks and his hallucinations. Gene listens at first, but as the conversation gets more detailed, he becomes so disturbed by Leper?s experience that he cannot listen any longer. Gene says, ?Do you think I want to hear every gory detail! Shut up! I don?t care what happened to you Leper?Do you understand that? This has nothing to do with me! Nothing at all! I don?t care? (Knowles 151). Gene?s response epitomizes the response of society towards individuals like Leper. Leper refuses to abandon his world of dreams and hallucinations, and as a result he is ostracized from even his closest friends.
Knowles reveals teenage boys struggling to find their identity as they reach maturity. Knowles proves the ambiguity of teenage relationships through Gene?s outward love and inward jealousy towards Phineas. Phineas represents a character of great depth in his physical presence and ethereal existence at Devon. Knowles creates the conflict of erroneous Leper through his fantasy world and internal struggles with reality. Knowles is well-respected among scholars for his novel, A Separate Peace. He is commended for his understanding and depictions of adolescent boys. Terry Spencer, in Contemporary Novelists, says, ?Knowles is intelligent, highly literate, a skilled and sensitive craftsman and stylist. He is knowledgeable of the world, tolerant, a connoisseur of many cultures.? Knowles belonged to the Modernists, a literary group that encouraged change and expressiveness in writing. Knowles wrote several other novels and short stories after A Separate Peace, but scholars agree that none of them have impacted American Literature in the way A Separate Peace has. By reading A Separate Peace, the reader can understand more clearly the deep struggles in adolescent relationships during World War II.

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