Dual Perspective Narrative and the Character of Phineas in A Separate Peace

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Author: Ian Kennedy
Editor: Tom Burns
Date: 2005
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 3,054 words

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[(essay date fall 1974) In the following essay, Kennedy examines how Knowles utilizes the character of Gene in A Separate Peace to present a dual nature perspective through both Gene's juvenile and adult personalities.]

In the best available study of John Knowles's narrative method in A Separate Peace, Ronald Weber compares the novel to Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye in order to show how Knowles overcomes the limitations of conventional first-person narration.1 The Catcher in the Rye, he says, "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."2 And he suggests that Knowles has counteracted this tendency by separating the narrator from his narrative by such a long period of time--fifteen years--that Gene is endued with a detachment that enables him to understand and, therefore, to master the experiences he narrates. Weber concedes that this leads, in turn, to a loss of the intense immediacy that characterises Salinger's novel, but claims that "While Salinger may give [the reader] a stronger sense of life, Knowles provides a clearer statement about life."3

To suggest, however, that the author who uses a first-person narrator must choose between a character who is too close to the events narrated to interpret them reliably, and one who is too distant to convey their freshness and vitality, is to deny that one can eat one's cake and have it too; and this is the trick that Knowles pulls off so effectively. A Separate Peace is narrated by two Gene Forresters, one of whom conveys the actions, feelings, and thoughts of the moment, while the other looks back on that turmoil from a distance of fifteen years and provides intelligent and illuminating comments. Gene the boy is too close to his own experiences to understand them properly, and Gene the man is too removed to express effectively the vitality that characterizes adolescence, but between them they succeed in dissolving the limitations of conventional first-person narration. Although it is true that this method is not conventional, Knowles is not, however, breaking new ground; for after numerous explorations and experiments in first-person narrative, Dickens adopted this method of dual perspective in his telling of Great Expectations, in which there can be found much the same balanced oscillation between the narrations of Pip the boy and the commentary of Mr. Pip the man.

In A Separate Peace, just as in Great Expectations, the shift from one narrative perspective to another is rarely obvious, and so the distinct jump that occurs on page 6 of Knowles's novel4 is the exception rather than the rule. But perhaps because it is so distinct, this example provides a clear illustration of the difference between the two narrative voices. Gene the man says, "The tree was not only stripped by the cold season, it seemed weary from age, enfeebled,...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420058438