The Play of the Double in A Separate Peace

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Editor: Tom Burns
Date: 2005
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 5,973 words

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[(essay date fall 1984) In the following essay, Slethaug maintains that A Separate Peace attempts to embody and contrast the two conceptions of play--that of agon and paidia--in the two main characters of Gene and Phineas.]

By Johan Huizinga's account in Homo Ludens, play is present in a broad range of cultural activities, including religious observance, poetry, philosophy and organized combat: "The spirit of playful competition is, as a social impulse, older than culture itself and pervades all life like a veritable ferment. Ritual grew up in sacred play; poetry was born in play and nourished on play; music and dancing were pure play. Wisdom and philosophy found expression in words and forms derived from religious contests. The rules of warfare, the conventions of noble living were built up on play-patterns."1 Later critics such as Roger Caillois and Jacques Ehrmann, however, find this definition too narrow, for one thing because Huizinga retains only one characteristic of play, agon, its competitive aspect, whereas another important consideration is paidia, spontaneous play.2 These are two important kinds of play, each with a beginning and end, a magic circle of activity, players, the goal of winning, and certain rules, the violation of which is without question foul play. Through the device of the double, John Knowles in A Separate Peace compares two fundamentally different conceptions of the game of life, Gene's, which is a great, hostile and crushingly serious agon for domination, and Phineas' which is flippantly playful, truly paidiac.

Although this handling of play is unique to A Separate Peace, the nature of the double itself follows customary usage. As Milton F. Foster points out, the book shares a common basis with such works as The Secret Sharer and Heart of Darkness where the narrator is the main character but where the other character, his alter ego, occupies most of his thoughts.3 This view of the second self as a projection of the protagonist's unconscious is fully elaborated both by Otto Rank and Ralph Tymms who see this phenomenon in Freudian terms as Narcissism.4 In these works, there is a significant sense in which one character parallels or contrasts with another in a deliberate and obvious way, so that the two are seen to be complementary or warring aspects of a central self or identity. In the romances of Conrad these characters may resemble each other, oftentimes exactly although sometimes in fierce opposition, but in more realistic works such as The Sun Also Rises, The Great Gatsby and A Separate Peace, these characters (Jake Barnes and Robert Cohn, Gatsby and Nick, Gene and Finny) will not wholly resemble each other physically but will still have enough affinity that there is no mistaking their relationship nor the resultant implied character-ideal projected by the conflict. In this respect, A Separate Peace and these predecessors perfectly illustrate Rank's and Carl Keppler's thesis that the significant literature of the double results from a notion of twinship, either the twin as evil persecutor...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420058441