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; Excerpt
Length: 2,573 words

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[In the following excerpt, Kennedy asserts that the reader must be cognizant of Knowles's dual perspective narrator to fully understand the role of Phineas.]

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 novel 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, dry,” and nine lines later Gene the boy describes it as “tremendous, an irate, steely black steeple beside the river.” Thereafter, the distinction between Gene's two narrative voices becomes more blurred, but it is, nevertheless, quite evident on such occasions as, for example, his description of the recognition that Finny's heart was “a den of lonely, selfish ambition.” Indeed, for several pages Gene the boy attributes to Phineas characteristics that Gene the adult knows to be entirely absent from his personality, and it is only when the adult voice chooses to reveal to us the absolute falsity of these misconceptions that we discover, as Gene did himself, that Finny is incapable of harboring evil thoughts and feelings towards others. We are deliberately kept unaware of this recognition in order that we can share the intensity of Gene's misguided feelings, and so the boy's voice, which possesses the power of evoking the immediate actuality of an experience, is the exclusive narrator of this section of the story, handing over to the adult only when it becomes important that we understand correctly the significance of what has been happening.

In general, it is the boy's voice that narrates what happens in the novel, and the man's voice that interprets and conceptualizes these events. Sometimes, however, as in the incidence just discussed, the younger Gene also provides us with his interpretations of the actions, thoughts, and feelings of the characters, and when he does so we must be aware of...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420007214