[(essay date spring 1970) In the following essay, Wolfe provides a thematic outline of the major events and motives in A Separate Peace.]
John Knowles's concern with morality colors all his books. This preoccupation finds its most general expression in a question asked in Double Vision (1964), an informal travel journal: "Can man prevail against the bestiality he himself has struggled out of by a supreme effort?"1 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. The sound the "frigid trees" make during a winter walk in A Separate Peace resembles "rifles being fired in the distance"; later, a character likens the rays of the sun to a volley of machine-gun fire.2 The book cries to be read in the context of original sin: its central event of a character falling from a tree: the snakelike rush of sibilants in "The Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session," an informal daredevil club whose founding leads to the novel's tragedy: an ocean wave that "hissed ... toward the deep water" (37) after upending a character: the "dead gray waves hissing mordantly along the beach" (39) the next day.
This universal implication in guilt makes good a major premise of Knowles's fiction: 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 (1962), where the Algerian-French War invades the chic Riviera resort, Côte d'Azur. Indian Summer (1966) 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...