Narrative Method in 'A Separate Peace'

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Author: Ronald Weber
Editor: Tom Burns
Date: 2005
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 2,890 words

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[In the excerpt below, Weber contrasts Knowles's narrative technique in A Separate Peace with that of J. D. Salinger in The Catcher in the Rye.]

Professor Halio's recent appreciation of the two short novels of John Knowles was especially welcome. Knowles's work, and in particular his fine first novel, A Separate Peace, has not yet received the close attention it merits. In a time that has seen high praise for fat, awkwardly-managed novels, he stands out as a precise and economical craftsman. For this alone he demands serious consideration.

Although Professor Halio calls attention to this technical achievement— Knowles, he writes, “has brought back to recent fiction some of the clear craftsmanship and careful handling of form that characterizes our earlier and best fiction in this century” ...—he is not concerned to illustrate it. He is more interested in examining what he sees as Knowles's second strong point: a thematic concern with the individual's efforts to come to terms with himself as a prior condition to his coming to terms with his society. A reversal of this emphasis—focusing on technique and the relationship of technique to theme—can, I believe, add something to an understanding of Knowles's work....

[A] comparison of A Separate Peace with [The Catcher in the Rye]—especially a comparison of the way narrative method relates to theme—offers a useful approach to Knowles's novel.

In both books the narrative is presented from a first-person point of view; both Holden Caulfield and Gene Forrester tell their own stories, stories in which they serve not only as observers but as narrator-agents who stand at the center of the action. Generally, first-person narration gives the reader a heightened sense of immediacy, a sense of close involvement with the life of the novel. This surely is one of the charms of Catcher and one of the reasons for its immense popularity. The reader, particularly the young reader, is easily caught up in the narrative and held fast by a voice and an emotional experience he finds intensely familiar. With Knowles's novel, however, this is not the case. While the reader may greatly admire the book, it does not engage him quite as directly or perhaps even as deeply as Catcher; throughout it he remains somewhat outside the action and detached from the narrator, observing the life of the novel rather than submerged in it. This difference in reader response, taking place as it does within the framework of first-person, narrator-as-protagonist telling, is, I believe, a highly- calculated effect on Knowles's part. It indicates a sharply different thematic intention, and one that is rooted in a skillful alteration of the conventional method of first-person telling.

Holden Caulfield never comes to an understanding of his experience. He never quite knows what it means; he only feels certain things about it.... Gene Forrester, on the other hand, arrives at a clear understanding—a deeply felt knowledge—of the experience he narrates. At the end of the novel he knows, unlike Holden, precisely what he thinks...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420004680