The Scene

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Editor: Tom Burns
Date: 2005
From: Children's Literature Review(Vol. 98. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay; Excerpt
Length: 4,248 words

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[(essay date 1990) In the following excerpt, Bryant traces the creation of the setting of the Devon School in A Separate Peace by drawing upon printed interviews with Knowles, essays, and Knowles's early short stories.]

Several things are obvious from a study of the chapter outlines and the original manuscript of A Separate Peace: the author had an early grasp of the nature and motivations of his characters, he had decided on the general sequence of events, and his own attitude toward the material was already shaped. For one thing, by the time he started to compose the novel, Knowles had to some degree formed a notion of the history of his main characters. In May 1956, Knowles published a short story entitled "Phineas," which, in a much more compressed form, covers the events of the novel's opening chapters from the first jump up to Finny's injury.1 It deals with events of the summer at Devon but does not go beyond the episode at the tree. The story does, however, use the same flashback-framing device. It opens with Gene standing in front of the door to Finny's bedroom in his hometown, where Gene has come to visit his convalescing friend. The scene shifts back in time by three months to the beginning of the summer, when Finny and Gene become roommates and good friends at Devon School.

As in the novel, one of Finny's prominent characteristics is his unusual baritone voice. Finny's attitude is outgoing and forthright; he divulges his beliefs about God, religion, and girls at their first meeting, while the more diffident Gene reserves comment on such confidential matters. The upshot of Finny's disarming candor is to make Gene feel inadequate and dull-witted, "as though he had never had an original thought. ..." The sectional differences in the two boys are also stressed in the short story. Gene's southern accent and his lime-green, short-sleeved sports shirt with the bottom squared and worn outside the pants, although much admired in the South, are not the eastern prep school fashion. Like the novel, Gene's suspicious nature is established by his resentment of Finny's attempt to "yank out all my thoughts and feelings and scatter them around underfoot" as he has scattered the clothes from his suitcase. Finny is described as a person with many foibles: his inability to sing on-key, his amazing way of dressing, and his poor showing as a student. Another detail in the story that reappears later in the novel is Finny's pink shirt, which he wears to class to "memorialize" the bombing of Ploesti oil fields. He wears it on several other occasions in the story to italicize other victories--a grade of C on a history test, the retirement of the school dietitian, and the battle of Midway. The shirt is thus already used by Knowles as more than an item of apparel; it is an emblem of Finny's special psychological makeup. As in the novel, Gene dons this shirt in the aftermath of...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420058443