Narrative Method in A Separate Peace

Citation metadata

Author: Ronald Weber
Editor: Tom Burns
Date: 2005
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,198 words

Document controls

Main content

Article Preview :

[(essay date fall 1965) In the following essay, Weber analyzes the critical comparisons between A Separate Peace and J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, concluding that Knowles's use of narrative allows for a better examination of internal self-exploration in its lead character.]

Professor Halio's recent appreciation of the two short novels of John Knowles was especially welcome.1 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" (p. 107)--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. Unlike Professor Halio, however, who gives equal attention to Knowles's second novel, Morning in Antibes, I wish to limit my remarks to A Separate Peace.

Since the novel deals with young boys in a prep school setting, it inevitably calls to mind The Catcher in the Rye. Hoping to capitalize on this similarity, a paperback cover blurb declares it the "best since" Catcher.2 In a different vein, Professor Halio also makes passing reference to Salinger's novel:

In his first novel ... Knowles achieves a remarkable success in writing about adolescent life at a large boys' school without falling into any of the smart-wise idiom made fashionable by The Catcher in the Rye and ludicrously overworked by its many imitators.(pp. 107-108)

Although the two novels have some obvious similarities, they are fundamentally different books--different in technique, as the quotation suggests, and different in theme. In spite of this, a comparison of A Separate Peace with Catcher--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...

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420058433