Refusing the Queer Potential: John Knowles's A Separate Peace

Citation metadata

Editor: Tom Burns
Date: 2005
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,729 words

Document controls

Main content

Article Preview :

[(essay date 2002) In the following essay, Tribunella reflects upon possible readings of A Separate Peace within its context as a "school story" and examines Gene's rejection of homosexual desire for perceived heterosexual normality.]

John Knowles's A Separate Peace (1959) follows in the tradition of the school story, a genre supposedly established a century earlier by Thomas Hughes's Tom Brown's School Days (1857).1 According to Beverly Lyon Clark, school stories are "so marked by gender that it becomes vital to address questions of both the instability and potency of gender in the school story" (11). Clark recognizes that while schooling, and hence stories about schooling, are implicated in various social hierarchies, they also allow "some possibility of subversion, some possibility for giving one perspective on the marginal, on class, gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality." School is, she suggests, "a site for working out contrary impulses" (8). Kathy Piehl argues for consideration of A Separate Peace as school story in her comparison of the novel with Hughes's own children's literature classic, and it is suggested elsewhere that one of the "ideal" types of contemporary adolescent fiction focuses on the burgeoning of one's sexuality, frequently in the school setting (Roxburgh 249). Given both the importance of gender and sexuality to the school story, a genre to which A Separate Peace seems clearly to belong, and the persistent use of this novel in the secondary-school classroom, an understanding of how it reinforces or potentially resists social hierarchies is crucial to deciphering its pedagogical function.

The social significance of novels taught in school is manifested by the contention that surrounds many of them.2 A Separate Peace has not escaped controversy. It has been the object of attempted censorship in several cases throughout the United States brought by parents who for various reasons have found its content objectionable (see Foerstel 1994, Sova 1998). Parents, who before the late nineteenth century "were ready to accept the most ardent degree of affection between boys [in school stories] if it involved no physical expression (except a chaste deathbed kiss)," eventually came to be horrified by the mere possibility of same-sex genitality (Quigly 126). The availability of A Separate Peace to a queer reading was understood by the parents of a Vernon-Verona-Sherrill (New York) School District student who in 1980 contested the use of the novel because of its "underlying theme" of homosexuality. They claimed that the book actually encouraged homosexuality. As a result, it was removed from classroom use (Sova 213).3

Although educators have touted the novel as a useful tool for imparting patriotic and ethical values, teaching A Separate Peace involves a potentially troubling application vis-à-vis same-sex desire. To the extent that A Separate Peace reinforces hegemonic mechanisms of marginalization, such as homophobia and heterosexism, its usefulness for imparting "democratic ideals" cannot be understood without examining how these mechanisms and their effects in fact constitute those ideals. The book does, however, present possibilities for readings that resist such a use, as the complaint of the...

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420058445