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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Phineas, a never forgotten character in A Separate Peace (1959) by John Knowles

Early yesterday, July 26th, I reread a novel that I taught often in Napa Valley during the 1970s, and which later I read with my daughters. On Sunday, I once again loved Knowles' novel, beginning with its insightful statement on page one ("the deep, tacit way in which feeling becomes stronger than thought") to the novel's long final sentence on 204 about Phineas.

Thinking back to last week's Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield recounts recent events from a hospital bed in a mental ward, describing experiences without understanding what they mean. His sarcasm does accord with what narrator Gene Forrester says in A Separate Peace, that "sarcasm is the protest of people who are weak." Yet Gene, unlike Holden, has the vantage point of fifteen years to understand his "sarcastic" years and the story that begins the summer of 1942. Upon returning to Devon, a boy's school modeled on the author's own, Phillips Exeter Academy, Gene unravels what happened in 1942-43, when he caused an accident that leads eventually to the death of his best friend, Finny.

I must add something here. In the past, no student (or daughter) ever told me, " I don't want to read about rich white boys in a prep school during WW2." They might have added: At least there are girls in Catcher! Not a girl in A Separate Peace. Only a few "old" marginalized female nurses and mothers. There is a cast of "boys," named in the fashion of Charles Dickens: Leper, Quackenbush, Brinker, plus others. But I will not discuss them or summarize the story.

The question is: Why read this novel?

For the heart…and because the core of A Separate Peace is a four-letter word. One of the seven deadly sins, which does not give a rat's ass (as Holden might say) about class, gender, race, sexual orientation, or culture.

What is the word? ENVY, a spark that sets fire to the human heart, as Dante wrote. And envy appears impervious to whether someone is in the dark forest of adolescence, middle-age, or even decrepitude.

Gene tells us, fifteen years after the fact: "I was not of the same quality as he (Finny)." These words in 1942-43, were spoken from envy. Fifteen years later they are Gene's acknowledgement of "something ignorant, crazy, and blind" inside him, and in us. In the late 1950s, Gene knows from experience that wars are not made by generations and their special stupidities, but by something ignorant in the human heart. Only later, as a grown man, can Gene see his tragic flaw: the certainty that Finny's actions were rooted in rivalry and envy, which kept Gene from trusting Finny and believing in his friend's inherent innocence and goodness.

Ah, Phineas! An unforgettable character: his joy in movement, a continuous flowing balance in his body before the accident, his joyful abandonment of rules, his naked exposure of honest emotions, his crazy Blitzball, in which there are no winners or losers, his Winter Games and their choreography of peace, his belief that what's in the heart is what counts, and the added commandment in his personal decalogue: To never accuse a friend of a crime if you only have a feeling about it. To his core Finny believes, "when you really love something, then it loves you back in whatever way it has to love." Gene's ignorant, blind heart at sixteen can only repay Finny with Envy's impulsive spark on the limb of a fateful tree on a small river near Devon.

Two poems came to me early Sunday morning, related to Finny. I felt that John Knowles knew well A.E. Housman's, "To an Athlete Dying Young," "carried aloft and stricken" like Finny. The other poem was a simple one from Langston Hughes.

I loved my friend

He went away from me

The story ends

Soft as it began

I loved my friend.

But in reciting these words, I remembered a telling line at the end, when Gene says," I could not use the past tense," for Finny.

It is not loved. Finny lives in present tense. And that is true for me, too.


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