John Knowles’ Interpretation of Uncertainty as Depicted in His Book, a Separate Peace
All people – young and old, rich and poor, celebrities and nobodies – have likely experienced some sort of “identity crisis” in their lifetime. Nearly every person alive has created an identity for him or herself, whether they are aware of it or not. A person’s identity defines who that person will become and how he or she will react to the world. However, identity is not something that is set in stone. According to Bob Edelstein, author of the article “Authenticity and Identity,” a person’s identity is “fluid, subjective, and chosen,” and a person can “rediscover and recreate” themselves at any given moment (1). This could easily lead to a conflict of identity, and in many cases, it does. These identity crises that people around the world face are illustrated by John Knowles in his book A Separate Peace, in which the teenaged main characters – Gene, Phineas (known as Finny), Leper, and Brinker struggle to find their true selves while living in World War II America.
Identity crises such as the ones depicted in A Separate Peace are not uncommon. In fact, Susan Krauss Whitbourne writes in “Are You Having an Identity Crisis?” that teenagers are more susceptible to identity crises than adults are, as teens are at the point in their lives where they finally begin to think about their roles in society and the world around them. They must develop their own identity and make crucial decisions about the paths their lives will take. If they fail to confront these choices, though, their sense of identity could be shattered and weaken them in the future (1). In Knowles’s book, for example, Gene, the story’s narrator, struggles the most out of the four boys with his own identity and his emotions during his time at the Devon School, where the story is set. A person’s identity can change rapidly in response to whatever that person experiences in his or her life, and nowhere is this more evident than in Gene (Edelstein 1). After arriving at Devon and meeting Finny, Gene began to become jealous of what he viewed as Finny’s superiority over him. Gene slowly began to change, becoming more like Finny, to the point where Gene even felt more comfortable in Finny’s clothes, saying that “it seemed, standing there in Finny’s triumphant shirt, that I would never stumble through the confusions of my own character again” (Knowles 62). Gene constantly was jealous of Finny and his abilities, and this led to Gene’s desire to become Finny, losing himself in the process. In “Basics of Identity,” author Shahram Heshmat writes that it is exhausting for someone to try to be someone that they are not, because more brainpower is needed to manage the self-doubt constantly present in their mind (2).
Edelstein writes that “we may also begin to re-envision who we want to be in the future…as we shift this part of our identity into what is authentic in the present” (1). Leper, whose real name was Elwin Lepellier, came into Devon and Knowles’s story as a naturalist, fond of anything to do with nature and completely averse to any thought of enlisting for the war. Leper even opted to go on skiing trip and search for beaver dams instead of helping clear railroad tracks for the war effort like his fellow Devon students (Knowles 95). The other students thought that Leper would never enlist in the army, with his nature-loving and peaceful personality. However, the viewing of a video on ski troops, which piqued his interest, was enough to completely change Leper’s personality and identity, making him enthusiastic about the war and the first to enlist out of his classmates. However, warfare was not one of Leper’s “personal potentials,” which are a person’s strengths and are needed to form a person’s own identity (Heshmat 1). The sheer psychological effect of warfare drove the nature-loving Leper nearly insane, destroying his mind. Leper, though, faced pressure from his fellow students and from society as a whole to enlist, and this influenced his decision even when he might have known inside that warfare was not for him and was not part of who he was. Brinker’s obvious contempt for Leper’s ski trips and naturalist tendencies could certainly have played a role in influencing Leper’s decision to enlist, even before he saw the ski troops video (Knowles 99).
In his article, Edelstein uses the example of a man named Bill, who is “nice and has a positive attitude” and sees the best in everyone around him (1). In A Separate Peace, Finny was a near-perfect representation of Bill. Finny was a happy-go-lucky person, and he always seemed to be able to get away with things by using his charm and quick thinking. Even when Finny wore a school tie as a belt and Gene was certain that “this time he wasn’t going to get away with it” (Knowles 27), Finny still managed to get himself out of trouble. Finny was the kind of person who had no hatred or contempt for anyone but rather genuinely liked everybody that he met. As Gene put it, “only Phineas never hated anyone” (Knowles 204). Edelstein’s Bill, though, found out how much of a drain it is to be positive and constantly nice to everyone, since it required him to suppress and refuse to acknowledge some of his own emotions. Finny experienced this as well, bottling up his emotions in an effort to see only the good in people and not the bad. Finny could only suppress his feelings for so long though, and he broke down at Brinker’s “trial,” shouting about how he didn’t care about the facts and rushing out the door (Knowles 176). Finny formed his identity into that of a constantly nice, kind, and positive person, yet that type of personality is unnatural and, as in the case of Bill, could lead to exhaustion, depression, and even a loss or fragmentation of the identity that a person thought that they had and knew.
One of the four common “identity statuses” that a person can have is foreclosure, in which people “have a firm sense of self, but they never went through a serious process of questioning their commitments.” These people generally follow their parents and their parents’ expectations for them, gaining values very similar to those of their parents (Whitbourne 2). In A Separate Peace, Brinker is very much “foreclosed” initially. He shared his father’s view of enlisting as a noble action, and he was enthusiastic to enlist and fight in the war. These views were extremely similar to those of Brinker’s father, who believed that “it’s your greatest moment, your greatest privilege, to serve your country” (Knowles 200). Brinker felt the same way as his father at first, complaining fiercely when Leper skied out to a beaver dam instead of helping to clear the railroad (100). According to Whitbourne, though, if people do not contemplate their own interests and commitments, they may find themselves stuck in something they do not enjoy and may be unhappy in the future (2). Brinker, towards the end of the book, became disillusioned with his father’s viewpoint on war and the world, and he began to think about his own identity and personality. At the very end, Brinker ended up disagreeing with his father and, despite pressure from his father, joined the relatively safe Coast Guard to avoid intense combat during the war, much to his father’s chagrin. Brinker even went so far as to denounce his father’s generation for creating the war and forcing the younger generation to fight it for them (Knowles 199). Thus, at the end of the novel, Brinker rejected the false identity “given” to him by his father and solidified a new identity for himself as an independent person.
Throughout A Separate Peace, Gene, Leper, Finny, and Brinker all deal with various forms of identity crises that mirror those many people around the world face on a daily basis. Whether it is jealousy, peer pressure, family pressure, or even just being overly positive, these crises all deal a major blow to a person, yet they make Knowles’s characters that much more relatable to the average reader. John Knowles’s A Separate Peace stands as a magnificent illustration of the struggles faced by nearly everyone on the planet and of people’s quests to find their true identities and their genuine selves amidst the falsehoods around them.
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