Narrative Changes in a Separate Peace
High school is a time for great physical, mental, and emotional changes in youth. Some students experience a one-foot height change, others, an epiphany. These changes happen over the course of high school, but can be brought about quickly under the correct circumstances. In the novel A Separate Peace by John Knowles, Phineas is another victim of high school changes, catalyzed by injury. He begins his adolescent life normally, as a superb athlete, yet a tragic “accident” wrecks his chance at a this normal life and puts Finny in a state of denial. However, he eventually accepts his reality by snapping out of his dreamer mentality. The progression of Finny’s mental state is indicative of how trauma can catapult the normally unsettling growth of youth in high school into a state of disbelief and denial, detaching one from reality.
Finny begins life at Devon school as a dreamer. He has a free spirit, creating activities and doing odd things for pure amusement. As Finny is trying on unusual clothes, he ponders “…what would happen if I looked like a fairy to everyone” (17). Phineas really does not care what others think about him; he is just curious for his own sake. This dressing scene and the pages following in which he wears the pink shirt demonstrate his carefree attitude towards life. After swimming in the school pool and breaking a record, Phineas notes how “The only real swimming is in the ocean”(37). He is unimpressed by the fact that he breaks the school’s record, but wishes to swim in the ocean, as if doing so were somehow a greater feat. He does not pay heed to the fact that he is breaking an important rule, and might even miss class. The first few chapters of A Separate Peace stress the dreamer mentality of Phones in other ways. In addition, Finny has no visible fear of things that others commonly are afraid of. For example, the dreaded tree is a nonissue in the mind of Finny. He jumps first, saying, “here’s my contribution to the war effort” (8). Others in his group of friends tremble at the sight of the tall tree. Even Gene is skeptical about the safety of the tree to begin with, only jumping after Finny goes first for reassurance. Phineas chooses what needs to be done, and sticks with his decisions without fear of failure.
To save Gene from falling from the tree, Finny “shot out and grabbed my [Gene’s] arm, and with my balance restored, the panic immediately disappeared” (24). He does what has to be done instantly, without questioning himself in the process. Finny lacks fear of things that could be serious issues to others. It is this lack of fear that makes his injury so tragic. After his fall from the limb, Phineas denies that Gene jounced the limb, and disavows the existence of a raging war. It seems to Gene that Finny actually believes that the war is a joke made up to subdue the people. When discussing other conspiracies, Finny states that “they couldn’t use that trick forever, so for us in the forties they’ve cooked up this war fake” (107). Phineas of course denies the existence of the war with his inner logic, seeming sensible and realistic. This constant self-justification is proof that Finny really does not even believe the theories himself. He is just using them as a shield to avoid his own reality. He asserts this theory again when Mr. Ludsbury talks of the war; Finny explains that Ludsbury believes in the war because he is “Too thin. Of course” (114). This statement goes back on his former idea that “fat old men” created the war and contrasts Ludsbury to these men. Mr. Ludsbury is a symbol for the rest of Devon, and even the rest of the world. Everyone believes in the war but Finny, and he is alone in his theories because he needs the protection. The theories of “fat old men” give a sense of justification to Finny that he is not needed in the war, even though he would love to participate. It kills Finny to sit at home without truly participating.
Phineas also denies the fact that he fell directly because of Gene jouncing the limb. Finny does begin, after his injury, to suspect Gene by having a “crazy idea, I must have been delirious”(58). This idea is immediately dismissed by Finny, however, as it could ruin the friendship. Finny chooses not to pursue this topic because it would get him nowhere, much like accepting the war would. Nothing could be done to change the past at this point. As response to Gene’s visit and confession, Finny asserts, “Of course you didn’t do it. You damn fool. Sit down, you damn fool”(62). No matter how Gene tries to approach the topic with Finny, his feelings of disbelief will not budge. He is completely denying this fact because Gene is his only true friend, and their bond could be ruined for him if it were true. After his final accident and before his untimely death, Finny does eventually accept the harsh reality of his situation. He acknowledges the existence of the war. After Leper’s ordeal Finny realizes that “If a war can drive somebody crazy, then it’s real all right! Oh I guess I always knew, but I didn’t have to admit it”(156). The war had then personally affected one of Phineas’s close friends, forcing the reality of it onto him. Finny could no longer lie to himself and others about the war. He lied about the war because he could not participate in it: “I’ll hate it everywhere if I’m not in this war! Why do you think I kept saying there wasn’t any war all winter?”(182). Finny’s leg injury prevented his probable experience if the war. A great athlete like Finny’s past self would have been perfect for the war, but all of his chances were ruined when he was jounced by the limb. Finny accepts that Gene caused all of this, that all of his pain and suffering was due to Gene. After his second fall when, Gene attempts a late night visit, Finny yells, “You want to break something else in me! Is that why you’re here!”(176). It is not just limbs however that were broken due to Gene. Finny’s chances at life, a future, and a normal high school were all ruined as well. Fortunately, Finny holds no grudges on his deathbed, accepting and giving reasons that did what he did. Finny explains that “It wasn’t anything you really felt against me, it wasn’t some kind of hate you’ve felt all along. It wasn’t anything personal” (183). Finny eventually understands the subconscious feelings that Gene has been having. He accepts this fact knowing that Gene is not to blame, and should not feel sorrow towards Finny. He ends his short dreamy life as a realist, with no regrets or qualms regarding his killer.
In his short life, Finny passes through three personas involving stages of acceptance: a dreamer, denialist, and finally a realist. His crippling injury took away his childish perspective, and forced hiding and lies upon him. His second injury removed his shields and forced an acceptance of harsh reality. Seeing life from a different perspective, whether it be as a cripple or a realist, can give the reader an entirely different mindset for determining what is important, and what can be easily forgiven.
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