Review of A Separate Peace
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/13/06
A Separate Peace is a 1959 novel by John Fowles that is reputedly considered a classic. Why this is must have little to do with the actual novel and more to do with the fact that it is in the Lord Of The Flies/Catcher In The Rye mold of taking vapid young white bread males and making them seem interesting. In a sense this is anti-PC before the concept of PC arose, and by anti- I mean that in the sense of opposite, not against.
The novel begins with Gene Forrester revisiting his Devon boarding school in New Hampshire years after graduating to reflect on incidents that occurred during the school year of 1942-43, when he was sixteen years old. We learn of Geneís love and hate for his best friend Phineas, an outgoing risk taker, who soon becomes a tiresome rebel without a cause. Finny creates a Suicide Society that he heads alongside Gene, whose membership is based upon jumping out of a tree into a river. If this smacks of a bad Dead Poets Society you are right, to a degree. Finny is then obsessed with his and Geneís jumping from a tree into a lake. This is dangerous because they must jump far outward to land in the water or else hit the ground. During their first jump, Gene loses his balance and Finny saves him. During a later jump, Gene shakes the limb and his envy of Finny, who pretends that Gene didnít cause him to fall from the tree, because he believes everybody is innately decent, yet he is clearly a sick individual prone to delusions small and grand- such as World War II is merely a conspiracy by the elite. Nonetheless, a psychotic friend of theirs named Leper enlists and is discharged with a Section Eight. He blames his insanity on the fact that he saw Gene deliberately shake the branch that felled Finny. By bookís end Finny begins to believe Gene may have caused his accident after being questioned by another boy, Brinker Hadley, determined to get to the bottom of the truth of Ďthe incidentí in the tree. Finny refuses the truth, then runs away and trips down some stairs, breaking his leg again. During an operation to fix the leg, bone marrow enters his bloodstream and he dies. Gene is wracked with guilt and apotheosizes his dead friend as being superhuman in his forbearance from envy.
This could have been a great novel, given its premises as a meditation on
human evil, but it lacked compelling characters, as the boys were merely whiny,
and the narrative was simply dull. Knowles also lacked any soaring intellect to
grapple with the issues raised. In a sense these were privileged boys that had
almost everything, but whined over that slight lack. There was nothing that was
universal to them that could let others identify with the characters. Finny was
a Holden Caulfield good doppelganger, and he was the most interesting of a bunch
of dull characters- the sort who might populate a bad 1970s tv movie of the
The central conflict of the book- Geneís battle with his own envy and
immaturity- is not enough to sustain all the digressions the book makes.
Throughout the book I was waiting for some real tension to occur, for there to
be a Ďrealí incident that would enliven the plot and the characters. It
never came. And the ruminations and tribunal held by Brinker at the end seems
utterly disconnected to the shallow boys that populate the novel, yet it is all
not skewed nearly enough to warrant being treated as an allegory. And when Finny
dies, well, I doubt most people care, for they have not related to him, and I
was actually glad for it, nor do they believe that Gene was really as affected
by him as he claims. It all smacks of a good premise for a book that fails to
connect the dots.
Yet it could have, if Fowles had only had the balls to reveal the real
motivations behind his two central characters, and thatís the underlying
sexual attraction between the two boys, Gene and Finny. But, given it was
written in 1959, and Fowles was not an outcast, nor bohemian, like James
Baldwin, that was not to be, and the novel suffers greatly for it, for the
boysí homosexuality is the only possible glue to explain why Finny just
didnít kick Geneís ass over the incident in the tree, and why Gene so
idolizes his rather vapid dead friend, and not because he really worshipped
Finnyís decency, as the book reveals that Finny was a bit of a rake and fool.
Because Fowles does not come out and deal with it, and possibly didnít even
recognize the textís homoeroticism, the book just flails and fails.
those who might think Iím reading into the text, or that I have some Left Wing
agenda in this review, let me give you several quotes from the book to
illustrate my belief that the two main characters were romantically involved.
Here is what Gene says of Finny: ĎI
lost part of myself to him then, and a soaring sense of freedom revealed that
this must have been my purpose from the first: to become a part of Phineasí. Simply put, mere beer drinking buddies do
not speak of each other in such ways. Hereís what Finny later says of Gene:
ĎNaturally I donít believe books and I donít believe teachers, but I do
believe- itís important for me to believe you. Christ, Iíve got to believe
you, at least. I know you better than anybodyí. Again, males who are
simply friends do not speak like that to or of each other. A 1-2-3, say it with
Itís a shame that Fowles did not recognize he was writing a book which could have frankly dealt with homosexual desire, for had he the book may have had far more energy, and been far better than what it became. As it is, though, Iíd rather spend time with that little Caulfield punk!
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