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Donald Schneider
07-19-2015, 07:42 PM
A Separate Peace, I must alert to possible SPOILERS here for some who are not familiar with the novel but might like to read it one day or watch one of the movie adaptations of it. Thank you.]

Regarding A Separate Peace by John Knowles, an aspect of this venerable novel has always given me pause for thought, but no inner resolution.

At their prep school, the introverted, academically inclined outsider Gene deliberately jostles the tree branch that he and his best friend and roommate Finny, the extroverted, popular and athletically inclined teenager, are standing on, presumably on an impulse bred from jealousy and resentment in conjunction with his apparently ambivalent feelings of love/hate towards his friend; resulting in Finny falling to the ground and shattering his leg, ending the boy's athletic and military plans (service in WWII).

Awhile later, the presumably guilt-ridden Gene confesses the truth to Finny. Irrespective of how Finny reacts to this revelation in the novel (refusing at first to believe that his friend is serious), was this the right thing for Gene to do; right for him or right for his victimized friend?

Was it selfish for Gene to force this catharsis in order to unburden himself of the weight of this tremendous guilt even if it risks devastating his friend and wounding him yet again? Should Gene have instead lived privately with the burden of his guilt as a form of self-punishment?

I'd really appreciate some considered input here as I have never been able to come to terms with this seeming moral dilemma. Is honesty always the best policy?

Thanks much.

shakeysix
07-19-2015, 08:25 PM
Allowing the reader to decide this issue for himself is brilliant on Knowles part. It distances this story from run of the mill coming of age stories and makes it something else, a classic. So do you want to gild the lily by debating Knowles real message about Gene's confession of his treachery OR do you want each of us to tell what we would consider moral behavior in the same situation? --s6

Amadan
07-19-2015, 08:39 PM
Been a long time since I read it (high school, in fact), but I agree that letting the reader decide is probably the best choice for the novel.

In real life? Good question. In general, I think truth is almost always best, unless it really is a truth that will only cause harm with no benefit.

I think someone who has done wrong, however, is entitled to try to make amends. "Punishing" yourself by living with the guilt with no hope of redemption is really no better than harming the person you unburden yourself to. So yes, it might cause pain to the person you confess the truth to, but you are also giving that person the power to grant or withhold absolution. If you're willing to accept that and take the consequences, I think it is the moral thing to do. You should not presume to withhold the truth from someone "for their own good" - maybe hearing the truth will be cathartic for them too. Or maybe they already knew the truth (I vaguely recall that it was implied in the novel, when Gene shook that branch, that Finny had a moment when he realized what Gene was doing) and were waiting to hear it.

Donald Schneider
07-19-2015, 08:51 PM
Allowing the reader to decide this issue for himself is brilliant on Knowles part. It distances this story from run of the mill coming of age stories and makes it something else, a classic. So do you want to gild the lily by debating Knowles real message about Gene's confession of his treachery OR do you want each of us to tell what we would consider moral behavior in the same situation? --s6

Thank you for your response which is most appreciated.

The latter is what I was after. However, I must say that your response is most thoughtful (and well written) and perhaps the best non-answer I have ever encountered. I'll leave it to others to answer your question to my question as they think best.

Again, I really appreciate your response and best regards.

Donald Schneider
07-19-2015, 09:04 PM
Been a long time since I read it (high school, in fact), but I agree that letting the reader decide is probably the best choice for the novel.

In real life? Good question. In general, I think truth is almost always best, unless it really is a truth that will only cause harm with no benefit.

I think someone who has done wrong, however, is entitled to try to make amends. "Punishing" yourself by living with the guilt with no hope of redemption is really no better than harming the person you unburden yourself to. So yes, it might cause pain to the person you confess the truth to, but you are also giving that person the power to grant or withhold absolution. If you're willing to accept that and take the consequences, I think it is the moral thing to do. You should not presume to withhold the truth from someone "for their own good" - maybe hearing the truth will be cathartic for them too. Or maybe they already knew the truth (I vaguely recall that it was implied in the novel, when Gene shook that branch, that Finny had a moment when he realized what Gene was doing) and were waiting to hear it.

Thank you very much.

I won't comment on your most perceptive and insightful remarks but rather leave them alone for all to consider and perhaps benefit from. Indeed, I consider your reply to be brilliant! Thank you. I think you would have made an excellent clergyman or mental health professional!

Regarding Finny already knowing, the boy seems to put all such suspicions out of his mind and it is only as an afterthought that he recalls the incident in the tree with Gene. Even then he puts it aside as imaginative on his part. Indeed, he refuses to accept Gene's confession as valid. He thinks that Gene also is imagining things, presumably out of guilt, not for causing Finny's fall, but not reacting quickly enough to catch him as Finny had done when Gene fell previously.

One thing is perfectly clear: Finny does not want to think that his best friend caused the accident at all and certainly not intentionally. This is the other horn of the dilemma that I have pondered and brought forth here.

Would have the desire to not want to risk hurting his friend even more profoundly a valid reason to keep quiet or, conversely, a rationalization not to own up to what the boy had done?

Ken
07-19-2015, 09:16 PM
I guess in a way the more important question in terms of the novel itself is given Gene's character would he have confessed as he did. Was that believable and a more or less inevitable conclusion. And actually I believe it does fail in that regard. It's unlikely he would have confessed. A few people would, but he doesn't seem to me one who would. Still, I am not quite ready to fling Separate Peace in the trash. It's a powerful novel even if it has this flaw, which it well may not. Thnx in any event for bringing up the topic. It is something I hadn't really considered.

Donald Schneider
07-19-2015, 09:28 PM
I guess in a way the more important question in terms of the novel itself is given Gene's character would he have confessed as he did. Was that believable and a more or less inevitable conclusion. And actually I believe it does fail in that regard. It's unlikely he would have confessed. A few people would, but he doesn't seem to me one who would. Still, I am not quite ready to fling Separate Peace in the trash. It's a powerful novel even if it has this flaw, which it well may not. Thnx in any event for bringing up the topic. It is something I hadn't really considered.


And thank you, Ken. I have never heard or read this consideration previously. It's difficult to believe that I'm the only one who has ever contemplated this aspect of the work.

As to the quality of A Separate Peace itself, I'm no longer as enamored with it as I once was. This is not the time or place to vent my recent thoughts on that score. None of Mr. Knowles's books sold terribly well after this one. However, it was sufficient to set him for life. In a newspaper interview, he acknowledged exactly that.

Underdawg47
07-19-2015, 10:21 PM
I was a senior in high school at the time I read this book. It was a last minute reading suggestion right before graduation. At the time I was a shy, depressed book worm who had no friends. I was confused about my sexuality and I heard the terms fag, and queer, but they were such ugly terms, but I didn't think they applied to me. As I was reading the book, I had a profound revelation about myself. The book spoke to me like no other book that I had ever read. Gene seemed very much like me introverted, repressed and finding himself attracted to a boy very unlike himself. I think that Gene was pulled into an excitement that took him out of his comfort zone. I think Gene fell romantically in love with Finny and would do anything that Finny suggested. I think Gene lived in fear that if he were to not do these things, Finny might think differently of him. I think the tree was something that truly terrified Gene every time he would jump. I think that Gene saw that nothing scared Finny and at that fateful moment in the tree, I think Gene jostled the branch hoping it would put some fear into Finny so that he might stop this daily activity. Gene was too scared to tell Finny he was scared of the tree because he feared it might change their relationship with each other. I don't think Gene intended to harm Finny, because I don't think Gene actually believed that Finny would fall.

Even though a battle was going on in Europe, another war was happening in Gene's head. I think Gene was deeply in love with Finny, but he was also jealous of Finny. Finny seemed to be able to freely express his emotions, and didn't seem to be confined by society's standards. Finny was everything that Gene wished he could be. I think Gene felt he needed to tell Finny that he did it, but was too afraid to tell him the reason why. I felt this book was a true tragedy very much like Romeo and Juliet.

Perks
07-19-2015, 10:33 PM
Was it selfish for Gene to force this catharsis in order to unburden himself of the weight of this tremendous guilt even if it risks devastating his friend and wounding him yet again? Should Gene have instead lived privately with the burden of his guilt as a form of self-punishment?

I have not read the book, but divorced from the rest of the story and considering it as if it were a real life dilemma, then yes, I think it's unconscionably selfish to burden someone already forced to jettison their plans for new ones after being stripped of ability by what they thought was an accident. To add the weight of knowing that you were betrayed and broken by the impulsive jealousy of a friend is a terrible re-victimization. I hate the idea.

In the scenario, the moral choice seems clear to me. Gene needs to carry that load so that his friend doesn't have to reinvent his whole life's perspective on Gene's whim - not once, but twice.

Donald Schneider
07-19-2015, 11:04 PM
I was a senior in high school at the time I read this book. It was a last minute reading suggestion right before graduation. At the time I was a shy, depressed book worm who had no friends. I was confused about my sexuality and I heard the terms fag, and queer, but they were such ugly terms, but I didn't think they applied to me. As I was reading the book, I had a profound revelation about myself. The book spoke to me like no other book that I had ever read. Gene seemed very much like me introverted, repressed and finding himself attracted to a boy very unlike himself. I think that Gene was pulled into an excitement that took him out of his comfort zone. I think Gene fell romantically in love with Finny and would do anything that Finny suggested. I think Gene lived in fear that if he were to not do these things, Finny might think differently of him. I think the tree was something that truly terrified Gene every time he would jump. I think that Gene saw that nothing scared Finny and at that fateful moment in the tree, I think Gene jostled the branch hoping it would put some fear into Finny so that he might stop this daily activity. Gene was too scared to tell Finny he was scared of the tree because he feared it might change their relationship with each other. I don't think Gene intended to harm Finny, because I don't think Gene actually believed that Finny would fall.

Even though a battle was going on in Europe, another war was happening in Gene's head. I think Gene was deeply in love with Finny, but he was also jealous of Finny. Finny seemed to be able to freely express his emotions, and didn't seem to be confined by society's standards. Finny was everything that Gene wished he could be. I think Gene felt he needed to tell Finny that he did it, but was too afraid to tell him the reason why. I felt this book was a true tragedy very much like Romeo and Juliet.

I think your analysis is right on the money. Mr. Knowles always vehemently denied any homosexual overtones between his two main characters. I have always suspected that he had protested too much. I think there are gay overtones of a purely platonic, romantic nature, as you suggest, but only on Gene's part.

The character of Finny was based upon David L. Hackett who had attended a summer session with Mr. Knowles at Phillips Exeter Academy, an exclusive New England boys' preparatory school. This is known by Mr. Knowles's acknowledgement. Mr. Hackett was a close personal friend of Robert Kennedy, whom he had befriended and taken under his wing at another prep school (Milton Academy) they had attended with RFK having been treated as an outsider being both Catholic and of new money.

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/01/us/01hackett.html?_r=0

The character of Gene is obviously based upon the author who was from West Virginia, though born of New England parents. His family was comfortable but not of old money. Mr. Knowles's father was a top executive at a coal concern. Mr. Hackett, of old money, seemed to have had befriended Mr. Knowles in much the same manner as he had RFK. (Mr. Hackett later served in JFK's administration.) He was apparently of a liberal and good natured disposition. It is obvious that Mr. Knowles greatly admired him. Thankfully, Mr. Hackett lived to a ripe old age and obviously, unlike Finny, survived Mr. Knowles's apparent infatuation with him.

Personal information regarding John Knowles is sketchy, but I believe that Mr. Knowles had had one short lived marriage, and I have never read of any mention of children. I think you are of a most perceptive nature with your fingers on the metaphorical pulse of human nature; a hallmark of all truly great writers.

Nevertheless, I can't agree with your Romeo and Juliet analogy. I discern no indication within the character of Finny that he had similar feelings towards Gene as opposed to deep, but strictly heterosexual feelings of friendship along the lines of the opposites attracting philosophy as with Marlon Brando and Wally Cox, best friends since childhood. Indeed, I don’t think that it ever would have occurred to Finny that Gene felt differently and thus never saw coming what was to happen. This was a very different time.

Best of luck to you with your writing ambitions.

Donald Schneider
07-19-2015, 11:33 PM
I have not read the book, but divorced from the rest of the story and considering it as if it were a real life dilemma, then yes, I think it's unconscionably selfish to burden someone already forced to jettison their plans for new ones after being stripped of ability by what they thought was an accident. To add the weight of knowing that you were betrayed and broken by the impulsive jealousy of a friend is a terrible re-victimization. I hate the idea.

In the scenario, the moral choice seems clear to me. Gene needs to carry that load so that his friend doesn't have to reinvent his whole life's perspective on Gene's whim - not once, but twice.

Thank you for your most astute analysis of the question I posed within my OP. I don't believe it is necessary to have read the novel in order to address the question I raise. I believe I provided sufficient background within the book to form a conclusion, one way or the other. Your remarks are the counterpoint to those of Amadan and equally valid and worth pondering.

Thank you very much again. I really appreciate your having taken the time and consideration.

Underdawg47
07-19-2015, 11:34 PM
Yeah, we really have no idea what is happening in Finny's mind. There are a few moments that make me wonder about Finny. Seems like there was a romantic scene on a beach that Finny seemed to instigate. Finny seems to show a bit more interest in Gene than a "Normal" heterosexual might show to another student. I don't ever remember Finny showing much interest in girls being that they are of that age, but since it is from the viewpoint of Gene, perhaps he just doesn't see it. But something about the way Finny died gave me the impression that instead of bone marrow reaching his heart which was a theory from the doctor, I was lead to believe that Finny died of a broken heart. He lost the will to live because he had lived in denial that his best friend could have deliberately tried to kill him. I think there was true love between the two of them though i am not sure of the kind of love that Finny had for Gene.

Donald Schneider
07-20-2015, 12:43 AM
Yeah, we really have no idea what is happening in Finny's mind. There are a few moments that make me wonder about Finny. Seems like there was a romantic scene on a beach that Finny seemed to instigate. Finny seems to show a bit more interest in Gene than a "Normal" heterosexual might show to another student. I don't ever remember Finny showing much interest in girls being that they are of that age, but since it is from the viewpoint of Gene, perhaps he just doesn't see it. But something about the way Finny died gave me the impression that instead of bone marrow reaching his heart which was a theory from the doctor, I was lead to believe that Finny died of a broken heart. He lost the will to live because he had lived in denial that his best friend could have deliberately tried to kill him. I think there was true love between the two of them though i am not sure of the kind of love that Finny had for Gene.

Thanks for the follow up.

I mentioned earlier that I am not as enamored with this novel as I once was. One of the flaws you allude to is one I've also noted: that is, the characterization of Finny seems somewhat incoherent. Just as you say, it is difficult to understand his apparently deep bond with a kid he just met, especially in light of how extroverted and popualr he already is.

If you read my reply to you before I finished editing it, you might have missed the link I left to David L. Hackett's obituary in 2011. There is no suggestion whatsoever that Mr. Hackett had had any gay background or inclinations. Therefore, perhaps Finny is partially a product of Mr. Knowles's wishful thinking. I have no idea how close Mr. Hackett and he had been at school, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Mr. Knowles had embellished their relationship in his own mind over the years. They apparently were only schoolmates for one summer session.

Bear in mind that I have no idea if Mr. Knowles himself had been gay. I would, however, say that at the very least he might have gone through a (not uncommon) period during his teenage years when had had such feelings. Boys' prep schools have been historically renowned for such, whether true or not.

Underdawg47
07-20-2015, 02:10 AM
Thanks for the follow up.

I mentioned earlier that I am not as enamored with this novel as I once was. One of the flaws you allude to is one I've also noted: that is, the characterization of Finny seems somewhat incoherent. Just as you say, it difficult to understand his apparently deep bond with a kid he just met, especially in light of how extraverted and popualr he already is.

If you read my reply to you before I finished editing it, you might have missed the link I left to David L. Hackett's obituary in 2011. There is no suggestion whatsoever that Mr. Hackett had had any gay background or inclinations. Therefore, perhaps Finny is partially a product of Mr. Knowles's wishful thinking. I have no idea how close Mr. Hackett and he had been at school, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Mr. Knowles had embellished there relationship in his own mind over the years. They apparently were only schoolmates for one summer session.

Bear in mind that I have no idea if Mr. Knowles himself had been gay. I would, however, say that at the very least he might have gone through a (not uncommon) period during his teenage years when had had such feelings. Boys' prep schools have been historically renowned for such, whether true or not.


I was simply going by what I read in the novel. I really don't think it matters whether David Hackett was gay or not. If he was the inspiration for Finny, then that is all he probably was. Finny is a character separate from David because he is the creation of the author. I don't think Finny was incoherent, but he was certainly different from the other kids. Finny seemed to have lots of wonderful character traits, but one of his quirks was in his denial. He was in denial of the war that was waging around them and tried to create a separate world of fun. He was in denial that his best friend could intentionally do him harm. He did seem to understand the power of his charm that he had over everyone and used it in ways to manipulate teachers and fellow students to his advantage.

I remember once in the army I had a very close friendship with another soldier where we did all sorts of fun things together. It was very platonic except that I was deeply in love with him, but I never dare tell him. We would take trips together, go to movies together, and eventually we rented an apartment together once I left the army. We each had separate bedrooms and we would have other soldiers over to watch movies. My friend was very playful and at times liked to wrestle around or tickle me. I was so in the closet that I didn't dare make any kind of romantic move towards him.

One day, one of our friends was visiting. He came over quite often because he liked to use our apartment as a place to have sex with his girlfriend. One day while my best friend and I were sitting on our couch, he decided to wrestle me and I always found it fun and playful, but our friend happened to show up. He spread a rumor through our platoon that we were having a homosexual relationship. This was back before Don't Ask Don't Tell and it terrified him. He immediately moved out and denied anything was happening, which was true. We never had sex or kissed or even did anything sexual, even though I lusted after this guy. I think he felt something for me in a romantic way though it was never spoken in a way similar to Gene and Finny. Well he cut all communication with me, and eventually married a woman shortly after moving away.

When you grow up in a culture when homosexuality is seen an abomination and a sin where even god abandons you, if you are gay, you are forced by society to hide, or to live in denial out of fear that people will judge you. I always wondered why their fellow classmates had that trial in the basement. They probably questioned the relationship between Gene and Finny, especially since some had seen Gene jostle the branch and now they are still best of friends. I wonder who had read the book and wondered what the motive was for those who wanted to have that trial. I certainly don't think they did it for Finny's benefit, but perhaps for some sort of justice, but it never seemed like a good enough reason to me. But if Finny had forgiven Gene, it must be some other reason why the others held such anger. It seems to me that there is an elephant in the room that no one ever mentions.

Zaffiro
07-20-2015, 07:42 PM
I agree with Perks. It's been a while since I read the book, but as I remember, Finny is desperately hanging on to his utter faith in Gene. He's been told straight out that Gene bounced the branch, but he refuses to believe it. He needs that faith. He needs that friendship to be inviolable. His body's been broken, much of what he was has been destroyed, but he's holding on to the kernel of himself: the way he sees the world, as essentially benign and harmonious.

It's unconscionable and vastly selfish for Gene to take that away from him, purely for his own catharsis and peace of mind. There's no way in hell he could've thought it would do Finny anything but awful damage - if he even thought about the effect on Finny, which it doesn't seem like he did. There might have been a time a few years down the road when coming clean would have been the right thing to do, but it definitely wasn't then.

To me, the other guys' motivation for the trial makes total sense, and I don't think it has anything to do with the relationship between Gene and Finny. They've always lived in a world that made sense, that was coherent and orderly. With school ending, the war looming, and Leper's disintegration, that order is breaking down fast. Finny's accident seems to them like yet another manifestation of things falling apart, reasonless damage and danger everywhere, even within the walls of the school, and that's terrifying. If it wasn't an accident - if they can 'prove' that Gene did it on purpose - it's much less frightening.