23 March 2009
A Separate Peace for Masculinity
John Knowles’ A Separate Peace is a tale of friendship between two young males in New England during the Second World War. The novel offers several themes which enhance its message and from which critical analysis can be drawn. The setting, an all boys’ school, immediately calls attention to the recurring theme of masculinity. There are also notably very few female characters mentioned throughout leading the reader to conclude that the novel is purposefully male dominated. Through the narrator Gene’s misunderstanding of his comrade Finny’s behavior, Knowles reveals that; specifically in America, masculinity is culturally constructed, must be proven, and is constantly being threatened.
The characteristic of masculinity is not instinctive in males but is a learned concept which they compose based on their culture. In Chapter 2, Finny takes it upon himself to put on a pink shirt because the U.S. army had bombed Central Europe for the first time. He proclaimed, “Well we’ve got to do something to celebrate…So I’m going to wear this, as an emblem” (25). Gene, his close friend and roommate, could not understand him putting on such a color even if it was for the war and did not hesitate to call him names. Gene concluded to himself that, “no one else in school could have done so without some risk of having it torn from his back” (25). His statement alone calls attention to the seriousness masculinity played in the all male environment they inhabited. In American culture there are distinct lines laid out that separate what is masculine and what is feminine. It is very hard for males to partake in anything considered feminine without running the risk of being ostracized. This belief holds especially true during war time when men were expected to be macho and looked to as the protectors of freedom. Our culture instructs us that the color pink is associated with the female gender. It is clear from his remarks that Gene has constructed his ideals about masculinity from what he has learned from society. Finny, on the other hand, is his own person and does not care what others think of him. While Finny sees his shirt as just a fashion statement Gene feels Finny has put a target on his own back. It is clear that Gene would never wear anything resembling Finny’s shirt for fear of people getting the wrong idea about his sexuality which affirms that while Finny may be an exception, masculinity is for the most part culturally influenced.
Moreover, the fact that boys are born male doesn’t necessarily give them a claim to masculinity. It is mentioned several times how extremely gifted Finny was in all things that were considered physical. In Chapter 3, Finny broke the school’s swimming record for the 100 Yards Free Style. Afterwards, much to Gene’s dismay Finny did not want anyone to know about his feat. Finny remarks, “I just wanted to see if I could do it. Now I know. But I don’t want to do it in public” (44). Once again Gene could not comprehend Finny’s actions. With the novel being told from Gene’s point of view it is obvious throughout that Gene admires and is jealous of Finny’s athletic ability all at once. Gene wanted Finny to complete the astounding task again with an audience so he could claim the glory that was rightfully his but Finny would not hear of it. The mere fact that Gene couldn’t tell anyone “took root in [his] mind and grew rapidly in the darkness where [he] was forced to hide it” (44). Males are very aggressive creatures by nature which more often than not leads to heavy competition in just about everything they do. One of the most common ways to prove masculinity is by performing athletically. For Finny, breaking the swimming record was more about being able to accomplish something and less about the status the accomplishment would afford him. Gene saw the situation as the exact opposite and felt Finny should be recognized. The stances the two boys took on the issue illustrate that Finny does not feel he has to prove himself to anyone while Gene feels nothing is worth doing unless others get to witness how manly you are. Gene’s intolerance of Finny’s decision confirms he is insecure in his own masculinity and feels it must be proven through athletic achievements among other deeds.
Lastly, masculinity is not constant and can be stripped away at any time and therefore must be protected. American culture has conditioned us into thinking that showing emotion is a feminine characteristic thus males generally do not articulate their feelings. Emotion is one of the main factors that threatens masculinity. In Chapter 3, after sneaking away from school to go to the beach Finny tells Gene that he considers him to be his best friend. Gene, in turn, is taken back and doesn’t know how to react. He thought to himself, “it was a courageous things to say. Exposing a sincere emotion nakedly like that at the Devon School was the next thing to suicide” (48). Because Finny is secure with his masculinity it was not a big deal for him to tell Gene something he knew to be true. Gene later said that he should have told Finny that he was also his best friend but admits that something restrained him from doing so. He felt some resentment towards Finny to a certain extent because he felt Finny was challenging his manhood by trying to get him to openly converse about his feelings. Gene feared reciprocating Finny’s gesture would make him less of a man thus certifying that masculinity is regularly jeopardized.
In culmination, Knowles drives home the recurring theme of masculinity not only by intentionally making his work overflowing with testosterone but also by digging deep into the friendship of Gene and Finny. Finny is a complex character that possesses traits that are both masculine and feminine. In a sense, Gene is stock character that goes along with the norm and follows social expectations in regards to masculinity. Throughout the novel Finny takes risks that call his manhood into question and Gene outright does not agree or understand his actions. The odd relationship the two of them possess further furnishes Knowles message that masculinity is not innate but rather engineered with the help of society and also must be validated as well as protected.
Knowles, John. A Separate Peace. New York: Scribner, 1959.
McFarland, Mitzi “A Separate Peace Discussions.” University Of West Georgia, Georgia.