The power and impact that guilt can have on one’s life can be a positive and negative experience depending on how the individual deals with their situation and whether or not they learn a lesson from their mistake. The novels A Separate Peace by John Knowles and Fifth Business by Robertson Davies share the theme of guilt in their storylines through events and relationships but differ as to how to the characters cope with their reactions through reflection and confrontation. A Separate Peace tells the story of a young boy by the name of Gene Forrester who in an act of jealousy and competitiveness pushes his friend Phineas out of a tree.
Fifth Business surrounds the character Dunstan Ramsay, who as a child, ducks a snowball with a rock hidden within thrown at him by his friend Guy. The snowball hits Mary Dempster at the back of the head, causing her brain damage and the premature birth of her baby Paul Dempster. Both plots surround two men who look back at their lives and how a single negative event affects their childhood. What would appear to be an insignificant moment of the past evolves into a lifelong mental scar that poisons the characters with guilt and the desire for acceptance.
The novels’ protagonists share encounters in childhood fueled by competitive friendships; however, Gene Forrester accepts responsibility for his actions and is able to move on while Dunstan Ramsay does not and lets his memories and guilt plague his life. The two novels are similar in the aspect that both Gene Forrester and Dunstan Ramsay are involved in childhood incidents that curse them with guilt. In the novel A Separate Peace, Gene Forrester subconsciously moves the branch he and his physically and socially superior friend Finny are standing on.
Finny falls and is heavily injured and the casualties lead to his early death later on. “…and then my knees bent and I jounced the limb. Finny, his balance gone, swung his head around to look at me for an instant with extreme interest, and then he tumbled sideways, broke through the little branches below and hit the bank with a sickening, unnatural thud” (Knowles 60). Gene Forrester feels solely responsible for this terrible accident and feels extremely guilty. “If Phineas had been sitting here in this pool of guilt, how would he have felt, what would he have done? (Knowles 66). In the novel Fifth Business, a rich and jealous enraged friend Percy Boyd Staunton pursues Dunstan Ramsay.
When Percy throws a rock concealed in a snowball at Dunstan’s head he ducks and lets it strike the pregnant Mary Dempster. This accident is the cause of the premature birth of Paul Dempster and the destruction of Mr. and Mrs. Dempster’s marriage and family. “I stepped briskly…in front of the Dempsters just as Percy threw, and the snowball hit Mrs. Dempster on the back of the head” (Davies 2). Dunstan feels responsible for Mrs.
Dempster’s mental health, Paul Dempster’s physical health, and their ruin as a family. “I was contrite and guilty, for I knew the snowball had been meant for me, but the Dempster’s did not seem to think that” (Davies 3). Both characters suffer from these self-inflicted negative occurrences and struggle with the realization of what they have done and how it affects those involved. Another similarity between A Separate Peace and Fifth Business is that both Gene Forrester and Dunstan Ramsay have intimate friendships infused with jealousy and competition.
These poisoned relationships both ignite the impactful events that occur in their childhoods. Gene feels in constant competition with Finny, who appears to be good at everything. “That way he, the great athlete, would be way ahead of me. It was all cold trickery, it was all calculated, it was all enmity” (Knowles 53). He is superior in appearance, physical capability, personal stamina and respect gained from popularity amongst the other boys at the school. “I couldn’t help envy him that a little, which was perfectly normal. There was no harm in envying even your best friend a little” (Knowles 25).
Dunstan knows that Boy Staunton wishes to be the best in everything. He aspires to be the most handsome, most successful in a romantic relationship, most successful in a career and most popular. “Percy Boyd Staunton…the only man who accepted his watch with an air…it was a fine effect, and as I grinned and clapped, my stomach burned with jealousy” (Davies 97). He feels aggressive resentment for Boy as he lives the life that Dunstan secretly wishes he could himself. “Boy wore a gorgeous pullover of brownish-red…and his demeanor was that of the lords of creation.
A pretty girl with shingled hair and rolled stockings that allowed you to see delightful flashes of her bare knees was with him, and they were taking alternate pulls on a flask that contained, I am sure, something intoxicating…I was filled with a sour scorn that I now know was nothing but envy…I didn’t really want the clothes, I didn’t really want the girl or the booze, but it scalded me to see him enjoying them…” (Davies 113). The two novels capture the intensity of the character’s conflicted relationships with their closest friends as their constant struggle for a balance between hatred and respect fails to cease.
The novels A Separate Peace and Fifth Business differ from each other within the main character’s thoughts and reflections on their memories. Gene Forrester accepts jostling the tree limb so Finny would fall, but understands the particular incident as a fragment of the past with no lasting effect on his life. Dunstan Ramsay however, remains attached to his guilt and responsibility for letting the snowball hit Mrs. Dempster and his actions haunt him for the remainder of his days.
Gene Forrester revisits his old school and although experiences memories of fear from the past, it is only an echo not a current emotion. “Looking back now across fifteen years, I could see with great clarity the fear that I have lived in, which must mean that in the interval I had succeeded in a very important undertaking: I must have made my escape from it” (Knowles 10). He has not severed his feelings of regret towards the incident nor does he see Finny’s untimely death as unimportant but instead is able to appreciate his strong connection with this part of his past and can learn from his childhood errors.
He understands that the experience matured him and was a crucial step in the climb of growing up. Gene visits the site where Finny fell with confidence and seeks the gratification of knowing that those years trapped at Devon school with an injured friend are behind him. “This was the tree, and it seemed to me standing there to resemble those men, the giants of your childhood, whom you encounter years later and find that they are not merely smaller in relation to your growth, but that they are absolutely smaller, shrunken by age” (Knowles 14).
Dunstan Ramsay on the other hand, does not revisit sites from his past every 15 years but instead dedicates his entire life to the study of Saints and Mary Dempster’s impact on his life. He does not permit himself assessment of his child-self’s mentality during the accident and therefore, is never able to gain the satisfaction of learning from his mistakes. “Ramsey…You have paid such a price, and you look like a man full of secrets-grim-mouthed and buttoned-up and hard-eyed and cruel, because you are cruel to yourself. It has done you good to tell what you know; you look much more human already” (Davies 220).
Instead of visiting places of his past or confronting those involved with his childhood, he sees his memories through a haze of anger and anxiety. An event that should have seemed insignificant and even negligible after so many years, is still important to him in his daily life and the emotions he felt 40 years ago have not changed but intensified. The fear and guilt he felt as a child is still fresh in his mind. “Cursing what seemed to be a life sentence…my association with Mrs. Dempster…It was as though I were visiting a part of my own soul that was condemned to live in hell” (Davies 182).
The two characters, although faced with similar situations, choose different paths for their lives, which separate them from each other. A final contrast between the characters Gene Forrester and Dunstan Ramsay in the novels A Separate Peace and Fifth Business is the difference in their reaction to the event in their past. Both Gene and Dunstan suffer guilt about a single action in their childhood. Gene confronts his emotions and immediately tells Finny what happened, while Dunstan keeps the truth of the event a secret.
While Finny is still recovering from his fall, Gene immediately visits Phineas after the accident and tells him the truth. Although he feels he makes things worse, it gives him a peace of mind and helps him to move on. “Finny, I’ve got something to tell you. You’re going to hate it, but there’s something I’ve got to tell you…This is the worst thing in the world” (Knowles 66-67). Gene is able to move past his guilty conscience of causing Finny’s fall and is able to focus his attention to mentally recovering and pushing forward in life. …in spite of everything, I welcomed each new day as though it were a new life, where all past failures and problems were erased, and all future possibilities and joys open and available, to be achieved probably before night fell again” (Knowles 105). Dunstan however, bottles up his thoughts and emotions concerning the events that occurred on the night Mrs. Dempster was hit on the back of the head with a snowball.
He does not tell anyone about the stone in the snow until the later years of his life. “Nevertheless this conversation reheated my strong sense of guilt and esponsibility about Paul, the war and my adult life had banked down that fire but not quenched it” (Davies 136). Dunstan keeps everything to himself and seeks out no help for his troubled mind and the stories and truths that are trapped within it. “The snow-in-the-snowball has been characteristic of too much you’ve done for you to forget it forever! ” (Davies 270). The two outcomes of the two character’s lives is a reflection of how they handle the injury of the innocent and how they come to face the consequences of what they have done.
The novels A Separate Peace and Fifth Business both display the lives of men who suffer a great deal in their childhood from unhealthy friendships and a singular bad event. Gene Forrester and Dunstan Ramsay share similarities in the occurrences of their lives but differentiate from each other in how they dealt with it. Gene faces his victim Finny with the truth of the accident, being that he deliberately jounced the limb so his superior friend would fall, and is therefore granted elation from his confession and a peace of mind.
Gene matures free of guilt and the residue of the horrific event is but a memory he can briefly recall in his mind but not linger on. Dunstan Ramsey takes a different route, and on a downwards-spiraling path of shame, he lives a solitary life, left to face his childhood troubles every day, making ancient memories a constant reality. He matures with many emotional scars and does not feel any release from his inner torments. In conclusion, the two novels depict contrasting scenarios of self-reproach, one displays a character’s positive liberation of guilt and one shows a character’s negative manifestation of guilt.
Courtney from Study Moose
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