Annotated Passages by the Author

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Duality Alert

The symbol of yin and yang represents duality, or two halves of a whole that complement each other, often in complex ways. We used this symbol to point out examples in the text.

Everyone has a moment in history which belongs particularly to him. It is the moment when his emotions achieve their most powerful sway over him, and afterward when you say to this person "the world today" or "life" or "reality" he will assume that you mean this moment, even if it is fifty years past. The world, through his unleashed emotions, imprinted itself upon him, and he carries the stamp of that passing moment forever.

The word "moment' is used four times in this paragraph, suggesting the idea of epiphanies--instances when the world seems to crack wide open, and it is clear that life will never be the same again. This is a key element in coming-of-age literature.

For me, this moment--four years is a moment in history--was the war.

Point of view: The narrator, Gene, is speaking in first person, which provides an intimacy that allows readers Into his thoughts. In this case, there are two versions of the narrator. There is Gene as a man, who is reflecting back on the events of the novel fifteen years after they occurred and there is also Gene the boy, who provides the narrative of the moment, conveying immediate actions and feelings.

Separate Peace. Knowles, John. Literary Cavalcade, 00244511, Feb2001, Vol. 53, Issue 5. <
40sessionmgr103&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=f5h&AN=4063191>. 6 Jan. 2009.

ABSTRACT. The process of identity formation in adolescence, specifically, the relational context of identity formation, is examined through the prism of the story of an adolescent boy's development during the Second World War at a boarding school in New Hampshire, USA--John Knowles's A Separate Peace. The discussion focuses on mirroring, on the adolescent's need to be validated and the simultaneous fear of transparency, and on idealization and Deidealization. Using the book as a narrative example of the transformation of connections that are essential to the process of development, the authors discuss the complexity of male adolescent growth.

The process of identity formation engenders a complexity that comes normatively to the fore in adolescence (Erikson, 1968). Making choices, for instance, is a facet of the formation of identity that occurs not in isolation but in the context of an intricate relational process. Identity development is a story of connections and separations, of significant bonds that leave their mark through subtle processes. Especially in adolescence, the building blocks with which identity is forged are carved out of intense relationships.

The subtleties of the dynamics of clarification of who one is do not lend themselves to the traditional tools of research. As a result, to a large extent those processes are left out of the discussion. Erikson (1968) was reluctant to define identity in terms that lend themselves to empirical research lest the overall complexity and richness of the concept be lost, but he clearly described some of the relational aspects of identity's development.

A relationship between adolescents is a complex, multilayered, and dynamic process that works in conjunction with--and in the service of--identity formation. In this article we shall analyze and discuss some aspects of that process.

Josselson (1992,1995) identified eight dimensions of human relatedness along which identity might grow and develop. We shall elucidate the important role of mirroring, a dimension that Josselson termed "eye-to-eye validation," and of idealization and identification as they relate to mirroring. To explore the subtleties and transmogrifications that take place in the mirroring process, we use as a case example John Knowles's book A Separate Peace. We trace the dimension of relatedness in terms of its implications for identity through an examination of the changes in the relationship between two adolescent boys.


When people go to amusement parks, they are frequently drawn to the fun house to enjoy its crazy mirrors. The experience of looking at a taller, fatter, thinner, or smaller version of oneself is frequently compelling. Children laugh and shriek at the distorted images that they are able to create. However, if the image becomes so distorted that they are no longer able to identify themselves, peals of laughter may quickly turn into shrieks of fear. When children lose themselves in the mirrors, they may become afraid that they no longer exist. As one of Winnicott's patients said, "Wouldn't it be awful if the child looked into the mirror and saw nothing!" (Winnicott, 1971, p. 116). Mirrors are supposed to validate our existence; they are not supposed to reject us. We may like or not like the image that we see, but our expectation as we

gaze into any mirror is that we will see a recognizable version of ourselves. Thus, mirrors are used for both reflection and self-examination.

A mother and her baby gazing at each other are engaged in an "emotional exchange across space, of validation and empathy." It is the kind of exchange in which we find "ourselves reflected in others and anchoring ourselves in our effects on them. In discovering that others respond to us, we affirm that we ourselves are really here" (Josselson, 1992, p. 98). Similarly, Winnicott (1971) pointed out the mirror-role of mother, family, and the therapist. He put a special emphasis on the face as a. mirror, in which the face's expression is related to what the mother sees when she is looking at her baby.

In the context of a discussion of narcissistic disturbances, self psychologist Kohut (1971) referred to the mother's mirror functions early in a child's life and to "mirror transference" and the "mirror relationship" in analysis. For Kohut, a "self-object" is a person who evokes in oneself the experience of selfhood. Unlike interpersonal and interactive relationships that are outwardly evident, self-object experience takes place internally. An "other" is experienced as a functional part of the self. "The self-object refers to the inner experience of those relationships that evoke and maintain the feeling of selfhood" (Wolf, 1987, p. 263). To be sure, the self-object is a function of the relationship between self and object, and mirroring is a reality-based activity of the self-object. As Wolf (1987) elaborated,

Mirroring self-objects provide confirmation for the child's innate sense of vigor, greatness and perfection . . . . Idealized self-objects are available to the child as images of calmness, infallibility, and omnipotence with whom the child can merge. (pp. 265-266)

Later in the present article we shall try to detect those qualities in an adolescent's mirroring self-object.

Adolescents are cognitively capable of thinking about the thoughts of others regarding themselves. Thus, other people, and especially their peers, serve as mirrors. Indeed, a large part of adolescents' relationships are about mirroring as part of the identity formation process. Adolescents tend to explore themselves by gazing at real mirrors, and they learn about themselves by looking at their image in the eyes of others. At the same time, they become aware of subjective elements of knowledge (cf. Bartsch, 1993) and tend to cast doubt and to question (Chandler, 1987). Adolescents' questioning and entertaining possibilities are primarily directed toward the self, and the differences in intensity of such explorations can reflect the differentiation in styles of identity formation (Flum, 1994; Marcia, 1966, 1980).

Without using the term mirroring, Erikson (1968) stressed in the prologue to Identity: Youth and Crisis that

for fathoming the complexity of identity we should have to begin by saying. . . : in psychological terms identity formation employs a process of simultaneous reflection and observation, a process taking place on all levels of mental functioning, by which the individual judges himself in the light of what he perceives to be the way in which others judge him in comparison to themselves and to a typology significant to them; While he judges their way of judging him in the light of how he perceives himself in comparison to them and to types that have become relevant to him. (p. 22)

At a time of developmental transition, and certainly in adolescence, the individual who is engaged in restructuring the self is tuned to the questions, What does the other know about me? and Can the other feel and understand what is inside me? Yet to untangle some of the internal confusion and to feel validated, the adolescent needs the other (cf. Josselson, 1992, p. 106). And the "other" who is expected to be closest to understanding and to mirror most directly is a peer. Adolescent peers understand, identify, reflect, support, and judge.

The judgments that adolescents pass on their peers can be merciless. "Never are people more unforgiving mirrors for each other than in youth . . . . The developing person learns about his or her worth, who he or she is, in others' eyes" (Josselson, 1992, p. 114). But the process of finding oneself in another is shifting and multileveled rather than discrete and unidirectional. The subtleties of the process are well portrayed in A Separate Peace.

Setting the Stage

In our interpretation of the relationships between adolescents in John Knowles's A Separate Peace, our focus is on Gene, the person who tells the story, but what unfolds is the larger narrative of the identity formation of adolescent boys.

The context of the story is World War II. The war is always in the background and is reflected in the story on a number of levels, from the internal to the external. The book describes the atmosphere at the somewhat isolated Devon School in New Hampshire, USA. The war's presence is felt through reports from the frontline, recruiters who visit the school, and the juniors and seniors who wrestle with the question of whether to enlist. War influences the games that are played and the boys' views of themselves and their peers. War is echoed in the boys' relationships, fears, and internal struggles.

The novel's background theme of war and peace heightens the elements of interest to us: the relational battlefield and the war as part of reality, a reflection of the confusion of the outside adult world. At the same time, from another perspective, A Separate Peace is a story of closeness and love and the effort to find oneself. In narrating the evolving friendship of Gene and Phineas, Knowles tells a tale of love and identity that cycles through rivalry, envy, and enmity.

Mirroring and the Unfolding Story

Gene tells the story of his "sarcastic summer of 1942" and of his senior year, wrapped in war, at the Devon School. Gene and Phineas are roommates and best friends.

We meet Phineas for the first time at the tree. "The tree was tremendous, an irate, steely black steeple beside the river. I was damned if I'd climb it. The hell with it. No one but Phineas could think up such a crazy idea, (Knowles, 1959, p. 6; unless otherwise noted, all page numbers hereafter refer to Knowles, 1959).

Phineas not only thinks up the idea of climbing the tree and jumping out to the water, but "he was going to inveigle others, us, into trying it with him" (p. 7). And so a tension is established between Gene, who is sarcastic, numb, and calm, and Finny, who is brash and brave.

Who will take on the challenges? Who will take risks? Who will stay behind? In male adolescent development, those questions are eternal. No matter what the setting or historical period or socioeconomic filter, young men look at "the tree" in front of them and weigh their terror against their desire to climb.

After Finny's flawless jump from the tree, Gene feels compelled to go next. His honest portrayal reveals what most young men try so desperately to hide--raw fear!

What was I doing up here anyway? Why did I let Finny talk me into stupid things like this? Was he getting some kind of hold over me?. . . With the sensation that I was throwing my life away, I jumped into space. (p. 9)

Finny represents Gene's wish to be brave, and he reminds Gene of the part he plays in Gene's life. "You were very good;' said Finny good-humoredly, "once I shamed you into it" (p. 10). Finny understands that he can induce Gene to take adventurous jumps, to make his first real jump into the future, to be-come--just by believing in who Gene can potentially be. Gene accepts his friend's future vision and becomes a "better version of himself," in Josselson's terms. According to Josselson,

In other's eyes, we may also find selves that are just a step ahead of where we are: a confirmation of the self that we are becoming but are not sure we are--yet. People may induce us to be a little more of what we are by "seeing" us just a bit in the future (Josselson, 1992, p. 1 1 1, italics in original).

Finny is aware of his mirroring role for Gene. He tells him: "I shamed you into it . . . . I'm good for you that way. You have a tendency to back away from things otherwise" (p. 10). Gene protests and denies, but he knows that it is true. Still, Phineas's mirroring frees Gene of the chains that held him back; because Phineas recognizes Gene's fear, Gene is able to own it. At the same time, Phineas's empathic understanding of Gene cements them into "best friends."

As their activities together bring them closer, Gene begins to experience himself as Phineas's "collaborator" (p. 1 l). The reader sees Phineas, through Gene's eyes, as an idealized self without fear, without doubt. Phineas's strength is in his athletic ability, his leadership, and his special charm. "Phineas always had a steady and formidable flow of usable energy" (p. 31). He "just walked serenely on, or rather flowed on, rolling forward. . . "(p. 10). He is the best athlete in the school and wins competitions easily. In fact, winning comes so naturally to him that it never occurs to him that if he wins, somebody loses; to Phineas, sports are the "perfect beauty" and "absolute good" (p. 27). And Phineas is described as the boys' master. In addition, he has a "hypnotic" personality, and he "could get away with anything" (p. 18). "Finny could shine with everyone, he attracted everyone he met. I was glad of that too. Naturally. He was my roommate and my best friend" (p. 32). Phineas is the only one who can wear a pink shirt and get away with it, and even make it his emblem. In his idealizing friendship with Finny, Gene tries to reach and hold on to an image of the near omnipotent perfection for which he himself longs.

But the route to such closeness means joining Finny's quest for novelty, challenge, and terror. Although Gene is still wrestling with his fear, Finny suggests: "We'll jump together to cement our partnership . . . We'll form a suicide society. . . "(p. 24).

When they have jumped, Gene nearly falls, but Finny catches him and helps him to restore his balance just in time. As a result of that experience Gene begins to worry about the implications of Finny's place in his life:

It was only after dinner, when 1 was on my way alone to the library that the full danger I had brushed on the limb shook me again. If Finny hadn't come up right behind me. . . if he hadn't been there. . . I could have fallen on the bank and broken my back] If I had fallen awkwardly enough I could have been killed. Finny had practically saved my life.

Yes, he had practically saved my life. He had also practically lost it for me. I wouldn't have been on that damn limb except for him. (pp. 24-25)

From that point on, Gene's experience of himself is always in counterpoint to his shifting experience of Finny. At times, Finny appears to him as a godhead to which he aspires; at other times, Finny seems to be the devil, the enemy bent on destroying him. As he tries to locate himself in relationship to Finny, Gene is simultaneously constructing his own sense of identity.

Idealization and Growth

Idealization is a powerful motivator for growth; it helps break the limitations of the self and transcend its boundaries (Josselson, 1992, p. 128). Kohut (1977) regarded idealization as necessary for the organization of an adequate sense of self. To Kohut, the idealized self-object is the template for ambitions and ideals.

When a self-object is also idealized, mirroring takes on a more powerful, and sometimes more dangerous, role in the formation of the sense of self. The story of Gene and Finny revolves around the experience of the power of the idealized self-object and Gene's effort to wrestle with it and to make' peace with it. The process goes through curves and spins, but the movement in Gene's development is toward learning about himself, overcoming "false identity," and mastering his "own real authority and worth" (p. 148).

Adolescents' preoccupation with "what they appear to be in the eyes of others as compared with what they feel they are" was pointed out by Erikson (1968,p. 128). Erikson referred to the mirroring process in conjunction with idealizations in adolescence, which are also linked to cultural icons, to what is valued and lauded in the larger society. What is aspired to is what others admire.

Among American adolescent boys nothing can compete with the status of sports. Being a good athlete is highly valued and can earn admiration among peers. And Finny is an outstanding athlete, winning many prizes as an individual and in team games. It earns him a leadership position in his peer group, and it inspires Gene's admiration. Thus, when Finny notices that the school record in free-style swimming hasn't been broken since they have been at school, he immediately feels challenged to break it. He switches to a new sport that he hasn't competed in before, and he breaks the record. "There was something inebriating in the suppleness of this feat," Gene reports. "It had, in one word, glamour, absolute school-boy glamour" (p. 37). Gene's experience is one of "shock;' a shock deepened by Finny's insistence that his great achievement, which no one else has witnessed, must remain a secret between them. "It made Finny too unusual for--not friendship, but too unusual for rivalry" (p. 37).

When a challenge comes from Finny to break all the rules by biking to the beach because "real swimming is in the ocean," Gene can't refuse. He goes along, even though he has a number of reasons not to, including an important test the next morning. The bike trip is an opportunity not only for tricks and amusement but for mirroring as well: "[Finny] analyzed my character, and he insisted on knowing what I disliked most about him" (p. 38).

Adolescents' preoccupation with how they are perceived by the other is well reflected here. The mirroring process is working both ways. We have already argued that the combination of mirroring and idealization is powerful, illustrated by Gene's evidence. However, the process becomes more complicated when Gene becomes aware that Phineas, in turn, idealizes him.

As Gene and Phineas walk on the beach, Gene is thinking that people are looking at Phineas, admiring his tan. "'Everybody's staring at you,' [Phineas] suddenly said to me. 'It's because of that movie-star tan you picked up this afternoon. . . showing off again'" (p. 39). Finny's idealization of Gene with a reference to a tanned movie star, a cultural icon (in Erikson's terms, the "ideal prototype of the day"), embodies mirroring and idealization; it is evidence that both boys reflect and project on each other.

Still on the beach, that night Phineas delivers his "usual nighttime monologue," which contains strong validation of his feelings toward Gene.

I know I kind of dragged you away at the point of a gun, but after all you can't come to the shore with just anybody. . . and at this teen-age period in life the proper person is your best pal . . . which is what you are . . . . (p. 40)

Phineas tells Gene how much he matters to him and confirms that Gene is his "best pal." For Gene it is another somewhat shocking experience, an unusual one among adolescent boys, that he would like to reciprocate, but is unable to:

It was a courageous thing to say. Exposing a sincere emotion nakedly like that. . . was the next thing to suicide. I should have told him then that he was my best friend also . . . . I started to; I nearly did. But something held me back. (p. 40)

Finny's feelings are unequivocal and direct. Nevertheless, Gene, idealizing Finny, still cannot accept being on an equal footing with Finny in any way. It is confusing to find out that the idol whom you worship idealizes you. Indeed, Gene becomes clearly aware that Phineas idealizes him, when he later finds that Phineas, who thinks that Gene doesn't need to study to succeed, "made some kind of parallel between my studies and his sports . . . . He didn't know yet that he was unique" (p. 50). At that point in the story, that awareness is not spelled out. But it is hinted at; it is an undercurrent that eventually contributes to a whirlpool of confusion.

The boys manage to get back from the beach the next morning just in time for Gene's test. For the first time in his life, he flunks a test. Since their first jump Gene has been asking himself whether Phineas "is getting some kind of hold over" him (p. 9). Until Gene flunks, the spell of idealization and the aura of being close to someone perfect have been most powerful; but Gene's confusion begins to build, along with the feeling that he is being controlled.

At night, when Gene is trying to get back to his studies after a whole day of play masterminded by Finny, Finny presses upon Gene his conclusion that Gene's ambition is to be the head of the class, an "accusation" that Gene first denies and then indirectly admits: "What if I was. It is a pretty good goal to have, it seemed to me" (p. 43). That episode leads to a turning point in the relationship. When Gene asks him if he would mind if Gene became the valedictorian, Phineas responds sarcastically, "I would kill myself of jealous envy." Gene believes him, taking the words at face value, and the newly unmasked envy brings about "a swift chain of explosions in my brain" (p. 44).

Thus, after the scene of an idyllic boyhood frolic on the beach Gene starts to sense a loss of control and to question Finny's motives. Gene has to separate himself from the mirror in which he feels the most transparent, as is illustrated in the previously described episode.

Mirroring and Transparency

Uncertain of who he is, Gene fears being too well known. On one hand, he craves validation; on the other, he fears being seen through. A fine line of experience divides mirroring that is conducive to the process of identity formation and mirroring that exposes one to shame. Although people need to be known and validated, an excess degree of being known may make people feel completely naked and unprotected. The experience of transparency may pose a threat to the self, a threat to a sense of control. Josselson (1992) commented that for "people without a fern sense of self. . . being known is likely to seem hostile or dangerous. Not having firm boundaries of self and other across which eye-to-eye experience can take place, they feel without a skin" (p. 125).

Thus, people in general, and especially adolescents, need to keep something private to and for themselves to separate them from the other, something that they could own on their own. Gene doesn't just feel that he is mirrored by Phineas; at times, he has begun to feel that Finny understands him and his motives even before he himself has become aware of them. That gives Phineas an edge of power over him. Thus, after being "accused" of aspiring to be the head of the class by Phineas, who can "see through" his motives, Gene frames "understanding" the other and "seeing through" the other as a weapon that gives him a clear advantage in his battle with the other, who is now seen as an enemy.


The exposure of Gene's aspirations and the unmasking of envy that followed blast the affection and partnership Gene has felt for Finny: "Up went the hope that there was anyone in this school--in this world--whom I could trust"(p. 45). Finny is now lost as a self-object, and Gene is left feeling empty, desperately looking for something "just [to] rely on a little, some solace, something surviving in the ruins." He finds it in the thought that they are already even--in enmity. He finds that hate and envy reside in both of them.

Gene has reported earlier that most relationships among boys in the school are based on rivalry but that Finny seemed "too unusual" for that (p. 37). Not anymore. Those feelings become the vehicle for the creation of space between the "I" and the "not-I," between self and object. Bringing the self-object down, making it more even with oneself and thus less idealizable, becomes part of the task. Hostility paints the mirror in strong colors that obstruct the view for a while, thus counteracting transparency. In other words, the process of separation gains meaning in the context of connection.

The boys' rivalry gains a harsher twist with Gene's "second realization [that] . . . Finny had deliberately set out to wreck my studies"(p. 45). Increasingly Finny is transformed from idol to enemy. Gene turns idealization into hate, admitting to himself the rage that underlay his admiration for Finny when he broke the school swimming record. At the same time, Gene decides that Finny hates him for getting an A in every course but one last term. And, he thinks, the one A he missed he would have had, except for Finny's tricks: "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" (p. 45). Seeing them as even in enmity makes him feel better.

They are even: He studies hard and is working to be the best student, and there isn't any question that Phineas is the best athlete. Yet, Gene calculates, he is a good athlete and Phineas is a poor student. Gene believes that he can see through Phineas's efforts to study; Phineas is seeking to reduce the gap between them . . . .

All those thoughts and considerations form the world that Gene has constructed. It is a world of even enmity where identities are clear and the defense lines of the enemies are well marked, in short, it is a world at war. However, there is another level to Gene's reality. "It was surprising how well we got along in these weeks. Sometimes I found it hard to remember his treachery, sometimes I discovered myself thoughtlessly slipping back into affection for him again" (p. 47). Phineas is still important not only as the enemy, but for affection and validation.

Despite that other level of reality and Gene's basic fondness for the friend he loves to hate, Deidealization reaches its peak. Gene asserts, "I had detected that Finny's was a den of lonely, selfish ambition. He was no better than I was, no matter who won all the contests" (p. 48).

In late August, a few weeks after he has flunked the test, Gene is preparing for another examination when Phineas comes into the room to announce that their classmate Leper Lepellier intends to "make the leap," to jump out of the tree to save face. Gene knows that Leper will never make the jump and concludes that this is another of Finny's tricks "to finish [Gene] for good on the exam" (p. 49), The conversation that develops between them leads to an important shift.

Confusion and the Fall

Gene responds with fury to Phineas's "trick;' his invitation to leave his studying to go to the tree to witness Leper's leap. In the course of the conversation Phineas spells out his own naive idealization of Gene, saying simply, "I didn't know you needed to study. . . I didn't think you ever did. I thought it just came to you" (p. 50). When he hears that statement, Gene encounters a very different reality than the one he had constructed. He realizes that his interpretation of Phineas's behavior and motives is perhaps his own projection.

In response, Gene rearranges his picture of Finny and himself once again. Perhaps Finny really is innocent, trusting, carefree, and adventurous. Perhaps he never has been jealous of him. Perhaps Gene has been the one with the dark side, frightened, watchful, cunning, manipulative, and wary. Gene is exposed in his confusion, and Phineas continues with simple and direct words of validation (e.g., "There is hardly anybody as good as you are"), introducing the voice of reason and maturity. He explains to Gene the difference between play and work ("It's only a game"; "You have to be serious sometime"), encouraging Gene "not to mess around," to be serious about his school work because he is so good at it.

The pendulum has swung again, and Gene readjusts his view of Phineas and their world: "Now I knew that there never was and never could have been any rivalry between us. I was not of the same quality as he" (p. 51). Gene sees himself as the epitome of inadequacy and Finny as the essence of good. And when Phineas is idealized again and he is deidealized, Gene confesses that "[he] couldn't stand this" (p. 51). He feels lonely and utterly confused.

Although Finny insists that Gene should stay and study, Gene maintains that he has done enough already and bars Phineas from telling him what to do about work. Shaken by the collapse of the world he has constructed, Gene is making an effort to hold the reins and to combat his isolation at the same time. They go to the tree. Excited and challenged, Phineas suggests that they will take "a double jump," jump together.

Jumping out of the tree has become a bonding symbol; "making the leap" together is the activity that cements the boys' partnership because coordination and harmony are required. But at this point the attempt to recover harmony is disastrous. "Holding firmly to the trunk, I took a step toward him, and then my knees bent and I jounced the limb." Finny turned and looked at Gene with

. . . extreme interest and hit the bank with a sickening unnatural thud. It was the first clumsy physical action I had ever seen him make. With unthinking sureness I moved out on the limb and jumped into the river, every trace of my fear of this forgotten. (p. 52)

For the next few days Finny lies in the school's infirmary, one of his legs "shattered." Everyone talks, naturally, with Gene about Phineas. But he finds it difficult to listen to; "if anyone had been suspicious of me, I might have developed some strength to defend myself. No one suspected" (p. 53)*

Finny's fall happened rapidly; the narrative of the incident is left very ambiguous. Gene doesn't say that he jounced the limb deliberately. Was it an unconscious attempt to hurt Finny, to physically bring down the idol, to test the limits of Finny's incredible athletic ability? Or was it an accident? Like Gene, we are left with no unequivocal answer. Gene knows that he was very confused, that he had very mixed feelings toward Phineas; he wrestles with his motives and his guilt.

Gene tries "to empty his mind" and to forget everything, even who he is. Then he tries to be Phineas, "to put on his clothes," including Phineas's emblem, the pink shirt.

But when I looked in the mirror it was no remote aristocrat I had become, no character out of daydreams. I was Phineas, Phineas to the life. I even had his humorous expression in my face, his sharp, optimistic awareness. And I had no idea why it gave me such intense relief, but it seemed standing there in Finny's triumphant shirt, that I would never stumble through the confusions of my own character again. (p. 54)

However, the illusion doesn't last very long, and Gene must confront himself again.

And he has to confront Phineas. The doctor calls him to visit his friend, telling him that "it was a messy break." Phineas will walk again, the doctor says, but "sports are finished for him." Gene finds it difficult to accept the news and bursts into tears. "I cried for Phineas and for myself. . . Most of all I cried because of kindness, which I had not expected" (p. 56).

Gene's intense feeling for Phineas shows on his face. Finny mirrors it for him: "What are you looking so sick about?" They discuss the tree and the jump, and Finny says: "I remember it all" (p. 57). "I must have just lost my balance. I did have this idea, this feeling . . . . "Unable to spell it out, he apologizes for his "crazy idea" (p. 58). His confusion is obvious, and Gene feels obliged to confess, but his speech is cut off by the doctor who sends him away. Gene can't find the words when he has the opportunity.

The "truth;' as Gene refers to it, is incomprehensible. Both young men dance around it and can't get directly to it, and they look both for the truth and for validation in each other's eyes, faces, and voices.

Eye-to-Eye Mirroring

Kohut (1971,p. 116) coined the phrase "the gleam in the mother's eye" as a powerful description of mirroring by which the mother confirms the child's self-esteem. Those eye responses become, gradually, more selective. Reading the other's eyes may tell us far more than what words convey; "we read our meaning for others in the look in their eyes" (Josselson, 1992, p. 99). When Gene suspects Phineas's jealousy, the description of Phineas's eyes suggests his innocence: "two clear green-blue eyes looked at me" (p. 43). But Gene listens to the words and misses the eyes. The look in Phineas's eyes is mentioned a number of times as being "hypnotizing;' suggesting the power of his messages as he mirrors Gene. However, after Finny's fall, when Gene first sees him in the infirmary, "his eyes studied me. . . they no longer had their sharp good humor, but had become clouded and visionary" (p. 56).

Although the eyes are the most direct and least controlled mirrors, the general expression on the face (cf. Winnicott, 1971) and the tone of the voice are communicative too. Phineas, recalling the "accident," tells Gene, "I just remember looking at your face for a second. Awfully funny expression you had. Very shocked. Like you have right now." Gene admits that he is shocked, and Phineas maintains, "But I don't see why you should look so personally shocked. You looked like it happened to you or something" (p. 57, italics in original).

Phineas is mirroring to Gene what he reads on his face. But he is reflecting much more than that. After the fall, Gene is not the same as he was before; he "personally" has embarked on a new developmental phase. For now the competition is gone, and in that new phase having Phineas with him means peace.

Because Gene is paralyzed, sitting "in a pool of guilt" and unable to put his feelings and confession into words, his eyes and voice play a central role. "I stared at [Finny] in amazement, and he stared back . . . . 'Well,' he said at last in his friendly, knowing voice, 'what are you going to do, hypnotize me?'" (p. 58).

On the Way to Twinship and a Private World

Finny is sent home in an ambulance; Gene goes south to spend vacation at home. The summer session comes to an end. After a month, at the end of September, Gene finds himself visiting Finny on the way back to school.

Having been burdened by the memory of the accident, Gene tries, just after Phineas has praised his loyalty, to relieve himself by spitting out the words: "I caused it; I jounced the limb;' Gene says. Phineas becomes furious and asks him to "shut up" and to "go away." He doesn't want to hear. He may suspect that Gene's guilt is talking, but he doesn't believe; he denies. Gene, feeling that he has just inflicted "deeper injury," questions his own confession. They both seem to agree that the long trip and lack of sleep have resulted in a statement that doesn't make much sense. When Gene is leaving, Finny, ever the one to champion a challenge of school rules, asks Gene, "You aren't going to live by the rules, are you?" Gene smiles and adopts Finny's style as he responds, "I wouldn't do that." However, at the same time he knows that "that was the most false thing, the biggest lie of all" (pp. 62-63).

Gene's motivation is to please Finny, even at the expense of a false self (cf. Winnicott, 1971). The false self represents a failure of mirroring. Unable to get positive validation unless his image in Finny's eyes matches Finny's needs and expectations, Gene settles for a lie: Gene develops a false self.

Finny is no longer as idealized as he was earlier in the summer. Gene identities with Finny, internalizes him, and to an extent becomes Finny; Finny's existence is dependent to a large extent on that. It is an entirely different level and quality of connection.

Gene and Finny have become more and more extensions of each other. Guilt, injury, and confusion about who each really is without the other, as well as affection for each other, are the forces that connect them. Those forces serve both developmental progress and regression. The boys share an identity; in a sense they become parts of the same identity. While Finny nurses his injury at home, Gene is back at school, trying to be the new, crippled Phineas. Because part of him is missing, Gene's experience is that "peace has deserted Devon." When Finny returns to school, snow is falling, and Gene describes his friend's return by saying that "peace had come back to Devon for me."

When Phineas is away, Gene does what he thinks Phineas would do. He chooses a nonathletic job in sport; crippled, Phineas couldn't have taken part in sports anymore. During a fight with one of the other boys, Gene tells him, "You. . . don't know anything about who I am" (p. 71). But then Gene confides to the reader:

I fought that battle, that first skirmish of a long campaign, for Finny . . . . I had never pictured myself in the role of Finny's defender. . . . But it didn't feel exactly as though I had done it for Phineas. It felt as though 1 had done it for myself. (p. 72)

After Finny has returned to school, he prefers that Gene identify with the old, idealized version of Finny; that way Gene could give him back part of his old self: ". . . if I can't play sports, you're going to play them for me." In response, Gene says, "I 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 Phineas" (p. 77).

The relational pieces shift once more. Although he once longed to make Phineas a part of himself, now Gene dedicates himself to becoming a part of Phineas. In this phase of his development Gene is spared any confusion; there isn't much space left for it, because the self-object is too close and too convincing. Gene gains a sense of vigor and greatness (cf. Wolf, 1987), which is provided by the self-object. Gene falls into a private experience of a world inhabited just by himself and Finny, "where there was no war at all, just Phineas and me alone among all the people of the world, training for the Olympics of 1944" (p. 119). Gene adopts Finny's dream to compete in the Olympic games and works to try to fulfill it. What has "deceived" him is his own happiness, he reports, "for peace is indivisible, and the surrounding world confusion found no reflection inside me. So I ceased to have any real sense of it" (p. 115).

Kohut (1971) described an alter ego or twinship relationship. In that kind of relationship the person assumes that he is like the other or similar to the other. What is gained through twinship is a sense of calm and harmony (Goldberg, 1978). Gene is absorbed in a twinship relationship with Finny, it could be argued, and he becomes tightly enclosed in it.

For Gene the experience is an experience of "growing bigger," "inside the same body" (p. 113). Mirroring becomes short and direct, as is evident in the following dialogue, which takes place after Gene's success in running:

You have found your rhythm, didn't you, that third time around. Just as you came to the straight part there.

Yes, right there.

You've been pretty lazy all along, haven't you?

Yes, I guess I have been.

You didn't even know anything about yourself.

I don't guess I have, in a way. (p. 112)

Phineas appears to know Gene much better than he knows himself; that apparent knowledge reinforces how much Phineas wants Gene to live for--even be--Phineas's self. Gene is invested in pleasing Phineas. He lives with him in his fantasy world, where war doesn't exist and is only misinformation, a "plot of the fat old men," as Phineas put it. They live in a fantasy in which the Olympic Games, Phineas's dream, are replacing the war.

Through adolescence, young people may need strong identification, a close self-object, some protection from confusion, and some peace. But, in the instance of Gene and Phineas, the merger between selves no longer serves their growing up. Defining himself totally through pleasing Finny is gratifying but detrimental to the progression of Gene's individuation and his formation of self-identity.

To grow up, Gene must face reality with all its confusion. Only when the walls that Gene and Phineas have erected around themselves crack can Gene be free to forge his own identity.

The Crisis of Identity

A minor character in the novel, Leper, brings reality home to the boys. Paradoxically, he is the classmate who has been the most marginal in the peer group, living in some fantasy of his own. He is the one who couldn't jump out of the tree, who watched Gene's and Phineas's attempt to jump together and witnessed the accident. But Leper is also the one who enlists and naively goes to war. The war is too much for him; he breaks down and escapes when he is about to get a discharge for being insane. However, he brings the war back with him. Paradoxically, the insane and confused Leper becomes Gene's window to reality.

Leper feels closest to Gene and has regarded Gene as his best friend. Saying he needs help, Leper sends a message to Gene to come and meet him at his parents' home. Gene, the good friend, goes. Leper needs Gene to reconnect him with the sane world he lived in before he enlisted. But from his position of trying to close off external reality, Gene finds the encounter with Leper unbearable. He can't stand Leper's eyes, the truth that Leper sees, and the stories Leper tells.

Gene describes Leper's eyes as "filled with. terror . . . . His eyes were furious now too, glaring blindly at me" (p. 135). Leper tells Gene: "I can see what you are thinking--I see a lot I never saw before." Gene is scared to see a distorted image of himself in Leper's eyes, and he is afraid of the truth that those eyes can see. As Gene says, "Fear seized my stomach like a cramp . . . it was myself that I was worried about" (p. 135)*

Above all, Gene fears the image of himself that he sees in Leper's eyes:

You always were a lord of the manor, weren't you? A swell guy, except when the chips were down. You always were a savage underneath. I always knew that only I never admitted it. (pp. 136-137)

Leper recounts his self-exploration and his conclusion that in the past he used to focus on pleasing others all the time. Now, he stresses, he is pleasing himself. Because he is not in a position to please anymore, he is free to tell the truth. At that point, Gene identifies a "blind confusion in his eyes again;' as Leper becomes the Tiresias of the story: "like that time you knocked Finny out of the tree. . . . Like that time you crippled him for life" (p. 137).

That observation shakes Gene, but his defenses are strong enough to accept an invitation to stay for lunch, after he frames Leper's talk as crazy and Leper's mother has agreed that her son is indeed ill. But his defenses crack when Leper is absorbedly speaking about his bizarre experiences in the army. When Gene cannot succeed in shutting him up, he turns around and runs away, angry and frightened.

As Leper escapes from the reality of the war, only to bring it with him to the others, Gene has to flee from his encounter with Leper, carrying the experience with him. That triggers a new phase of growth.

The false reality of a world with no war that Phineas and Gene have constructed for themselves cannot stand the assault of the story about Leper. That wintry night, after Gene returns from his visit to Leper, Brinker, the class leader, comes to Phineas and Gene's room. He wants to hear about Leper. A description of the room aptly sets the scene for the narrative.

Embedded in the description is a clear indication of change, as a result of "new experiences." Over his cot, Gene says, he used to have false pictures of his family's mansion. He was trying to impress his friends with a false identity.

But by now I no longer needed this vivid false identity; now I was acquiring, I felt, a sense of my own real authority and worth, I had had many new experiences and l was growing up. (p. 148)

In the conversation that develops Gene struggles to tell Leper's story, without giving away the truth of Leper's illness. But Brinker appears to understand the untold truth, reading between the lines. He is described as closing on the truth with so much energy that Gene is obliged to yield. There is no question that the reality of the war is present with them in the room. Thus, an attempt to hang on to the old fantasy doesn't work anymore. The "special inventions which had carried [them] through the winter" are gone. "Now the facts were re-established, and gone were all the fantasies, such as the Olympic Games. . . "(p. 150).

The military's presence in Devon can't be denied anymore. Recruiters move around the campus. The war becomes more and more visible. Students enlist. Brinker, who represents rationality, is the one who can dig out the truth and put it up front. He tries to open Gene's eyes, to enable him take a step away from Phineas and to let Phineas accept his reality. He tells Gene that his motivation is pitying Phineas and that Gene is overprotective of him. Brinker tries to tear the twinship apart.

Gene is still not ready to own the part of him that Brinker reflects. He does not want to take a step that may break the twinship. To endorse Brinker's judgment would mean to make a decisive leap of separation; it would mean asserting authority over his self by claiming a facet of his identity that is not yet free. Brinker, pursuing his role as the one who unravels the facts, announces that it is time to clear the air about the accident and to move on.

The trial that Brinker and the rest of their classmates stage opens the lid that has been clamped over the "truth"; it resurrects the repressed questions, with Leper playing a crucial role. Gene and Phineas are summoned to the trial, which is held in the assembly hall late at night. Many confused words are voiced, and details don't mesh. The assembly hall is filled with tension; a sharp inquiry, guilt, and defense are part of the attempt to trace facts and to restore reality. The scene continues until Brinker recalls that there is one witness: Leper could clear the whole thing up. Leper is brought in, looking "unusually well; his face was glowing, his eyes were bright, his manner was all energy (p. 165). . . his voice clear."

Leper describes how he saw Gene and Finny as two pistons of the same engine going up and down in turns, up there on the limb, looking "black as death" against the sun. But he stops his description at the crucial point: "I'm no fool any more. I know when I have information that might be dangerous . . . . Why should I tell you! Just because it happens to suit you!" Brinker presses Leper to reveal the facts, but Phineas gets up, repeating "I don't care . . . I just don't care" (p. 168). And he rushes out of the room crying.

Finny's final fall is inevitable. His body falls "clumsily down the white marble stairs" (p. 169). His leg is broken again, and he lies once more in bed in the infirmary, unable to move.

The change is not sudden. Triggered by the encounter with Leper and continuing through the events that lead to the trial and its aftermath, the process of change is mostly silent but well marked.

For Gene the shift toward his own self and living in reality brings a sense of loss, some confusion about where he belongs, and questions about who is the self that is left when the twinship relationship can't survive. And his eyes are opened. The world surrounding him starts to look different; he looks at it with his own eyes, discovering meanings he couldn't see before:

. . . and under the pale night glow the playing fields swept away from me in slight frosty undulations which bespoke meanings upon meanings, levels of reality I have never suspected before, a kind of thronging and epic grandeur which my superficial eyes and cluttered mind had been blind to before. (p. 178)

Gene is waking up from a dream.

So is Phineas. In their last confrontation Gene reminds Finny of what he said while visiting him at home, the confession he made. Phineas remembers, but he is focused on the war. The war is back. It is the war that he has missed; the war that he will miss. "I don't know if I can take this with a war on . . . . What good are you in a war with a busted leg!" (p. 181). Gene tells Phineas that "[he] wouldn't be any good in the war, even if nothing happened to [his] leg" (p. 182). He explains to Finny that there is no place for him, for Finny, in the "real world of the future."

Crying and trying to control himself, Phineas says, "It was just some kind of blind impulse you had in the tree there, you didn't know what you were doing. Was that it?" (p. 183). And they confirm each other and settle on their new version of the "truth," the truth of the unconscious*

Later that day Phineas dies in the operating room.

In addition to being a friend, a self-object and a twin, Phineas had childlike qualities that became most salient and important in the boys' relationship during the later phase, after his final return to school. Because of his naïveté, his fantasies, and his inability to relate to the adult world with all its complexities, he resorted to his own inventions, and he carried Gene with him to his childlike dreamland. He represented for Gene the child in himself.

Gene had to bury the child, the Finny part of himself that was so confident of himself, with his "serene capacity for affection" and unbroken "harmonious and natural unity" (p. 194). For Gene to survive and grow, Phineas had to be buried* As he reflects:

I did not cry then or ever about Finny. I did not cry even when I stood watching him lowered into his family's strait-laced burial ground outside of Boston. I could not escape a feeling that this was my own funeral, and you do not cry in that case. (p. 186)

By breaking the mirror and burying the self-object, separating himself from his inseparable twin, Gene gives birth to a new version of himself.

Conclusion: Relationship and Identity

Adolescents need each other to grow* The complexity of their relationships may obscure some of the most important dimensions in which they relate to each other, the processes that are fundamental to their identity formation and tend to be overlooked by research. Gene's narrative tells the relational story of Gene and Phineas. In the present article we have traced the shifts and transformations in their connection as they reflect on their identity formation.

Adolescents tend to be preoccupied with how they are "seen" by others (Josselson, 1995). In their attempt to define their identity they look at their reflection in the other and gradually clarify their self-image (Erikson, 1968). However, the process of mirroring, eye-to-eye validation, and the development of self-object interact with other processes such as idealization and identification, and twinship and merger. Moreover, as clearly illustrated in the story we have followed and analyzed, identity formation is not a linear developmental process. It involves progression and regression, confusion and clarification (and more confusion and clarification), interpretations and construction.

Early in the story two pals realize their friendship. Gene feels validated by Phineas, who is emphatic and challenging. Finny, who is developed into an idealized self-object, is a very strong influence on Gene. A highly admired mirror can be very effective, and Gene feels valued. Their relationship shifts when it becomes clearer that the idealization works both ways; Gene begins to feel too transparent, senses his need for separation, and starts to question the motives of the idealized other as a result of his failure. At that point, mirroring, which requires a basis of trust and value, is to a large extent deactivated. Finny is defined as an enemy in Gene's newly constructed world. The rivalry and envy, as well as the need to contrast and compete with Finny, feed Gene's identity and motivate him to succeed academically.

After the Deidealization, a collapse of the assumption on which Gene's world was temporarily constructed, and then the resumption of a certain idealization and revival of the self-object, Gene experiences much confusion. Who is he? How could he misinterpret Finny's motives? From where does it come in him? Confusion in adolescence can lead to exploration and, eventually, to resolution. But the confusion can also become overwhelming, resulting in radical attempts to free the self from its burden.

The boys' effort to bond again fails with Finny's injury. Guilt adds to the confusion, driving Gene's search for identity into an attempt at total identification with Finny, at becoming Finny. Adopting a false self and entering a twinship relationship mark another phase in the relationship as well as in Gene's identity formation. Enclosed in a private world, merging, they live in a fantasy invented by Phineas and adopted by Gene, who would do anything to please Finny. They invest themselves in each other, defending their illusory world.

Adolescents tend to look for a cause, and they sometimes create a fantasy that directs their energy and sustains their relationships. In fantasy, they may defend themselves from reality's demands. The case of Gene and Phineas is an extreme one (fed by the context of war, the isolated school, Phineas's injury and Gene's guilt, along with other factors). They shut themselves off from the confusion of war, the reality of the outside world, and the necessity of growing up.

Gene's identity during this phase is determined by Finny's expectations and by Gene's wish to fulfill them. He is assigned the identity of the athlete who is training for the Olympic Games. For a while, he gains peace and happiness in that role.

The calm is shattered by Leper in the trial, when he offers a window on reality to the classmates in pursuit of the "truth." They serve as "unforgiving mirrors" (cf. Josselson, 1992, p. 114) who judge harshly, triggering a process that leads to a separation, Finny's death, and Gene's rebirth.

Our interpretation of Knowles's A Separate Peace is one of many possibilities. However, we hope that it sheds some light on processes that are not easily accessible, yet are very significant in adolescent development.


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Flum, Hanoch, Porton, Harriet. “Relational processes and identity formation in adolescence: The example of A Separate Piece”. Genetic, Social & General Psychology Monographs, 87567547, Nov95, Vol. 121, Issue 4.

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