Identity Thief: Character Misjudgement in A Separate Peace and The Poison Tree The quality of individuality and the vital role it plays in a human life is a theme often explored in literature. It is difficult to argue against the importance of being true to oneself and maintaining a strong, independent character. However, many times the miscalculation of the identity of another is equally as damaging as losing individual identity. In A Separate Peace, John Knowles highlights the consequences of both actions, while the narrative in The Poison Tree underlines these consequences where it differs.
The parallels drawn between A Poison Tree and A Separate Peace illuminate the threat posed by a lack of distinction between identities and the clouding of character by envious emotions. The differentiation between an enemy and a friend may seem like a simple judgement to make, yet often times there is a fine line between the two. Failing to recognize when a person is a friend or a foe has devastating effects. In A Separate Peace, Phineas is simultaneously Gene’s rival and his close confidant.
In the events leading up to Finny’s injury, Gene becomes convinced that the relationship between them “was all cold trickery, it was all calculated, it was all enmity” (Knowles 54). Not only does he feel competitive and defensive against Phineas, but he believes that “the deadly rivalry was on both sides,” and a battle for superiority plays out entirely in his own mind, with an opponent that isn’t truly an opponent at all (Knowles 54).
However, this definition of Phineas as a foe was not a set label, and it fluctuates: “sometimes [Gene] discovered [himself] thoughtlessly slipping back into affection for him… he] forgot whom [he] hated and who hated [him)” (Knowles 55). In A Poison Tree, the narrator “was angry with [his] friend,” but was able to resolve the issue by speaking of his anger (Blake Line 1). On the other hand, he “was angry with [his] foe,” and was unable to end his animosity due to his inability to discuss his feelings with an enemy. His recognition of the difference between the two resulted in an end to the wrath directed towards the friend and the death of his foe.
However, Gene differs from the narrator of the poem in that he lacks this capability, resulting in the downfall of a true friend. Ultimately, in the period before the accident, Gene decides on the “foe” label for Phineas, and because of this he does not end his anger towards him. Moments before Finny’s fall, Gene realizes that Phineas is so superior to him that there never was any real rivalry or competition: Phineas “had never been jealous of [him] for a second” (Knowles 59).
When Gene believed them to be evenly matched regarding their jealousy for each other’s abilities, he could occasionally view Phineas as a friend, but in his realization of Finny’s supposed supremacy he is robbed of the ability to see him as an equal, a peer, a friend; now he was just a foe. As a result, Gene “jounced the limb … [Phineas] tumbled sideways, broke though the little branches below and hit the bank” (Knowles 60). Gene’s clouded judgement of Phineas led to unfortunate results, as the skill to judge identity is key. The identity of Devon as a whole was misjudged by both outsiders and those within the school.
Because of the youthfulness existing within it, Devon was thought to be untouched by war. Gene remarks on other adult’s opinions of the students at the boarding school, saying that they “reminded them of what peace was like, we boys of sixteen. We were registered with no draft board … We were careless and wild, and I suppose we could be thought of as a sign of the life the was was being fought to preserve” (Knowles 24). Although only one classmate, Leper, enlists during the span of the novel, other wars are waged within Devon: wars of jealousy, distrust, and deceit that are fought within.
The poem The Poison Tree evokes the biblical story of the Garden of Eden: from the title, which seems synonymous with the Tree of Knowledge, to the growth of an “apple bright” (Blake Line 10) that brings to mind the fruit that Adam and Eve ate, to the downfall of the apple thief, just like how Adam and Eve were cast from Eden. A Separate Peace also alludes to the bible. Both Gene and Phineas are biblical ames: Gene resembles the word “genesis,” and the tale of Adam and Eve is located in the book of Genesis. Phineas also has religious ties, as Phineas was the son of Eli in the Old Testament.
The Garden of Eden was thought to be separate from sins and darkness, but Adam and Even still defy God, taking the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge and committing sin in a sinless place. In A Separate Peace, Phineas’s doctor asks a devastating question after his patients untimely death: “Why does it have to happen to you boys so soon, here at Devon? “” (Knowles 194). The doctor’s realization that Devon is in fact touched by darkness, that it is not the pure and uncorrupted place that he judged it to be, is as shocking as it is depressing.
It is not just the adults that mislabel the boarding school: after engaging in a mock Olympics, Gene describes a feeling of liberation “from the gray encroachments of 1943… this afternoon of momentary, illusory, special and separate peace” (Knowles 137). Indeed, this feeling of an identity separation between World War II and Devon was illusory, and fleeting, but at the time it felt like it was entirely distant from the darkness of the outside world. There are many elements of nature referenced in both texts, and these objects provide insight into the result of a misjudged character.
In A Poison Tree, the tree referenced in the title “grew both day and night / till it bore an apple bright” (Blake Lines 10-11). Similarly, in A Separate Peace, the tree on Devon grounds represents Gene’s mistrust of Finny: just as the tree grows steadily upwards, Gene’s animosity towards Phineas builds. A factor of the growth of the poison tree is when the narrator “watered it in fears/ Night and morning with my tears” (Blake Lines 5-6). Gene’s fear of the tree and his aversion to jumping off of it allowed his mistrust of Phineas to grow. He “never got inured to the jumping.
At every meeting the limb seemed higher, thinner, the deeper water harder to reach” (Knowles 34). Gene sees Finny as the source of this constant fear in his life, and as a result his contempt for him grows, yet just like the narrator of A Poison Tree he puts on a facade: it “never occurred to [him] to say, ‘I don’t feel like it tonight’… [he] went without a thought of protest” (Knowles 34). Gene’s association between this fear and Phineas, coupled with his engagement in a one-sided competition with Finny, fuels its growth enough to produce something: a newfound academic frenzy.
He became “quite a student” after he convinces himself of their rivalry, “not just good but exceptional” (Knowles 54). The apple produced from the poison tree’s thriving development mirrors Gene’s new scholarly goals: after all, it is called the Tree of Knowledge. It is when Gene believes that Phineas is attempting to steal his academic potential that Finny’s downfall occurs. He becomes upset when Phineas attempts to take him away from his books to go down to the tree: as a response to Phineas’s inquiry of the reason behind his refusal, he says “Studying!
You know, books. Work. Examinations” (Knowles 57). In the poem, the narrator describes his foe sneaking “into [his] garden” and stealing the apple from the tree (Blake Line 13). In both cases, the stealing attempt, whether real or misjudged, was the result of the fall of the enemy. However, as Phineas was not truly an enemy, Gene’s misguided view of him as a foe was very unfortunate. Although failing to see the true character of another is extremely harmful, failing to see an individual’s own character is equally damaging.
Identities can easily become intertwined and clouded the opposite way. Gene had originally attempted to explain to Finny what he did, he continued to live in a lie as a result of their intense connection and the love he felt for him. When Gene goes to visit Phineas, he tells him that he “deliberately jounced the limb so [he] would fall off,” but Finny responds with “Of course you didn’t”‘ (Knowles 70). Any inclination that Gene had to reveal the truth about the accident after that was destroyed, and they live as almost connected individuals, each identity blending into the next.
In the poem, the narrator describes the sight of his enemy’s death with glee: “In the morning, glad, I see / My foe outstretched beneath the tree” (Blake Lines 15-16). With Gene, it was just the opposite. After the accident, Gene “decided to put on [Phineas’s] clothes … [Gene] would never stumble through the confusions of his own character again” (Knowles 62). This statement is not entirely true: he would never again misjudge Finny, but he would misjudge his own character.
When Phineas organizes a fake Olympics, he trains Gene to be athletically supreme, since he can no longer take part in physical activities: he lives this part of himself through his friend. Gene welcomes this, saying that he “lost a part of [himself] 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” (Knowles 85). Gene and Phineas’s attachment to each other, and their refusal to acknowledge the truth due to this bond, led to Brinker’s socalled trial “investigating Finny’s accident” (Knowles 168).
At this trial, Phineas is forced to face reality, and it eventually results in his death, as he fell “clumsily down the white marble stairs” (Knowles 177). While attending his friend’s funeral, Gene could not cry, as he “could not escape a feeling that this was [his] own funeral” (Knowles 194). Even after death, the two are closely intertwined, yet it was this very closeness that led to his death. In A Poison Tree and A Separate Peace, the authors describe the negative consequences of failing to correctly judge someone, and the clouding of character by jealousy.
Ultimately in A Separate Peace, Gene losing himself was just as dangerous as losing sight of Phineas’s identity: self-love and independence are vital qualities to possess. Just as Rilke advises the reader in his letters to Kappus of the importance of looking within, so does Gene by demonstrating a failure to do so. In society, everything that makes up an individual lies in what they present of themselves to the the outside world: based off of that, a label will be placed upon them.
Gene did not interpret what Finny displayed to the world correctly: his jealousy and envy prevented him from truly seeing what was before his eyes. The narrator did not have this issue, as his interpretation abilities were intact. In reality, it was not just Finny’s identity that was confusing to Gene: that was a side effect of his own insecurity over his own identity. In order to live a fulfilled life, to love, to succeed, one’s own identity has to be secure: the most important thing to have is this sense of self.