Support the Monkey! Tell All your Friends and Teachers
• BRINKER HADLEY Brinker beautifully balances out the other three boys' extreme characteristics. He seems the most "typical," the most representative of the Devon students we meet. He goes out for extracurricular activities; he's good in sports and average in the classroom; he's big and personable and popular, in the best sense of that word, the kind of guy you're bound to like immediately, not too smart, not too crafty.
Brinker's room is just across the hall from Finny and Gene's, so he is in on much of what passes between them. He bears witness to their friendship and probably wants to be more a part of it, but it's an exclusive little mutual admiration society. That knowledge is frustrating for Brinker; his affable, tolerant mood eventually turns self-righteously sour.
"Brinker, with his steady wit and ceaseless plans," as Gene presents him to us after the summer, lacks the exotic appeal of Leper, who'd occupied the same room during the idyllic summer session. Leper's interest lay in his oddness; Brinker is decidedly different, always looking for another way to score points.
But Brinker's labored attempts at leadership cannot measure up to Finny's inborn lust for life. People are attracted to Finny no matter what he does; he doesn't have to go out and lobby for himself in the way Brinker often carries on.
Brinker knows Gene and Finny have no pressing need to check in with him, to be part of his circle, as the other boys in the class do. At first he pretends not to care much, but gradually he becomes unable to suppress his jealousy. He turns into a self-appointed detective in search of the answer to the question of what really happened on the riverbank during summer session, while he was away from school. Brinker seems to have decided that if the only way he can make inroads into Gene and Finny's microcosm is by destroying it, so be it.
As in the case of Leper, we cannot simply condemn Brinker for his feelings. It's natural to react this way, isn't it, when you sense the action has passed you by? Brinker appoints himself a Sherlock Holmes, a searcher after truth, but he doesn't have the stature to carry the investigation off gracefully. Too outspoken and blunt, he's unconscious of the implications of his actions.
Brinker shows his true colors, too, when he "talks up" the idea of enlisting in the army but doesn't follow through until the last possible moment. His instinct for self-preservation is much stronger than his patriotism. So, finally, we see something of ourselves in Brinker.
It is an indication of John Knowles' skill as a storyteller that he makes all his characters distinctly different from one another, each with his own distinguishing features. Although they are fictional characters in a novel, we feel that we know them as living persons.
We'll also meet Chet Douglass and Bobby Zane, Cliff Quackenbush and Brownie Perkins-some of the other boys at Devon. They're the "chorus" of the story, providing background action and competition for games and studies, moving against a backdrop of nameless and faceless students who stride across the common between classes, dash across the playing fields, crowd around outside the dining hall, indulge in horseplay and late-night card games in the dormitories, and file into chapel on Sundays.
Gene and Finny, Leper and Brinker do not exist in a vacuum. Their context is vital to an understanding of the story. A prep school, like any school, is made up of cliques, groups of people who socialize together, and A Separate Peace focuses on just such a small group. But life goes on for the rest of the school as well, and the energy that arises from all that other activity comes through in the story.
In much the same way, the teachers (called masters), Mr. Pike, Mr. Patch-Withers, Mr. Prud'homme, and Mr. Ludsbury, exercise their dubious authority over the boys in a typically proprietary, benign, iron-hand-in-a-velvet-glove manner. The school is permissive but traditional, encouraging free expression within a structure that says certain things must be learned in a certain way.
The boys laugh at their teachers and imitate them behind their backs; how could they not? The boys are meek and respectful to their teachers' faces-except, of course, for Finny. On their part, the teachers know that boys will be boys, and they are aware of their role as disciplinarians, guardians, passers-along of the legacy: what it means to be a gentleman at all times.
Dr. Stanpole, the school physician, is a caring, generous man who tries to do his best for Finny and who feels deeply the agony of losing a generation to war. He cannot bring himself to accept the fact that many of the boys must face combat. Phil Latham, the wrestling coach, seeks to develop healthy bodies for the fine minds in his charge; he is called to the scene when Finny has his last accident. Brinker's father makes a cameo appearance at the end of the story, just in time to remind Gene and Brinker of the true meaning of patriotism and the importance of fighting for democracy.
The adult characters in A Separate Peace are treated with the finest balance of reverence and humor. They all treasure the precious time of youth-but whose youth are they thinking of. Do they make the mistake of projecting onto the boys of Devon a concept of youth based on the way life once was for them and is no longer? And does this misconception add a heightened dimension to the ultimate tragedy?