Guilt Vs. Acceptance
By: Madeleine Spadafora
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...
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