Posted on June 4, 2015 | Back to Literature
Here be spoilers.
As mentioned in my review of the book, this short story inspired John Knowles' modern classic, A Separate Peace. I was curious how the two versions differed — if at all — so I ordered a copy from Amazon and tore through it in about 35 minutes. (It truly is a short story!)
All the major elements of the book are in place here: the summer school session, the tree, the river, and of course the rivalry between Gene and Phineas. Gene still acts as narrator, although the character's voice is not nearly as defined or powerful as in the novel. In a sense, "Phineas" almost seems like a rough draft of A Separate Peace rather than something that could stand on its own merit. Even Knowles' writing style, so impactful in the book, is rudimentary here.
As for plot and characters, "Phineas" didn't provide much not already gleaned from reading A Separate Peace. In fact, some passages were lifted nearly verbatim from short story to novel. If there's one surprise, it's the more abundant information we receive about Finny and Gene's sexual attitudes and encounters. It turns out that Finny's quite an experienced 16-year-old considering the story's set in the heart of Puritanical New England during the 1940s. Knowles spends some time describing how Finny shares details of his sexual liaisons with a scandalized Gene. By comparison, A Separate Peace is virtually asexual despite the recurring claims (and occasional bans) it has endured for its "gay content." This subtext is something Knowles ardently denied during his lifetime; and honestly you have to really nitpick to find anything in the book that could pass for homoerotic. Still, it was interesting that the main characters are essentially more sexual in the short story than they are in the longer, more complicated novel.
Due to its brief format, the short story does a less effective job of illustrating Gene's resentment toward Finny. Sadly, Knowles spends too much time having Gene explain his paranoia rather than showing it to the reader, a major no-no in fiction writing. As a result, "Phineas" just simply doesn't work well because the pivotal act of treachery benefits from neither a plausible build-up nor a satisfactory conclusion.
If you're just really obsessed with A Separate Peace, reading "Phineas" might be an amusing exercise for you. If not, you can skip it.