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Desperately seeking a place to express one’s true personality and background is a major factor in the creation of internal conflicts. Additionally, as one approaches their coming-of-age, they are typically placed in a competitive environment that surrounds them with their peers. In private boarding schools, students are subjected to more pressure, feeling the weight of their family’s dependence on their success, the need to excel against others, and the realization that their future would be shaped by their experiences as they progress towards adulthood. This essay analyzes how both the novels, A Separate Piece, by John Knowles, and Old School, by Tobias Wolff, illustrate the internal struggles of the main characters as they face pressure to maintain a false persona to interact with their fellow classmates. To then achieve their goals of success, the internal conflicts of both Gene and the narrator are presented as they obsess over garnering positive recognition, become paranoid about how their peers view them, and unconsciously succumb to jealousy.
Once one begins to rely on the approval of others, they can then become insecure, expecting themselves to always succeed and lashing out whenever they fail. While he first develops a sense of accomplishment whenever he is complemented by his best friend, Gene, from A Separate Piece, gradually interprets Phineas’ praising as a form of jealousy. When first receiving a bad grade on a test after being brought to the beach by Phineas, Gene begins to suspect that any innocent action initiated by him was a form of sabotage, stating, “Finny had deliberately set out to wreck my studies… It was all cold trickery, it was all calculated, it was all enmity”. Gene’s immediate reaction in believing this conclusion displays his internal conflict, first committing to the belief that his best friend was conspiring against him, rather than simply congratulating him. Additionally, throughout the chapters leading up to the accident, Gene is forced to repeatedly remind himself that Phineas is his best friend, later hoping to preserve his wavering friendship as he eventually pretends that he did not cause it.
Comparably, in Old School, the narrator exhibits a similar reaction in his jealousy towards his classmates and the belief of self-righteousness in his actions. Furthermore, the narrator’s internal conflict expands and results in him appearing as ignorant – outwardly rejecting the idea of telling others about his Jewish inheritance, and believing in an imaginative form of superiority. Rather than devote himself to naturally write his own story, the narrator also expects himself to create a masterpiece within the last days of the deadline by copying various works on his typewriter. Subsequently, this form of practice causes the narrator to unintentionally plagiarize another student’s work, and when accused of stealing the story, he apologizes, saying, “I’m sorry… I don’t understand… Even with the proof in hand, even knowing that someone named Susan Friedman had written the story, I still thought of it as mine”. As he is initially unaware of his wrongdoing, this scene in the novel portrays how one’s internal conflict can cloud their perception and make mistakes that ultimately damage their reputation.
Basing their relationships on suspicions and developing a narcissistic view of the school hierarchy, both main characters in A Separate Piece and Old School narrowly interpret their interactions with others as a reason to remain secluded. For example, Gene becomes jealous of his friend’s natural ability to excel in sports, causing him to develop a hatred of Phineas. Also, the narrator of Old School is fueled by his false sense of security as an exceptional writer, not realizing that he resorted to copying another student’s work. By both illustrating severe cases of internal conflicts and possible actions that could be taken by pressured students in a private boarding school, A Separate Piece, by John Knowles, and Old School, by Tobias Wolff, present their main characters as victims of the effects of jealousy, narrow-mindedness, and the belief in distorted interpretations of their peers.
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