Peter Pan | Study Guide

J.M. Barrie

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Peter Pan | Themes


Glorification of Childhood

Even those who have never read J.M. Barrie's most famous work can tell you its central theme. Peter Pan has become synonymous with the notion of perpetual childhood. Psychology has borrowed the name to use as a clinical label for some men in the real world. The "Peter Pan Syndrome" is often applied to men who have made the same choice that Peter does: never to grow up. The entire book is a celebration of childhood.

But it is a very specific view of childhood that is glorified. Barrie does not view children as fragile creatures who need to be shielded from the harsh facts of life. Nor does he see them as perfect little angels whose essential innocence protects them, at least until they reach adolescence, from serious moral transgression.

On the contrary, Barrie has a clear-sighted appreciation of the fact that children can be callous and cruel. But unlike many of his contemporaries in the rule-obsessed Victorian and Edwardian eras, Barrie does not see this as a reason to regulate or suppress children's conduct. According to his biographer Andrew Birkin, Barrie "exulted in their conceit, their ingratitude, their cruelty." He actually admires children's misbehavior, something seen in the author's portrayal of Peter Pan throughout the novel. Peter frequently puts himself and his desires first. He lures Wendy Darling away from her parents so he can have a mother. Then he abandons her on the flight to Neverland whenever he gets the urge for a solo adventure. Neither he nor Tinker Bell ever thank anyone for helping them. And Peter takes credit for things he doesn't do, whether it is reattaching his shadow or deliberately ticking like the crocodile in order to sneak up on Captain Hook.

Children may be selfish and impulsive, almost to the point of amorality, but at least this is honest and direct, Barrie thinks. To him, this is vastly superior to the hypocritical behavior of adults. The book has no problem with the trail of dead bodies Peter leaves behind on his adventures, but it lambastes Mr. Darling for his behavior. He values money as much as does his children, to the point of refusing to pay the salary of a human nanny to protect them. Instead, he uses a dog whom he then chains up outside in the yard where she cannot do the job he has assigned her to do. And when that error of judgment leads to the kidnapping of his children, the punishment he assigns himself is ridiculous and hardly punitive at all. He actually ends up enjoying the notoriety that living in a literal doghouse brings.

The behavior of Mr. and Mrs. Darling shows the disillusionment of adulthood. The tragedy of the inevitable devolution from the glorious honesty of childhood to this guilty hypocrisy is magnified by the fact that children know their fate. They cannot fully enjoy being children because they know that one day soon they are doomed to outgrow it. Although Wendy Darling is a child, she already knows this idyllic state will not last forever.

Barrie emphasizes this from the very first paragraph of the book where readers are told that Wendy has accidentally discovered from her mother that one day she will grow up. "Oh, why can't you remain like this forever?" her mother sighs. So the entire chapter—and indeed, the entire book—is suffused with a sense of what might be called anticipatory nostalgia. It is a melancholy longing for something that Wendy still has, but knows with certainty will one day be lost to her. "Wendy knew that she must grow up," the narrator states. "You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end."

Although children in the real world cannot avoid this fate, Barrie creates a literary haven where they can. They can choose to be like Wendy, who grew up "of her own free will" but regrets it sadly when being "guilty" and "big" prevent her from flying back to Neverland. Or they can choose to be like Peter Pan. "I don't want ever to be a man," he says. "I want always to be a little boy and to have fun." It comes at the cost of relinquishing lost boys and surrogate mothers every few years as they grow up. However, it is a price Peter is willing to pay for the joyous freedom of perpetual youth.

Ambivalence about Mothers

There are two drawbacks to living forever as a preadolescent boy. For one thing, everyone else keeps growing up. When it comes to playmates, this isn't an insurmountable problem. Apparently all the nursemaids in London are bad at their jobs. Babies keep falling out of their perambulators to be rescued by Peter Pan and turned into new crops of lost boys.

Mothers, as it turns out, are a bit harder to replace. From the first chapter to the last, Peter Pan expends a lot of time and energy searching for a girl willing to act as a surrogate mother to him. Yet he constantly belittles and disparages mothers. In Chapter 2 the narrator tells readers that Peter, "had not the slightest desire to have one. He thought them very overrated persons." He forbids the lost boys from talking about mothers in his presence. Once Peter says that he "despises" all mothers except Wendy.

Peter's love-hate relationship with mothers affects everyone in the book, even the narrator. The one real mother in the story, Mrs. Darling, is alternately praised and ridiculed. She works hard to care for her children and loves them deeply, so much that she can read their minds. It's a skill she uses, however, to tidy up their thoughts for them so they can't think anything she deems naughty. Yet at other times she stupidly overlooks clues that her children are in danger, such as the leaves she finds in the nursery after one of Peter Pan's visits. She shows love and patience and nurturing not only to her own three children but to the six lost boys she adopts. Despite this, she is ignominiously forgotten sometime after her death.

Yet at times it seems that everyone on the island is obsessed with finding someone to mother them. The lost boys talk about this frequently when Peter is not around. The pirates have forgotten what a mother is. However, as soon as Captain Hook tells them, both they and he think it is a capital idea to kidnap one.

What they want from these mothers sounds exhausting. They desire an endless round of cooking, cleaning, mending, and tending to the inevitable wounds that result from constant battles. The "never" in Neverland obviously refers to "never-ending" drudgery for those girls silly enough to agree to the role. The only group of people who do not express a desire for a mother are the mermaids and the members of the native tribe. Perhaps their princess, Tiger Lily, fulfills that function for them.

The males of Neverland voice a near-universal need for a woman to nurture them. Despite this, the lost boys claim that they "can get on quite well without a mother, and that it is only the mothers who think you can't." Peter says the exact same thing. "He could do very well without one," the narrator says. Yet clearly he cannot—otherwise why does he keep going back to London every generation to take one daughter after another away for spring cleaning? Wendy, Jane, and Margaret may be interchangeable to him, but there is something essential they fill in his soul.

In this, Peter Pan is very much like his creator. J.M. Barrie was the ninth of 10 children. In such a large family, every child has to compete with his sisters and brothers for a share of their mother's attention. But in Barrie's case, the situation was made more painful because he was competing with a ghost. After his mother's favorite died, an older brother named David, she was nearly destroyed by grief. Barrie, who was only six at the time, felt like he never got the whole of her love again.

This may be the key to understanding the ambivalence the book expresses about mothers. Peter Pan tells a story about his mother that reflects how Barrie may have felt about his. Conveniently forgetting the fact that he had flown away from home to play, Peter tells Wendy that his mother locked him out. He claims that "mother had forgotten all about me" and replaced him with another child. Just like Peter Pan, Barrie felt that his mother had locked away her heart, reserving all her love for a different son. However, neither Peter's nor Barrie's anger towards their mothers could ever completely overcome their deeply rooted love for them.

In the final chapter of the book, Peter is forced to choose between that part of him that yearns for a mother and the part that cannot forgive the woman whom he believes abandoned him. When Mrs. Darling offers to adopt him, he rejects the offer emphatically. Yet he desperately continues to try and convince Wendy to return with him to Neverland in what he has earlier made quite plain is purely a maternal role. There is nothing at all romantic in his feelings for her.

In the end, he settles for one week a year of her time—and after two trips, he simply forgets to come back for her. He does eventually remember, but by then Wendy is grown up and he takes her daughter Jane instead, and afterwards her granddaughter Margaret. However easy it is for him to neglect the girl he chooses for this role, Peter Pan's need for a mother will never die.

Relationship between Reality and Fantasy

Although the word magic is used only twice in Peter Pan, a sense of magical possibility suffuses the entire book. Mermaids and fairies are natural members of the ecosystem in Neverland, and children can fly. Daydreams can condense into fully tangible reality once the sun starts to set.

The relationship between reality and fantasy in the book is complex. Tinker Bell and a flying boy sail through the window of the Darlings' nursery. At that point, it may seem like just another fairy-tale—literally, since Tink is one of that species. Even Peter's status as an eternal boy isn't out of line with the fairy-tale canon. Although she had to sleep for 100 years to achieve it, Sleeping Beauty stayed young for a long time, too.

Things start to get strange right away, however, when the narrator tries to explain about Neverland. Although the basic "map" of it exists in everyone's minds and looks mostly the same for each person, it is also said to "vary a good deal." John's version has flamingos flying over lagoons, yet Michael's has lagoons flying over flamingos—and Wendy's has neither. She has a pet wolf instead. "It is all rather confusing," the book says, "especially as nothing will stand still."

Whatever the image of Neverland may be in an individual child's mind, it is safe and cozy—until it gets dark outside. "In the two minutes before you go to sleep, it becomes very nearly real," the narrator says. This conflicts, however, with the rest of the book where the narrator tells us that Neverland sleeps not when children are awake, but when Peter Pan is absent. And once Wendy and her brothers arrive in Neverland, tired but awake, it is definitely real. There are not three separate versions of it either, some with wolves and some with flamingos and some with aerial lagoons. There is one singular Neverland, with edges so sharp that rubbing up against them will cause bleeding.

Still, one of the foundational principles of the book is that something existing only in the mind can be converted into concrete reality by the generative power of imagination. But this concept of imaginal reality isn't portrayed consistently either. The make-believe meals that satisfy Peter to the point of engorgement leave the lost boys hungry. Wendy and her brothers need a helping dose of fairy dust in order to fly, whereas Peter can simply imagine something and make it so. "To him make-believe and true were exactly the same thing," the book says. He is the emperor of imagination.

Peter's sense that anything he can imagine is real and true is the central creed of the book. Belief in something can make it so. If you want to fly, first you have to believe that you can. If you want to save Tinker Bell's life, first you have to believe that she and her kind exist. And if, like Peter, you want to stop growing up and remain a boy forever, you don't have to trade your soul to a wizard or demon or fairy queen. You only have to believe. Reality is malleable and subject to the whims of your imagination.

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