Peter Pan: A Prime Example of Dark Children's Literature
Why I picked up this book
In my growing obsession with classic children’s literature, I figured it would be a grave oversight to neglect picking up this seemingly well-known fairy story. As a child, I loved the Disney adaptation, and I desperately wanted Neverland to be real, although I knew very well, deep down, that places of that sort just did not exist. This past holiday season, I wanted to renew my sense of childlike wonder and put the book down on my Christmas list. My aunt looked at my list and scoffed. I think she thought I was much too old to be reading children’s books. However, on Christmas day, one of the presents I opened from my aunt and uncle was Peter Pan. I began reading the story that night, only to find that this “children’s book” is violent, unsettling, and probably not well suited for youngsters under a certain age.
Most people in the Western world are familiar with the basic gist of Peter Pan’s adventures in Neverland, as they have been introduced to the story through various film and TV adaptations that have been made throughout the century. If you were to ask these people to describe Peter’s personality, I suspect that the list of adjectives that would crop up would include “carefree,” “happy-go-lucky,” and “mischievous.” However, many of these people are ill acquainted with the actual representation of Peter in the text. Those who have read the novel might be more likely to use words like, “sadistic,” “arrogant,” and “selfish.” Peter embodies the very worst characteristics of children and then some, in this shockingly dark story, very much removed from depictions such as Walt Disney’s watered down animated feature film.
“To die will be an awfully big adventure”
Perhaps it’s not so astonishing that Barrie’s classic children’s novel should be so dark when we look at the writer’s devastating history. His life, both before and after he created Peter Pan, was wracked with emotional pain and suffering including an unfaithful wife, a painful divorce, and the deaths of several close friends and relatives.
As a child, Barrie was no stranger to premature death. When Barrie was six years old, one of his older brothers, David, perished in an ice skating accident. Because David was his mother’s favorite child, she was absolutely devastated by the event. As a result, Barrie tried to provide his mother solace by dressing in David’s clothing and affecting his mannerisms, such as whistling, which is both heartbreakingly sweet and frightfully morbid. Barrie could never fully win over his parents the way David did, as he was encouraged to join the ministry rather than become a writer, because that would presumably be the path that David would take, had he lived. Perhaps Barrie had had a part in setting himself up to be David’s less-impressive substitute.
In the event of David’s death, one of the key themes of Peter Pan was planted in Barrie’s mind: the idea of a child who could never grow up. Barrie’s mother, whilst in the process of grieving over her son’s death, attempted to console herself with the idea that, because David was dead and gone, he would forever remain an innocent child. This idea of eternal childhood being linked with death is expounded upon by Lori M. Campbell in her introduction of the Barnes & Noble Signature Classics edition of the book, which can be read on the edition's Amazon page.
As an adult, Barrie met the Llewelyn Davies family, the arguable catalyst for beginning the story, while spending time in Kensington Gardens. Barrie became well acquainted with the five young boys as well as the boys’ parents; he spent a large amount of time playing games with the children, many of which involved fighting pirates and “Indians.” After the death of the boys’ parents due to cancer, Barrie became the children’s guardian. Unfortunately, the tragedy does not end there. Three of the boys met dreadful ends, some sooner rather than later. One died in combat during the First World War, one drowned while attending university in what may or not have been a suicide pact with a friend and possible homosexual lover, and one took his own life at the age of sixty-three by leaping in front of a train.
While the Llewelyn Davies family brought both joy and sorrow into Barrie’s life, they most importantly provided a large inspiration for the story of Peter Pan and his posse of Lost Boys.
Musical adaptation from 1960
A truly unlikeable hero
Because we live in a world where unnecessary censorship and pandering to overprotective parents is the norm, I suspect that this book would be met with at least a little bit of resistance, considering the tender ages of the target audience. The main issue is in regards to the book’s namesake. Peter is not only unlikeable, he is repulsive. Most children are arguably little monsters to begin with, as they are unable to understand theory of mind and have a ridiculously underdeveloped prefrontal lobe in comparison to adults, but Peter takes every bad quality common in children and magnifies it.
Peter very much exemplifies the old adage of “out of sight, out of mind”, completely forgetting his former friends, including his devoted sidekick, Tinker Bell, once they can no longer do anything for him. There is no such thing as love or anything other than fair weather friendship with Peter, for, if there was, he surely would not forget those who seemed to care for him deeply.
He has very little empathy for others, as demonstrated right away in the children’s flight to Neverland. This lack of empathy is so pervasive that it ventures into the territory of psychopathy. Michael, the youngest, keeps drifting off to sleep and plummeting towards the ground. Peter, at the last second, sweeps down and catches the little boy each time, only after much pleading from Wendy. The narrator admits that it would only be a matter of time before Peter grew bored of the whole thing and let the boy fall to his death.
Peter and his posse are very much enamored by violence, which is depicted nonchalantly. The Boys take pleasure in battling “Indians” and pirates, often getting killed in the process, as is mentioned directly in the book when it says that the number of Lost Boys fluctuates. And, most disturbing of all, is that Peter actually kills his own minions. Because Peter is such a whimsical fellow, the narrator remarks that he would sometimes switch sides in the middle of a battle, meaning that he would turn on his own companions just for a laugh. What’s more, he would also kill the Lost Boys systematically, not just in the heat of battle. The actual line in the text states that Peter would “thin the Lost Boys out” when they grew too old or became too numerous. Now, this doesn’t actually make it certain that he killed them, but, with all of the callous violence in the novel, it is not an unfair assumption.
Someone has Mommy issues
A common criticism of the book is the abounding misogyny that permeates the entirety of the story. Now, taking into consideration the time period in which the author lived, I can’t entirely fault him for his portrayal of women and mothers in particular. It was a much different era than the one we live in now, one where there were exceedingly staunch gender roles for both men and women. Regardless, as I read the book from a 21st century viewpoint, the sexism in the book should at least be mentioned if not pursued in more detail.
The problem manifests itself in several different ways. First, there is Peter’s undying hatred of all mothers, with the exception of Wendy, the surrogate mother he selected for himself and the Boys. The author tells us that Peter thinks of himself as having been abandoned by his mother. Peter, after flying away from his home, returns a great deal of time later only to find the windows barred and a new little boy sleeping in his bed. Although Peter’s furious and childlike response to this is understandable, I must play Devil’s advocate and point out that Peter was the one who decided to leave in the first place. Therefore, not very much sympathy should be wasted on him.
The treatment of Wendy is perhaps the biggest issue. She is initially lured to Neverland with the tantalizing promise that she’ll get to do motherly things for the Boys, such as sit at home darning socks and mending pockets. Doesn’t sound like quite that exciting of an adventure then, but Wendy agrees and flies to Neverland to play at being Mother. When she is shot down by the Boys at Tinkerbell’s deceitful instruction, Peter and the Boys decide not to move her unconscious body. Instead, they build a little house around her, because that’s where women belong. In the home. In a domestic setting. After she returns home, she is brought back to Neverland a few more times, in order to do his spring cleaning for him.
An interesting, slightly Oedipal problem that arises is the conflict between what Wendy feels for Peter and what Peter feels for Wendy in return. Initially, the two play at being a married mother and father for the boys. Wendy is much more invested in this playacting than Peter, who eventually reveals that he views Wendy more as a mother figure than as a romantic partner. Not much more is said directly about the topic, but the book (as well as the stage traditions of the play) is rife with details that could be connected with Freudian concepts, if one cares to look for them.
Mr. Darling, Mrs. Darling, and Nana
Although the amount of violence and sexism in this children's book is certainly unsettling and unanticipated, I was most distressed by the heartbreak of the family that Wendy, John, and Michael leave behind. In the book, it is evident that a lot of time has passed since the disappearance of the children and their unexplained reappearance in their respective beds. It doesn’t take place like it does in the Disney version, where time seems to move differently in Neverland and the children return to the nursery mere hours after they left. No, in the book, the family is subjected to prolonged sadness. Both the children’s parents as well as their doting canine nursemaid, Nana, are visibly distraught at the loss of the children. Mr. Darling, although a bit buffoonish, is incredibly affected by his offspring’s disappearance, taking it upon himself to accept all the blame while partaking in admittedly odd rituals as penance. Despite one of the themes of the story being the selfishness of childhood, it’s hard to forgive the children for gallivanting off to Neverland with very little thought about their own family. They didn’t even think to leave a note!
Fairies partake in orgies
Now, this is a minuscule detail that could easily go unmentioned, but it was something that caught my eye and confused me. The exact line goes, “After a time he fell asleep, and some unsteady fairies had to climb over him on their way home from an orgy.” At first I was shocked, but then I reprimanded myself for jumping to conclusions. Perhaps the word “orgy” had a slightly different meaning in the early 1900s than it does today. According to the fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, the word goes back to the Greek word orgia, meaning “rites” or “secret worship.” While many of these rites involved expressions of sexual appetite, it was not a part of every worship process. So, if we are to take that Barrie meant this use of the word, that just means that the fairies congregated to celebrate some sort of religion or group spirituality that involved alcohol (hence the adjective "unsteady"). Still weird, but legit, right? Wrong! Reading on, the dictionary says that the word in its modern usage can be traced all the way back to 18th century English. The word had had a sexual connotation long before Barrie even sat down to pen the novel. I have to assume that he knowingly chose “orgy” in place of another, less controversial word.
Scorecard and parting thoughts
Looking back at the classic children’s literature I have read in the past, I really shouldn’t have been that taken aback by the darkness of Peter Pan. Perhaps the antiseptic quality of the Disney adaptation is partially to blame. Whatever the reason, I must admit that I did enjoy reading the book, despite all its shortcomings, as an adult reader. I’m not sure I would have understood it or liked it as a younger reader, but, reading it as someone who is a bit older, I was able to appreciate more fully the bittersweet elements as well as the pervasive darkness and morbidity. Reading the book also helped me better understand the negative connotation of “Peter Pan syndrome.” While it is tempting to view eternal childhood with rose-colored glasses, placing focus on such things like enjoying playtime and having a strong imagination, that also comes at the price of not being able to understand or relate to others. Everyone has to grow up, at least a little.
Score: 7 out of 10
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