A New Spin on J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan

Saturday, July 28, 2012

“All children, except one, grow up!”  As a little girl, I found myself fascinated by the classic story of Peter Pan and used to pretend that I could fly about the house.  My sister, Haley, and I once took a bag of glitter, sprinkled it over our heads and jumped from our beds in hopes of just possibly learning how to fly like Peter and Wendy.    However, a few pages into the unabridged novel shows the reader that the fantasy characters they have come to love are not exactly the ones that J. M. Barrie had in mind.  In our preconceptions of the story, we imagine the themes of Peter Pan to be primarily about enjoying childhood and having fun.  Unfortunately, I have come to realize that this is a very different picture than the one the author had originally intended and we can see this through the overall hidden theme that is woven into the story.

At first glance, this book seems to have everything to satisfy the appetite of young children: adventure, games, fighting, love, friendship and even mermaids, pirates, fairies and indians.  I have personally come to believe that Barrie used his characters such as Peter and Wendy in a bravado, seemingly innocent way to convey a deeper philosophical meaning that is shadowed by the overtones.  To better understand this concept, we must more closely examine Barry’s personal life and the influences that may have affected his literary style.

In 1897, he became acquainted with the Llewelyn Davies family and they quickly became close friends.  He became especially fond of the five children in the family: George, Nicholas, Peter, John and Michael—who made an obvious contribution to the story.  According to the book British Children’s Writers by Donna White, Barrie became a constant companion to the children and would frolic and play with them on their various misadventures.  He is known to have created an album of photographs called The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island which showed pictures of the boys pretending to fight pirates.  The character of Peter Pan was also invented as a game for George and John.  Barrie would say that Peter could fly but that his mother had barred his nursery window so that he would never leave her.  Unfortunately, this close relationship with the Llewelyn Davies family was cut short by family tragedy.  Both of the children’s parents passed away, leaving Barrie as their caretaker.  Only a few years after their mother’s death, two of the children died, as well, leaving Barrie bereaved and broken hearted.  However, this was not the first time that there had been tragedy in his life.  When he was six years old, his older brother David died, leaving his family devastated.  According to Andrew Birkin, author of J. M. Barrie and the Lost Boys, the death greatly affected their mother but she found comfort in believing that, in dying, David would remain a boy forever.   I truly believe that such tragic incidents in Barrie’s life are what mostly impacted the themes incorporated into Peter Pan.

Contrary to popular belief, I do not think that this book was merely a way to entertain children and only used to convey happiness and childlike joy.  Instead, I find it to be a warning about the truth of the real world.  With aging comes heartache, pain, worry, stress and eventually death.  The lightheartedness and easy demeanor found in children properly painted the picture that life is short and difficult so it should be enjoyed as much as possible with the blithe indifference of youth.  In the mind of Barrie, the way to cope with life’s problems is by having the character and perspective of a child.

At the same time, the almost ruthless character of Peter in the book, his contemptible unconcern, further showed the bleak and harsh reality of life.  In the end of the book, Peter returns to Wendy’s nursery window and she asks about all of their old adventures.
“‘Who is Captain Hook?’ he asked with interest when she spoke of the arch enemy.   ‘Don’t you remember,’ she asked, amazed, ‘how you killed him and saved all our lives?’
‘I forget them after I kill them,’ he replied carelessly.
When she expressed a doubtful hope that Tinker Bell would be glad to see her he said, ‘Who is Tinker Bell?’
‘O Peter,’ she said, shocked; but even when she explained he could not remember.
‘There are such a lot of them,’ he said.  ‘I suspect she is no more.’”

In the original novel, the pirates are murdered by the Lost Boys, Tinker Bell dies, Peter is left alone in Neverland, Mr. and Mrs. Darling contemplate whether or not to keep their daughter and children gleefully abandon their families to roam a magical island.  Over all, the main themes in essence lead up to one main concept:  Life is hard and so we must try our hardest to face it with an understanding of the truth but still a hope in the unknown.  By the end of the book, everyone has grown up except for Peter and it says that they lived pleasant lives but that they ceased to believe.  Wendy, however, remained the happiest for she kept her innocent faith.  I believe that Barrie was trying to say that growing up is not a deplorable thing, for it is very possible, as Wendy herself shows us, to bear the body of a woman but the mind and heart of a little girl.  At the same time, he was trying to say that the best way to deal with life was through holding onto that precious faith of adolescence.

“All children, except one, grow up!”  The power of those words will continue, in the phrase of Barrie himself, “so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless.”  So though my sister and I no longer try to sprinkle pixie dust over our heads and attempt to fly, we have learned  from Peter Pan that growing up into who you’re meant to be doesn’t mean that you have to let go of who you used to be.  We still are and always be children at heart—and that will help us to face life’s challenges.

What are your thoughts on Peter Pan?


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