Peter Pan: Nostalgia, Irony, Sophistication

Cover of Peter Pan

Title: Peter Pan

Author: J. M. Barrie

Publication Date: 1911

LC Call Number: PZ7. B27539

(Note: I realize that, technically, Peter Pan is the stage play, and the novel is entitled Peter and Wendy, but the edition I read said Peter Pan on the front. Arguably, I should have used a better edition; I’d certainly have advised a student to do so, but I didn’t. )

I read Peter Pan twice as a child. The first time, I read it mostly because I hadn’t read it yet and I had heard that it was important (I was that kind of child).  The second time, I read it because I felt sure there had to be more to the story and I thought I had either neglected to finish it or perhaps missed something important, and I was a little disappointed to find that this was not the case. At this point, I think I was about twelve or thirteen, and I still came away feeling that I was missing something.

Reading it again as an adult, I see that I was missing some things, and the biggest thing I was missing was humor.  Some of the humor is based on character types with which I had had no experience. It took me perhaps a little longer than most children to become socially savvy enough to realize that sometimes people lie to preserve their self-image, so I wasn’t sophisticated enough to make sense of a character like Mr. Darling.  He claims that his wife

not only loved him but respected him. He was one of those deep ones how know about stocks and shares. Of course no one really knows, but he quite seemed to know, and often said stocks were up and shares were down in a way that would have made any woman respect him.

He certainly isn’t making much money from the stock market, as he has to recalculate the family budget whenever one of his children is born, but even more strikingly, he often claims that people respect him precisely because he is, in fact, deeply insecure. He has “a passion for being exactly like the neighbors” and is very concerned that the dog “d[oes] not admire him.” Meanwhile, he behaves in such a childish and absurd manner that nobody can admire him; his children can only shake their heads reproachfully.  This is pretty funny, especially the dialogue between Mr. Darling and Michael in which each challenges the other to drink his medicine first, but when I first read it I confused by it and didn’t understand why it was relevant to the story.  He’s not the only character to behave like this; Slightly, for instance, is always claiming to know things he doesn’t know.  I didn’t understand him either, at the time, although I always liked his name.

Even less accessible to me at the time was the self-conscious, third-wall-breaking sense of humor that I suppose one should expect in a nineteenth-or-early-twentieth-century children’s book, and which is pretty interesting to me now.  Peter Pan, the play, is famous for its use of audience participation in the “save Tinker Bell” scene; the novel can of course go farther because it uses narration.  When Captain Hook is first introduced, it is certainly amusing that he’s described as resembling Charles II, but Barrie’s narrator goes on to pointedly demonstrate that Hook is dangerous:

Let us now kill a pirate, to show Hook’s method. Skylights will do. As they pass, Skylights lurches clumsily against him, ruffling his lace collar; the hook shoots forth, there is a tearing sound and one screech, then the body is kicked aside and the pirates pass on.  He has not even taken the cigars from his mouth.

Surely, thought the preadolescent onereadleaf, this is cheating? The narrator can’t just change the plot like that on a whim!  But in fact, Barrie is even more blatant about it elsewhere. When the children are on their way home from the Neverland, he fills us in on what has been going on in their absence, but reveals some ambivalence about it:

Even now we venture into the familiar nursery only because its lawful occupants are on their way home; we are merely hurrying on in advance of them to see that their beds are properly aired and that Mr. and Mrs. Darling do not go out for the evening.  We are no more than servants. Why on earth should their beds be aired, seeing that they left them in such a thankless hurry? Would it not serve them jolly well right if they came back and found that their parents were spending the week-end in the country? It would be the moral lesson they have been in need of ever since we met them; but if we contrived things in this way Mrs. Darling would never forgive us.

He goes on to complain that he’d like to inform Mrs. Darling that they are coming back and spoil the surprise, imagines a conversation in which she tells him not to, sulks about this for another paragraph or so, and finally concludes: “That is all we are, lookers-on. Nobody really wants us.  So let us watch and say jaggy things, in the hope that some of them will hurt.”

In some ways, this is the same joke as the ones mentioned above; the narrator is self-conscious and hopes to retain his dignity while at the same time behaving in silly and mildly inappropriate ways. At the same time, it’s also a joke about narrators and what they can do. At the time, I had strong and unsophisticated views on the subject with which Barrie did not appear to agree; I’m much more amused by it these days.

Of course, since the relationship between Barrie and the narrator is entirely unclear, I’m still not sure exactly how much of the book is intended to be ironic and how much is sincere.  When Hook offers John the opportunity to become a pirate instead of walking the plank, and John rejects it because he considers himself a loyal British subject, the narrator is much impressed. Should we be? Absurdly, Curly, who is one of the Lost Boys and has spent essentially his entire life on the Neverland, calls out “Rule Britannia!”  Now, I certainly wouldn’t be surprised to find nationalism applauded in a book from this particular place and time, but I laughed when I read it, and although it feels like the sort of moment when the reader is supposed to cheer, it’s difficult to imagine an adult reading it and cheering instead of laughing.

Barrie’s characterization of Captain Hook works similarly. An emphasis is placed on Hook’s preoccupation with “good form,” that is, the rules of conduct that he learned at Eton.  This is both a reference to (and trivialization of) the idea of honor among thieves and also an amusing incongruity; after all, there is, or should be, a difference between a pirate and a schoolboy!  Upon his death, the narrator eulogizes him briefly: “James Hook, thou not wholly unheroic figure, farewell.” Are we really supposed to feel that he is not wholly unheroic just because he follows some arbitrary set of rules and can dress himself properly? Maybe, maybe not.  There’s a lot of inflated rhetoric around it, but at the same time, the obvious contrast is set up between Captain Hook, who is from this famous, exclusive school, and the children, most of whom never seem to have been to school.  Wendy, John and Michael go to a local school, and the book is clearly based on them playing at home. It’s clear that the Neverland is the one that the three children made up and the interactions are all the games they play about it. Hook, of course, plays the villain.  There’s certainly something going on here about social class and theories of schooling, and the less prestigious systems of education seem to be given a moral edge, but I don’t know exactly what Barrie’s educational politics were and again, it’s very difficult to pin him down in this novel.  So, I’m not sure whether Hook should be considered totally unheroic or not.

There were other things, of course, that were fairly meaningless to me as a child, such as the emphasis on motherhood and heterosexual romance—I didn’t understand why the Lost Boys were all boys, or why Wendy wasn’t allowed to have any fun, or why the narrator kept going on about what mothers are like.  Now I’m able to identify all this as part of a particular ideology of gender, which is a major part of what the book is about, but of course it was some time before I learned to think about it that way.  It’s interesting that this story was apparently first told to a group of boys, so in some ways it seems intended to teach boys about gender and motherhood—but I’d need more history to go into all that.  The romanticized version of childhood and childishness presented here, on the other hand, is exclusively for adults.  Perhaps some children reflect on the meaning of childhood, but probably not with the nostalgia and admiration that Barrie displays.

Finally, and just because I don’t want to let it pass by—the racism in the book makes me uncomfortable, and it’s totally predictable for the time and place which produced it—but it’s actually less striking than the racism in the Disney movie, which I found off-putting even as a kid. This obviously doesn’t make it okay, but I think it’s important to point out that Disney took a text that contained the racism associated with an imperialist worldview and added more racism to it.  Not cool.


Filed under Literary thoughts

4 responses to “Peter Pan: Nostalgia, Irony, Sophistication

  1. Very perspetive. I enjoy reviews like this. Especially how it was wrong and Diseny made it worse.

  2. Great review, really made me think. To be honest I’m not sure if I’ve ever read this work… though I’ve seen the movie. Terrible about Disney too though… really… I suppose… should I be surprised?

    • Sadly, you’re right–Disney has a pretty poor record on race. In any case, despite its racism and imperialism, I’d recommend taking a look at Peter Pan if you’re interested in YA lit, because I think it’s one way of getting a good look at where YA came from, what’s still around and how it’s changed.

  3. Pingback: Little Women: Marriage is All | onereadleaf

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