Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie – A Review

Peter Pan is a classic novel written by playwright and novelist J.M. Barrie about an impish flying boy called Peter who rejects all notions of adulthood, instead living in an idealistic mythical world called Neverland that enables him to never grow up. Peter lives with a gang of friends called The Lost Boys, with whom he embarks on exhilarating adventures with pirates, mermaids, fairies, and Native Americans. Initially this seems like the perfect dream world that every child (and indeed, many adults) would relish being party to. However, there is a sinister side to Neverland and indeed to Peter Pan himself, due to his own selfish and tragic motivations. This is perhaps why, despite J.M. Barrie naming the book after who we would suppose is its hero, Peter Pan, it is Wendy Darling who is the main protagonist of this tale and arguably the true hero of the story. Through Wendy’s eyes the reader discovers Peter Pan, Neverland, and its fanciful inhabitants in a candid and honest way which Peter himself would be unable to deliver. Wendy’s complex status of not quite a child, but not an adult either, along with a childlike innocence juxtaposed by the beginnings of adult concerns, enables the reader to view Neverland as it truly is and not as Peter would want us to believe it is. Wendy encapsulates what it means to transition from childhood into adulthood. She is capable of making the difficult, sensible decision that she and her brothers must return home to their parents and continue growing up together, as this is the natural order of things, despite the knowledge that she will never be able to return to Neverland once she leaves. Wendy empathises with her parents, demonstrating a maturity of mind when she realises that they must be worried about their whereabouts. On the other hand Michael, John, Peter, and the Lost Boys remain oblivious to everything other than playing games and having fun, which is the way of most children.

Peter Pan is at constant war with his simultaneous desire for, but dislike of, mother figures. He possesses an innate distrust of mothers having been betrayed by his own. He recognises that Wendy is on the cusp of transitioning from childhood into adulthood, aptly nicknaming her “Mother” for her caring, nurturing nature, whilst also rejecting her for those very same traits. For example, when she attempts to put the safety of herself and her brothers first and suggests going home to their parents instead of behaving recklessly by remaining in Neverland with Peter, Peter flies into a rage and challenges her to leave. Peter enjoys when Wendy plays “house” and behaves essentially as an obedient housewife, but when she begins to question him or demonstrates a difference in opinion to his own, he quickly becomes hostile and demonstrates a “throwing his toys out of the pram” demeanor. Arguably, this could be an unusually modern feminist point on J.M. Barrie’s behalf, outlining the double standards often pushed upon women by a patriarchal society, making the author quite ahead of his time. The unfair sexism displayed to Wendy can be further supported in how both Tiger Lily and Tinker Bell, the two closest females to Peter Pan, are mute girls who idolise him and succumb to his every whim, rewarding his acts of bravery and masculine triumph with dances and kisses. This could however simply be what most pre-pubescent boys of Pan’s supposed 12-13 years would possess in their ideal world; beautiful female friends who adore him, but who he has no time or affection for because he’s too busy saving the day and having fun with his adventure-loving friends.

Peter Pan acts, and Wendy, John, and Michael are acted upon. Although initially excited to embark on an adventure with Peter and to avoid the responsibilities of adulthood, Wendy quickly sees the benefits of growing up and leaving childish endeavours behind. She notably perceives Peter and the Lost Boys behaviour to be reckless and frivolous, and is frequently nervous and unsure about joining in on their adventures. Peter on the other hand is incapable of mature thinking, and ultimately sacrifices or rejects everyone who doesn’t mindlessly agree or align with his ideals, making Neverland a dictatorship. Wendy is left out in the cold when she dares to challenge his way of thinking, banished from his inner circle and left at the potential mercy of Captain Hook and his crew of pirates. Either through deliberate choice or as a result of repetitious emotional trauma, Peter does not possess an ability to empathise, utilise any dynamic thought patterns, to consider the future, or to reflect on the past; “Peter had seen many tragedies, but he had forgotten them all.” Wendy is punished for seeing reality for what it is and imploring Peter, the Lost Boys, and her two brothers that they must eventually grow up. Peter is praised for his fanciful thinking based on imagination and play, and idolised by Wendy’s younger brothers who do not yet see the problematic implications of Peter’s and their own behaviour.

I would suggest that all characters who represent adult ideals within this story are punished to some degree. Captain Hook is ridiculed, ostracised, and targeted by Peter Pan and the Lost Boys for representing structure, order, and authority; indeed, he even loses a hand during a past conflict with Peter Pan. The irony of a reckless band of pirates symbolising order and control to Peter and the Lost Boys cannot be overlooked; one would have thought that Peter and Hook ought to be kindred spirits as they are both symbols of freedom and rebellion. It is perhaps that Captain Hook shows Pan a future that could be his, an adult version of himself further marked by loss, discomfort, and pain, that causes him to view Hook as an enemy who must be destroyed. Peter is essentially battling against himself when he fights with Captain Hook, someone who, for him, symbolises everything which he does not want to be. The other notable adults in the book, Mr and Mrs Darling, are also punished, but emotionally rather than physically, as Captain Hook is punished. They are left in the wake of Peter’s irresponsibility and child-like selfishness, losing sleep and worrying over the missing children which Peter has taken from them. This could be Peter Pan’s way of taking revenge on his own mother, who he found had barred the window and replaced him with another little boy after he’d flown away for several moons. Peter’s hatred for adults is perfectly encapsulated in a particular moment in the book where Peter Pan intentionally attempts to kill as many grown-ups as possible through breathing very quickly; “there is a saying in the Neverland that every time you breathe, a grown-up dies; and Peter was killing them off vindictively as fast as possible.”

Both Wendy and Peter fight for honour, but for opposite causes. The reader witnesses both suffering for this, although it is not as obvious in Peter Pan’s case. The opening line of the novel, “All children, except one, grow up.” implies that despite Peter’s best efforts and tactics of manipulation, he fails to succeed in keeping any other children in Neverland with him, and so it must be assumed that he is therefore in a constant cycle of rejection and loss. 

Although it is easy to paint Peter Pan as a malicious “pied piper” type character who leads children astray from their families (further endorsed by his literal playing of pan pipes), it’s vital to bear in mind that Peter himself is still a child. Peter Pan is arguably extremely damaged emotionally due to significant traumas and having repeatedly been abandoned by those closest to him, making him selfish and irrational. Furthermore, it must be considered that all children are, to some degree, inherently selfish, having not yet developed the same moral compass that most adults possess, but living in a “moment to moment” type of mentality that focuses on fleeting moments of fun and joy, negating to consider how this may or may not affect the future or others around them. Peter Pan is essentially the King of the Lost Boys; he is the ultimate unanchored young soul without the gentle guided hand of an adult, left to the whim of childish delights. But even Pan himself knows that every child needs a guardian, a parent, a mother, and this is why he persistently seeks a female to adopt a motherly role; in Wendy, then in her daughter Jane, and again in her grandaughter Margaret. This implies that Peter Pan is a truly conflicted, somewhat cursed character, destined to repeat the same self-sabotaging cycles, trapped in a permanent boyhood while generations of children move on and grow up without him. The price he pays for living in an unending childhood, a scenario which looks idyllic from the outside, is to never have a single genuine connection or relationship with anyone, which makes Peter Pan a tale that is actually quite tragic.

Published by Alice Shuttleworth

I am a freelance content and creative writer studying a Postgraduate MA in Children's Literature.

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