Adults tend not to take the truly important things seriously. This is as terrible a flaw in the adult world as the fact that adults also take much of what is actually unimportant far too seriously. This is one of the central themes of Peter Pan, for the boy who never wants to grow up might well reconsider his attraction to eternal juvenescence if adults managed to retain more of their childlike features. For while Peter Pan is certainly childish in a number of ways, he is embodies the best qualities of childhood. And one of those best qualities of childhood is the ability of children to take the telling of stories very seriously.
Adults far too often dismiss stories as mere whimsy, simply entertainment, something that has nothing to do with anything in the "real world." And adults are especially prone to dismiss the importance of children's stories like Peter Pan. This paper examines some of the reasons why all readers should take stories seriously, using Peter Hollindale's model of how to analyze the text of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan. Hollindale puts forth the model used in this paper in his 1998 work Ideology and the Children's Book. Hollindale's model involves two different concepts.
Modernism, Elasticity, and Ideology
Once a reader takes Peter Pan seriously as a story along the lines that Hollindale's outlines in his model, a reading of the story becomes available that allows one to understand the essentially modern nature of the story in its form as a play. That modernist reading of the play is based on an understanding of the essential elasticity of the text and of the character. For Peter Pan, as character and as dramatic trope, is sufficiently ideologically complex that he has served a number of generations of readers in different ways but with equal validity and power.
The first of these is a framework that outlines four different reading approaches: author-centered, reader-centered, text-centered, and world-view-centered. Hollindale also argues that there are also three levels of ideology that intersect with each of the four reading "centers." These differently located ideologies include the author's intentional, deeply rooted messages that the author embeds in the text. This could also be considered to be the intentional ideology, what the author intends to convey by the text as well as what she or he is aware of conveying.
In Peter Pan, an example of this type of ideology would be the idea that Peter Pan is a boy who cannot grow up more than that he will not grow up. Barrie based the character of Peter Pan in large measure on a brother of his that died young. The dead can never age, of course, and so any character that is in some measure a ghost is one who can never age or mature in the way that the fully living can. Thus Barrie intentionally put this ideology into his book.
The next level of ideology that Hollindale designates as imperative to acknowledge is the unexamined assumptions of the author. These are aspects of the author's vision that slip in unannounced and unaware. One of the key assumptions, or points of ideology, in this respect in Peter Pan, is the idea that childhood is a distinct part of life. This is also an aspect of the third layer of ideology that Hollindale outlines: the ideologies of the author's world. The idea of childhood as a distinctly different part of life, with its own rules, roles, and responsibilities, is not one that has been believed in all eras and in all cultures.
Without this assumption -- that children are not like adults -- the book and the play of Peter Pan would not make either internal or external sense. Children, or at least childhood, is a distinctly modern concept. One of the reasons that the variations versions of Peter Pan have been successful over the last century are that the assumptions that we as readers of texts make about the nature of childhood are based on the same fundamental assumptions that Barrie made. The same fundamental assumptions, but not all of the ancillary ones, for postmodern, twenty-first century childhood arises from Victorian childhood but has also developed from it.
Higonnet (1998) describes some of these assumptions about childhood that connect Barrie's play to conceptions about children in our own pst-9/11 world.
Many people have noticed how radically the image of childhood is changing, but this change is virtually always understood as a distortion or even perversion of a true, natural childhood. Such a negative interpretation depends, however, on a conviction that the childhood we know is eternally and universally valid, a conviction disproved by the evidence of history. The eighteenth century did not discover a real childhood; it invented a childhood consonant with new values. What happened in the eighteenth century is happening again, on the same order of magnitude. Just as the invention of Romantic childhood caused anxiety, resistance, and also brilliant innovation in its time, so is the reinvention of childhood doing now. (p.193)
The idea and ideal of childhood that was expressed in the first version of Peter Pan remained valid in significant ways through the end of World War II, but began to fade in relevance in the middle decades of the last century as childhood (like both femininity and masculinity as well) was flattened, made more conventional and less interesting.
Different Readers, Different Narrative Centers
Barrie's version of the "The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up" (the alternative title for the play) was first performed in London, England, on December 27, 1904. It was a success from its inception, perhaps because it was the first successful blending of fantasy and adventure that honored both literary traditions equally and spoke in equally forceful and engaged ways to children as well as adults. This latter aspect of the writing allows for a splitting of the reader-centered approach to the text, because adults and children tend to be different kinds of readers.
Children read in Peter Pan a validation of their desire for a world that is as large as their imagination while adults will in many cases be inclined to read the play as a validation of their feelings that they are oppressed by the rules and smallness of the adult world. This complementarity between adult and child versions of the reader-centered model (or this tension) was developed and reconfigured by Barrie himself, who understood on at least an unconscious level the complex nature of the ideological web that he was spinning.
The first production of Peter Pan was only three acts. Barrie continued to write about Peter and the other characters through a series of novels as well as different versions of the play itself until Barrie settled on what he considered to be an "authorized" version of the text, which is to say, the version of the text that he wished to be considered to be the author-centered level of readership.
And yet, as Rose (1984) argues, Barrie was being at least a little disingenuous with his constant revisions (and revisioning) of his characters and the words and actions that he gave to his characters. Barrie was at the same time through this more-than-a-score of years presenting himself both as author/adult and as reader/child.
The idea of children's fiction rests on the idea that there is a child who is simply there to be addressed and that speaking to it must be simple. It is an idea whose innocent generality covers up a multitude of sins… Peter Pan stands in our culture as a monument to the impossibility of its own claims -- that it represents the child, speaks to and for children, addresses them as a group which is knowable and exists for the book. (p.1)
Hollindale's model of intersecting ideology and level of readership is extremely useful here, for it reminds us (as critical readers) that authors are not necessarily honest or accurate reporters of their own intentions.
Barrie changed the age of Peter Pan from one version to the next of his narratives, and this fact marks the play and novels as what Roland Barthes (1955) refers to as a "lisible" text in which the reader is essentially passive in the face of the author's intent and actions while other, "writerly" texts, allow the reader to take a more active view. Barrie presents himself as allowing for an elastic view of his character, intimating that each reader gets to shape his or her own view of Peter Pan in precisely the same way that Never Land reflects each child's view of the territory of childhood.
But even as Barrie presents himself as an avenue into the world of childhood, he is in fact -- in part by changing Peter's age from only seven days old in "The Little White Bird," to his age in the play and novel, which is not specified except that he has all of his baby teeth. When Barrie chose…