In J.M. Barrie's epic fantasy, Peter and Wendy, three children from Victorian England set off for a distant paradise of endless boy-centered adventures called 'Neverland'. This land that can be reached by Peter Pan's nonsensical directions, "second to the right, and then straight on till morning" (Barrie 24), represents an upside-down world where the codes of Victorian England can be deeply analyzed and challenged. Barrie utilizes the various characters and situations to illustrate how the British society of his time left no room for imagination, romanticism, or simple fun, which alienated men from their children and discouraged the latter from ever wanting to 'grow up' and become 'responsible'. Moreover, Barrie illustrates the unjust roles that women are forced to play through the context of the story's matriarch, Wendy Darling. From knowledge of Barrie's personal life and his usage of subtle, yet potent symbols and scenarios in Peter and Wendy, society's hold on its citizens are unveiled as ultimately oppressive, which in turn enables a world where both children and adults would rather 'never grow up'.
Who is Peter Pan and what does he have to say? Is he completely based on the Greek god Pan, the amoral symbol of paganism, the wild boy of nature, the inherently heartless and gay child (Birkin 62)? Is he the universal inner-child of in an increasingly industrial world that lacks freedom and is bogged down with societal norms and responsibilities? Could he also be the projection of author J.M. Barrie's imaginative childhood where he learned to 'act' as his deceased brother in order to please his despondent mother (Dunbar 12)? Peter Pan is a medley of all these things, and the idea of him was sown in Barrie's head from an early age.
J.M. Barrie's perspective had little faith in the adult world. To the characters of his story, Peter and Wendy, modern society was nothing but endless work and unhappiness, all while maintaining one's social status. Barrie yearned for an escape and Peter Pan allowed for his whimsy, fantasy, and sentimentality to run free (Warnock 25). Peter was the tool to break free from the parental and societal restraints that Barrie was subjected to from a young age, and Romanticism was the style that fit so well with Peter's swashbuckling ways. Early in the story Peter explains why he ran away from his own parents at an early age:
It was because I heard father and mother […] talking about what I was to be when I
became a man. […] I don't want ever to be a man […] I want always to be a little boy and to have fun. So I ran away to Kensington Gardens and lived a long time among the fairies (Barrie 27).
Peter Pan the play gives rapture to children and joy to old age. Barrie created a universally relevant character and personality with Peter Pan that is founded on the eternal principal of youth (Lyon 837). However, youth can have its drawback and its discontents. One such character who painfully detests Peter is his nemesis, Captain James Hook. With Peter representing the epitome of youth and audacity, Hook balances the scale as the antithesis of youth, by portraying Peter's death. While the children found Peter's courage that came with youth almost appalling, Hook simply despised his cockiness; he felt like a lion in a cage into which a sparrow had come (Barrie 106).
At one point in the story Barrie describes Hook as the essence of death, as a spirit apart, "Elation must have been in his heart, but his face did not reflect it: ever a dark and solitary enigma, he stood aloof from his followers in spirit as in substance (Barrie 105). Interestingly, Hook ultimately could not affect Peter since Peter's childish and heartless ways were not controlled by memory. Many times Peter forgot who the children were or what he was doing; novelty and new games and adventures were what affected him. Thus, during the battle at the Mermaid's Lagoon, Peter had forgotten the previous encounters with Hook and his unfair death that he was trying to give him. Peter absolutely detested unfairness, which is essentially how Barrie viewed death coming into people's lives uninvited (Barrie 82). It is ultimately a very adult thing to remember the previous hurts doled out in one's lifetime. Peter was different. Peter did not remember much, which is why he attempted to help Hook when he noticed that he was in a higher and unfair position while fighting on the rock. Cock-sure and full of youth Peter was, but he valued a fair fight.
While he may not have remembered all of Hook's unfair ways, Peter definitely knew the significance of their relationship. Since Peter was the brash eternal youth and Hook represented death and the seemingly 'cultured' adult world, Peter knew that it was his job to destroy him. Thus, he told all lost boys that only he can fight Hook in an open fight (Barrie 44). Throughout the notes from Barrie's journal in his development stages of making Peter, he wanted a boy who foremost could not grow up, who remained wild, and who could escape and evade pain and death (Birkin 95). The mesmerizing personality of Peter could do all three with ease.
The genius of Barrie comes from the interplay between Peter and Wendy. On one hand Peter is the ultimate 'lost boy' who has nightmares about not having a mom and becomes soothed by the matriarch Wendy. On the other hand, Peter's behavior toward Wendy illustrates how society subjects women as domestic creatures enslaved by their sexuality (Roberts 92). Barrie simultaneously dejects the messages sent to women that they are merely caretakers and praises them as necessary to continuing the life cycle. The selfishness of the child Peter believes that he was the clever one when Wendy sewed his shadow to him, and in the same breath he explains to her that one girl is more use than twenty boys (Barrie 26).
Neverland is constructed as a paradise for blood-thirsty boys who crave irresponsibility and adventure. There is only one role that a woman from the western world can play there: she can be a mother. Contrarily, Tiger Lily being a native from a different set of social mores was allowed to be an independent attacker; she was found on the Jolly Roger with a knife in her mouth (Barrie 76).
Some of the norms for female roles came right from the Victorian home located in Scotland that he grew up in. Being a mother was Margaret Ogilvy's province:
She kept them clean and decent, they never missed service at the South Free kirk on a Sunday, they knew their Bible and were, in turn, diligent pupils at the school attached to the church (Dunbar 5).
So the relationship between mother and son had its duties and Margaret cherished the one with Barrie to the point of suffocation. Furthermore, she had a firm view on what the relationship was between a husband and wife. Dunbar discusses Margaret's view in her book, "The private relationship between man and wife -- that which was not talked about -- was necessary but regrettable. A wife must faithfully submit to her husband: it was a biblical injunction" (51).
Wendy was maternal from the start of Peter and Wendy, and it carried through to the very end. There is a litany of motherly deeds performed by Wendy: she coddles Nana after being tricked into drinking Mr. Darling's medicine, she knows Nana's bark alerting danger, she tells Peter and the lost boys stories, constantly saves boys from the poisonous pirate cake, makes the boys rest on rock at lagoon to prevent cramps during swimming, she soothes Peter during his dreams, notices that pirate ship had not been tidied, and she even calls herself a motherly person (Barrie 65).
There exist strong arguments that Romanticism emphasized gender roles and behavior. Writings about women in Michelet's histories come from the Romantic approach and depicts women not as active agents of change, but subjected to 'world-historical men'. Furthermore, this concept abandons women from having any part in a historical memory; the only place they can be recalled is in the private sphere of the home, in the personal undocumented realm (Melman 11). However, Barrie's story both unveils the messages that young Victorian girls were being sent and pokes fun at them as well.
When Wendy first meets Peter she finds him silly for trying to attach his shadow using soap (Barrie 26). Once she sews it back on Peter exclaims that he is truly the clever one. Barrie shows how the deeds of mothers go unappreciated and unnoticed. At other times though Peter exults females, he even said that they were far too clever to fall out of prams (Barrie 29). Overall, Peter knows that Wendy is desperately needed on the island, which is why he brought her to Neverland to help take…