The Universality of Peter Pan
Image Credit: Illustration by Arthur Rackham for Peter Pan in Kensington Garden, labeled "He passed
During the Victorian age, English society viewed children as little adults and expected them to conform to rigorous, demanding moral standards. Upon the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, the culture began to diverge from this attitude. Once King Edward assumed the throne, society began to emphasize the "joy and innocence" (Pettigrew 9) of childhood. Around this time, Scottish author and playwright J.M. Barrie released Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. Although the story is a reflection of the Edwardian era, Barrie integrates a dark undercurrent that mirrors the struggles and death he experienced in his own childhood. In addition to Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, Barrie produced different versions of Peter Pan—the 1904 play Peter Pan and the novel Peter and Wendy (1911). While Barrie included consistent themes and scenes in each of his works, "'Peter Pan' is not a unitary narrative" (Ohmer 155). Although Peter Pan is typically perceived as a tale about childhood and fantasy, J.M Barrie progressively accentuates the darkness of the characters and increases the prevalence of death in his different stories about Peter Pan.
The "imaginative and literary component" (Thale 41) in J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens is a byproduct of the heightened awareness of youth during the Edwardian era. While the vibrant and spirited aspects of Barrie's novel are consistent with his time, certain scenes convey a Gothic undercurrent. For instance, when the fairies recognize Mamie, a young girl, in the garden at night they shout, "Slay her!" (Barrie 100). While most authors include fairies to convey fantasy, many Scottish writers, such as Barrie, "associate them with the world of the dead" (Dunnigan 10). Understanding the fairies as a representation of death helps bring to the surface the dark undercurrent in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, and reveals why the rest of the story should be considered a Gothic tale.
In addition to the utilization of the fairies, Barrie depicts Peter Pan in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens as a Gothic character in order to further emphasize death. In the novel, a significant portion of the dialogue is Peter Pan mentioning he does not have a mother figure in his life. The first time Peter visits his mother he decides to return to the garden instead of staying with her. As time passes, Peter continues to express loneliness and sadness for not being a typical child with a loving mother. The fairies allow Peter to see his mother a second time, but when Peter arrives he witnesses his mother holding another boy. The narrator concludes this scene by saying, "When we reach the window it is Lock-out Time. The iron bars are up for life" (Barrie 75). Although the narrator's commentary is quite simple, the darkness and "the harshness of the message often shocks new readers of the text" (Holmes 143).
Additionally, the theme of being "locked-out" provides a pessimistic outlook on youth. Although Peter is a paradigm of eternal youth, time still impacts him. From this realization, a more mature reader can conclude that no individual is immune from the passage of time because when it is "Lock-out Time" there are no more opportunities on Earth—we die. A final morbid aspect of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens is Peter's job description in the novel. In the garden, Peter "digs a grave for [a] child and erects a little tombstone, and carves the poor thing's initial on it" (Barrie 122). In reference to Peter's responsibility in the garden, the narrator says, "I do hope that Peter is not too ready with his spade. It is all rather sad" (Barrie 123). As a result of the dark nature of Peter's task and the narrator's comment on the matter, the audience begins to question whether Peter is a darker character rather than a "dream child" (Dunnigan 12). Proper analysis of the themes and details in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens furthers the clarity of Barrie's work, and hints at the notion that the story of Peter Pan is "the ultimate Gothic fairy tale" (Dunnigan 12).
In J.M. Barrie's play, Peter Pan, the sound, commentary, dialogue, and stage directions bring out a dark undercurrent previously seen in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. Specifically, Barrie reintroduces the theme that time is running out. The play integrates the theme by allowing the audience to hear the "tick-tock" of the crocodile—a vicious animal often associated with death. Throughout the entire play, Hook associates the approaching crocodile with his own impending death. The sound triggers a mental image of the crocodile chasing after Captain Hook in the lagoon, and thus allows the audience to sense Hook's own fear. Understanding Hook's fear of the crocodile allows the audience to also sense the thematic significance of the crocodile's sound "tick-tock". While in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens the reader can only infer Barrie's thematic intentions in regards to Peter being locked out of his mother's window, the frequent "tick-tock" of the crocodile reveals Barrie's true intentions, and thus heightens the dark association between time and death.
Not only does Barrie heighten the significance of time running out in Peter Pan, he continues to uncover the true intentions and nature of Peter Pan. For instance, before Captain Hook and Peter's ultimate battle, Barrie states in a stage direction, "Two antagonists face each other for their final bout" (5.1.190). According to the Oxford Dictionary, an "antagonist" is a "person who actively opposes or is hostile to someone or something; an adversary." In other words, an antagonist is an individual who typically is the villain of the story; therefore, using this diction rejects the audience's typical perception of Peter as the innocent child. Shortly after describing Peter as the antagonist, Barrie writes in a stage direction, "The curtain rises to show Peter a very Napoleon on his ship. It must not rise again lest we see him on the poop in Hook's hat and cigars, and with a small iron claw" (5.1.207). By following his description of Peter as an antagonist with a depiction of Peter in Hook's clothes, Barrie subverts the character of Peter and conveys the idea that, "Peter is as much Hook as Hook is Peter" (Munns 240). Peter's conversation with Mrs. Darling in the following scene furthers the audience's perception of Peter as cruel. Peter says, "You will never see Wendy again, lady, for the window is barred" (Barrie 5.2.63). This statement refers back to Peter's own experience of being locked-out of his mother's life. Because Peter did not have a true childhood, he is attempting to divert his pain onto others just as Hook physically inflicts pain onto innocents. Peter's similarities with Hook and his comments to Mrs. Darling accentuate the mischievous, dark, and conniving persona of Peter.
As a result of the extensive commentary by the narrator during particular scenes in Peter and Wendy, the novel "explicitly address[es] readers with diverse levels of maturity" (Holmes 140). During the Edwardian era, the nursery was a place of significance to children because it provided youth "an atmosphere of security and warmth" (Pettigrew 27). During scenes that occur in the nursery during Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie exudes the comfort and safety associated with these rooms by stressing the gaiety of Peter and the children. However, during the nursery scenes in Peter and Wendy, a dark undercurrent emerges when the narrator alludes to the Fall of Man. He says, "Those were her precise words, so there can be no denying that it was she who first tempted him" (Barrie 45). Toward the end of Barrie's previous versions of Peter Pan, he simply hints at the possibility of Peter as an antagonistic character. However, the immediate and evident parallel the narrator establishes between the relationship dynamic of Peter and Wendy and the bond between the biblical characters Adam and Eve drastically alters the perception of the nursery scene. The depiction of Wendy and Peter as individuals motivated by self-desire in the nursery scene darkens the rest of the story as well as Barrie's thematic purposes.
Even more startling than Peter's sadistic persona at the beginning of Peter and Wendy is the ambiguity of the narrator's intended audience. In Peter Pan, the script appeals directly to a childhood audience due to its simple structure and fantastical plot. However, in Peter and Wendy, "the adult reader is a helpless intermediary between Barrie and the child, caught in storytelling crossfire and receiving bullet wounds intended for him or her alone" (Holmes 140). For instance, Peter tells the Lost Boys that he used to think that mothers would "always keep the window open" (Barrie 127), but now, he knows this is not an accurate interpretation of a mother. Shortly after this conversation, the narrator interjects, "So this was the truth about mothers. The toads!" (Barrie 127). The dual-narrative in the novel creates situations where an adult or child could derive different meanings and power from the dialogue. As a result of this possibility, the child and adult worlds contrast and oppose one another. The conflict between the two spheres reveals the dismal and frightening "relationship between the two groups, most often presenting the adult-child relationship as one of antagonism, longing, and frustration on both sides" (Holmes 141). In Peter and Wendy, the vagueness of the narrator exposes the disturbing conflict between the child and adult worlds, and thus changes the reader's perception of the novel.
While the majority of individuals view Peter Pan as the epitome of childhood, youthfulness, and joy, close analysis of the grim themes and insidious traits of characters in J.M. Barrie's works proves otherwise. In J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, Peter is seemingly an innocent betwixt-and-between baby; however, if the reader properly interprets the roles of the fairies and Peter's lack of mother, the delightful story becomes a grim tale. J.M. Barrie extends the themes of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens into Peter Pan by using ethereal inflections of sound to convey his dark purposes. In the novel Peter and Wendy, Barrie cannot integrate sound into the play to communicate his intentions; therefore, he utilizes the narrator's commentary and interjections to appeal to a more mature audience. As a result of the novel's attention to adults, Peter and Wendy is the most graphic example of the grim themes and sadistic persona of Peter. While Barrie's subtle interjections of darkness across his works have literary and thematic significance, they also create a parallel between the grim aspects of his literature and the drama and gloom of his personal life.
Throughout Barrie's upbringing, he suffered through numerous traumatic experiences. While Barrie attempted to hide his pain, he could never truly dispose of them. As a result, Barrie carried these emotional burdens into his adult life and career. When Barrie was just six years old, his brother died and his mother began to permanently separate herself from Barrie in order to cope with the pain of loosing her son (The Editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica). As a result of this event, Barrie was forced to quickly grow up, become a "little adult", and abandon the joy of childhood. Writing about Peter Pan, a boy who never grows up, allowed Barrie to experience anew the childhood he had to forsake. With this said, regardless of how much Barrie yearned to bask in the "joy and innocence" (Pettigrew 9) of childhood, the effects of the death of his brother and the loss of his relationship with his mother express themselves in his writing. A sound understanding of Barrie's upbringing clarifies and emphasizes the dark undercurrent throughout his stories about Peter Pan.
Although a biographical criticism helps explain the prominent dark undercurrent in Barrie's works about Peter Pan, it fails to identify the universality of the story. The reader identifies the themes and messages of J.M. Barrie's story because the basic nature of the plot speaks to the human condition, which is the experience of death and suffering. With this said, new stories about Peter Pan express the core of Barrie's themes in unique ways because the storyline is highly subjective to the era in which it is considered. For instance, in the 1953 Disney movie Peter Pan, Disney deemphasizes the themes of death, promotes happiness, and depicts Peter as a model male in order to appeal to the social, political, and cultural conformity of the 1950s. On the contrary, the National London Theatre's production of Peter Pan graphically displays death and stresses gender fluidity in its interpretation of Barrie's work. While Disney decided not to address social issues or display darkness in order to appease the stability of the 1950s, the director of National London Theatre's chooses to integrate themes that apply to the cultural turmoil and more liberal social standards of 2017. J.M Barrie's unique style and themes in his editions of Peter Pan endure in other depictions of the story. However, the universality of Peter Pan speaks to the human condition, and thus, the ebbs and flows of history produce different interpretations and presentations of Peter Pan.