"Peter Pan"

Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

Starting out as a play in 1904, Peter Pan didn't become a book until 1911 when it bore the title of "Peter And Wendy". Since then it's gone through many re-creations as musicals, movies and sanitized "Golden Book" versions for young children that don't include killing, being killed or being eaten by a crocodile.

When my book club chose it as one of this year's selections I thought I was familiar with the story. When I was going through the list to see which ones I had read before I didn't even pause over Peter Pan. Of course I've read it. Who hasn't read Peter Pan? I remember Julia Roberts as Tinkerbell. Oh. Wait. That was a movie. All I could really remember about the book was that it was thin, hard covered and had lots of colourful pictures with a line or two of words on each page. No, I had never actually read Peter Pan.

The bones of the story are the same however you experience it, but the book - the real book - has a lot more flesh on those bones. And it isn't all sweetness and charm. You have children killing pirates, Peter being horribly self-centered, and childhood being exposed as "heartless". Not the cleaned up version I'd read to my kids.

Biographers write that J.M. Barrie himself had a hard time leaving childhood behind. He befriended little boys (we're conditioned now to see that as creepy, but try to read only innocent fun into it) and was happiest when he was telling them stories and playing games with them. He once wrote: "It is as if long after writing Peter Pan, it's true meaning came to me - Desperate attempt to grow up but can't."

I've read that Barrie was expressing concerns about the position of men in society in the character of Mr. Darling. In the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution more men worked in factories and offices and he feared they were losing their individuality, their manliness. Mr. Darling struggles to maintain an authourity in the home which he no longer has in the world. Much of the book is written tongue-in-cheek, but you can find a hint of more serious things between the lines. It sounds ridiculous that Mr. & Mrs. Darling were adding up their bills to see if they could afford to keep Wendy. It's just one more absurdity in a fantastic tale told to children. And yet in that period men were leaving the fields to work in cities and instead of raising the meat for the family's table they worked for wages determined by someone else. They were more limited in what they could provide for their families so the number of children they could support was probably becoming a very real issue.

Another major theme in the book is the value of women in society: important in the home for cleaning, darning socks and taking care of everybody but clearly inferior to men. When Peter and the boys went out for adventures, Wendy stayed home to mind the hearth. In the great battle on the ship, Wendy is the damsel in distress that needs rescuing by the boys. A remark made early in the book about male children being a cause for greater celebration than female children pretty much says it all. Some suggest that this issue may also have been a response to the times. Women were beginning to take some of those factory and office jobs leaving their children, for periods of time, "motherless".

Neverland, is a place where you don't have to grow up or assume responsibility, where you can fill up on imaginary dinners, and where if you believe you can fly, then you can. You can even pluck a new mother out of an upstairs window and bring her back as your own. You can follow your own desires not thinking about others. You can kill and no one will hold you to account.

That's how we like to fantasize childhood. We tell ourselves it's all about being innocent and carefree but that is, in the end, just a fantasy. In truth children are fairly selfish creatures wrapped up in their own needs and desires, seldom thinking of others. If it were not so there would be no tantrums. We want to tell children they can do anything they set their minds to but that, too, is fantasy. The truth is they have limits and are never going to fly. As one critic so succinctly put it: "Neverland as it's very name suggests is an impossibility, an idealization of what never was."

Having at long last read the "real" book, I do recommend it. Everybody should be able to say they've read Peter Pan. Who the heck hasn't read Peter Pan?


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