Perpetual Childhood in Peter Pan
Almost every child begins in this world dreaming of fairytales. She imagines herself a princess like Disney’s Ariel or Sleeping Beauty: bursting into song, radiating beauty, and living happily-ever-after. But when this child grows up, she realizes that Disney fairytales are just sugarcoated versions of the true stories: the Grimm brothers’ tales. She discovers that Ariel never wins Prince Eric and instead becomes sea foam; she learns that Prince Phillip rapes Sleeping Beauty instead of saving her. In other words, she uncovers the harshness of reality. Although readers tend to regard Peter Pan as a simple children’s tale, Barrie actually comments on the nature of childhood in his work. If Peter Pan represents the quintessential, eternal child, then his characterization shows children’s naivety concerning justice: they lack the ability to approach the topic logically.
Although the novel centers on the adventures of many children, Peter Pan is the only ideal, eternal child among them. The simplest evidence of this fact is that Peter never physically grows older; every other child, including the lost boys from Neverland, becomes an adult by the end. When Wendy is a mother and Peter visits her, he appears unchanged and still has “his first teeth.” (Barrie 155). Although the years have passed and Wendy has married, Peter is still a boy. Even the former lost boys, whom Peter forbids from growing up, have matured; Nibs and Curly work office jobs, Slightly marries a lady, and Tootles becomes a judge (153). Moreover, the only human who flies throughout the entire book is Peter. Adults can no longer do so because “It is only the gay and innocent and heartless who can fly” (154). Once a child loses his ability to be “gay and innocent and heartless,” he grows up. Peter never loses this ability, however, and continues teaching new generations of children, like Jane and Margaret, to fly for the rest of eternity. Furthermore, Barrie constantly sets Peter apart from the lost boys, the only other children who initially appear to be immortal. For example, Peter cannot distinguish imagined scenarios from reality, although the other lost boys can (64). Therefore, it is logical to assume that they are more mature and grown-up than he is. Additionally, Peter dresses in skeleton leaves while the other boys dress in bearskins (15, 49). Peter’s clothing symbolizes death, as these leaves only have their fibrous structure remaining and resemble skeletons. Whereas the other boys can grow up, Peter is possibly trapped as a child because he is dead and can no longer grow. In this case, the reader should consider the fact that Peter Pan is possibly based upon Barrie’s older brother David, who died in an accident at a young age. Though the book’s main characters are mostly children, Peter is the only one who remains one until the end.
When examining the novel under Freudian lens, the reader finds that Neverland becomes a metaphor for a child’s id, further enforcing the idea of Peter as the ideal child. Barrie describes multiple Neverlands as the maps of children’s minds. More specifically, “he locates the Neverland [as] a poetic version of the Freudian id” (Egan 44). A child’s id is the innate and primitive part of his psyche. As Peter Pan emerges victorious in Barrie’s adventures in Peter’s own domain, it becomes clear that Peter is the child living in his own id. He represents the eternal child who perpetually returns to the most immature part of his psyche: in this case, Neverland.
Throughout the book, Peter bears flawed views on fairness; he believes in justice only in certain situations. Noticeably, he treats Hook with the most courtesy because he views the pirate as a worthy enemy. At the start of the story, Peter indignantly tells John that he would never kill Hook in his sleep (Barrie 45). Later, when fighting Hook on higher ground, Peter realizes that continuing “would not have been fighting fair. He gave [Hook] a hand to help him up” (84). Then, despite Hook betraying Peter’s trust in this previous scene, the boy once again shows the captain fairness. On the pirate ship, when Hook drops his weapon, “with a magnificent gesture Peter invited his opponent to pick up the sword” (135). Every time Hook almost loses, Peter ensures that they are on a level playing field before continuing the fight. In a departure from this nobleness, Peter is incredibly unfair to those he considers inferior to him. On the same pirate’s ship, Peter hides in a cabin “as black as a pit” and mercilessly kills Hook’s lowly crew while they are at a disadvantage (130). Peter does not feel the need to level the playing field in this situation by giving up the advantage of surprise or allowing the pirates to see him; he simply kills them while they are unaware. The boy even mistreats his own crew; he reigns as their absolute ruler and treats “[the lost boys] as dogs… Slightly got a dozen [whip lashes] for looking perplexed when told to take soundings” (140). After defeating Hook, Peter takes on the cruel pirate’s persona and treats the lost boys like slaves, even whipping them. When readers view Peter under the Freudian lens again, they will see that Peter always wins in Neverland, his own world of primitive logic. His final victory over Hook “and the emblematic crocodile are linked in many ways. First, of course, Hook ultimately perishes in its jaws” (Egan 52). Peter triumphs over both Hook and the ticking crocodile, which symbolizes time. The boy beats time as he never has to grow up, whereas Hook “perishes in [time’s] jaws.” Later, the adult Wendy finds that Peter views the victory as inconsequential and has already forgotten it and moved on to other exciting conquests. To Peter, a vital, logical part of fairness is his own triumph above all else.
After coming to see Peter Pan as the ideal child, the reader can use Peter’s reactions to unfair experiences in relation to child psychology to understand how children deal with the reality of fairness. For instance, injustice always shocks Peter, and he never fully grasps that the world is unfair. After he helps Hook up the rock, Hook attacks Peter. The action’s unfairness, not its pain, is what dazes Peter; in fact, “Every child is affected thus the first time he is treated unfairly” (Barrie 84). Peter treats Hook fairly but Hook betrays him in response. In turn, Peter is naively injured by injustice as he expects the gesture to be returned but, even in his own world of Neverland, the world is an unfair place. Unsurprisingly, this type of experience is common across the real world as all children have “at some time or other wailed, ‘It’s not fair.’ To which the adults answer, ‘Life isn’t fair’…[with] an understanding that a vital lesson is being imparted” (Diski 52). Every child inherently believes in his naïve idea of fairness and feels betrayed when life proves otherwise. However, adults already know the “vital lesson” of the world’s unfairness and teach it to children, thereby allowing them to mature as well. Taking this idea further, Peter remains a child forever because he always forgets this injustice. Barrie writes, “[No one else] gets over the first unfairness; no one except Peter. He often met it but he always forgot it. I suppose that was the real difference between him and all the rest” (85). Peter, unlike other children who remember and grow from the first experience, never progresses past the remembering stage. In fact, often “within the literature of childhood innocence… the movement out of childhood is seen as the gradual acquiring of secret knowledge” (Mills 64). Children begin moving into adulthood when they acquire knowledge of reality and its unfairness. Peter, however, never retains this knowledge so he forever remains a child. Every time he begins his growth into adulthood, he forgets the experience and regresses back into the naivety of childhood. Children cannot logically understand justice until they begin to mature; this is why Peter never fully understands fairness.
Peter Pan is far from a child’s tale: Barrie actually uses his story to peer deeply into a child’s psyche and comment on a child’s inability to grasp the reality of justice. However, he also writes more subtly about the tradeoff between the gaiety of childhood and the wisdom of adulthood. After all, Peter is tied down to no one and can boyishly gallivant wherever he pleases, but he never experiences the depth of love. Although he can forever fly at pleasure, so could many other children before they grew up. In the end, it is the fleetingness of childhood that makes it valuable. Peter is the only boy who never has to grow up, but he is also the only one who is always excluded from the rosy family picture. Peter Pan may be eternally “gay and innocent,” but he is also forever “heartless.” Because of his selfishness, he will never feel or give any love. So, although Disney romances may be fun to imagine, reality is much more complex. Besides, for every harsh Grimm brothers story there exists another beautiful story of real love. Barrie never declares this opinion outright, but it is clear that growing into a selfless person who can give and receive love is a far more precious endeavor than frolicking the shallow joys of childhood forever.
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