Peter, Alice, and Dorothy: The Children Who Don’t Want to Grow Up.
In the children’s classic Peter Pan, by J.M. Barrie we are introduced to the concept of never growing up, embodied in the young title character. This refusal to grow was a result from denying his eventual responsibilities as an adult. Throughout the three novels Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and The Wizard of Oz, there is a reoccurring theme where the children of the story leave their normal lives that require responsibility to escape to a new world that has become lawless and lacks forms of structure. By seeing the world without structure, the children are forced to step up and mature into contributing persons that appreciate how their preconceived worlds function. Between the three stories, there is a very noticeable lack of parental figures. Peter Pan presents the Darlings, Alice her sister, and Wizard Dorothy’s aunt and uncle. While these parents are good caregivers, they do impose some form of responsibility to their children, which leads to the ultimate escape into the dream world.
In Peter, we experience a fiasco in the Darling household, right before Wendy, John, and Michael make their way to Neverland. We are introduced to a scene where Michael, the youngest, is refusing to take his medicine. His father begins to lecture him, “when Michael dodged the spoon in Nana’s mouth, he had said reprovingly, “Be a man, Michael.” By this quote we can accept that being an adult includes taking one’s medicine without complaint. Michael refuses, crying, “Won’t; won’t!”, showing his refusal to “be a man”, and grow up. Michael would rather choose to not do something unpleasant, than to see the bigger picture. He refuses to see that without taking his medicine, he would be sick, and could possibly face dire circumstances as a result. With Alice, we see a similar scenario. We begin on the bank, sitting with Alice and her sister, where Alice was “beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it.” While Alice isn’t actively being forced into something she doesn’t want to do, she is forced with the responsibility of entertaining herself. While she does attempt at reading her sister’s book, she does bring up an interesting point. Looking over the sister’s shoulder, she sees that the book lacks “pictures [and] conversations”, and what would be the point of reading a book like that? Carroll brings up an interesting quality of Alice, showing that she is only interested in entertainment that would provide instant gratification (i.e. pictures), or fantastical, “superficial” entertainment (i.e. conversations). Her sister is reading a nonfiction book, something that would provide information to Alice, but it isn’t something that would grant instant gratification to her, so she declines. In Wizard, we see the future in store for Dorothy, and the transformation she will go through, via Aunt Em. When she had first arrived on the farm, “Aunt Em came there to live [when] she was a young, pretty wife…they had taken the sparkle from her eyes and left them a sober gray; they had taken the red from her cheeks and lips, and they were gray also.” This description alone would terrify a child from ever growing up in that environment, but what becomes most haunting, is that she “never smiled now” and that “when Dorothy…first came to her, Aunt Em had been so startled by the child’s laughter that she would scream and press her hand upon her heart whenever Dorothy’s merry voice reached her ears; and she still looked at the little girl with wonder that she could find anything to laugh at.” This ultimately is what differentiates her from Dorothy, adult versus child, life versus death, laughter versus somber. As Aunt Em’s transition from a young woman to her current state began, she lost the joy and carefree attitude of a child. So while Dorothy is not being forced with responsibility, she is seeing the toll that this lifestyle will have on her, and what she will eventually lose.
Interestingly enough, each character has an animal companion that is with them at some point in the story. Often in raising children, pets are used to instill a sense of ownership and accountability, however in each relationship we see there is an inversion of that idea, that allows the children to escape from even that duty. With the Darling children, we see this with Nana, whose name gives away her relationship with the children immediately. She is expected to take care of them, bathe them, clean up after them, give them medicine, all as a dog. Just by her name we can see the dependency and authority she has over the children, and ultimately the adults. By giving her the name “Nana”, it implies she is either of the Darling parents’ parent. This takes away the possibility of childhood authority between Wendy, Michael, and John, and it keeps them stagnant in their own adolescence. In Alice, we are never physically introduced to Alice’s cat Dinah, however, it does become a topic of discussion throughout the novel. As Alice is wandering through Wonderland, she begins to narrate, saying, ““Dinah’ll miss me very much to-night, I should think!” (Dinah was the cat.) “I hope they’ll remember her saucer of milk at tea-time.” While this may seem responsible surface level, there are several indications that may contradict that inference. Alice worries that “they”—assuming her family, will remember to feed her cat. Her cat that she abandoned without a thought in order to explore Wonderland. This fixation with the White Rabbit and Wonderland shows her own self-preoccupation, and disregard for whatever she may be responsible for at home. Dinah also serves as a contributor to Alice’s self-involvement, which we can see when she says “Dinah’ll miss me very much to-night”. She doesn’t admit that she would miss her cat, or wish that she had thought to bring Dinah to Wonderland, she only feeds her ego by suggesting her cat will miss her. Wizard shows a very strong dependency on Toto from Dorothy, as the dog provides a distraction from the dust land that she is trapped in. “It was Toto that made Dorothy laugh, and saved her from growing as gray as her other surroundings.” As previously discussed, part of Dorothy’s reluctance to grow up could be sourced in the future she saw for herself through Aunt Em, who had already become gray and dowdy. So rather than help these children move from their stage in life to a more developed, mature individual, these pets help retain these childlike qualities (some good, some bad). Providing childcare, friendship, distraction, and attention to their wards, these pets help keep this Peter Pan quality in each child and deflect the effects of their environment
From here we move onto the escape from the boring regular society into “the land” (Neverland, Wonderland, Land of Oz), where the children are able to free themselves from their previous lifestyle. This escape occurs right after each confrontation with responsibility that was described above, which explains why in each individual world, the lack of accountability and order is rampant, as each world is a mirror of the child’s imagination and creativity. Each land has a focus on the struggle with ethics and morality, critiquing the preexisting society, along with concentrating on the individual. Both Wonderland and the Land of Oz are very critical of the social structures such as the corruption of economics and government, while Neverland is more focused on the lack of any structure, and especially the internal clarity of right and wrong. Wonderland, while focusing on the chaos of the preexisting world that Alice lived in, does not live in complete disorder. There still remains some sort of hierarchy, shown by the Queen of Hearts, who while rules under a corrupt system, still manages to rule and regulate Wonderland. Oz, similarly to Wonderland, steers more towards the criticism of government and economics. This is shown specifically through the characters the Wizard, the Scarecrow, and the Tinman, who represent different aspects of the Gilded Age, during which the book was written. Even the Wizard presents some sort of monarchial, supervisory quality within Oz.
The only land that has no adult power figure, is Neverland. Their entire hierarchy has crumbled, as every aspect of Neverland suffers from a lack of a moral compass. Inhabited by Pirates, Indians, Fairies, each clan of the magical world struggles with ethical behavior, regardless of if they are an adult or a child. So as Neverland is the place where no one grows up, it makes sense that no one here would provide a source of power and leadership; even Peter looks for this in Wendy as a mother. By not having this adult figure in the world, the inhabitants look elsewhere in hopes of finding comfort. Perhaps the best encompassing passage of this reluctance to grow up, is in Peter Pan’s quote: “”It was because I heard father and mother,” he explained in a low voice, “talking about what I was to be when I became a man.” He was extraordinarily agitated now. “I don’t want ever to be a man,” he said with passion. “I want always to be a little boy and to have fun.”” Peter encompasses everything about this argument in this particular passage. He heard he would have to be a man, but he wanted to stay a boy and have fun. By admitting that being a child is all about having fun, he implies that being an adult is all about obligation.
Within all of these children — Alice, Peter, Wendy, John, Michael, and Dorothy — this refusal to accept authority and responsibility is all as a result of their own personal environments involving their maturity and overall future. This causes them to lash out and escape into these worlds where their own leadership is required, forcing them to break out of their frozen childhood, and move on towards adulthood.
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