Snakes and Snails and Games of Murder
“Grown up, and that is a terribly hard thing to do. It is much easier to skip it and go from one childhood to another.”(Fitzgerald) In Peter and Wendy, the child characters do not portray romanticized, heroic behaviors, but instead the realistic traits found in everyday children. Thus, the absence of moral thinking due to parental absences causes the children to challenge the nature of good and evil throughout the novel. By bringing to light the fundamental aspects of Peter Pan’s personality, ambitions and behavior, and by analyzing the savage mentality of the Lost Boys, it becomes clear that much like the fantastical island of Neverland, the surface is much prettier than what lies underneath.
The first and foremost culprit of such duplicity is Peter Pan. From beginning to end and beyond, Pan is known as the boy who won’t grow up. As such, he exhibits anti-heroic, more childish behavioral traits. Time and time again, he stoops to narcissism, arrogance, and the irresponsible pursuit for pleasure. This is seen when the Darling children are following Peter through the skies of Kensington Gardens for the first time.Eventually Peter would dive through the air, and catch Michael just before he could strike the sea, and it was lovely the way he did it; but he always waited till the last moment, and you felt it was his cleverness that interested him and not the saving of human life. Also he was fond of variety, and the sport that engrossed him one moment would suddenly cease to engage him, so there was always the possibility that the next you fell he would let you go.(Barrie 42)Here, Peter pays more attention to the game than to Michael’s life.Pan’s role in the story is as the greatest child of all. Because of this, it follows that he acts such. Throughout the novel, he never takes responsibility for the lives of his friends. He pushes them to take enormous risk for the gain of his own selfish pleasure; and he feels no guilt for the death of Lost Boys, which are said be “thinned off” rather frequently in their continuous dealings pirates. All in all, Peter Pan treats life and death as game, as he treats all things, because he is a child.
Although it can be said that Pan exhibits heroic behavior at times; for example, when he sets out to rescue princess Tiger Lily from the pirates holding her hostage at Marooner’s Rock; it can be also be contested that this is not, infact, an act of altruism, but instead what Peter sees as a fun game to pass the time; “He was less sorry than Wendy for Tiger Lily; it was two against one that angered him, and he meant to save her. An easy way would have been to wait until the pirates had gone, but he was never one to choose the easy way.”(88) Thus, once again, all Peter has in mind at the moment is the thrill of the challenge, choosing the method of rescuing containing the most risk. This strange personality quirk is one of Pan’s most defining. Often throughout the novel, it is said that Pan is different than the other children on the island. Perhaps due to seniority, Pan is a deeper epitome of childishness than the rest. Peter has no fears, so he feels no desire for safety, and he has no memory, so he doesn’t understand change or loss. And there is something else he does not have, though it is an emptiness that is more difficult to name. For convenience, J. M. Barrie calls it ‘heartlessness’, because without it there can’t be anything like love. (LitCharts)Here, we understand why Peter Pan acts the way he does.
As Wendy and her brothers are able to maintain their morality and good sense instilled into them back in Kensington Gardens, it is clear that Pan is a special kind of boy: He is forgetful (most marking events disappear from his mind the minute they roll into the past) allowing him to remain untouched by emotional pulls such as nostalgia or regret. Furthermore, he reigns as a sort of god in Neverland. Blessed with flight and immortality, the island never fails to wake upon his return and bend to his will as he soars about. Therefore, with all the power Pan has, as well as the lack of the ability to learn from past mistakes, his morality is bound to become convoluted. “Man is not, by nature, deserving of all that he wants. When we think that we are automatically entitled to something, that is when we start walking all over others to get it.” (Criss Jami)
Whether it be Pan’s impact, or a development of their own doing, the other children are morally contorted as well. Many times in the story, the children’s incapability for understanding the rights, wrongs and consequences of their actions breeds grotesque acts of murder. “Wendy was now almost overhead, and they could hear her plaintive cry.[…] Tink’s reply rang out: ‘Peter wants you to shoot the Wendy.’ It was not in their nature to question when Peter ordered, ‘Let us do what Peter wishes,’ cried the simple boys. ‘Quick, bows and arrows.’”(Barrie 64) Here, the children do not question their decision before acting. There is no moral reflection as the boys concede to shoot Wendy by a command given to them by simple hear-say. Without question, reflection, or reasoning, the boys prepare to commit an act of murder.Some may contest that the children’s’ soldier-like demeanor as they fight under the command of Peter Pan is all in good fun and such an analysis is over-dramatized for the sake of a children’s story. However, there is a mentality present among the Lost Boys that suggest something other than simple childish adventures. The question of battle and blood is a question no longer in the minds of these children: They wake up everyday with bloodshot in their eyes, quickly getting dressed and fed so that they may chase after pirates with their swords and weapons. At one point, Pan even goes as far as to state; “I taught you to fight and to fly. What more could there be?” (107)These gruesome details are elegantly disguised by Barrie as he uses humor and whimsy to sugarcoat them. However, these elements are not to be used to excuse such details, but rather to contrast them so that they may be emphasized.
It is clear that while Peter Pan may have been aimed at an audience of children, Barrie was also imbibing his work with serious adult content, which did not go unnoticed by the British and American theater-going public of the early 20th century. Although he created a fairy land of delightful imaginings to amuse and bewitch children for ages to come, he also illustrated the darker side of that childhood land of imagination. (Doln)The final statement in regards to the young children’s morality is especially seen in the development made by the Darling children. In the climax, horrifying phrases are finally able to chill the reader, and shock them into a dark realization. But it’s just for fun, right? It’s a story for heaven’s sake, a story about a boy in the woods playing soldier or cowboys and Indians, playing all those wild games that we all know so well and enjoyed plenty when we were little. But then comes the climactic scene on the pirate ship where the Darling children and Lost Boys must be rescued, and quite suddenly, the game is over. ‘There was little sound to be heard but the clang of weapons, an occasional screech or splash, and Slightly [one of the Lost Boys] monotonously counting-five-six-seven-eight-nine-ten-eleven.’ In the end there are fifteen dead pirates, with only two surviving to swim to shore. Captain James Hook is, of course, pushed overboard after a long fight with Peter and meets his fate in the jaws of his crocodile nemesis. Wendy does not take part in the fight, but afterwards ‘praised them all equally and shuddered delightfully when Michael [her youngest brother and usually portrayed in footie pajamas] showed her the place where he had killed one…’ As soon as she realizes the lateness of the hour she immediately insists that all the boys go to bed, except Peter, who struts up and down on the deck. “He had one of his dreams that night, and cried in his sleep for a long time, and Wendy held him tight.’ (Mondor) The children act out horrific and cruel deeds mercilessly, and worst of all, they do not realize their wrong-doings. In this final event especially, the Lost Boy’s capability for uninhibited blood-lust blurs the line between heroic action and primal pursuit of the hunt. The children’s ignorance of basic human morals not only highlights their naivety, but their ignorance as well. Thus, child-like innocence, as presented in this novel, cannot be linked to goodness.
To conclude, the story of Peter and Wendy is often acclaimed for its whimsical integration of the Fairytale with the Adventure Story, however it must also be acknowledged, on a more critical level, for its deep understanding of childlike behavior in a world absent of adults and adult-made morals. By deconstructing Pan’s character and by bringing to trial the Lost Boys’ criminality, it is undeniable that Barrie presents childhood as raw, real and easily corrupted. If nothing else, Peter and Wendy expresses the freedom of youthful ignorance alongside the embedded notions of morality, and forces the reader to reflect. As said by critic Jack R.D.S, “Peter Pan, by highlighting the cruelty of children, the power-worship of adults, the impossibility of eternal youth, the inadequacy of narcissistic and bisexualsolutions, presents a very harsh view of the world made palatable by humor and held at an emotional distance by wit and the dream.”
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