The theme of escapism is prominent in much children’s literature. Frances Hodgson-Burnett’s The Secret Garden is, like Peter Pan, an example of Edwardian children’s literature. Both these novels are tales of escapism from real life into another world. There are also more recent examples of escapism in children’s literature. In the 1950s C.S. Lewis invented Narnia, and in even more recent literature, Harry Potter escapes his everyday life to go to school at Hogwarts.
J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, an early Edwardian novel, is one of the great classics of British children’s literature and is, on the surface, a tale about a boy who refused to grow up. There is however, an underlying plot concerning a girl who must grow up. It is from this obligation that Barrie’s Neverland acts as a form of escape.
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Throughout Peter Pan, there is little focus on the female characters. It is almost assumed that Wendy will grow up and become a Mother, as all daughters do. Although Neverland allows Wendy to escape from her home and from the domestic world she knows, she does not escape domesticity altogether. She almost becomes mother to the Lost Boys, and is given a number of domestic duties such as ironing Peter’s shadow. However, Wendy’s relationship with Peter is not entirely conventional. She appears to be the closest thing Peter has to a girlfriend, as he rejects the sexual advances of both Tinkerbell and Tiger Lily. However, Wendy also appears to be acting as his mother, something Peter has been deprived of his whole life.
It is the childish energy of Barrie’s imagination filled with such a “splendid jumble of pirates, redskins, fairies and mermaids” that enthrals so many children (Carpenter p172). Through this manipulation of other people’s minds and emotions, Barrie “carries them off from the real world … to a country of his own invention” (Carpenter p179). Barrie seems to be presenting his readers with a substitute faith, to act as a form of escape from the Christian teachings of the Victorian era. It has even been suggested that Peter Pan is in fact an alternative religion.
Humphrey Carpenter suggests that in many respects Peter is Christ-like. Possibly the most obvious example of this is when he takes Wendy and her brothers on a flight of fantasy to “his own heavenly land” (Carpenter p182). The Lost Boys who live there seem to represent the souls of the dead as Peter asserts, “They are the children who fall out of their prams when the nurse is looking the other way”, therefore further increasing Neverland’s resemblance of heaven. The concept of escaping to heaven was extremely important to Barrie. He lost his brother David at a young age and subsequently spent much of his life trying to become a living version of the boy “who by dying … remained ever young” (Wallshlï¿½ger p120).
To observe Peter and Hook as the Christ and Satan of Barrie’s religion, the reader must have faith in the novel. The theme of belief is interesting throughout Peter Pan as the reader is, like the Darling children, constantly being asked, “Do you believe?” In order to fly, the Darling children must have faith, and “think lovely wonderful thoughts”, as Peter’s fairy dust is, in itself not enough. In turn the reader or audience must have faith and believe in the fact that a child can fly. Similarly, in order to escape to Neverland, a reader must have faith that there is such a place “somewhere past the second star to the right and straight on until morning”. The theme of belief is particularly important at the end of Barrie’s story when the darling children lose their faith and no longer believe in Peter, and so cannot see him.
Though faith and belief are important in Peter Pan, the dream of escaping to another world seems to be almost self-sufficient. Barrie implies there is little need to grow up or awaken from this dream as it is in fact already framed by the Edwardian domesticity of the “real” world where wealth and relationships are important. Carpenter in fact goes further than this by asserting that children must not grow up and claims that to visit Neverland “requires an act of belief that children cannot sustain as they grow up” (Carpenter p180). Peter himself seems to be of the opinion that it is only children, who can escape the drudgery of everyday life and claims, “I want always to be a little boy, and to have fun”.
Barrie’s adventure story and his creation of such a magical hero seems to have achieved what so much children’s literature had previously tried to do. Peter represents the shift from the Victorian perception of the child as a “moral icon” to “a craze for the child as a fun-loving playboy hero” (Wallshlï¿½ger p111). Peter has no memory or emotion, and so “can live only for the moment” and experiences ecstasies that other children can never know (Wallshlï¿½ger p117).
Peter is an asexual child rather than a young man. Barrie himself was also somewhat sexless, and it is doubtful whether his marriage was ever consummated. This lack of sexuality and romantic relationship is represented well on stage as Peter is often played by an actress, and is therefore viewed as an androgynous figure. Another interesting aspect of the casting of Peter Pan is that of Mr. Darling and Hook, who traditionally, are played by the same actor. This becomes particularly significant when considering the theme of masculinity in Peter Pan. There is much evidence of male competitiveness in the novel. The most obvious example of this is Peter’s dual with Hook, which appears to be an assertion of masculinity by Peter. It is particularly interesting that it is Peter and the lost boys who triumph over Hook who is a mature villain.
This youthful triumph acts as another form of escape for a young reader. Traditionally in Victorian society adults were in control and would have power over children. In Barrie’s Children’s fantasy, it is youth and sexual immaturity that enable Peter to triumph over his adult rivals.
It has been suggested by many critics that Peter, “The boy who wouldn’t grow up”, is a representation of Barrie himself. Barrie was a short man and despite a moustache “retained a markedly boyish look until old age” (Carpenter p173). He was in a physical respect, quite literally, a boy who couldn’t grow up. This figure of a man in a child’s body is undoubtedly the principle model for Peter, who is “neither child nor adult” (Carpenter p177).
Although it seems, from much of Barrie’s writing, that he adopted the mind of a child himself, he did assert that “the childish imagination, splendid as it is, has the most terrible limitations”, and that it is only by growing up that one truly understands the world (Carpenter p179). Peter Pan thus seems not only to celebrate the imagination, but also to declare its limitations.
The restrictions of childhood are perfectly represented by Barrie in the character of Peter. The tragedy of Peter Pan seems to be when the darling children are reunited with their parents, and Peter is left “looking through the window at the one joy from which he must be forever barred”. It now is clear to the audience that Peter is a victim of his own worship of immaturity. As a result of this adoration for infancy Peter becomes isolated and lonely as his development is halted. His only relationships are with the Lost Boys, and he never progresses or shows any romantic or sexual emotions. Although Peter Pan is, in many respects a celebration of immaturity, Barrie seems to be warning that those who choose to remain immature will become, like Peter, unable to enter into a traditional family framework.
Barrie’s Peter Pan is a tale of playful escapism and over time the name Peter Pan has become a byword for eternal youth. Peter may also be seen to personify immortality when compared to the mortal child represented by the darling children. The character, inspired by the “Edwardian ideals of youth” (Wallshlï¿½ger p128), reveals the limitations as well as the marvels of childhood and makes the audience very much aware of the “price of remaining a child” (Carpenter p179).
It is Barrie’s unique “mix of ingredients” that has made Peter Pan such a well-loved story for so many years. It is, on one hand, a typical adventure story “laced with dreams of military glory”, and on the other, a fantasy tale (Wallshlï¿½ger p129). The play was a success from the very first performance in 1904 when the audience response was wildly enthusiastic. The creation of such vivid and memorable characters as Hook and the ticking crocodile has ensured Barrie’s firm command of his reader’s reactions and enabled him to take them to his secondary world, Neverland. This is, to the Darling children and others who read the story, both an enchanted other world and a dream reality that acts as an escape from their real lives. Peter Pan, while becoming the dream figure of an age that declined to grow up, also represents the beautiful, heavenly Victorian child as well as the fun-loving boyish hero of Edwardian society.
It is Barrie’s particular combination of fantasy and reality that has formed such a wonderful escape world for so many children and is ultimate “not just an imaginative creation by one man, but a public phenomenon” (Carpenter p170).
* Barrie, J. M. Peter Pan. London. Penguin Books Ltd. 1911 (2002)
* Carpenter, H. Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. London. Allen and Unwin Ltd. 1985
* Townsend, J. Written for Children. Harmondsworth. Penguin Books Ltd. 1974
* Wallshlï¿½ger, J. Inventing Wonderland: The lives of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, J.M. Barrie, Kenneth Grahame and A.A. Milne. London. Methuen Publishing. 1995 (2001)
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