When asked how adults view children, many would call them cute, sweet, innocent little angels. We often idealize childhood as a time of frolic and fun without having to worry about the real world. The term “Neverland” has come to represent the fantastical, make-believe lands that children retreat to. In so doing, we tend to accept the belief that adult reality and a child’s fantasies are two separate realms that never collide. Author J.M. Barrie seeks to dispel that myth in his novel "Peter Pan". He incorporates aspects of the harsh real world occupied by the Darling family with the childish games and stories of Neverland.
Barrie starts the novel with the concept that all children will grow up, with the exception of Peter Pan. The first line in the book is “all children, except one, grow up.” The scholar Jacqueline Rose, in her book "The Case Of Peter Pan ,Or, The Impossibility of Children's Fiction", puzzles over who narrates this unique opener. Is it the musings of a rational adult or a child? “An adult-clearly,” she answers. “[Because] the speaker has the hindsight of one who is no longer a child.” In other words, the narrator is an adult who is looking back on a past childhood with the knowledge that it, like all such phases, must come to an end at one point. Rose then draws our attention to Barrie’s use of a narrator in Peter Pan to explain the oldest Darling daughter Wendy’s psychology. This narrator has a relatively strong memory of his youth and is able to cohesively recount it; Rose describes him as someone “who can only read the thoughts of his characters because of an acknowledged relationship to them.”
This highlights the connection that exists between adults and children. Their lives are not mutually exclusive; instead, they complement each other. There is a higher relationship between Wendy and the narrator and that enables him to tell the story of Peter Pan. In that way, Barrie’s novel was born out of the bond that forms between children and adults.
Children not only grow up, but they know that at some point, they must let go of their childhood and become adults. Barrie recounts how “Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end.” Wendy is equipped with this knowledge throughout the novel, which also influences her desire to assume the role of mother to Peter Pan and the Lost Boys. Even before she chooses to accompany Peter to Neverland, Wendy pretends to be a mother in a game that she plays with her younger brothers, John and Michael. In this way, the adult world of duties and responsibilities meshes with children’s games.
To delve into Barrie’s belief that Neverland and reality can coincide, we must look at how people viewed childhood in England during the late 19th century, when "Peter Pan"takes place. Childhood was seen at that time as a highly idealized time of development, a period that many parents tried to prolong so that they could nurture and shelter their children. In her book "American Childhood: Essays on Children's Literature of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries", the literary scholar Anne Scott MacLeod notes, “a child's sojourn in childhood was to be protected, not hastened. By implication, romantic literature made childhood the high point of life." This explains the nature of Peter Pan and Neverland, perfect examples of how the child’s imagination and games were romanticized by many authors. Barrie drew on those ideas for the novel but he added a twist by portraying childhood and adulthood as two entities that can join together at certain moments.
As for the actual Neverland, Barrie asserts that there is not just one and that each child has a different view and understanding of the fantastical realm. In "Peter Pan", we learn that “John lived in a boat turned upside down on the sands, Michael in a wigwam, Wendy in a house of leaves deftly sewn together.” It is worth noting that Peter himself wears an outfit made of leaves sewn together, which leads me to conclude that Peter himself is a product of Wendy’s Neverland. To Barrie, Neverland is defined by children’s personalities, games and worldviews.
It is important to note that Neverland sometimes comes alive and becomes shockingly real. Barrie writes: “When you play at it by day with the chairs and table-cloth, it is not in the least alarming, but in the two minutes before you go to sleep it becomes very nearly real. That is why there are night-lights.” The idea that Neverland can morph from a fantasy into a reality, especially during the night, speaks volumes about Barrie’s view of childhood psychology and imagination. Children are so absorbed in their own inner games and thoughts that their fantasies can appear as reality to them. Peter’s “breakthrough” into the real world of the Darling home further supports that thought as well as the idea that the actual and the make-believe can sometimes come together in a child’s mind.
Not only do the children experience that shift in reality, but Mrs. Darling feels it as well. After she tucked Wendy, John and Michael into their beds, “she dreamt that the Neverland had come too near and that a strange boy had broken through from it. He did not alarm her, for she thought that she had seen him before in the faces of many women who have no children,” Barrie writes. After Mrs. Darling wakes up from this dream, she actually sees Peter Pan fly into the nursery through the window. She also saves Peter’s shadow after he loses it and means to give it back to him. This part of the novel shows that even adults can sometimes lose sight of reality and think in children’s terms. Barrie remarks how Mrs. Darling has seen images of Peter in many childless women, which suggests there are little traces of childhood fantasies in everyone, children and adults alike.
Sometimes, the realms of children and adults become so intertwined in the novel that the roles of the characters become transposed. In Neverland, Peter and the Lost Boys are engaged in a battle with the Picaninny tribe. Peter suddenly decides “’I am redskin today’…this would have ended the fight had not the real redskins, fascinated by Peter’s methods, agreed to be lost boys for that once, and so at it they all went again.”
Back in the Darling home, the dog Nana is the responsible baby nurse and Mr. Darling coops himself up in Nana’s kennel and refuses to come out “until his children came back.” The two combatants have decided to switch sides. Mr. Darling acts like a dog and the dog behaves like a grown human being. All of the characters changing roles and pretending to be each other signifies the fluidity of the boundary between adult reality and children’s fantasy. The grown-ups sometimes act like children and the kids incorporate adult themes into their games. None of the characters are purely youngsters or fully grown people, except for Peter Pan, who is Puer aeternus, the eternal youth.
As we watch the worlds of children and adults come together in "Peter Pan", it is important to remember that the world of children cannot function without the support of responsible parents. The opening and closing of the nursery window symbolizes that role. Isaac Gilman, a contributor to the book, "Shutting the Window: The Loss of Innocence in Twentieth Century Children's Literature", argues in his chapter "The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature," that the three children go off with Peter Pan to Neverland partly because they know that their mother would always leave the window open for them to come back. With that assurance, Wendy, John and Michael have the privilege to fly off, happily and carefree. The open window symbolizes the constant need and want for parental support.
This may also explain why Peter Pan is a boy who would not grow up. He tells Wendy that he was once like them; he flew off to Neverland thinking that his mother would always leave the window open. “I stayed away for moons and moons and moons,” he says. “Then [I] flew back, but the window was barred, for mother had forgotten all about me, and there was another little boy sleeping in my bed.” The closed window, here, represents irresponsibility and a lack of parental nurturing.
Peter is forced to continuously fly around in search of a new mother figure, which he finds in Wendy. Gilman theorizes that Peter’s refusal to grow up might not have been his decision. In order to really grow more mature and un-childlike, you need constant parental support and guidance. Peter never had that because his mother shut the window. In a sense, she shirked her obligation to raise Peter from childhood to adulthood.
Although the psychology of children and grown-ups come together in "Peter Pan", J.M. Barrie highlights one crucial difference between the two groups: the adults selflessly give while the kids selfishly take for themselves. This is why he refers to children as “gay, innocent and heartless.” It also makes Wendy’s character quite different from Peter’s. She seeks to assume the role of mother and cares about the well being of everyone in the novel; that caring aspect causes her to bring her siblings and the Lost Boys back to her parents. In that sense, Wendy continuously matures throughout the story, an antithesis to Peter Pan’s perpetual desire to stay on as the boy who won’t grow up.