Breaking Down Peter Pan: Parallels between Peter and J.M. Barrie

Today’s entry is another in our series of guest posts from Rebekah Fizsimmons’s Spring 2013 Golden Age of Children’s Literature class. Megan Pak looks to J.M. Barrie’s life to see what drove the eternally young Peter.

By Megan Pak

Peter StatueIn J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, Peter Pan is portrayed as a young boy who never ages or grows up.  He never has a birthday, nor does he ever plan on having one.  He escaped from being a human boy when he flew, without wings mind you, out of his own bedroom window when he was just a baby.  Peter Pan flew to Kensington Gardens and resided there permanently; Barrie described the escape as a “youthful desire” to escape to the treetops, showing us, the readers, that it is a natural and youthful characteristic to want to escape.  It is in Kensington Gardens that readers are able to see the way Peter interacts with other characters and his environment, thus explaining a great deal about his character.  The first time he arrived in Kensington Gardens was Lock-out time, when all the fairies and Nature’s creations came to life.  Every living thing in the garden shunned him at the sight of him, and Peter cried.  This shows readers that Peter may be emotionally weak or weak-minded or even the type of character who seeks out companionship; most importantly, however, it reminds us that he is still just a baby when he first escapes and arrives in the garden.

Also, Peter meets the head of the birds on the island, Solomon Caw, and he respects him very much because he is old and wise.  Solomon Caw calls him a “betwixt-and-between,” meaning that he is neither fully bird nor human, and Peter believes him as he takes on the title (Barrie 17).  Solomon Caw’s description of Peter shows us that Peter experiences an identity crisis; he does not know who or what he is or where he belongs.  This idea is further emphasized when we see his memories of his human life fading and as all the birds never get used to his presence on the island.  Peter felt out of place and never fit in.  To the reader, Peter may seem like an innocent, adventurous boy.  Barrie even encourages this image of Peter when he says, “But you must not think that Peter Pan was a boy to pity rather than to admire; if Maimie began by thinking this, she soon found she was very much mistaken” (Barrie 58).  Barrie praises Peter and encourages readers to admire him instead of pity him.  However, when one closely analyzes his actions and his interaction with other characters and his environment, one can see that Peter is actually a young child who needs to be pitied.  He feels out of place and experiences an identity crisis at a very young age.  Furthermore, he feels neglected, which becomes especially apparent when he returns home for the second time to find that his window has been closed and barred with his mother inside with another replacement boy.

Peter Pan is the archetype of children who are forced to grow up in the shadows of their siblings while feeling neglected by their mothers, just as Barrie did in his own childhood.

Barrie

Barrie was one of seven children.  Two of his older brothers were esteemed academics, one of them, David, being the most favored by their mother, Margaret Ogilvy.  Barrie was the youngest and was, arguably, “another mouth to feed” in Margaret’s eyes.  His mother favored David and much of her attention was on him, even when he died tragically in a skating accident.  Even then, her attention was still focused on David through her mourning.  Barrie went so far as to emulate David in order to gain some affection and attention from his own mother.  Barrie is like Peter Pan in these ways.  The most pivotal moment in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens is when Peter says, “It isn’t fair to take you [Maimie] with me if you think you can go back!  Your mother […] you don’t know them as well as I do” (Barrie 61).  Peter says this in response to Maimie’s utter confidence in the notion that her mother would want her and would wait for her forever.  Peter disagrees with Maimie and says that all mothers are the same, because they do not want their children, therefore they will not wait for them to return.  These ill feelings towards mothers can be directly related to Barrie’s personal life.

This reading of the character of Peter Pan shows us the effects of negligence from parental love and affection.  Experiencing negligence at a young age not only affects the child, but it is also psychologically harmful to the adults he or she becomes, as seen in Peter Pan and in J.M. Barrie’s life.

Megan is an undergraduate at the University of Florida.

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Categories: Critical Conversations, Undergraduate Guest Posts

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One thought on “Breaking Down Peter Pan: Parallels between Peter and J.M. Barrie

  1. I’m writing my postgraduate dissertation on ‘Peter Pan and the theological development of children’s fantasy literature,’ at St.Andrews, UK and enjoyed this post very much. Thank you! I don’t necessarily agree with all the biographical connections, but I do find them fascinating to consider.

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