Peter Pan and the Replacement Child

Today’s entry is another in our series of guest posts from Rebekah Fizsimmons’s Spring 2013 Golden Age of Children’s Literature class. Heather Halak takes another look at J.M. Barrie’s life to see what we can learn about Peter Pan in the process.

By Heather Halak

Man and Child

When one reads any Peter Pan works by J.M. Barrie, one may note dark undertones for a tale that is depicted as lighthearted and encouraging of the free spirit. Much of Barrie’s own experiences contributed to the work and it is said this is the reason for any of his works’ peculiarities. Barrie was described as childlike, no taller than 5’4” and almost incapable of real adult relationships. This fixation on childhood may be in part due to the loss of his brother David, who died two days shy of his 14th birthday in an ice skating accident. David was his mother’s favorite child (or so we think), and Barrie spent much of his childhood dressing in David’s clothing and trying to console his mother of her loss. Barrie began to fill the shoes of what is known as a “replacement child.” In most cases, a replacement child is a child born after the death of a sibling, however, when David died, expectations for his life and future fell onto Barrie.

One can draw a few parallels between Peter Pan and David, as Peter does not grow up and David is barred from adulthood in his death. Peter & Wendy opens with the famous line, “Every child grows up, except one.” David, who died at 14, is frozen at that age in childhood. He will never be thought of as a grown man or adult, but forever as an individual untouched by the experiences of adulthood. Many people often ask why or how Peter gains the ability to fly, and one may argue that he is in fact a ghost thus having the ability to fly to “other worlds” such as Neverland. Peter Pan also buries young children in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and leads the lost souls of children in Peter & Wendy. These roles have very much to do with the dead and perhaps Peter performs these duties because he feels partial to dead children, as he is one.

Peter Pan is a mysterious figure in children’s literature that has intrigued and fascinated people always. We all experience a sense of never wanting to grow up and this has allowed Peter to remain such a prevalent character in literature, movies, and other works. Though his origins are unknown, one thing is certain: Peter and his stories are peculiar. Peter Pan works have a few minor creepy details such as the mention of Peter burying dead children in Kensington Gardens and this may be attributed to Barrie’s childhood experiences especially given the loss of David and having to replace him in order to console his unstable mother.

Peter Pan and Wendy

Heather is an undergraduate at the University of Florida.

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Categories: Critical Conversations, Undergraduate Guest Posts

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