|Illustration by Trina Schart Hyman, 1980|
"All children, except one, grow up. [...]
You always know after you are two.
Two is the beginning of the end."
~ Peter and Wendy, by J.M. Barrie, opening paragraph
One hardly needs to introduce, synopsize, or discuss the coming-of-age symbolism of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (or, to differentiate the novel from the play of the same name, Peter and Wendy). One doesn’t need to go into the history of the book, how it was first a play, or the origins of the story, since Finding Neverland informs us adequately of the author’s inspiration.
So why even review it? If all that I could say upon the topic has been said numerous times before, why clutter up the vast expanse of the internet with worn-out reviews.
Because it's great, that’s why.
Why, after all, does everyone know the story of Peter Pan—even if they haven’t read it—except for the simple reason that it is wonderful? The story, like many classic Children’s Literature, speaks to us even after we are grown (which we all know we must do, after we are two) because it is about childhood, and adulthood, and the painful process of leaving one and entering another.
Peter, is a symbol of childhood in all its “heartlessness” and carefree vivacity. People have only seen the Disney cartoon may be shocked at how Barrie portrays children as heartless. This doesn’t mean the children don’t have feelings. It means that they are absorbed in their own feelings so much that they lack the complex ability to empathize with others. This phenomena is connected to Piaget’s Preoperational Stage in Developmental Psychology…which coincidentally is the only part of that college course I remember.
The other children of the book—Wendy, John, Michael, and the Lost Boys—eventually grow out of this “heartlessness”, but in order to do that they have to grow. Peter Pan, on the other hand, doesn’t grow up, and therefore never sheds his egocentrism (“O the cleverness of me!”).
What might also shock new readers of the novel is the persona of the narrator. Nowadays people aren’t used to the narrator directly addressing them, or suddenly switching to present-tense to describe a scene as if the narrator were taking the reader by the hand and leading them to peek around the corner at events as they unfold. And modern readers are certainly not used to the third-person narrator having a mind of his own, voicing opinions and killing off pirates on a whim to demonstrate how ruthless and evil Captain Hook can be. Barrie employs all these unfamiliar narrative techniques—and probably more—throughout his novel. Peter Pan is heartless, and the narrator reflects that. The darkness that sometimes infiltrates the story reflects the darkness of having childhood ripped forcibly from the characters by the mere ongoing of time, and those character being burdened by acquiring complex emotional maturity, such as empathy and the knowledge of their own mortality.
But Peter and Wendy ends with hope. If every child must grow out of that magical state that defines childhood, that doesn’t mean that the magic dies. It gets passed from one generation to another, and the magic will continue, “as long as children are young and and heartless.”
Suggested Reading Age: 8+
Parental Notes: Captain Hook is not nearly so silly as in the Disney animation. In his first scene he disembowels one of his lackeys. Also, Tinker Bell isn’t the sweet fairy that launched an entire spinoff franchise: she’s a vain thing with a tendency to swear.
Availability: Peter and Wendy is available free on Kindle but is worth investing in a hardcover copy. This novel has lent itself to some gorgeous illustrators from which you can choose, such as Arthur Rackham and Trina Schart Hyman.