You know the story. You’ve seen the Disney movie. But have you read the book?
Last night, I finished reading my fourth book of the summer, Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie. I recently got a beautiful special edition copy of the book, complete with fantastic illustrations of Peter and the Lost Boys, as well as a map of the Neverland.
Peter Pan is one of the most enduring stories of the 20th century. Barrie lived in the Victorian Era, and Peter Pan first became a novel in 1911 (under the title, Peter and Wendy) after wide success as a play. So I knew that I had to put myself into another world that is very different from my current reality. This character was created over a hundred years ago, and I had to treat the story as such while I was reading.
Of course, everyone is familiar with the story of Peter Pan: a young boy wishes that he’d never grow up, forms an alternate reality with the Lost Boys in the Neverland, and adopts an ordinary girl as his “mother,” all the while fighting pirates, swimming with mermaids, and bickering with his fairy friend, Tinker Bell.
I’ve always adored this story; whenever I watched my VHS tape of Disney’s Peter Pan as a kid, I was mystified by the idea that someone would never grow up. It was quite appealing to me, actually. I was always a step behind everyone else in my age group. When my classmates were bored with dolls and imaginative games, I was still dreaming up worlds for my toys at home. When my friends were going to dances, I chose to stay at home with my various computer games. And when my friends were thrilled to go to college, I didn’t want to leave high school. Or home.
So reading Peter Pan for the first time at eighteen was an interesting experience to say the least; I found myself remembering the story like a recurring dream, but I also found the flaws in it that I hadn’t as a kid. I saw through Peter’s ploy to avoid adulthood, and I saw the merits of growing up.
I also saw the shocking differences between a children’s story from 1911 and those from 2015.
First of all, the violence. I had no idea that there was so much violence in the Neverland. Of course, Peter was always fighting pirates in the Disney movie and other film adaptations, but in the book, he kills them. Frequently. And not like, pushing them overboard or knocking them off a cliff. He stabs them with a dagger. And laughs.
So of course, it was jarring for someone who was expecting a more sunshine-and-rainbows story to read that even Michael, the littlest boy, was proud to tell his sister that he had killed his first pirate. Maybe it’s the nature of older fairy tales, but to me, it seemed shocking for young children to be killing their enemies and to rejoice after the bloodshed.
Also, the sexism probably wouldn’t fly (no pun intended) if Peter Pan were first published in 2015. The only (human) female characters in the story are Wendy and her mother, Mrs. Darling. And they are the same character in every respect. Wendy is a little girl who wishes to grow up and be a mother just like her own, and so she is overjoyed when she finds that Peter and the Lost Boys need a mother to take care of them. I find it odd that Wendy has to take care of the boys by cooking, cleaning, and mending their clothes despite the fact that she is the same age as them. The only difference between the boys and her is that she is a female. Yet, for some reason, the boys cannot take care of themselves.
And she doesn’t even get in on the pirate action! While the boys are killing them left and right in their final battle, she stands by watching. It’s obvious that she doesn’t support the violence, but she never verbally disagrees. It would be fine for her to opt out of being a pirate-killer (though that would be pretty epic) as long as she spoke her mind. But it seems that the only things for which she chastises the boys are staying up too late and not taking their medicine.
Even when she, John, and Michael find their way back home, she has to return to the Neverland once a year to do Peter Pan’s spring cleaning. (*Every feminist raises an eyebrow*)
Not to mention the racism in the book. This I was expecting, though, since the Disney movie is guilty of the same. The “Indians” are lumped together as a savage people with odd traditions who are only useful to the boys because they protect them from the pirates. And Peter doesn’t save Tiger Lily, the Indian princess, out of the goodness of his heart; he saves her as an adventure, as a means to inflate his already enormous ego (as is mentioned a great deal throughout the book). It was a classic case of cultural appropriation; Native Americans are made up of hundreds of different peoples, all with different beliefs and traditions. It would take years of research to learn about each group in its entirety.
But I have to remind myself that this was 1911. Women didn’t have the right to vote in the United Kingdom (where Barrie was from) or the United States yet, and blatant racism was as common as asking someone the time of day. (That’s not to say that institutional racism doesn’t still exist, obviously, but at that time it was much less hidden.) Barrie was a product of the time period in which he lived, as we all are. Still, it made me wince a little whenever the “Indians” were described as “savages” and whenever Wendy’s gender was expressly tied to her being motherly.
But by the end of the book, I was glad I had read it. I didn’t expect it, but I saw the flaws in Peter’s plan. When he returns to visit Wendy once a year, he has no understanding of how much time has passed and doesn’t even remember who Captain Hook was, once his worst enemy. His mind is so aflutter with adventure that he can’t form valuable relationships with people and can’t remember his own accomplishments. When Wendy grows up, he befriends her daughter, and her daughter’s daughter, and so on. Because he has nothing else to live for.
I never thought I’d say it, but growing up isn’t so bad. As long as you still keep the memories and spirit of the Neverland with you.
Did you read Peter Pan? How do you relate to it now versus how you related to it when you were younger? Let me know in the comments!
Thanks for reading!