Monday, February 4, 2008

Peter Pan

JM Barrie (1860-1937)

Well this isn't your run of the mill children's story. There's a hell of a lot to unpack here. You've got racism, brutal violence, English imperialism, British social customs, gender issues, the psycological issues of abandonment and growing up, the imagination, adults' view of childhood, and the environment. The basic framework of the book is similar to what I remember from the old Disney film. Wendy, John and Michael Darling go to sleep in their middle-class British home. Their nanny, the dog Nana, has been banished outside by the Mr. Darling. Peter Pan appears and whisks them away on a long, drawn out trip to Neverland. There they meet the Lost Boys, a group of kids without parents. Their rivals on the island are the pirates led by James Hook, the "Redskins" a group of Indians, and the wild animals. These groups chase each other around and routinely kill each other. The realism of the deaths are surprising, although there's always a hint that they are happening in the children's imaginations. Wendy becomes the Lost Boys' "mother," which brings up a whole barrel of gender issues as the kids rely on her to be responsible and caring. There's also a female rivalry between the fairy Tinkerbell, the Indian princess Tiger Lily, and Wendy. They all pursue Peter, but he's not capable of seeing them in an even adolescent light.
Captain Hook is another character who's much deeper than Disney portrays. He has a history of striking fear into other pirates, but his upbringing included time at an elite prep school (Eton?) where he learned the importance of good form over good behavior. His fear of the natural (in the form of a hungry crocodile) is extreme. He also abhors Peter's lack of good form, for Peter is unbelievably conceited.
Eventually the Pirates capture the Lost Boys, only to have Peter rescue them from the ship. Hook is dispatched via a kick to the rear which sends him over the bulkhead and into the waiting mouth of the happy croc.
The part of the novel which surprised me most came at the end in the chapter about Wendy's adult years. Peter has no conception of natural aging. Barrie gets rid of beloved characters like Mrs. Darling and Nana without so much as a eulogy. Time moves on in the real world without sympathy for human feelings. In the world of the imagination, however, things stay the same. It's a collective creation of all the children who are capable of imagining such a place. As Wendy gets older she can no longer sustain that belief. She is no longer a "gay, innocent and heartless" like a child. Her child Jane, however, flies off with Peter to help with the spring cleaning and the pattern of children moving in another sphere than adults continues.

Rating 8/10: This is a really disconcerting book. Barrie speaks of "innocence" but the book is chalk full of racism. The children see themselves as superior to the Indians on the island. Peter is not so much a hero as a brazenly conceited kid in constant search of thrills. His only noble act is letting the Darling children return to their distraught mother.

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