Bionic Jean's Reviews > Peter Pan

Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie
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bookshelves: read-authors-a-b, children-s-and-ya, classics, fantasy, 19th-century-ish, children-s-1900-1919
Read 3 times. Last read January 28, 2014 to January 31, 2014.

This edition of Peter Pan contains the text of J.M. Barrie’s 1911 novel, “Peter and Wendy”, which he wrote from his earlier play of 1904. The character of Peter Pan, the little boy who wouldn’t grow up, had already made an appearance in an earlier work by J.M. Barrie, “The Little White Bird” (1902). There continue to be many retellings of this magical story, and Peter is himself a timeless figure; one of the best-loved characters in children’s literature. There is maybe a little of Peter in everybody. We can all empathise with that concept; it speaks to our inner psyche.

But what are we to make of the original? For any readers critical of modern children’s fiction for being too violent, I would direct them to read this piece (plus some Lewis Carroll, and “Strewelpeter…”) to see what was considered appropriate for Victorian children. It is by turns overblown, full of Victorian sentiment and whimsy, but there is also a dark side with very grim overtones. There is betrayal, selfishness, cruelty, torture and bloodthirstiness galore. For,

“children are ever ready, when novelty knocks, to desert their dearest ones.”

William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” owes a lot to this book. And it is not only the children and the “baddies” who are depicted as evil and malicious. Their parents seem full of hypocrisy too.

For instance, a few pages into the story, the Darlings are discussing whether or not they can afford to keep their newborn baby, Wendy. Then a little later there is a “competition” between father and son about who will take his medicine more bravely. The father pours his medicine into the dog’s bowl and tricks her into drinking it. He treats this as a great joke although the rest of the family do not think so. What is the message here? Parents betray you? Parents do not feel remorse? Or is it simply very black humour? The dog “Nana”, incidentally, is just that. She is quite literally, a nursemaid to the children. Whimsy? Humour? A little of both probably, although I do remember finding this confusing myself, as a child.

A further observation on how traitorous adults can be comes later in the story, when Hook bites Peter as he is helping him up,

“its unfairness was what dazed Peter … He could only stare horrified. Every child is affected thus the first time he is treated unfairly … After you have been unfair to him he will love you again, but he will never afterwards be the same boy.”

The story of Peter Pan is the stuff of dreams. Or is it? Isn't it more the stuff of nightmares? Look at the pirates. There is the cadaverous Captain Hook with his Charles II costume and of course the murderous hook instead of a hand. He is tormented by the thought of the crocodile which pursues him - and who has opportunely swallowed an alarm clock to increase Hook’s dread. And in addition Hook is oddly scared of the sight of his own blood. Hook is a tormented character,

“ever a dark and solitary enigma, he stood aloof from his followers in spirit as in substance.”

It becomes clear that he was an ex-Etonian, with a sorry past.

“Hook was not his real name,” states Barrie.

Then there is his second-in-command Smee, who, “had pleasant names for everything, and his cutlass was Johnny Corkscrew because he wriggled it in the wound. One could mention many lovable traits in Smee.” The author lurches between sardonic humour such as this, and being curiously dispassionate about the story, “Let us now kill a pirate to show Hook’s method. Skylights will do”.

The Lost Boys, although given individual names, again seem to be curiously abstract and interchangeable. Depicted as budding pirates themselves, they, “vary in numbers… they get killed and so on; and when they seem to be growing up, which is against the rules, Peter thins them out.”

Thins them out?!

He also hunts down Captain Hook, while he, “swore a terrible oath: “Hook or me this time." He crawled forward like a snake with, "one finger on his lip and his dagger at the ready. He was frightfully happy."

Yes, Peter could be said to be the most merciless character of them all. But Barrie depicts him as truly amoral, perpetually in that very early stage of childhood where “the self” is the centre of the universe.

“The difference between him and the other boys at such a time was that they knew it was make-believe, while to him make-believe and true were exactly the same thing.”

The character of Peter is consistent with this throughout. He frequently forgets things - and people - and views his own actions as responsible for anything which pleases him. Thus his “crowing”. Barrie has given us a perfect description of a child's focus prior to learning about others, or such concepts as responsibility, cause and effect. It is merely the reader’s interpretation to regard him as a “mischievous boy”. The character himself is a long way off such self-knowledge.

The idea of “Neverland” is an intriguing one. Again, it speaks to something deep inside us all. The three children found that they recognised the island from their dreams. It had aspects of all they desired, and also much of what they feared. It was different for each, and yet the same. It was make-believe, but also with real threats. This dual perception of reality is a constant theme throughout the novel, and very hard to grasp. “It doesn't matter, it's only make-believe”, we think. And then, “Oh no, but it's not!” At one point Peter,

“regretted that he had given the birds of the island such strange names and that they are very wild and difficult of approach.”

The Lost Boys are variously acting as redskins or pirates, switching at will. Barrie's skill at depicting how involved they become in their characters adds to the blurring of unrealities.

There is no doubt that Barrie’s imaginative and inventive powers are superb. “Tinkerbell”, the selfish fairy, is another whose persona has seeped into the public’s consciousness.

“Tink was not all bad: or, rather, she was all bad just now, but, on the other hand, sometimes she was all good.”

Interestingly, the use of “fairy dust” to enable the children to fly is a later addition. After the stage play, parents had complained to Barrie that their children were hurting themselves by jumping out of their beds and “trying to fly”. This seems an extraordinary detail for Barrie to believe necessitated changing in such a bloodthirsty tale!

Actually, Barrie has slotted into a common traditional folk view of the little people as being essentially bad. He refers to the fairies coming home “unsteady… from an orgy” the night before, looking for malevolent tricks to play. But Tinkerbell is loyal to Peter throughout, and of course when all the audience (or readers) are urged to clap their hands, or else she will die, this is pure magic. But Peter stays true to character. By the end of the story he does not even remember her.

“There are such a lot of them,” he said, “I expect she is no more.”

Again, what does this teach a young reader about loyalty or friendship? This is a ruthless tale, not a moral one.

If we look for a “good” character, we tend to trip over Wendy, who seems to be an archetype for Barrie’s idea of females. She delights in being a “mother" to the lost boys, forgets her true home much as her brothers do, spends all her time cooking, cleaning and darning, and professes to feel sorry for spinsters. The reader doesn't get the impression that this is ironic; more likely, wish-fulfilment on behalf of the author. Even during the bloodbath at the end, she,

“praised them all equally and shuddered delightfully when Michael [her youngest brother] showed her the place where he had killed one...”

A psychologist would have a field day with this book. Indeed, there is a “Peter Pan” syndrome, to describe individuals who are reluctant to take on “adult” cares and responsibilities, preferring to pursue their own, often creative, interests. And there is plenty of substance to support the view that Barrie was a troubled individual, and that this fed into his writing. His elder brother David, died in a tragic skating accident at the age of fourteen. This deeply affected their mother. The dual parallels with the boy who couldn't grow up, and would therefore remain a boy for ever, and the idealised mother, are quite blatant. Then when James Barrie grew up, he apparently had a troubled marriage, with difficulties making love, which alienated his wife.

He became close friends with the Llewelyn Davies family, having met two of the boys in Kensington Gardens, and began to tell them stories about his invented character Peter Pan. Barrie coined the name using the first name of one of the five, and “Pan” from the mischievous god of the woodlands. Again, this story is overlaid with sadness. In 1907 the father Arthur died of cancer of the jaw, and three years later the mother Sylvia followed, apparently from lung cancer. Barrie became their guardian in 1910, and from then on even closer to the boys.

But the real life tragedies continued. The eldest, George, was killed like much of his generation on Flanders Field in 1915. The character of Peter Pan was apparently primarily based on him. Michael, who was deeply afraid of the water, drowned in 1921 with a classmate at Oxford. And in 1960 Peter, the second son, threw himself in front of a subway train in London.

Much has been made of Barrie’s interest in these children, just as has been with Lewis Carroll’s interest in children, especially in our over-sensitive and suspicious climate. This is a bit of a mystery. Surely an interest in children is natural and common to all humans, to a greater or lesser degree, whether male or female. Would it seem so “shocking” if these two writers had been female?

Surely the point is that writers write from their own experience. Even if what they write is ostensibly pure fantasy, there will be facets of their own experience underlying it. Like most writers he took his inspiration from real life and reworked the people he knew and loved to populate his books and plays. Many experiences came together to make James Barrie’s creation of an immortal little boy. In some ways he was writing about what he wished might happen. But because of that creation, current history will unfortunately peer into his personal life. He achieved immortality himself, but at a price.

So far this has been an analysis of the text of the original novel, which is perhaps rarely read now. Certainly the perception of the story of Peter Pan is a much “softer” version, deduced from a composite number of sources. This edition of the text though, dates from 1987, and was reissued in 2003 as a Centennial Edition (presumably in readiness for 2004, 100 years after the first edition.) It has decorative illustrations by Michael Hague which complement the text perfectly. They are watercolours with a wealth of detail, using subtle colours and complicated patterns which appeal far more to an adult than a child. They are moody and sensitive without being sentimental. And there are a lot of them - between two and four for each of the seventeen chapters. It is a beautiful book.

Reading the original Peter Pan as an adult has been a startling experience. It is not at all what a reader might expect, and although Barrie wrote it as a children’s story, this book as it stands would not appeal to a modern-day child. We have all lost the capacity for appreciating whimsy in the same way. A child might well enjoy the bloodthirsty nature of the book, and the absoluteness of punishment and judgment. There are few shades of grey in this book. Nobody is urged to “get along” with anybody else. And the adults are seriously flawed. But the cosiness of the language makes it an unlikely choice.

It does however deserve four stars from an adult’s point of view. From its first instantly recognisable line,

“All children, except one, grow up”

through to Peter Pan’s claim,

“To die will be an awfully big adventure,”

it is an incomparable classic.

“Off we skip like the most heartless things in the world, which is what children are…and we have an entirely selfish time, and then when we have need of special attention we nobly return for it, confident that we shall be rewarded instead of smacked”

observes James Barrie. The characters in this book, especially Peter Pan, act out that theory to perfection. The book ends with the phrase,

“and so it will go on, as long as children are gay and innocent and heartless.”

For all its flaws it is a unique and truly imaginative book, with an unforgettable antihero, and one which has spawned many imitations.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading (Kindle Edition)
June 26, 2013 – Shelved
November 13, 2013 – Shelved (Other Hardcover Edition)
Started Reading (Other Hardcover Edition)
January 4, 2014 – Finished Reading (Other Hardcover Edition)
January 28, 2014 – Started Reading
January 31, 2014 – Finished Reading
April 23, 2014 – Shelved (Kindle Edition)
July 1, 2015 – Shelved (Kindle Edition)

Comments Showing 1-24 of 24 (24 new)

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Tracey That's a cracking review Jean :)

message 2: by Bionic Jean (new) - added it

Bionic Jean Thanks Tracey :) And thank you so much for directing me to this particular version. It is a beautiful book :)

Amber Awesome review jean! :-)

Charbel Great review Jean!

message 5: by Bionic Jean (new) - added it

Bionic Jean Thank you Amber and Charbel :)

Amber :) (gives a thumbs up). No problem.

message 7: by Bionic Jean (new) - added it

Bionic Jean Thanks Stephanie! And do! :)

Dianne An Excellent review Jean! I loved this book as a child. I wanted to be Wendy. As an adult I agree 100% with your analysis. I just saw the Kathy Rigby stage version and in the final scene when Peter flies out of the window with Wendy's daughter Jane, my daughter and I laughed.

message 9: by Bionic Jean (last edited Sep 05, 2015 02:39PM) (new) - added it

Bionic Jean Thank you Dianne! I think I've always loved this book too. I don't know of the production you mention, although I did see it at the National Theatre in London a few years ago. At the interval there was a sigh from my brother-in-law on my left, who said plaintively, "Why can't I fly?!"

It seems to hit the spot with everybody :)

message 10: by John (new) - rated it 4 stars

John Frankham Great review as usual, Jean. Lots of food for thought. Thank you.

I note that I also gave it 4* last November, and I notice my daughter gave it 4* also, in 2013! Great minds!

B the BookAddict Really interesting review, Jean. One can almost understand Barrie's wont on remaining a child after the tragedies of his family.

message 12: by Bionic Jean (last edited Sep 06, 2015 02:14PM) (new) - added it

Bionic Jean Thanks John, and Bette. Yes indeed.

Lynne King What an excellent review Jean.

message 14: by Bionic Jean (new) - added it

Bionic Jean Thank you very much Lynne :)

message 15: by Karen (new) - added it

Karen Thank you Jean for such a thorough analysis of Barrie and Peter Pan. I never knew some of Barrie"s back story. I definitely want to read this version with a more critical eye for this story this time. My kids grew up with the sanitized version. I had forgotten the themes and understanding of the true meaning of the reality of the whole story.

message 16: by Bionic Jean (new) - added it

Bionic Jean It was quite an eye-opener to me too Karen! And thanks :)

message 17: by Lyn (new) - rated it 4 stars

Lyn Elliott A fascinating review, Jean. I don't think I've seen an original version and the versions I did read are so far in the past I can't remember them. I'll try and hunt it out, not least for the Hague illustrations.

message 18: by Bionic Jean (new) - added it

Bionic Jean Thanks Lyn! I hope you enjoy the read :)

message 19: by John (new) - rated it 4 stars

John Frankham Yes, I too read/listened to the original version for the first time a couple of years ago. Just wonderful.

message 20: by Bionic Jean (new) - added it

Bionic Jean And startling! How modern versions do water it down.

message 21: by John (new) - rated it 4 stars

John Frankham Indeed. The older books certainly weren't bland, even if some were perhaps too preachy. Did you ever read The Water Babies? Wow!

message 22: by Bionic Jean (new) - added it

Bionic Jean Yes but it was years ago - oddly John I was just looking at my copy earlier and thinking I should read it again! Weird.

message 23: by Rita (new) - added it

Rita Fantastic review as always, Jean. I have never read this and have no plans to do so. It seems like every year as I was growing up some TV station would carry a production of Peter Pan with a woman named Mary Martin as Peter. Then when my kids were growing up there was the Disney animated version. The story became extremely sugar coated. A few years back when my daughter was in her 30's she asked for The Original Grimm's Fairytales, which Princeton Press had just published. All 3 of my grandsons fought over who was going to read it next. It was like reading horror stories. Peter Pan was most likely not written just to amuse children but to teach them a lesson as were Grimm's fairytales.

message 24: by Bionic Jean (new) - added it

Bionic Jean I agree, and thank you Rita :) Struwwelpeter: Fearful Stories and Vile Pictures to Instruct Good Little Folks was the one that gave me nightmares!

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