Peter Pan is one of these stories everyone knows. Written as a highly successful play it was adapted by J.M. Barrie into a novel in 1911 and later followed by countless other stories about the boy who would not grow up. Understandably, like most other children's classics it is dear to the hearts of many and of course the idea of staying a child forever without ever having to face the disillutionments of growing up carries an eternal appeal, but reading the novel for the first time I could not help noting some aspects that genuinely astonished and bothered me.
First off, the story is very surrealistic and symbolic in ways that cannot be explained by its fantasy world. There are many passsages such as this description of Mrs Darling which cannot be targeted at children (only).
“She was a lovely lady, with a romantic mind and such a sweet mocking mouth. Her romantic mind was like the tiny boxes, one within the other, that come from the puzzling East, however many you discover there is always one more; and her sweet mocking mouth had one kiss on it that Wendy could never get, though there it was, perfectly conspicuous in the right-hand corner. ”
However, more than anything the novel contains some surprisingly dark parts. The Lost Boys, who are after all children less that twelve years old, go into battles and even kill pirates without thinking twice. It reminds me of Grimms' Fairy Tales where the most brutal things happen to the villains but don't bother children listening to them at all. As Barrie writes, children are indeed "gay and innocent and heartless".
Still, all of this might have surprised me but it is not where my problem with the book lies. The problem is this: amid all his beautiful ideas and poetic descriptions J.M. Barrie gives his female characters only one-dimensional, boring and ultimately worrisome narratives.
While Peter is cocky, playful, selfish and sometimes cruel, in short a typical child, Wendy is brought to Neverland as a "mother" for the boys and then immediately assumes the role of a miniature housewive (with the exception of those times when she is portrayed as a damsel in distress waiting for the hero to save her).
Although she is no older than Peter Pan he automatically expects her to care for him and the other boys and to often do housework while the Lost Boys have fun and go on adventures.
For Wendy Neverland is no childhood paradise because even there she already has to act as a grown-up little woman. Shaped by her society's expectations, she is happy to embrace this domestic existence.
There are several hints of romantic feelings Wendy might possibly have for Peter, although she is too young to really fall in love with him and probably only imitates the adults she knows by making Peter the "father" of the Lost Boys and therefore her husband. However, Peter resists this idea. He says his feelings towards Wendy are "those of a devoted son" and wants to stay a careless child, unwilling to burden himself with the responisibilities of an adult even in play. This does not keep Tiger Lily, Wendy and Tinkerbell (who even tries to kill Wendy) from being jealous and hating each other over him though. I think I do not have to explain how harmful a narrative is in which the only way women interact is in their struggle to "get the man".
While I liked some parts of the book I would not want my daughter, should I one day have one, to read it.
I want her Neverland to be happy and exciting and full of possibilies beyond marrying and domestic bliss.