Peter Pan is the boy who never grows up but what does a boy with eternal youth and absolute freedom really want? Is it perhaps a Mother to love him? Does he confuse motherly love with sexual fulfillment? There is very little fertile ground left in the study of J.M. Barre’s classic novel of childhood and I doubt I will stumble over any great secret hidden in the text, however I would like to revisit the ideas of motherhood and sexuality in the story. I think much can be revealed when we delve into Peter’s fascination with both those subjects as well as J.M. Barrie’s childhood and his dysfunctional relationship with his own mother.
Lois Rauch Gibson in her article “Beyond the Aprons: Archetypes, Stereotypes, and Alternative Portrayals of Mother in Children’s Literature.” looks into the idea that mother’s are not always who they appear to be in children’s literature. She focuses on the mother figures found in Mary Poppins, Alice in Wonderland, and most notably Peter and Wendy. Gibson states that,”books are also an important way for a culture to transmit its varied social values to its children” (Gibson 177). This simple statement would seem to be the very foundation of children’s literature. Gibson goes on to discuss the importance of children’s literature in forming a child’s view point about their peers, parents, and people in all walks of life. The female role model or mother figure is especially prevalent in children’s literature and her presence need not just be that of the traditional mother. Gibson uses Jungian ideas of archetype to deconstruct the mother figure and show how we can get “beyond the apron” as she put it in her title and look at the varied mother figures that populate and inform children in this type of literature. The mother is a complex archetype and while a Jungian idea could suffice in examining her, the competing ideas of Freud can help us understand Peter Pan as well. This is especially important in looking at Barrie’s work because of his seemingly incestuous fixation with his own mother.
J.M Barrie had an unusual relationship with his own mother in which he attempted to fill the void in her life left behind by his older brother when he died. Going to the extremes of wearing his brothers clothing and pretending to be his brother in an attempt to cheer his mother up. Barrie in Peter and Wendy is not shy in suggesting that Wendy is the mother figure and we might speculate that Peter is Barrie’s dead brother who can never grow up. Can we link Barrie and by extension Peter Pan into the Freudian idea of a Oedipal relationship with the mother figure of Wendy?
Peter Pan on learning that Wendy knows all the stories that her mother tells becomes excited. He has listened to these stories at the window and wants more. Wendy offering to tell him about mothers is in a way a seduction, an offering to tempt the boy into bringing her to Neverland. Barrie says it himself ,“There can be no denying it was she who first tempted him.” (Barrie 30). Wendy has the knowledge of a Mother and this is something Peter is desperate to have. Wendy is excited to go and have adventures and see exciting sights but is somewhat reluctant. Peter in turn entices her further with the promise of seeing mermaids and flying, but what really gets her attention is being the mother to the lost boys. Wendy is just as excited to play house and act as mother to the children of Neverland as she is to see a mermaid and Peter uses this to convince her to come with him. This attitude towards motherhood is somewhat foreign to the modern mind. Wendy is excited by the prospect of tucking children in at night and of darning their clothing but if we look at it from the perspective of the time Peter was offering her the adult world. He was elevating her from child to woman. Treating her as a grown up with all the authority that went with that. Barrie did not see his mother as a put upon house wife, and in these passages seeing Wendy’s excitement he elevates motherhood to a staggering height even greater than flying.
Gibson suggests that Wendy, her daughter, and daughter’s daughter become Persephone to Peter’s Hades. The mother who returns each spring to the underground house in a mirror image of the original myth. This “Reversal of the myth” (Gibson 179) says much for the emphasis Barrie places on the mother figure. She is not returning to hell to hearken in the winter she is returning to paradise to bring forth the spring. Gibson further suggests that Wendy and her progeny are stand ins for the rites of Spring in which the maiden becomes the mother. Wendy is the mother but never the wife and this is the cause of distress in the Peter and Wendy household. Peter allows them to play act the roles of father and mother. He can never be the actual Father but he expects her to be the mother. Gibson states that Peter can never be a sexual creature that he is the perpetual child. I disagree with Gibson in this respect. I believe that Peter not only has sexual desires, he has surrounded himself with those desires. His world is full of sexually desirable females. Wendy, Tinkerbell, the mermaids, and Tiger Lily all try to seduce or entice him throughout the story. He only lacks the adult understanding of sex to consummate his feelings. The real strife between Peter and Wendy is sexual in nature. It is not that Peter can not be the father figure it is that Peter lacks the ability to complete the sexual act itself. He never grows up and Wendy grows away from him. He offered her motherhood but she can only realize that gift without Peter. Peter’s immortality has rendered him impotent but far from lacking desire.
While Wendy is the Madonna and love interest Tinkerbell takes the role of sexual predator. As Peter Pan put it “She is quite a common fairy” (29). To the late Victorian reader this would have been the same as saying she was akin to a prostitute. Tinkerbell makes her claim to Peter clear. She is sexually attracted to Peter but again there is a problem. Here Barrie puts up another roadblock to sexual completion beyond Peter’s youth. Tinkerbell’s size certainly separates the two from ever being sexually complete. These impediments to sexuality occur with every female character that Peter meets even though he is surrounded by women some who wish to be his sexual partner.
Peter is a sexual being and has desires. These desires are just beyond his reach. He can never be a sexual being because of his eternal childhood but even in that state he can and does have needs and constantly interacts with those who could fulfill them if only he allowed himself to move from boy to man.
Gibson, Lois Rauch. “Beyond the Aprons: Archetypes, Stereotypes, and Alternative Portrayals of Mother in Children’s Literature.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 13.4 (Winter 1988): 177-181. Rpt. in Children’s Literature Review. Ed. Scot Peacock and Allison Marion. Vol. 93. Detroit: Gale, 2004. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Sep. 2011.
Barrie, J.M. Peter Pan. Penguin Classics, 2004. Print.
Further reading suggestion
Shipley, Heather E. “Fairies, Mermaids, Mother, and Princesses: Sexual Difference and Gender Roles in Peter Pan” Studies in Gender and Sexuality Vol. 13 Iss.2, 2012. Print.