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.
The Beetle was first published in March of 1897 in the literary magazine “Answers” as a serial story under the name “The Peril of Paul Lessingham: The Story of a Haunted Man”. Written by the enigmatic Richard Marsh the Serial ran for fifteen weeks and was initially targeted at a lower class audience. Then in September of 1897 the serial was repackaged as a novel and refined for the middle and upper middle class. The name was changed to reflect the tastes of this new audience and the novel was published with mostly good reviews.
The novel was continually in print until the late 1920s and it went through 27 print runs in that time. During the late 19th and early 20th century it would be more popular than Dracula, with which it shared similar themes. The Beetle then fell into obscurity in the 1930s. It was not really rediscovered until the 1960s and had very little critical evaluation until the early 1970s. It’s rediscovery among literary critics is due to the themes of sexuality and gender confusion that pervade the novel. The novel’s intense focus on gender in Victorian society has been the crux of much of the modern literary interest and has spurred new editions to be published by several different printing companies. As the book is in the public domain it can also be found free online at sites such as Project Gutenberg and several free editions on Kindle.
Gender, feminism, and homosexuality are the main focus of the novel. The book explores these in depth and the attitudes of the Victorian to each of these in enlightening. These attitudes tell us much about the foundations of our own culture which owes so much to the Victorians in terms of cultural mores and our expectations of gender roles. The Beetle turns gender roles upside down. Portraying women in drag and showing us a very dominating woman who is often mistaken for a man. Not only does the novel delve into the ideas of gender it is also a cautionary tale of mixing the mysticism of the East with the culture and science of the West. The themes of otherness and of eastern influences which corrupt and even dominate white Victorian society are also very prevalent in the novel. Finally the novel is viewed in terms of the psychological oppressiveness of its environment. The villain/creature roams the streets of London hiding in dark places that allow her freedom to work her black magics on her victims.
Most of the literary criticism of this novel has revolved around the idea of gender. The novel is full of scenes of women dressing and acting as men. Much of this gender swapping is forced by the hypnotic suggestion of the priestess of Isis but the character of Marjorie Holt who is forced to dress and act as a man has already been introduced to the reader as one of the “New Women”. She is a feminist and her feminism is juxtaposed against her transgender domination by the priestess of Isis. This priestess when first viewed is almost universally mistaken for a man. These two women form a core of feminist ideology and gender confusion around which the novel becomes rich fodder for gender, feminist, and queer criticism. “Victorian fear of the den depravity, the hidden potency, of the female.” (Hurley 213) the idea of the female using her sexuality was frightening to the Victorian mind. This is a common theme in Victorian literature and it is fully on display in The Beetle. Not only is the priestess able to dominate her victims mentally she is able to walk in both the world of man and woman. She is the ultimate predator both sexually and physically.
Secondary to the modern reader but more important to those contemporary to the novel is the idea of post colonialism, or even reverse colonialism that is presented. “The Other” as represented by the priestess of Isis can be seen as an infection of Western culture by that of the far East. The creature could be seen as a “means of the appropriation and destruction of symbols of the moral, spiritual, and racial superiority of England’s ruling class- its women.”(Garnett 30). The Monster feeds through its domination of women and men, in this way the creature corrupts Victorian society and everything it touches. It is made plain in the book that the monster craves the white flesh of its victims. It wants both to have that flesh literally and to possess it sexually. This sexual corruption is certainly an allusion to the fear of the “Other” or people moving into London from the colonies. The creature in craving white flesh could be seen as a Victorian fear of miscegenation. The average Victorian must have felt that natives arriving in London were not much better than primitive savages and were there to corrupt and destroy their society. The Beetle came along at just the perfect time to feed into these ideas of reverse colonization. This may go a long way towards explaining why this novel did so well originally even outselling Dracula in its day and it also may be a reason it declined in sales after the first World War as cultural fears began to change in the West. It would be interesting to look at how interest in the novel changed over time with cultural value changes.
The reader of the novel also can’t help but be struck by the environment in which the novel takes place. Some of the literary criticism has taken the environment and ecology into account when looking at the novel. Based in 19th century London The Beetle takes place in a crowded and dark urban environment. Much of the action of the novel takes place at night and in the shadows. This idea of the environment adding to the fears of the reader has not been lost on the critical reviewers of the piece. Speaking of Marsh’s work Minna Vuohelainen states “his fiction provides us with phobic readings of monstrosity which are closely linked to the spatial experiences of fin-de-siècle London.”(Vuohelainen 32). Her supposition is that much of the horror in The Beetle is derived from a fear of claustrophobia. London at the turn of the century provided a perfect setting for this type of fear. It was crowded and a constant pallor of smoke lay oppressively over the city. The city was almost a living organism itself giving rise to a fear of being overwhelmed by it at any moment. Onto this backdrop Marsh sets his story of sexual perversion and horror and it created a true psychological mixture that put fear into the audience. I don’t think any of us not living in that city at that time could fully appreciate the gothic novels that revolve around the oppressive nature of London.
The Beetle is a rich nuanced text full of both horror and what would seem like overt sexual situations to the Victorian mind. By today’s standards these seem a little dated and most of the action is hinted at rather than blatant. There is however something to be said for horror that occurs off screen. Our minds are free to create the most intense horror for ourselves, out of our own imagination, and from our own intimate fears. The Beetle creates a world in which the Victorian mind would have felt fear and anxiety. It is a novel dominated by women out of their natural element. Women corrupted by vile magic. This is true of both the female villain who transforms from Man, to beetle, to priestess or the female victim suffering the sexual appetites of the villain and being forced into a transgendered parody of herself. The Beetle is a masterpiece of horror that gives us many different visions of how the Victorian mind looked at sex, foreigners, and the horror of their own backyard.
Hurley, Kelly. “The Inner Chambers of all Nameless Sin: The Beetle, Gothic Female Sexuality, and Oriental Barbarism.” Virginal Sexuality and Textuality in Victorian Literature. ed. Lloyd Davis. New York: Suny Press 1993: 193-213. Print.
Garnett, Rhys. “Dracula and The Beetle: Imperial and Sexual Guilt and Fear in Late Victorian Fantasy”. Science Fiction Roots and Branches. ed. Rhys Garnett and R.J. Ellis. New York: St. Martin’s, 1990: 30-54. Print.
Vuohelainen, Minna. “Cribbd, Cabined, and Confined: Fear, Claustrophobia and Modernity in Richard Marsh’s Urban Gothic Fiction.” Journal of Literature and Science 3.1 (2010): 23-36. JLS online. Web. 10 Apr. 2012.