Table of Contents
Challenging Gender Roles
The Role of Mother-Woman
Peter and Wendy’s Influence on Children
When Peter Pan first appeared in J.M. Barrie’s short story “Little White Bird,” neither audiences nor readers were aware that he would be the focus of the subsequent play “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up”. Peter Pan came to life on stage in 1904 and received rave reviews from parents and children alike while critics’ reactions “tended toward extremes” (Gubar 476). In 1911, the published novel was held in high regard and in present 21st century analysis and literary critique, remains a topic of discussion. Evaluations on Peter Pan’s insinuations towards the propriety of women’s roles, female sexuality, and domestication of the girl-child are conflicting and often contradictory. While some critics argue that the female protagonist, Wendy, is an emblem of the negatively connoted stereotypical housewife, others suggest that Wendy’s role as mother is a source of empowerment and autonomy. Catered for children, these literary and visual productions of J.M. Barrie’s tale of the boy who refused to grow up subject young children- specifically young girls- to the notion that motherhood and growing up are synonymous. Through these various and sometimes inherently contradictory lenses, Barrie suggests that females inherit tremendous power, because they have the power to be the most wonderful thing in the world - a mother. In the process, Barrie’s novel both perpetuates and dismisses the myth of the mother woman as a singular role, while expanding the girl-child’s power beyond earthly realms.
Sir James Matthew Barrie was a Scottish dramatist born in the town of Kirriemuir, Forfashire on May 9th 1860. When Barrie was six years old, he suffered from the death of his younger brother, who passed away in an ice skating incident. This tragedy was especially difficult for Barrie’s mother, who retained a strong hold on Barrie’s adolescence. The unfortunate event caused Barrie to retain “a strong childlike quality in his adult personality” (The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica). In 1882, Barrie graduated from Edinburgh University and pursued a career in journalism. In 1888, he published his first novel, Uld Licht Idylls, and in 1890 began nurturing his talent as a playwright. Four years later, Barrie married Mary Ansell, whom he would later divorce in 1910. The marriage was childless and reportedly unconsummated. Possibly as an outlet from his unhappy marriage, Barrie frequented Kensington Gardens, where he met the five Llewelyn Davies brothers: Nico, Jack, Peter, George, and Michael. Barrie’s relationship with the boys transformed from friendly to familial when the boys’ parents passed away and Barrie became their legal guardian. It was his experience with these boys through their childhood that inspired Barrie’s Neverland and its accompanying characters, contributing “not only to the field of children’s literature, but also to our understanding of how we relate to children” (White).
To understand the complexities behind Peter Pan, it is crucial to have a secure foundation of the underlying story and the initial meeting between Peter and Wendy. Peter Pan is introduced as the exception to the rule that children must grow up. He takes Wendy, the daughter of a white middle-class mother and father, and her two brothers, John and Michael, to Neverland. The journey is initiated when Peter realizes that Wendy knows the end of the story Cinderella. The four fly to Neverland, aided by wonderful thoughts and Pixie dust, where they come across the Lost Boys. Meanwhile, “the blackest and largest in that dark setting, reclined James Hook, or as he wrote himself, Jas. Hook” (Barrie 58-9), who is out for blood. He seeks revenge on Peter for cutting off his right hand, which was replaced with an iron hook that was “undoubtedly the grimmest part of him” (Barrie 59).
During this journey, Hook captures a Native Princess, Tiger Lily, and her tribe, the Piccaninnies, threaten Peter and the Lost Boys demanding they returned her at once. With the exception of selected scenes and the representations of Mr. and Mrs. Darling (the children’s parents), the posthumous Disney film production of the story and Barrie’s novel follow the same trajectory. However, the film adapts certain scenes- sometimes altering their messages towards female influence- with differences in language and entertainment choices, for example the use of songs and the editing of dialogue. Additionally, while the film uses comedy, the novel uses fantasy to reiterate that motherhood is so vital that it literally conserves the cycle of life, even though it is dirtily glittered with sparkles of self-sacrifice. This is important to note as it alters the impact of the 20th century viewers and explains the role of mother to specific audiences; namely, children.
Challenging Gender Roles
Peter Pan is set in Bloomsbury, London, near Kensington Gardens. The first time that Wendy is introduced, she is engaging in the natural world, plucking flowers at two years old, an age that the narrator assures “is the beginning of the end” (Barrie 1). Next, we learn that “until Wendy came her mother was the chief one” (Barrie 1). It is this first scene that begins to define the differences between men and women, boys and girls. Within the first two paragraphs, the audience is taught that the singular position of chief is given to the mother role. Soon after, Mr. Darling appears and introduces the children through a monetary lens, lyrically balancing his checks, thinking of the costliness that the Wendy’s birth has caused. He appears to resemble Barbara Welter’s “American Man” as demonstrated in The Cult of True Womanhood. Mr. Darling develops as the breadwinner, as a man of “materialistic society” (Welter 1).
‘Now don’t interrupt,’ he would beg of [Mrs. Darling]. ‘I have one pound seventeen here, and two and six at the office; I can cut off my coffee at the office, say ten shillings, making two nine and six, with your eighteen and three makes three nine seven, with five naught naught in my cheque-book makes eight nine seven-who is that moving?-eight nine seven, dot and carry seven-don’t speak, my own- and the pound you lent to that man who came through the door-quiet, child-dot and carry child- there, you’ve done it!-did I say nine seven? Yes, I said nine nine seven; the question is, can we try it for a year on nine nine seven?’
‘Of course we can, George,’ she cried. But she was prejudiced in Wendy’s favour, and he was really the grander character of the two. (Barrie 3)
The introduction of this scene in and of itself is crucial as it is a negotiation of lifestyle and sacrifice in honor of baby Darling. Mr. Darling speaks through a stream of consciousness, spitting amounts, commands, and inquiries in rapid-fire, which speaks to the hyperactivity of the male’s voice contrasted with the tranquility of the female’s. A deeper reading suggests that this quality of voice lends itself to the woman figure as the housewife, but deters the male presence from the childcare role. The scene begins with Mr. Darling sitting “on the edge of Mrs. Darling’s bed, holding her hand and calculating expenses” (Barrie 2). It is set up such that the entire conversation around practicality and affordability occur in the private space of the mother. The power of discussion around fiscal matters, typically the male role in the household, is transferred to the woman, as it occurs in her bedroom, in her realm. Further, Mr. Darling holds his wife’s hand, demonstrating that his existence in her space is physically linked to Mrs. Darling. Once more in accordance with Welter’s true mother, Mrs. Darling loves her child unconditionally, regardless of the additional expense. This suggests that the nineteenth century image of mother is perpetuated; however, the notion is challenged because Mrs. Darling has certain financial control and maintains power over the conversation around finances concerning her children.
Developing the complexity of motherhood, Barrie then states that “[Mrs. Darling] wanted to risk it, come what might” (Barrie 2). Mr. Darling demonstrates articulate commands: “don’t interrupt,” “don’t speak,” and “you’ve done it!” are all among the phrases that interlude the expenditures he recites. Later, however, Mrs. Darling acts as the voice of composure by breaking Mr. Darling’s uninterrupted banter. This scene establishes the man as the voice of practicality and somehow still designates the woman as the voice of reason. This also magnifies the bond between mother and father contrasted with the bond of mother and daughter. The former is regarded as practical, the latter as natural. In this case, the stereotype of the mother’s love for her daughter, as Welter designates, is supported. Despite the grandiosity of Mr. Darling’s character and the tenderness Mrs. Darling shares with him, Mrs. Darling still chooses to act in Wendy’s interest. Mrs. Darling’s role is that of mother-woman bringing the calmness and spontaneity into the household. Such spontaneity is perhaps a resonant symptom from her uninvestigated childhood adventures with Peter Pan.
Mr. Darling acts with a voice of exactitude and precision. His concerns are projected from matters of the world, especially those that exist outside the home, namely earning money to provide for himself and his family. Mrs. Darling shows little worry for matters existing beyond the home. In fact, she is physically rooted in her personal domestic space and acts in the interest of her child. Not only does Wendy inherit her chiefhood, but Mrs. Darling is immediately “prejudiced in Wendy’s favor.” The couple represents the grown up dynamic of the male and female partners: Mr. Darling acts in the interest of the world, while Mrs. Darling acts in the interest of the home. Barrie again supports Welter’s insinuation that woman is the “hostage in the home” (Welter 1). This is later examined when Mr. Darling cannot tie his tie, “though he knew about stocks and shares, he had no real mastery of his tie” (Barrie 16). Mrs. Darling, “even then… placid,” (Barrie 17) easily tied it and they carried forth, without further concern of the domesticated chore. Through this opening scene, children observe that the fatherly role rests in serious matters, while the motherly role rests in comfort. When Mrs. Darling ties her husbands tie both on paper and on screen, she fulfills her duties as wife and caretaker, and thus both young boys and young girls are exposed to the notion that the woman is to aid and assist at the beckon of the male caller. Such a scene perpetuates the mother myth, only to be challenged again later on.
 Disney’s “Peter Pan,”1923. Wendy explains to the Lost Boys “a mother, a real mother, is the most wonderful person in the world.”
 The location was chosen for Peter Mark Roget who lived there while developing the English Thesaurus.
 The passage states: “the pound [Mrs. Darling] lent to that man who came through the door,” suggesting that she have access to finances. Whether there is minimal control or not becomes irrelevant because the myth that mother have no reign over money is dismissed.