The Problem of Peter Pan: Should Choices Hurt?
There is no denying that Peter Pan, the story of “the boy who wouldn’t grow up,” has resonated with audiences in way few stories can hope to achieve. Everyone, it seems, derives something personal and profound from the story of a boy who never will leave behind his childhood to face the world as a man. If the world of a college student’s Facebook is any indication, such eternal youth is “a consummation devoutly to be wished” among many who find themselves thrust into the frightening landscape of adult responsibilities. Given the opportunity, would anyone willingly choose to face that vast, insecure, and unforgiving world of careers, family, and taxes?
While rarely remembered by those who love it and not laid out explicitly by the author, Peter Pan actually does find himself faced with this self-same question: is his carefree immortal childhood more important to him than happiness with another person, if that happiness means he must grow up? Given the choice, does he choose a carefree eternal youth, or a careworn adulthood with someone he loves?
Perhaps the first (and only) man to discuss this problem’s significance was G.K. Chesterton. An English journalist and prolific essayist, he addresses the question of criticism leveled at Peter Pan in an essay published in the London Times entitled “On Sentiment.” To summarize, he says that intense emotion as such in drama is nothing to condemn, but sentimentalism is intense emotion with some sort of deception attached to it: that is, “the evil is not in the recognition of the feeling as a fact…it is in the destruction or dishonouring of some other fact.”
For instance, the image of a soldier leaving his beloved to join his comrades on the field happens and has happened so often as to be almost prosaic; but, as Chesterton makes clear for us, “if we then make fancy pictures of war, and refuse to admit that wounds hurt, or that heroes can be killed, or that good causes can be defeated, then we are trying to hold two contrary conceptions in the mind at once. We want to admire the soldier and deny what is admirable in him.” Sentimentalism thus consists in wanting the thrill of an emotion that comes with something admirable, or pitiable, but then denies or ignores the harsh reality that cannot be evaded.
All well and good, but what has this to do with Peter Pan? As shall soon be made evident, it may determine whether or not Peter Pan ultimately works as a story. What critics of his time derided as sentimental, were actually honest depictions of the actions of what, say, a bereaved mother would do in such circumstances. The problem with Peter Pan is none of those things. The problem with Peter Pan, as expounded for us by Chesterton, is this:
“Yet there is something that rings false in the play…What is really wrong with that delightful masterpiece is that the master asked a question and ought to have answered it. But he could not bring himself to answer; or rather he tried to say yes and no in one word. A very fine problem of poetic philosophy might be presented as the problem of Peter Pan. He is represented as a sort of everlasting elf, a child who never ages age after age, but who in this story falls in love with a girl who is a normal person. He is given his choice between becoming normal with her, or remaining immortal without her…He might have said that he was a god, that he loved all but could not live for any; that he belonged not to them but to multitudes of unborn babes. Or he might have chosen love, with the inevitable result of love, which is incarnation; and the inevitable result of incarnation, which is crucifixion; yes, if it were only crucifixion by becoming a clerk in a bank and growing old. But it was the fork of the road; and even in fairyland you cannot walk down two roads at once.”
What Peter chooses is to come and visit Wendy every spring and bring her to Neverland. But if Wendy ages and he never does, to what purpose is that? According to Chesterton, the compromise ends up being worse than the choice. For, in no time, it will not be Wendy he takes back. After a short while, if he remains a child, he will be giving her up forever whether he likes it or not. The reason for the compromise is entirely negated. In attempting to have it both ways, he has neither, or one tinged with regret and uncertainty. And this, Chesterton concludes, is truly the worst sort of sentimentalism.
Peter Pan is an Immortal elf sort of child, forgetful, mischievous “innocent and heartless,” as Barrie describes him. Since he is eternally a child, he would this all if he decided to return to England and grow up. And, of course, growing up would mean saying goodbye eternally to Neverland. Many times in the story he insists that never will such a thing happen. But, he falls in love with Wendy–what, then, will he do? If he remains young, he forgets her and moves on, but if he decides to stay with her, he must settle for a mundane existence, and, yes, grow up. He does make, or rather accept, some sort of compromise, but is it really satisfactory? As Barrie makes explicit, it is not Wendy he takes back to Neverland, eventually, but her descendants. Is he really getting what he wanted?
Such is the problem, as we have laid it out. But, can we say the Chesterton is right in his criticism? Does the story of Peter Pan demand this sort of choice: a heartrending, irreversible choice causing suffering no matter which path is chosen? There are some who may argue Chesterton reads more into the story than is strictly warranted. The story, after all, is a primarily a children’s story, filled with fairies, flight, pirates, indians and all sorts of happenings uniquely suited for a boy’s fantasy. Wendy is nearly killed through the agency of a jealous Tinkerbell, Peter nearly drowns saving Tiger Lily, many of the Pirates and finally Captain Hook himself are killed in the final stand-off (by the children, no less), and yet Barrie treads these incidents with a childish nonchalance almost, brushing grisly reality aside for the romance of the adventure. As Peter idly reflects as the water rises to drown him following the rescue of Tiger Lily, “to die will be an awfully big adventure.”
In a world where death and dying appear to arouse little distress, why then should Peter have to make such a dire choice as Chesterton says he must? Would not Peter’s compromise be more in keeping with the careless, boyish indifference of the character? Would that not be more fitting–a childish choice for a childish character?
These claims, their truth notwithstanding, have no effect on the “rules” of the drama. All the preceding “signs” in the story point to the inevitability of having to make such a choice, as to the archetypes in which it partakes. An analysis of the critical closing scene will make clear our meaning, as well as Chesterton’s overarching point.
The Darling children have been returned to their home, with the coterie of the Lost Boys in tow. The household matters having now been smoothed over, Wendy speaks with Peter before he flies away. She asks him, “falteringly” if he wouldn’t want to speak with her parents about “a very sweet subject,” which he answers with a curt “no.” When Mrs. Darling comes to the window, she makes clear her intention of adopting him as well, but when she tells he’ll “soon be a man” he “passionately” tells her “I don’t want to go to school and learn solemn things…I don’t want to be a man. O Wendy’s mother, if I was to wake up and feel there was a beard!” Further efforts are likewise futile: “Keep back, lady, no one is going to catch me and make me a man.” Hence how they come to the compromise: Wendy’s desperation to see Peter again being plainly evident, Mrs. Darling agrees to let Wendy return with Peter to Neverland once a year for his “spring cleaning” and his reaction to the news is quite telling:
“Mrs. Darling saw his mouth twitch, and she made this handsome offer: to let Wendy go to him for a week every year to do his spring cleaning. Wendy would have preferred a more permanent arrangement; and it seemed to her that spring would be long in coming; but this promise sent Peter away quite gay again.”
Clearly, Peter has no desire to grow up; clearly, he also has some wish to stay with Wendy, and the conflicting wishes vie for supremacy within him. Up till the point of Mrs. Darling’s proposed compromise, the conflict is clear in Peter’s brusque response to Wendy, yet were one to judge based on the text alone, one might have concluded that Peter would prefer his eternal youth to becoming a man working in office, though married to Wendy. Though the compromise makes him “quite gay again,” the choice remains floating in the air, conspicuously unchosen.
Peter of course doesn’t care, but Wendy’s dissatisfaction is evident, for, as Chesterton would say, a choice that should have been made has not been made. Indeed, one might say they only put off the choice, rather than resolving the dilemma once and for all.
A good story requires a strong ending. All the signs in the story point to Peter having to make this sort of choice; not only little signs such as Wendy’s jealousy of Tinkerbell and Peter’s attempt to prevent the Darling children from finally entering their home, but also within the context of the above quoted conversation. Peter does not want to leave without Wendy, and Wendy cannot abide the thought of never seeing him again. Yet Peter recoils from the mere thought of growing up, a fact to which Wendy is now reconciled. While neither may be able to articulate the choices so starkly, they nevertheless recognize the choices for what they are.
Wendy has decided to grow up. Peter would rather it were not so. But, he cannot fence sit forever–in that case, the choice will be made for him. He must pick Wendy or Neverland, and embrace the pain that would come with either. Eventually, in the course of the story, it is not Wendy he takes back at all, but her daughter and granddaughter, thus nullifying the point of the compromise.The attempt to avoid pain and loss of some good only results in a worse evil. This, as Chesterton contends, was something Barrie should have recognized and didn’t, or did recognize and avoided.
Why doesn’t Peter take her back forever? Why doesn’t he leave her forever? Why does he refuse to make a real choice and instead for an ambiguous compromise? Why does Barrie himself refuse to make a real choice in the context of his own drama? One possibility is to reach into Barrie’s biography to see if any of the events of his life could possibly have influenced him in his titular character’s non-choice. And, such an analysis may indeed, in its own way, be fruitful, whether we examine his mother’s grief over the tragic death of his mother, or his relationship with the Llewellyn-Davies boys. Much that we unearth from his biography can in some way illuminate the more abstruse parts of the drama for us.
However, such information, interesting as it often is, more often serves to distract us from the drama proper. No, the answer to our questions lies not in a psychoanalysis of either the author or his biography, but rather we look for it within the context of the actual story.
Gay, Innocent…and Heartless?
More than once, Barrie says children are “gay and innocent and heartless.” Most among those who enjoy the company of children would agree with the first two adjectives, but be puzzled by the third. What does Barrie mean to say by calling children “heartless”?
Let us look at some examples from the drama itself: the phrase first appears as Wendy tucks her daughter Jane into bed. Wendy tells he daughter that when “people grow up, they forget the way [to fly]…because they are no longer gay and innocent and heartless. It is only the gay and innocent and heartless who can fly.” Perhaps we can best understand Barrie’s usage of the term if we consider it in context with its preceding adjectives. Children rarely reflect on the consequences of their actions, or how those actions will affect those around them. They are indeed gay, for they are untroubled by the darkness of the world, and pursue their own way. They are innocent by virtue of their ignorance of this darkness, which often arises in the human heart; they are heartless, for such innocence and gaiety makes them unaware of any suffering they themselves might unwittingly inflict upon another, and thus care little for the sufferings of others.
Usually, the thoughtlessness of children manifests itself only in small, petty acts, like the toddler throwing a tantrum when he can’t have ice cream before dinner, or leaving the breakfast dishes for Mom to clean up while he goes off to play. Children are not malicious of course, but rather are still learning their capabilities for causing pain in another, and that, oftentimes, another’s needs and desires must come before their own. But, in Barrie’s drama, the consequences of childish thoughtlessness, unbridled without the guidance of any adult, has disquieting, if not disturbing, consequences.
Stranger still, Barrie himself seems little troubled by the ensuing implications, appearing to believe such thoughtlessness is preferable to comparatively stifling world of the grown-ups. Now, he does not condone such thoughtlessness entirely (for instance, when Michael sees his father again, he comments, “‘He is not so big as the pirate I killed’… with such frank disappointment that I am glad Mr. Darling was asleep; it would have been sad if those had been the first words he heard his little Michael say”). But, though such thoughtlessness in not entirely condoned, nor is it condemned, however gently.
The point is, the “heartlessness” of Peter Pan seems to preclude his willingness to make such a painful choice. Being a forgetful, willful child with care for little else but his own happiness and fun, the compromise works just dandy for him. He never bothers to consider how it will affect Wendy or anyone else in the long run. Moreover, despite some swipes at Mrs. Darling for being “too fond of her rubbishly children,” he still seems to consider the careless freedom of childhood preferable to the constrained world of grown-up responsibility.
Such “heartlessness” would then in a sense be a good thing, as a part of that childhood. So, one could argue that Barrie knew exactly what he was doing in refusing to let Peter make the terrible choice. But, in letting Peter make such a lame compromise rather than making a difficult choice for himself, he removes what would make him compelling as a character.
Characters make choices. Even in stories driven more by outside circumstances (such as a disaster film) than the characters per se, nevertheless their choices play a significant role in the outcome of the story. In order for a drama to be successful, the characters must be faced with significant choices, choices that force them to sacrifice something they considered dear to them, something that will force them, in some way, to grow and change as a person. Barrie may have thought he was preserving his characters, or his audience, from undue pain, but in reality he unwittingly cheated both the audience and the characters of the denouement they deserve. He does not allow Peter to choose between rejecting Wendy and preserving his immortality, or rejecting Neverland and growing up with Wendy. Either choice, as Chesterton said, would be a fine one, allowing for a rich growth of character either way, but instead we get neither.
Peter clearly wanted to be with Wendy–as the drama makes clear, when he tries to bar the windows to the nursery, it’s because “I’m fond of her too. We can’t both have her”–but in the end he lets Wendy’s mother make the choice for him. Peter thus loses the chance to grow as a character. Instead of stretching his bounds, becoming something more than he was before, Peter remains the same as he was before, and will remain the same forever. All potential for growth, good or otherwise, has been utterly stunted by such a lame compromise.
The problem of Peter Pan is that Peter had a choice to make, a choice between two goods, and the rejection of either would result in some great suffering. By refusing to let his hero make this choice, Barrie, instead of helping his story, instead stultifies the power of his own drama.
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