Summary of Peter and Wendy
This Edition: 1911
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- Children´s Literature
What It’s About
A Bittersweet Fantasy
Many people think they know J.M. Barrie’s classic tale of the mysterious boy, Peter Pan, who never grows up, and of the young girl, Wendy, who flies with him to the fantasy island of Neverland. But while the story of Peter Pan has been told time and again over the years, Peter and Wendy itself retains its ability to surprise the unwary reader. Despite its child-appropriate premise, a darkness lurks below the story’s surface – reflective of the sad real-life events which haunted Barrie himself. The novel’s sarcastic and opinionated narrator and its engagement of heady themes – including death, the power of imagination and the bitter sweetness of growing up – lend the text a depth and complexity that explain its resonance with adult readers since its 1911 publication. Both a celebration of childhood innocence and a warning allegory about its over-romanticization, Barrie’s creation simultaneously entertains the young, speaks to adults longing for a past golden era, and offers an ahead-of-its-time exploration of children’s emotional and moral development.
- Written in 1911, J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy offers an ahead-of-its-time exploration of children’s emotional and moral development.
- Wendy Darling meets Peter Pan when he flies in her family’s window to retrieve his lost shadow. She convinces Peter to take her home with him to be his “mother.” Wendy and her two brothers travel to Neverland where they meet the Lost Boys and have adventures involving Indians, mermaids and pirates. After Peter defeats Captain Hook, all the boys except Peter return with Wendy to London and are adopted by her parents.
- Barrie’s brother David died young. His mother’s reaction to the death shaped young Barrie significantly.
- Barrie first created Peter Pan to entertain his friend Sylvia Llewelyn Davies’s sons.
- Emerging fascination with childhood in Edwardian England was dubbed “the cult of the child.”
- Barrie’s fictional depictions of childhood anticipated 21st-century neuroscientific understanding of consciousness, memory, and emotional and moral development by almost a full century.
- Peter and Wendy celebrates children’s imagination and innocence while also underscoring how these same attributes make children unable to fully understand or care about others’ feelings.
- Both mundane (realistic) and fantastical elements appear together throughout the novel, in both the London and Neverland settings.
- The novel’s frank treatment of death reflects the era of its composition, but, as it reminds readers, children don’t fear death like adults do; rather, they see it as just another kind of “adventure.”
- “To die will be an awfully big adventure.”
Growing up is inevitable. Wendy understood this by the time she was two. Her mother, Mrs. Darling, is a beautiful woman, and also a bit mysterious. She has a dimple in the corner of her mouth, which is like a kiss that no person can ever claim. Mr. Darling’s chief concern is doing things like other people. And though Mr. Darling knows all about stocks and shares, the Darlings aren’t rich, so Wendy and her brothers, John and Michael have a Newfoundland dog named Nana for a nurse.
Mrs. Darling initially encounters Peter Pan while sorting though her children’s thoughts. Mrs. Darling has vague memories of Peter Pan from her own childhood but doubts his reality.
It is the nightly custom of every good mother after her children are asleep to rummage in their minds and put things straight for the next morning, repacking into their proper places the many articles that have wandered during the day.
Wendy insists, however, that Peter sometimes comes to visit at night. One evening, Mrs. Darling sees Peter fly in through the nursery window. Nana chases Peter out the window and catches his shadow in her mouth. Mrs. Darling puts the shadow in a drawer but doesn’t tell Mr. Darling about it until a week later.
That fateful night, Mr. Darling throws a fit because his tie won’t tie. Then, Michael refuses to take his medicine. Mr. Darling brags that he never avoids medicine – though, in truth, he has hidden his. Wendy finds her father’s medicine and brings it to him, helpfully. Michael and Mr. Darling bicker over who has to take their dose first. Mr. Darling tricks Michael into taking his dose, then pours his own into Nana’s bowl. When Nana discovers the trick, Mr. Darling gets embarrassed and ties her up outside. Mr. and Mrs. Darling depart to attend a party.
Off to Neverland
Once the grown-ups are gone, Peter Pan and a fairy named Tinker Bell enter the nursery and begin looking for Peter’s shadow. Tink finds the shadow, and Peter tries to reattach it to himself using soap. When this fails, he begins to cry. Wendy wakes up, and Peter introduces himself. Wendy sews Peter’s shadow back on, but Peter behaves as if he accomplished the task himself. When Wendy protests, Peter flatters her. She offers him a kiss, but he doesn’t know what this means, so she gives him a thimble. He, in return, gives her a button, which she puts on her necklace. Peter tells Wendy he ran away to go live with the fairies because he didn’t want to grow up. He introduces Tinker Bell, who behaves rudely.
When the first baby laughed for the first time, its laugh broke into a thousand pieces, and they all went skipping about, and that was the beginning of fairies.” (Peter to Wendy)
Peter tells Wendy that he lives with the Lost Boys in Neverland and that he came to her nursery to hear stories. Wendy asks to go to Neverland, and Peter becomes excited at the idea of Wendy acting as a “mother” to him and the Lost Boys. He sprinkles fairy dust on her, John and Michael and teaches them how to fly.
The group flies toward Neverland for several days and nights. Along the way, Peter sometimes leaves them to have other adventures and doesn’t always remember who they are when he returns. They finally arrive in Neverland, the sun guiding their way with a million golden arrows. Peter tells them about the island’s pirates. Captain James Hook leads them and has an iron hook instead of a right hand. As they arrive, the pirates fire their cannon at the group, separating them from one another. Left alone with Wendy, the jealous Tinker Bell decides to try to get rid of her.
The number of Lost Boys in Neverland fluctuates. Some die in battle; Peter thins out others when they grow too old. The current boys are Tootles, Nibs, Slightly, Curley and the Twins. The pirates hunting the boys around the island include the oddly lovable Smee and Hook himself: a handsome man, refined in both speech and dress. Behind the pirates, come the Indians with their brave princess, Tiger Lily. Hungry animals follow the Indians, including a huge crocodile.
As he looks for the Lost Boys, Hook talks about his desire to kill Peter Pan, who fed his hand to the crocodile. The only reason Hook has been able to evade the crocodile since then, is that the beast swallowed a ticking clock. A large, sturdy mushroom that Hook sits on grows hot, and he and Smee realize that it’s stopping up a smoking chimney and that they’ve found the Lost Boys’ home. Hook comes up with a plot to kill the Lost Boys but leaves when he hears the ticking crocodile. The Lost Boys emerge and spot Wendy overhead. Tinker Bell appears and tells them that Peter wants them to kill the flying figure. Tootles shoots down Wendy with his bow and arrow.
Peter appears and tells the Lost Boys that he has brought them a mother. The boys lead Peter to Wendy’s body, and Tootles explains that he killed her. Peter moves to stab Toodles with his knife, but Wendy’s arm restrains him. She’s alive; the button Peter gave her deflected the arrow. When he hears the role Tink played in the incident, Peter temporarily banishes her. Michael and John arrive, and the boys build a special house for Wendy.
Wendy works hard to be a good mother to the Lost Boys, even if, as sometimes Peter wills it, the meals she cooks are only imaginary ones. Time passes, but Wendy feels confident that her parents will be waiting whenever she and her brothers decide to return home. Wendy, Peter and the Lost Boys have so many adventures – both real and imagined – that it would be impossible to tell them all. Once, for instance, Peter and the Lost Boys were fighting the Indians and decided to switch sides mid-battle. Another time, Tinker Bell tried to float a sleeping Wendy out of Neverland on a leaf. Then there was the day Peter saved the Never Bird from trouble – a favor the bird later returned at the lagoon.
Adventure at the Lagoon
The lagoon looks like the shapes and colors you see when you close your eyes tightly. Wendy, Peter and the Lost Boys spend many days swimming there, watching the mermaids. Wendy always makes sure the boys rest on a rock in the middle of the lagoon for thirty minutes after their lunch. One day, during the rest time, Peter realizes pirates are approaching. Everyone dives into the water to hide. A boat appears, carrying Smee; another pirate, Starkey; and a prisoner: Tiger Lily. The pirates plan to leave Tiger Lily on the rock to drown as the tide rises. Peter imitates Hook’s voice, commanding the pirates to free Tiger Lily. The plan succeeds, but then the real Hook appears, who asks about Tiger Lily. When the pirates explain why they let her go, Hook thinks the order came from some kind of ghost. He calls to the ghost, and Peter, still speaking in Hook’s voice, answers. Peter claims to be the real Hook and accuses Hook of being a codfish – making even Hook himself doubtful of his identity. Hook then tricks Peter into revealing himself. A fight breaks out. Hook and Peter battle on the rock. Peter is winning, but he notices that Hook is lower on the rock. In an attempt to make the fight fair, he offers his hand to Hook to help him higher. Hook, in response, bites Peter, who, utterly dismayed at Hook’s foul play, fails to defend himself against Hook’s claw.
Hook swims back to his boat, and the Lost Boys fly home. Michael’s kite appears, and Peter ties Wendy to it so that she can get back to shore. Peter, too hurt to fly, is certain he will drown once the tide comes in but comforts himself with the idea that death will prove the ultimate adventure. As the water rises, Peter watches a mysterious object move through the lagoon. He realizes it’s the Never Bird, paddling toward him on her nest. She wants to save Peter and offers him her nest, even though her eggs are still inside. Peter grabs a hat left by one of the pirates and places the eggs in it. The bird immediately returns to sit on her eggs, and Peter sets sail in the nest. He returns home safely, as does Wendy, and everyone celebrates.
Because Peter saved Tiger Lily, her tribe now guards the Lost Boys’ home from the pirates. One evening, after dinner, Peter and Wendy are playing at being the Lost Boys’ parents. Suddenly, Peter asks Wendy to confirm that it’s all a game: He isn’t really the boys’ father. Wendy confirms this, but then asks Peter about his feelings for her. Peter replies that he feels for her like a son for his mother. This declaration upsets Wendy, which confuses Peter. The bad feelings soon dissipate, however, and everyone dances together. Wendy then puts them to bed and tells a story.
Wendy tells the story of a couple named Mr. and Mrs. Darling; their three children; and their dog, Nana. Wendy asks the boys to think how the parents must have felt when their children flew away to Neverland. She then describes the children returning home and finding their nursery window still open and their parents waiting for them. Peter tells Wendy that she is wrong about the timeless, unconditional love of mothers. He relates how he once returned home to his mother but found the window closed and a new child in his bed. Frightened, Wendy decides she and her brothers must go back home right away. Peter pretends he is indifferent but in truth is quite upset. Wendy offers to let Peter and the Lost Boys come home with her. All but Peter accept her invitation. He bids them good-bye, and Wendy reminds him to take his medicine. Just as they are about to depart, they hear a terrible battle begin above ground between the pirates and Indians.
Many Indians die, though Tiger Lily and a small group of her warriors escape. Hook’s true target, however, is Peter Pan. Peter’s overconfident attitude wears on Hook’s nerves. After the battle, the pirates, listening at the tree entrances, hear Peter tell the boys that if the Indians win, they will sound their drums. So the pirates beat their drums. Wendy and the boys say good-bye to Peter and climb out of the house.
After sending the boys and Wendy off to the ship with his crew, Hook enters the boys’ underground home. There, he finds Peter asleep. Hook poisons Peter’s medicine and then leaves. Tinker Bell wakes Peter to tell him what happened to Wendy and the Lost Boys. Peter is eager to rescue Wendy but decides to take his medicine first. Tink tells him the medicine’s been poisoned, but Peter doesn’t believe her. To save him, Tinker Bell drinks the medicine and immediately begins dying. She says she can only recover if children demonstrate that they believe in fairies. Peter calls on all the sleeping children presently dreaming about Neverland to clap their hands to show they believe. Not all the children clap, but enough do to allow Tink to get well again. Peter flies toward the pirate ship, promising himself that this contest between Hook and himself will be their last.
Aboard the pirate’s ship, Hook paces along the deck, thinking about his win over Peter and the Lost Boys. Somehow he is unsatisfied. He thinks about his past: He went to an elite school, and that experience still guides him. He is particularly obsessed with correct behavior, and yet, he also worries that this concern might in and of itself be a sign that he is lacking proper decorum. His crew’s boorish behavior rouses Hook from his musings, and he orders that the Lost Boys and Wendy be brought on deck. He offers to make two of the boys a part of his crew, but they all refuse. Hook then demands that Wendy make a speech to the boys before he makes them walk the plank, which she does. Suddenly, Hook hears ticking. He collapses in fear, and his pirates gather around him.
Peter Versus Hook
On his way to Hook’s ship, Peter passes the crocodile. He notices it is no longer ticking, so he begins making the sound himself so any beasts who hear it will think he is the crocodile and leave him alone. Meanwhile, the crocodile follows Peter. Once at the ship, Peter sees the sound’s effect on the pirates and becomes pleased with his own trickery. He hides in the ship’s cabin and stops making ticking sounds. Hook, relieved, orders a pirate to fetch a whip from the cabin. The pirate enters the cabin and dies as Peter crows rapturously. Another goes in and also dies from Peter’s screech. Hook decides to send the Lost Boys into the cabin to either kill whatever’s in there – or die trying.
To die will be an awfully big adventure.
Inside the cabin, Peter frees the boys. He then sneaks out of the cabin, unties Wendy and takes her place, wearing her shawl. He crows again. To rally his unnerved crew, Hook suggests throwing Wendy overboard, since women are bad luck on ships. As the pirates approach the ersatz “Wendy,” Peter reveals himself. The pirates and Lost Boys begin fighting. At one point, Peter stabs Hook, who then drops his sword, but Peter invites him to pick it up. Hook asks Peter who he is, and Peter’s reply depresses Hook. He feels Peter’s response is the ultimate example of proper behavior in that it shows utter lack of thought about himself. Hook begins to fight again, but now he is mainly concerned with making Peter misbehave. On impulse, Hook jumps up on a railing. He motions to Peter to kick him overboard, and, when Peter complies, Hook falls – happy in the thought that Peter behaved badly — straight into the crocodile’s mouth. The surviving pirates flee, and Wendy puts the boys to bed. That night, Peter has nightmares, and Wendy holds and comforts him.
Back in London
Meanwhile, back in London, things have changed for Mr. and Mrs. Darling. They never go out anymore, and Mr. Darling has taken up residence in Nana’s kennel. He doesn’t even leave it to go to work but, rather, has the kennel carried to his office. For her part, Mrs. Darling just waits, sadly, for her children’s return. One evening, Mr. Darling asks her to play the piano. She complies. As she leaves the nursery, Peter enters. He’s come to shut the nursery window, so Wendy will believe her mother no longer wants her. Peter watches as Mrs. Darling starts to cry. He feels she is somehow tapping on his heart, and he relents, reopening the window. Wendy and her brothers fly into their nursery. They are confused at seeing their father in the kennel but happy to hear their mother at the piano. They decide to get into their beds and let their mother discover them there. But when Mrs. Darling comes back into the nursery, she thinks she is dreaming. So the children go to her. The entire family embraces while Peter watches from the window.
When the Lost Boys appear, Mr. and Mrs. Darling agree to adopt them. Mrs. Darling wants to adopt Peter, too, but he rebuffs her. He tries to tempt Wendy back to Neverland, but Mrs. Darling tells Wendy that she herself needs a mother. Ultimately, they decide Peter can come fetch Wendy once a year to go do his spring cleaning. Before he leaves, he takes the kiss from Mrs. Darling that no one else could ever capture. Peter comes for Wendy the next year, but she finds he has forgotten all the previous adventures they shared together. The following year, Peter forgets to come at all. He comes the year after, but then doesn’t reappear for a long time.
Wendy Grows Up
Wendy and the boys grow up. She marries and has a daughter named Jane who sleeps in Wendy’s old nursery and loves to talk about Neverland and Peter Pan. One night, Peter flies back in through the nursery window. He hasn’t changed. Peter tells Wendy that he has come to fetch her for spring cleaning. She replies that she can no longer fly, explaining that she is a grown woman.
All children, except one, grow up.
Peter is afraid and distraught, and Wendy, unsure how to help him, leaves the room. Jane awakes and by the time Wendy returns, Jane is flying around the room. Wendy permits Jane to go with Peter to do his cleaning. Time passes, and Wendy grows even older. Jane grows up and has a daughter named Margaret, who also goes with Peter to Neverland. Some day, Margaret will have a daughter who will do the same. And so it will go, as long as the nature of children remains unchanged.
About the Text
Structure and Style
Peter and Wendy is a classic children’s fantasy adventure story, which Barrie adapted from his 1904 play. The novel can also be classified as a coming-of-age tale – as Barrie’s text follows Wendy Darling from her infancy through old age – as well as a kind of allegory for adult readers about the dangers of over-romanticizing childhood. Peter and Wendy is narrated more-or-less chronologically in a mixture of third-person omniscient voice and first person. Descriptions of characters and places are detailed, but the objectivity of these descriptions varies because the narrator is highly opinionated and subjective in his view of events and individuals. Indeed, the narrator disclaims any true ownership of the plot by asserting that his account is second- or third-hand information and by making it clear that he is picking selected stories and details to share with the reader and omitting others. The narrator also explicitly speaks to different types of readers, darting rapidly between some observations aimed at children and others targeted toward adults.
The novel’s overall tone is lighthearted and satirical, but at times, the tenor becomes darker and more mocking – particularly when dealing with Wendy and Mrs. Darling. The first section of the novel focuses on Wendy’s life before meeting Peter Pan. The second part details her and her brothers’ time in Neverland with Peter and the Lost Boys and their conflicts with the bloodthirsty Captain Hook. The final part of the novel deals with the children’s return from Neverland and of events which transpire after Wendy grows up.
- The romanticization of childhood is of paramount concern in Peter and Wendy. The novel acknowledges the attraction of children’s present-focused joy, imagination and innocence but also underscores that these same attributes make children selfish, cruel and otherwise incapable of sustained, in-depth care for or understanding of others. Though all the children – Wendy, Michael, John and the Lost Boys – embody childhood’s good and bad qualities, Peter Pan exemplifies those qualities, demonstrating what children’s apparent heartlessness looks like, taken to its full, logical conclusion.
- Peter and Wendy imbues motherhood with a kind of magic – one which simultaneously supports and offers a counterbalance to the magic of childhood. Ultimately, the novel indicates, it is mothers who encourage children to grow up, thus to become capable of mature love. In this sense, mothers, though attractive to Peter Pan (and all he represents) are also his chief antagonists.
- The narrative presents both Mrs. Darling and Wendy as part woman and part child – unlike Wendy’s brothers or the Lost Boys, who appear either wholly childish or, later, wholly adult. This duality gives the females power: Wendy alone is able to embrace both reality and imagination without confusing the two, and both Wendy and Mrs. Darling remember Peter and tell stories about him, even after growing up themselves. But it also appears to goad the narrator, who alternately admires and insults the characters’ ability to find happiness in growing up.
- While the novel appears to draw a line of separation between the “real world” and Neverland, in fact, elements of both the fantastical and the everyday appear in both realms. Captain Hook is a graduate of the English boarding school Eton College, and Tinkerbell mends pots. The Darlings’ nurse is a dog who acts like a human, and Mrs. Darling reorganizes her children’s thoughts while they sleep.
- The novel’s frank treatment of death reflects the era of its composition – a time when young children died with fair regularity. Even in Neverland, death is present: Lost Boys sometimes perish battling pirates or Indians or by Peter’s own hand if they grow too old. The first chapter of the book indicates, too, that one of Peter Pan’s jobs is guiding dead children to the afterlife. While death is naturally a melancholy idea, Barrie reminds the reader that children’s limited conception of death means they don’t fear it the way adults do; rather, they see it as just another kind of “adventure.”
- Captain Hook and Mr. Darling serve as doubles of one another. However, unlike Hook, who remains concerned only with his own ego and with the abstract ideal of “good form” until his death, Mr. Darling learns to care less about society’s expectations and to truly love something outside himself when his children disappear into Neverland.
- The ticking crocodile symbolizes both Captain Hook’s fear of the passage of time and his belief in the inescapability of fate. This symbolism, however, exists almost solely in Hook’s mind. Though the crocodile hunts and ultimately kills Hook, it isn’t because it’s his fate – but because of Peter Pan’s actions.
A Fascination with Childhood in Edwardian England
During much of Queen Victoria’s reign, adults primarily viewed children as small versions of themselves: born sinful and expected to contribute to the household. In 1890s, scores of children still toiled away for up to 12 hours a day in factories and mines and as domestic help. As the 19th century drew to a close, however, Britain’s upper and middle classes, together with its artists and authors, began to reconsider the meaning of childhood and started to push for child labor and education reforms. Adults also began to entertain the notion of childhood innocence and to draw a line between the freedom of childhood and the responsibilities of adulthood. Novelists like Catherine Sinclair contributed to this shifting view with their depictions of middle-class nursery life, underscoring the idea of childhood as something sacred. Increasingly, women of this period also found themselves encouraged to operate solely within the domestic sphere and to embody the same innocence (or ignorance) and dependence upon their husbands and fathers as would children.
But adult interest in reinventing childhood during the Edwardian era wasn’t limited to social reform. Indeed, such was adult fascination with watching children “perform” their innocence that poet Ernest Dowson dubbed it “the cult of the child.” An adult focus on childhood, these cult adherents argued, served as an antidote to the degeneracy of modern life. Even as idealization of childhood flourished, however, the theory that a child’s core nature equated, in some manner, with a kind of savagery also gained legitimacy. As the late-Victorian psychologist Havelock Ellis argued, children are “nearer to the animal, to the savage, to the criminal, than the adult…The charm of childhood…lies in [children’s] frank egoism and reckless obedience to impulse.” Authors like Barrie and and Lewis Carroll delved into this seeming contradiction in their works, creating engaging escapes from the troubles of adulthood which, simultaneously, deconstructed and demythologized the youthful human mind. In this way, some Edwardian children’s literature anticipated by almost a full century the modern neuroscientific understandings of consciousness and memory and of children’s emotional and moral development.
The genesis of the stories that would form the basis for Peter and Wendy emerged most directly from Barrie’s desire to amuse George, John (Jack), Peter, and, later, Michael and Nicholas Llewelyn Davies, whom Barrie met in London’s Kensington Gardens. But arguably, key elements of the Peter Pan narrative developed far earlier. When Barrie’s older brother David died in a skating accident, his mother’s subsequent depression and emotional withdrawal taught her surviving son that a idea of someone can be more important than what is right in front of us. The incident provided both the kernel of the idea of the boy who would never grow up and formed a foundation for Barrie’s powerful but often contradictory feelings about mothers and motherhood versus his interest in the interplay between the real and the imaginary. Later in life, Barrie would repeatedly claim his stories about Peter Pan weren’t entirely his own but came about as a result of an inner dialogue with a fictional character also named David. Barrie once said “First I tell it to him, and then he tells it to me, the understanding being that it is quite a different story; and then I retell it with his additions, and so we go on until no one could say whether it is more his story or mine.”
The first mention of Peter Pan in print was in a novel aimed at adults: The Little White Bird. In that novel, Barrie, taking his inspiration from the (then) youngest Llewelyn Davies boy, Peter, figures Peter Pan as a bird-like infant. Barrie later republished the chapters of The Little White Bird which featured Peter Pan as an illustrated book, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (1906). Another version of the character appeared in Barrie’s pantomime-style play, Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, which premiered in 1904 to great acclaim. That play introduced the character of Captain Hook — a variation of the Captain Swarthy character Barrie had created while playing with the Llewelyn Davies boys. The captain was inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s infamous pirate in Treasure Island: Long John Silver. Interestingly, Barrie’s choice to include Hook in the play came less from his belief that Peter Pan needed an antagonist — indeed, Barrie’s notes reveal that he believed Peter himself was the only villain the play required — than from the necessity of making enough time for set and costume changes. Barrie also originally envisioned Mrs. Darling and Hook being played by the same actor, though ultimately, it was Mr. Darling who became the pirate captain’s double. The character Wendy, who also appeared for the first time in the play, seems based in part upon Barrie’s mother, Margaret Ogilvy — whose own mother died young, requiring her to become a mother figure to her brothers while still a child herself — and in part upon on the daughter of Barrie’s friend William Henley. Before her death at age six, Margaret Henley called Barrie her “friendy”; her infantile pronunciation, however, rendered the word as “Wendy.” Barrie adapted his play into his novel, Peter and Wendy, in 1911.
Reviews and Legacy
Peter and Wendy received widespread critical acclaim upon its publication in 1911. The New York Times praised Barrie’s ability to make reader “quite see it all and feel all the fever and joy of combat and quite wonderful adventure.” Meanwhile the London magazine The Spectator noted that the novel was readily enjoyable for both children and adults. Modern critics continue to find the novel noteworthy and are particularly fascinated by Barrie’s seemingly innate grasp of child psychology and cognitive development. The novel’s connection to the field of psychology was strengthened in 1983 when American psychologist Dan Kiley formulated the term “Peter Pan syndrome” to describe grown men who act more like young boys than adults. Later, he also coined “the Wendy dilemma” as a means of discussing the problem of women who act more like mothers than wives in their marriages.
In popular entertainment, the character and stories of Peter Pan have fostered a huge body of creative works. Walt Disney famously adapted the book into an animated film in 1953 — one which offered a much more straightforward narrative and all but eliminated the novel’s darker themes. The 1954 Peter Pan Broadway musical starring Mary Martin was immensely successful and has enjoyed many revivals over the years. Steven Spielberg created a sequel to Peter Pan with his movie Hook in 1991, and Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson wrote a series of prequel novels from 2004–2009 that were later adapted into the Tony Award–winning play Peter and the Starcatcher. More recently from 2011–2018, the television series Once Upon a Time focused on showcasing Peter Pan’s dark side in its depiction of the character.
About the Author
J.M. Barrie (Sir James Matthew Barrie) was born on May 9, 1860, in Kirriemuir, Angus, Scotland. Barrie was the ninth of weaver David Barrie and homemaker Margaret Ogilvy’s ten children. He was close with his mother, an avid storyteller who had served as a surrogate maternal figure to her own siblings from the age of eight. The accidental death of Barrie’s older brother David when Barrie was six years old shattered Margaret’s spirits. Barrie tried dressing and acting like David to make her happy – but to no avail. He noted, however, how his mother found comfort in the belief that her son’s death meant he would stay a boy eternally — an idea which would inform a number of Barrie’s creative works. After graduating from Edinburgh University in 1882, Barrie worked at the Nottingham Journal as a staff writer. He began writing stories and novels in the late 1880s, many of which found popular success, and started composing plays in the early 1890s. Barrie’s third play, Walker, London (1892), introduced him to his future wife, actress Mary Ansell. They married on July 9, 1894, and though they remained wed until 1909, the union was purportedly unconsummated. At an 1897 dinner, Barrie met Sylvia Llewellyn Davies – the daughter of writer George du Maurier and the mother of George, John, Peter, Michael and Nicholas, whom Barrie had met in London’s Kensington Gardens. The fairy stories Barrie told Sylvia’s boys provided much of his inspiration for his most famous character, Peter Pan. Too, spending time with the Davies offered Barrie a chance to escape the confines of adulthood via imaginative play. After Sylvia’s death in 1910, Barrie, along with their nanny Mary Hodgson, assumed guardianship over the children. Barrie enjoyed many creative successes throughout the 1910s and 1920s, but tragedy struck his personal life again when his son George died in combat during World War I and Michael drowned in 1921. In 1929, Barrie gave the copyright of the Peter Pan works to a children’s hospital in London. He died of pneumonia on June 19, 1937, in London at age 77.
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