Peter Pan

Is Peter Pan really only a children’s story — or is it, as Michel W. Pharand states, “also a surprisingly — often shockingly — adult story” (Pharand, 2007, p. 227)? After reading through the fifteen essays in the book J.M. Berrie’s ‘Peter Pan’ in and Out of Time: A Children’s Classic at 100 (Donna R. White and C. Anita Tarr, the editors, are professors of children’s and young adult literature), Pharand has some pertinent opinions on the question posed in the first sentence of this paper. And moreover, this paper will present a number of scholarly articles that corroborate Pharand’s assertion that this is in fact an adult story.

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Literature on Peter Pan — Author Criticism and Analyses

The essays paint a picture of “dark, threatening forces” lurking “just beneath the surface,” Pharand writes. The themes run “from oppression and castration (Hook’s hand) to misanthropy and murder,” according to Pharand, and after digesting the deep literary criticism and analysis in the 2006 publication, an alert reader “will dispel any notion of Peter as a safe, cozy character” (p. 227). To make his point more specific, Pharand quotes from passages in the fifteen essays; and although he does not identify the essayists, the passages each tell stories that are worthy in the context of a critical examination of what authors think of Berrie’s classic. The quotes are attributed to Pharand, since he culled them out of the essays’ narratives and they appear in his scholarship.

One of the essays argues that “Hook represents our societal need to manage our general hatred of children”; another essay claims that Hook “is an example of unethical and failed aestheticism” (Pharand, p. 226). A third essayist deals with the “Edwardian cult of the girl child, where Wendy, Tinker Bell, and Tiger Lily create ‘a paradoxical construction of femininity: corrupted and corrupting, [they are] victims of vicious attack and agents of degenerative (and violent) adulthood’” (Pharand, p. 226).

In his novel is J.M. Berrie advancing “a pedagogy that disrupts drives toward normalizing conventional racial categories” as one of the essayists asserts in the book (Pharand, p. 226)? Or is the novel actually approaching whiteness and racial issues at the turn of the 20th Century from another angle entirely?

On the subject of racial categories, Mary Brewer’s scholarly article in the Cambridge University Press takes the position that the story of Peter Pan embraces “the amorphous status granted to whiteness in the text,” which lends it “cultural authority” (Brewer, 2007, p. 387). Brewer, author and English lecturer at Loughborough University, claims that the play’s “political unconscious is rooted in real stories of violent conquest, the British Empire, and Victorian notions of racial difference” (p. 388).

Moreover, Brewer explains that the original idea for the play came to Berrie during the playing of a series of games with the Llewelyn Davies children. In those games (involving pirates and Indians) there “is a clear racial undercurrent,” Brewer asserts, giving an example of one in which marooned boys are made to “walk the plank” with Berrie playing the role of “Captain Swarthy” (p. 388). Brewer needn’t explain to readers that “swarthy” means dark-complexioned, but she does, and adds that Berrie was perhaps just going along with “colonial thinking on race” (p. 388).

On page 388 Brewer quotes from a source (Haill, p. 12) that in turn quotes Berrie’s explanations to the Llewelyn Davies boys regarding the origins of Peter’s character: “I made Peter by rubbing the five of you violently together, as savages with two sticks product a flame.” In this context, “savages” would represent individuals with dark skins, hence the racial implications that Brewer connects with the novel. The “good guys” are white and the “bad guys” are dark, which “structure the play’s internal dynamics,” Brewer goes on (p. 389). The author notes that Captain Hook’s first mate is a “gigantic black” man who is “terrifying to children” and the “racial schema that emerges from this (white/black, good/bad, civilized/savage) functions to render Peter as a representative of the white racial self” (p. 389). Hence, it is Brewer’s contention that the play reflects Berrie’s location in the British racial pecking order during that era.

[in the 1911 edition of Peter and Wendy (pp. 62-63) Hook is the “blackest and largest jewel in that dark setting” and he was “cadaverous and blackavized” and his hair had “long curls” that looked like “black candles” from a bit of a distance. Cadaverous means death-like — which is not a black color but a grayish color — and blackavized means painted black, so this passage is open to the possible interpretation that Hook was once grayish (the color of a cadaver) but is now turned dark (“blackavized”) through some transition that Berrie doesn’t explain. Interestingly, in reference to Hook’s color, on page 112 as Hook is trying to evade the crocodile he showed “no elation on his pestilent face now, only white fear”]

The original title of the play was the Great White Father, Brewer explains on page 390, a title that has “imperialist overtones” and also a title that reflects “the heart of the play’s subject matter.”

Racial differences and disparities aren’t the only contentious adult issue to be found in Peter Pan. On page 389 Brewer uses a portion of an earlier version of the play in which Tiger Lily presents “a rape fantasy.” If Tiger Lily runs into the woods, the passage begins, and “Peter Paleface attack her” what would happen? Since Tiger Lily “no run fast” and if she “tumble into a heap” with Peter catching up, “what then? What then?” (p. 389).

This again represents and reflects the brutally unjust aspects of British Colonial culture, Brewer continues. She compares Pan himself with “many a colonial governor before him” because he rules “largely by intimidation. The boys who make up his followers,” Brewer goes on, “are described as ‘like dogs waiting for the master to tell them that their day has begun’” and they know if they don’t make Pan happy (by presumably attacking native women) “they will catch it” (p. 389).

Brewer brings in a deeply psychological, Freudian theme in the book on page 391 of her essay on Peter Pan. She references Michael Egan’s analysis, which posits that Pan is comparable to “the selfishly amoral child” with a superego still being developed and whose conscience is “weak” (Brewer, p. 391). Never Land, still using Freud as a reference point, is said by Egan to “resemble Freud’s conception of the unconscious” — with its “archetypal representations of terror — beasts, savages, and murderers” — and Hook himself represents the “symbolically castrated Oedipal father (p. 391), according to Brewer’s referencing of Egan’s views.

On the subject of the symbolic castration of Hook by Pan, Brewer suggests that it is possible to link Hook to Freud’s “dark continent” which Freud used to describe female sexuality (p. 392). While it may seem to the casual reader that Peter Pan is “no more than a delightful children’s story,” Brewer concludes on page 392, in fact the play “is implicated in white supremacist discourse” because it “reproduces the axioms of imperialism in a displaced and dispersed form.” And moreover, Brewer insists, the huge success of Peter Pan over the years, and its staying power, reveals how “staged representations of race” can be (and are) “crucial to the formation and perpetuation of whiteness” (p. 392).

In her book Now or Neverland: Peter Pan and the Myth of Eternal Youth — a Psychological Perspective on a Cultural Icon, author Ann Yeoman expresses what critics and scholars know very well, that as readers “we have license to propose a number of possible developments” for the characters Berrie has created in the book (Yeoman, 1998, p. 129). Yeoman sees Pan’s innocence clearly portrayed by Berrie in the fact that Pan cannot understand what Tiger Lily wants to be to him “if not a mother” (p. 131). Pan’s innocence also comes through when he “does something to” the boys’ emerging bodies in order for them to still fit well in the hollow trees, Yeoman explains.

It is clear that Yeoman has conducted deep research in order to create a narrative that is psychologically investigative. Some of her discussions are esoteric and difficult to fully flush out. For example, on page 132 she explains the scene in which Tinker Bell tries to kill Wendy and Wendy is threatened by pirates. “This indicates the strength of the negative animal as ‘nature being,’ as mermaid or fairywho indicates psychologically the original closeness of the animal with water, the unconscious, into which she is always ready to disappear” (Yeoman, p. 132).

The author says it is “tempting” to view Neverland as a “metaphor for Celtic Ireland” at this point in the story. Why? In Celtic lore the mythological race of the “Peoples of the Goddess Danann” (Tuatha De Danann) suffered a serious defeat when human invaders arrived. The humans drove the De Danann people underground and they then were transformed into “Little People or Faerie Folk of Irish Legend” (Yeoman, p. 132). Hence the Faerie Folk came to symbolize the De Danann’s “earlier sensual and spiritual connection to life and nature that influenced the beliefs of the Druids” until Christianity showed up, Yeoman continues. This analogy dovetails with the confusion and game playing in Neverland, according to Yeoman’s point-of-view.

The author dips into the sexuality issues on page 133, asserting that the blending together of masculine and feminine attributes within Berrie’s characters offers “yet another example” of how powerful “but unconscious” the hold on maternal feminine is. Yes, Peter’s charm is in large part based on his “prepubescent asexuality” but the way Hook is presented casts a shadowy set of images that mix masculine and feminine qualities, Yeoman asserts. For example, Hook’s style of dress reminds the author of King Charles II, whose court “was renowned for its permissive admixture of effeminacy, sexual license and perversity” (Yeoman, p. 133). Hook is both elegant and sinister, Yeoman writes, and he has features of the devil and yet his eyes are “of the blue of the forget-me-not”; he pretends to be impervious to emotional change, yet he “swipes an errant tear from his eye with a flourish of his iron claw,” Yeoman continues (p. 133).

Continuing her psychological analysis of the play, Yeoman (p. 135) explains that the crocodile signifies “the dual nature of humankind”; it reflects ancient worlds that existed long before recorded history, and also is seen as having “a nearness to the origins and source of life” (p. 135). And so for Hook, to be eaten by the crocodile reflects in the story an “irreversible defeat by process (time) and a final descent into hell, into the maternal matrix,” the author posits (p. 135). She suggests that Hook’s “horror of death” shows readers the “fragmentation of identity” and “resistance against regression” (p. 135).

The real bottom line as to why Berrie created this iconic fictional work, according to Yeoman (p. 149), is connected to the fact that his own boyhood lacked security and “solace.” His own childhood was based largely on fantasy, Yeoman asserts, and hence the Davies family filled his desire for a family right out of a storybook. Moreover, the author explains on page 151, “Play and fantasy lead us into the future because they make us creators” and they also “legitimize” our own reconstruction and “re-creation” of the world we live in. Creating fantasy, as Berrie did so brilliantly, makes us “gods for an hour or a day”; and in addition, by making our own fantasy, we are creating an unlimited vision of a world of our own making that is, Yeoman writes, “is secret and therefore save” (p. 151).

There are no deep psychological investigations in the Peter Pan illustrated book by Young Classics, adapted by Michael Johnstone. In fact this is the classic children’s version of the story. And interestingly, in the two pages prior to the start of the story, readers are given a brief biography of Berrie and more than that, a map of the gardens in London near where Berrie grew up. The Kensington Gardens in London are connected to Kensington Palace, where Princess Diana lived prior to her untimely, tragic death. Berrie, as a boy, fantasized that there were fairies and runaway children hidden in Kensington Gardens; he visited the gardens often but he wasn’t alone because many others enjoyed walks through the gardens, including nannies that took their children to the gardens to play.

The book has a beautiful illustration (made by Barrie) of the Kensington Gardens, with his own fictional venues prominently displayed. There is the Fairies’ Winter Palace, the Bird’s Island, the Fairies’ Basin and, of course, X marks the spot where “Peter Pan landed” (Johnstone, 1998, pp. 6-7). The publisher of the Young Classics book, Dorling Kindersley Limited, and since Berrie had donated his copyright to the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital in 1929, a royalty (not specified as to how much) is sent to the hospital from the sale of this book.

Still on the subject of Berrie’s youth, Sydney Blow has written the Foreword in Barrie’s book, When Wendy Grew Up: An Afterthought, and Blow describes Berrie’s childhood experiences in a way that links seamlessly in some passages with the story of Peter Pan. Blow notes that at the age of seven, Barrie suffered and grieved because his older brother (David, nearly 14 years old) was killed in a skating accident. “The bond of sorrow” brought James and his mother closer together than they had been, and part of that bonding included the two reading books to one another, Blow explains (Blow, 1957, p. 2).

Two of the books that mother and son read to one another included Robinson Crusoe and Pilgrim’s Progress, Blow writes. “Young James was fascinated” with Pilgrim’s Progress and he was so taken by the book that he “turned the [family] garden into “a Slough of Despond!” (Blow, p. 2). (in Pilgrim’s Progress, the character Christian sinks into the slough due to the intensity of his guilt from the sins he has committed.) Blow references Barrie’s book, Margaret Ogilvy, in which Barrie reports that he read “every book” that he could borrow or beg, and occasionally Barrie would buy a book at a bookshop. While standing at the counter, Barrie would read “most of the other books in the shop” (Blow quoting from Margaret Ogilvy). Moreover, while Barrie was reading books in the bookstore, he happened upon a periodical called Sunshine. Barrie referred to Sunshine as “the most delicious periodical, I am sure, of any day [and] it was full of stories about pirates and desert islandsfairytale and romance” (Blow, pp. 2-3).

Sounding like Peter Pan himself, Barrie is quoted on page 4 of Blow’s Foreword as worrying that his emerging beard meant he was growing up. “The horror of my boyhood was that I knew a time would come when I also must give up the games [and so] I felt that I must continue playing in secret” (Blow, p. 4).

On the subject of his brother dying, author Anthony Lane writes in the New Yorker that James’ brother David was killed when a him and David fell backwards and “cracked his skull” (Lane, 2004, p. 3). James’ mother fell into a deep grieving spell, and James was there to offer comfort, Lane writes. When James entered his mother’s room — she was in bed with the lights out — his mother said, “Is that you?” But James had never heard her use that tone before so he did not respond (Lane, p. 3). A second time, his mother said “Is that you?” And according to Lane James thought perhaps his mother was calling out to the dead brother David. But James finally offered, “No, it’s no’ him, it’s just me.”

From that time forward, James “worshipped his dead brother with a devotion that carried the taint of jealousy,” Lane writes (p. 3). At one point James went into his mother’s room wearing one of David’s suits, Lane writes. And within the “residue of calamity” that his older brother’s death, the conviction “seeped into Barrie’s art” that a “perfect child who dies on the eve of his fourteenth birthday will be spared the degradation of growing up” (Lane, p. 3). Enter the idea and theme for Peter Pan; and if imagine how Barrie constructed a picture of perfection regarding David, within James’ creative and active mind the boy “will seem scarcely to have passed away at all” (Lane, p. 3).

Lane offers some interesting biographical material on Barrie, including the fact that albeit he married Mary AnseU on 1894, he also loved “many women” besides her in his career (p. 5). That said, Lane’s research reveals that Barrie did not have sex with all the women he had affairs with. It was “outside his interests,” and perhaps it was also “beyond his grasp” Lane writes, subtly suggesting that perhaps Barrie was impotent. The fact that Barrie never had a child of his own adds to the mysteries and subtleties of this author’s peculiar life.

In Barrie’s story Tommy and Grizel Barrie seems to be revealing his own sexual incapacities, according to Lane on page 5. Instead of burying his flaws, he dug them up, Lane writes, “like a pirate uncovering a treasure chest” (p. 5). “Grizel, I seem to be different from all other men,” the author penned in Tommy and Grizel; “There seems to be a curse upon meYou are the only woman I ever wanted to love, but apparently I can’t” (Lane quoting from Barrie).


There are an impressive number of scholarly articles, books, reviews, and editorials surrounding the iconic story of Peter Pan. And from the research presented in this paper it is clear that while parts of the story are perfectly suited for children, the deeper themes and symbols in the book are more in the “adult” category than many people probably realize. If the scholarship presented in this paper is to be believed, Barrie used racial, sexual, gender-related and other themes that have fascinating and yet dark — and yes, adult — implications.

Works Cited

Barrie, J.M. Peter and Wendy. New York: Grosset & Dunlap Publishers: 1911.

Blow, Sydney. When Wendy Grew Up. Foreword. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co, Inc. 1958.

Brewer, Mary. “Peter Pan and the White Imperial Imaginary.” Cambridge University Press.

23.4 (2007): 387-392.

Johnstone, Michael. Peter Pan. London: Dorling Kindersley Limited, 1998. (Written by J.M.

Barrie and adapted by Michael Johnson, illustrated by Chris Molan).

Lane, Anthony. “Lost Boys.” The New Yorker 80.36 (2004): 1-14.

Pharand, Michel W. “Donna R. White and C. Anita Tarr, eds. J.M. Barrie’s ‘Peter Pan’ in and Out of Time: A Children’s Classic at 100.” English Literature in Transition 1880-1920, 50.2,

(2007): 226-227.

White, Donna R. And Tarr, Anita C. Eds J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in and Out of Time: A

Children’s Classic at 100. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press (2006).

Yeoman, Ann. Now or Neverland: Peter Pan and the Myth of Eternal Youth. A Psychological

Perspective on a Cultural Icon. Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books, 1998.