Why Wendy does not Want to be a Darling: A New Interpretation of "Peter Pan"
by Shelly Rakover
October 25, 2010
This paper proposes a new reading of J.M. Barrie’s famous children’s book Peter Pan (1911), and more specifically the Disney adaptation that is so deeply engraved in the collective consciousness of recent generations. The interpretation focuses not on the supposed hero of the story, but on its heroine, Wendy Darling, and her journey from childhood to adulthood. According to this reading, the internal processes and psychological changes that Wendy undergoes are the main subject of the book, while the other characters (including Peter Pan himself) are archetypal personifications that present a variety of potential identities and experiences for her to consider on her search for self-identity. The appeal of Peter Pan, as the hero of a "boy's story" and a persona with the infectious charm of the “boy who wouldn’t grow up,” may be the reason for the choice of title, but in our opinion, it is Wendy’s journey that drives the plot and leads to its resolution.
Peter Pan is no doubt one of the most appealing subjects for "deep" psychological analysis. Interpretations of this character run from the pop-psychology term the "Peter Pan Syndrome" coined by Dr. Dan Kiley (1983) to refer to adult males who refuse to grow up and face their responsibilities, through Kenneth Kidd's (2004) sociocultural study of boys and the feral tale which questions Peter's masculinity and sexuality, to his alleged homosexuality which, according to Dore Ripley (2006), reflects Victorian longings for Hellenistic homosexual culture. In our opinion, however, these interpretations are too narrow and do not do justice to the story as whole. Focusing on Peter Pan per se offers no understanding of the narrative itself or of the psychological structure and motivation of the other characters. In contrast, analyzing the story from Wendy's point of view reveals a whole new mosaic of emotional and psychological dynamics.
At the beginning of the story, we meet Wendy at a time of upheaval in her life. She has been informed by her parents (representing, for our purposes, the adult world) that she is too old to remain in the nursery and must move into a room of her own. The move is associated with a range of developmental and psychological changes (both internal and external) which Wendy must now face, and which serve as the motivational foundation of the story. Wendy does not receive the news enthusiastically, to put it mildly, but at the same time she can not ignore the first signs that she is becoming a woman. This stage in her development is reflected not only in her maternal feelings toward her younger brothers, but even more so in her semi-romantic/sexual fantasies about Peter Pan.
As we delved deeper into the character and journey of Wendy Darling, we were struck by the parallels between this story and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll, 1865). In both cases, prepubescent girls set out on an adventurous quest in a world that affords access to the imagination and unconscious contents. And in both, they are “proper” young ladies brought up in the refined (and hypocritical?) British tradition of restraint, common sense, and integrity, qualities they display admirably when confronted with the underlying madness of the experiences they encounter. The fact that their strict, highly disciplined upbringing is a stark contrast to the cacophony of outlandish voices around them clearly reinforces their status as the heroines of the story. Unlike the traditional heroines of fairytales, however, this distinction does not derive from the circumstances of their birth (they have no royal blood), but from their inner strength and personality. Indeed, Wendy and Alice may very well be expressions in children’s literature of the emergence of the “modern woman,” a woman whose sexual/emotional/psychological identity is not automatically determined by biology or lineage; rather, she is increasingly capable of defining her own identity. As we see it, the subject of female identity is also the point at which the two stories diverge. Whereas Lewis Carroll chooses not to deal with this issue, leaving the question of Alice’s definition of herself as a woman outside the scope of the tale, James Barrie, and even more so the Disney movie, take Wendy on a profound journey of discovery that reveals modern and postmodern contents relating to the definitions of sex and gender.
The frame narrative of Peter Pan takes place in early 20th century London and presents the realistic characters of Wendy’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Darling, her brothers John and Michael, and the family dog, Nana. In contrast, the story within the story, Wendy’s journey in Neverland with her brothers, is a fantasy that is not subject to the laws of time and place and is populated by a wealth of imaginary and semi-imaginary figures. By moving between the worlds of reality and imagination, the narrative structure creates suspense, simulates internal and external processes in the two worlds, and provides a sense of irony and sarcasm, since it is the “realistic” characters who appear to be grotesque while the “imaginary” figures, impossible though they may be, seem much more authentic. Wendy’s journey of adolescence touches on the most basic issues of identity (sex and gender) as she wends her way among a multitude of options (characters), some of which draw on objective social materials and others on subjective unconscious contents in her personality.
On the surface, there appears to be no doubt as to Wendy’s sexual and gender identity. She is a girl and older sister whose gender and biological identities are one and the same. She exhibits maternal instincts toward her younger brothers and the Lost Boys, and is captivated by manifestations of female beauty and femininity (she is excited by Mrs. Darling’s elegant gown, Tinker Bell’s audacious femininity, and the allure of the mermaids, and is envious of Tiger Lily’s regal feminine persona). At the same time, as a child of the generation of the “modern woman,” she questions (albeit not consciously) the authenticity of the male and female traits presented in the story.
Mr. and Mrs. Darling
As stated above, Peter Pan is the story of female adolescence (the passage from childhood to adulthood) which takes place in a period of transition from perceptions rooted in the “old order” (represented by Wendy’s parents) to the world of the “modern woman” (represented by Wendy, Tinker Bell, and Tiger Lily). The collapse of the old order is inevitable, as the psychological disorders and distortions it brought about can no longer be ignored. The hypocrisy, sham, and most especially lack of authenticity displayed by Wendy’s parents is shamefully apparent to their daughter, and while there is no doubt as to their dedication to her, it is largely misconceived. Such parents are incapable of providing their daughter with the psychological and emotional nourishment she needs as she sets out on the road to adolescence.
Mrs. Darling is the embodiment of the “ideal woman” by all the sociocultural standards of her time. She does not work outside the home, but rather devotes herself to her household and children, is governed by the will of her husband, and displays the restraint and manners of an English lady. It soon becomes clear, however, that something is awry behind this fine social façade of perfection. Her functioning as a mother (to say nothing of her maternal judgment) must be called into question by the fact that she relegates the role of nanny to the family dog. There may also be doubts about her functioning as a wife, since it is based primarily on an attitude of submission or a rather maternal indulgence toward her husband. It would thus seem that Mrs. Darling is, in effect, a distorted and inauthentic version of the “proper girl” who grew up to become an English “lady,” a role Wendy is also expected to slip into effortlessly and without protest.
Mr. Darling is no less superficial and grotesque than his wife, and even more childish than she. Like Wendy’s mother, he is the product of sociocultural norms and expectations, a fact which might appear to bode well. He is an English gentleman, loyal to the principles of law and order, a married man with three children who conscientiously provides for his family. Within his home, however, he displays not a single example of mature responsible behavior. He pours his daily dose of medicine into Nana’s bowl, is envious of his children’s affection for the dog and consequently chains her up outside, and after struggling unsuccessfully to tie his tie properly, he becomes frustrated and throws a temper tantrum like a little boy. Ironically, it is Mr. Darling who insists on respect from his wife and children as the male head of the household, and when he does not receive it, he unhesitatingly invokes the authority and power he holds by virtue of his social and family status (rather than by virtue of his mature personality). He demands that Wendy “grow up” overnight, and forces his wife to comply with his will on this and other issues.
Wendy’s parents are not role models, and definitely not characters that can be identified with and internalized. Mrs. Darling is so anemic, so lacking in imagination and passion, that even Nana appears to be a better example of a maternal figure. It is abundantly clear (both to her daughter and to the readers/audience) that Wendy's mother has nothing to offer her that will be of help on her journey of adolescence. Mr. Darling is presented as no less ridiculous than his wife. His behavior is childish, and he is so emotionally remote and detached that his children might as well be orphans. At this time in Wendy’s life, the lack of a father figure who appreciates and encourages the various aspects of femininity, first of all in his wife but also in his daughter, is critical. In our opinion, Peter Pan deals with the far-reaching implications of a father’s emotional absence on a girl’s life, particularly in the context of her search for sexual and gender identity. This is not meant to detract in any way from the significance of the mother in female adolescence, a subject discussed elsewhere (Rakover-Atar, 2002; Rakover & Noy, 2006). However, we believe that less emphasis is placed in this story on the lack of a female role model than on the absence of a father figure.
Within the pervasive atmosphere of pretense and inauthenticity distorting her world, Wendy must find her unique voice. She must set out on a quest to discover her own “loyalties,” her instinctive nature, and the features of her personality (feminine/masculine and others) with which she identifies. From this perspective, the story within the story may be seen as a dream-like stage occupied by characters that represent Wendy’s unconscious contents and attributes.
The inhabitants of Neverland
We have chosen to focus here on the characters of Peter Pan, Tinker Bell, and Tiger Lily, as we consider them to best reflect the fundamental materials in Wendy’s inner world. Where relevant, we also relate to other figures, including Captain Hook and his pirate band, the mermaids, the Indian tribe, and the Lost Boys.
Although events in Neverland are characterized by the sense of floating overhead that is typical of dreams, we must not forget that Wendy goes there for a very “down-to-earth” purpose - to “grow up” at her father’s command - adding a certain sense of urgency and weight to her glide. As we have said, she must discover her own nature and the internal and external traits with which she identifies. Thus, it is not surprising that she encounters several essentially female characters (both fantasy and semi-fantasy beings), such as Tinker Bell, Tiger Lily, and the mermaids. Each of them represents different feminine attributes in Wendy herself. In contrast to the women, the male characters in the story (Captain Hook, the pirates, the Lost Boys) do not present sufficiently “masculine” options to give this term any real depth of meaning. On the whole, the male inhabitants of Neverland are depicted as childish and ludicrous, and all of them are cruel to some degree or another. A refreshing exception is provided by Tiger Lily’s Indian tribe, who, despite being secondary characters, may offer a more meaningful masculine option, as we shall see below. Above them all, suspended in mid-air as it were, is the eternal child Peter Pan himself, whose gender identity is not entirely clear, and thus might be said to be androgynous. Consequently, on the one hand he helps to sharpen the distinctions (and the choice) between the masculine and the feminine, and on the other, he raises questions as to their content and meaning.
The first female character Wendy meets in Neverland is Tinker Bell, or “Tink,” as Peter Pan calls her, a tiny fairy who is the antithesis of everything a fairy should be. Save for her ability to fly (she has wings) and her “fairy dust,” there is nothing in her appearance or behavior to associate her with the angelic feminine world of fairies. On the contrary, she is the epitome of provocative femininity. Clad in a skeleton leaf that reveals more than it hides, she is short-tempered and uninhibited, says and does what she wants without any shame or fear, and is the ideal companion for Peter Pan’s adventures. This type of womanhood is so foreign and bewildering to Wendy that she can only stare in mute admiration at the fairy’s conduct in general and her relationship with Peter Pan in particular. Tinker Bell represents everything an English lady can only dream about (such as giving free rein to her id), and Wendy indeed fantasizes about being more “Tinkerbellish” and revealing to Peter her feelings for him. However, her honed instincts and British common sense soon remind her of the danger inherent in such unconstrained provocative femininity, which poses risks both for the woman herself and for those around her. Tinker Bell endangers the life of Wendy (she sics the Lost Boys on her), Peter (she leads Captain Hook to him), and even herself (she almost dies in the fire she starts in the forest).
As an archetype, Tinker Bell represents impulsive provocative femininity. In positive terms, she is the model of the woman who is liberated, authentic, and devoid of pretense and hypocrisy. In negative terms, she is childish, undisciplined, irresponsible, and above all, dangerous. Since Tinker Bell herself displays no sides other than “Tinkerbellishness,” this feminine option proves to be grotesque and untenable.
The secondary characters of the mermaids are also female inhabitants of Neverland. In this case, their remote “virginal” appearance (a metaphor for unobtainable feminine beauty) belies an envious uncivil nature (they are offensive to Wendy). Moreover, as an option of femininity, they too are distorted, as they are restricted to the single dimension of “maids” (for a detailed discussion of this archetype, see: Rakover & Noy, 2006).
Another female character is Tiger Lily, the Indian princess. Wendy watches in awe as the familiar scenario of the "lady in distress" unfolds before her very eyes. The drowning princess (Tiger Lily) is rescued by a knight in shining armor (Peter Pan). Consequently, she recognizes in the scene the potential for romance between them. This turns Wendy from an object of envy (for Tinker Bell) into a subject who is envious (of Tiger Lily), awakening in her dormant female intuitions. She perceives in Tiger Lily a feminine identity that is not solely cultural and/or aesthetic, but deeper and rounder. Unlike the grotesque or fake femininity Wendy has previously been familiar with, there is no pretense in Tiger Lily. She is a genuine princess, the daughter of a race whose ancient culture is closely tied to and nourished by nature, and she displays no trace of inauthenticity by her conduct. In fact, the opposite is true: her authenticity and integrity expose the distortions in the other characters. Under the spotlight of Tiger Lily’s personality, Peter and Wendy are shown for what they are: he is not a knight in shining armor who will make the princess his queen, and she is still a girl without a clear understanding of her femininity.
Tiger Lily represents the female archetype of the “noble savage.” On the one hand, as a member of an Indian tribe she is allied with the primeval tradition of femininity, sexuality, and instincts associated with the cycles of nature (and thus not merely provocative and/or aesthetic). On the other hand, as a princess she belongs to a venerable cultural dynasty. In Tiger Lily, femininity takes the form of a true balance between the “savage” and the “noble,” and thus this option enjoys a high degree of validity and authenticity.
Neverland suffers from a severe lack of mature functioning men. In effect, not a single character fulfils these criteria. In this sense, Wendy’s internal world (represented by Neverland) faithfully reflects her external world (represented by the frame narrative): there is no well-developed male figure in either one. In the story within the story, both the adult males (Captain Hook, the pirates, the Indians) and the male children (the Lost Boys and Peter Pan himself) are preoccupied by only one thing: playing games. Captain Hook and his pirate band devote their lives to the game of “Get Peter Pan,” the Indians play “war games” with the Lost Boys, and Peter Pan plays the most entertaining game of all, “Goading Captain Hook.” These characters symbolize Wendy’s unconscious associations with men and masculinity: an addiction to contests of ego aimed at proving which one is the strongest, greatest, or smartest. We do not mean to imply that games are of no importance (certainly for children, but even for adults), but to demonstrate the distortion created in the story by the fact that the games are the main purpose of the characters’ lives, and have never evolved into anything beyond games per se.
The lack of mature male figures in the fantasy reflects Wendy’s lack of understanding of masculinity, which results, in our opinion, from the absence of a well-developed and properly functioning father figure in her life. Beyond representing the archetypal aspects of law and order, rationality, etc., the father figure is the primary source of a young girl’s knowledge of male (and female) attributes. Unfortunately, like Wendy Darling, the only father many girls know is a man who is ludicrous in the best case, and emotionally remote and detached in the worst case. For Wendy, masculine and childish are virtually synonymous, with “masculine childishness” generally accompanied by arbitrary cruelty. As noted above, in this context the Indians are a welcome relief. Although they display a childish side in the war games they play with the Lost Boys, they are aware of the fact that a game is just a game (they release their “captives”). They also have more developed masculine dimensions as well, including a culture, a tradition, and an established regime. And most significantly, they acknowledge the existence and importance of their women (they defer to their princess, Tiger Lily).
The figure of Peter Pan is the product of Wendy’s lack of an understanding of the male that derives from the absence of a father figure in her world. Mr. Darling’s demeaning chauvinistic attitude toward his wife and daughter (in ironic contrast to his name), and his inability to accept his feminine side (emotionality, vulnerability) generate confusion in Wendy primarily, although not exclusively, in regard to her own sexual identity. A father who is incapable of appreciating, encouraging, and nurturing the womanly and the women in his life (and in himself), is apt to cause such damage to the psyche of his young daughter that it can only be repaired over the course of many years, if ever. This damage is the source of many women’s distorted perceptions of themselves, of men, and of the nature of the relationship between them (for a detailed discussion of this issue, see Leonard, 1982).
Wendy’s confusion, ambivalence, and ill-conceived ideas of the masculine, the feminine, and the relation between them “give birth” to the fantastical figure of Peter Pan. His elusiveness is the direct result of the fact that he is the product of internal confusion. Peter Pan represents the shadowy aspects in Wendy (masculinity, irresponsibility, etc.), animus projection (the desired male), and a deviant developmental option (not to grow up) which allows for an alternative postmodern definition of sexual identity: transgenderism. Peter Pan is not committed to any sexual identity or any sex or gender roles, just as he is not committed to anything else in his life. He can maintain his mobility between the sexes, between roles, and between the masculine and the feminine because he is “frozen” in prepubescence in the fantasy world of Neverland. In psychological terms, the Peter Pan option is, in effect, a mental/emotional space in Wendy’s psyche which allows her to examine these aspects of herself.
The lack of clarity regarding Peter Pan’s masculine traits presents Wendy with a complex psychological challenge. Because of his nature as a trickster, it is hard for her to grasp hold of him (literally and figuratively), or to feel a sense of security when she is with or near him. She is torn between her desire (or rather yearning) to be a bit “Peter Panish” herself, and her desire to tame and civilize his mercurial elusiveness. Her ambivalent attitude toward him reflects her condition in general. On the one hand, she is drawn to the “Peter Pan option” that will make the whole task of growing up irrelevant and enable her to continue to “float” through life like a child. On the other hand, she is unable to ignore the tantalizing secrets of the adult world that promise a different type of excitement which she has already begun to sense (in her romantic/erotic feelings for Peter Pan, for example).
As the plot unfolds, the deeper significance and future implications of the reluctance to grow up become increasingly clear. The resolution of Wendy’s ambivalence (which seems to emerge of its own accord) presents itself when Wendy attempts to turn her romantic/sexual fantasy into concrete reality. In the scene of Princess Tiger Lily’s rescue, Wendy recognizes the archetype of the potent encounter between the male or animus and the female or anima. Something deep inside her is awakened, causing her to identify with the feminine and wish to play the female role herself. The fact that this role in the scene is already “taken” by a real princess who has no shame in her feelings for the “prince” and no qualms about showing them (as befitting a daughter of the “modern woman”) actually appears to intensify Wendy’s identification with this figure and her instinctual adoption of it. For the first time in her young life, she is compelled by her jealousy, as well as by her sense of humiliation, abandonment, and rage at Peter’s (and her father's?) betrayal and evasiveness, to deal in a mature and responsible manner with her choices regarding her nature and identity.
Against the background of these events, the unappealing aspects of the “Peter Panish” lack of desire (or capacity) to grow up become evident. Choosing this option might allow Wendy the easy alternative of not having to commit to anyone or anything, but it would also mean a life of shallowness and solitude, which are the inevitable correlations of such a state. Having experienced the authentic, and transforming, power of the archetypal contents in her psyche (male and female), she can not, nor does she wish to, continue to exist like Peter Pan or in his world. The age-old seed of human understanding she has always carried within her has now ripened, giving her a different perception of the world (and of herself), of the feminine, the masculine, and the relationship between them. Her unequivocal identification with the bud of femininity that has blossomed inside her as a result of the encounter between animus and anima defines not only her female sexual/gender identity, but also the problematic male sexual/gender identity of Peter Pan. His utter unwillingness (or inability) to commit to one identity forces her to commit to her own nature and identity to avoid becoming as grotesque and inauthentic as her parents. Defining the feminine, masculine, and the relations between them is a difficult enough task even without unnecessary complications. From the heights of the new awareness she has achieved, Wendy can now see that the transgender option represented by Peter Pan is rather like an “umbrella” covering a set of distorted solutions which, although not identical, all share the common feature of an unwillingness to commit and take responsibility. For Wendy, Peter’s refusal to identify with or commit to his male essence, despite the archetypal forces operating in the scene of the princess’s rescue, is like a slap in the face. With the echo of this humiliating and disappointing blow resounding in her ears, she rebels against the situation, thereby expressing her disapproval of any sort of grotesque or inauthentic gender existence (whether female, male, or androgynous).
The rescue of the princess is a turning point in Wendy’s journey of self-identity. After this scene, it is clear that the days of Neverland, like those of Wendy’s sojourn in it, are numbered. She now begins to miss her home and expresses the desire to return to the real world. In our opinion, this wish does not mean that she is submitting to the skewed model of her parents, but rather signifies her readiness to put into practice the new insights she has gained.
Barrie, J. M. (1911). Peter Pan and Wendy. London: Harper Collins Publishers.
Carroll, L. (1865). Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. London: Macmillan Publishers Ltd.
Kidd, K.B. (2004). Making American Boys: Boyology and the Feral Tale. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Kiley, D. (1983). The Peter Pan Syndrome: Man Who have Never Grown up. New York: Dodd, Mean & Co.
Leonard, L. S. (1982). The wounded woman: healing the father-daughter relationship. Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Rakover-Atar, S. (2002). "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves: the Feminine Journey and the Wild Woman Archetype". Nefesh quarterly, 12, 33-37.
Rakover, S. & Noy, Y. (2006). "The little Mermaid: the Journey of a lost Girl". Hebrew Psychology on the Web, retrieved February 14, 2010.
Ripley, D. (2006). The Broken Mirror: A Freudian Slip into Hellenistic Victorian Gynoculture. Ripley Online.Com, retrieved March 27, 2010.
Received: July 14, 2010, Published: October 25, 2010. Copyright © 2010 Shelly Rakover