LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Everyone Grows Up Eventually—Or Do They?

on March 28, 2013 2:50pm

J. M. Barrie is an individual whose childhood did not end with the progression of his age or rather, arguably, ever.  Like the character of Peter Pan, he attempted to live a very whimsical life seemingly unscathed by the harsh realities of the world around him.  He tried to appear as if he was never consumed by many of the qualities of adulthood and viewed many of life’s greatest complexities in the same way that a young child would.  This could explain why his marriage to his wife reportedly persisted unconsummated or why he developed such a strong, playful relationship with the Llewelyn Davies boys.  Aside from the belief that Barrie could have written many of his stories for children, I believe that a stronger argument can be made that he was expressing his own inner desires to live the life of Peter Pan in both Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and later Peter and Wendy.  This could explain why the themes of endless childhood and escape persist so strongly throughout his stories.

J. M. Barrie playing “Neverland” with Michael Llewelyn Davies

Barrie’s childhood life could be considered to be extremely traumatic by many.  His brother, David, the favorite of his mother, died at a young age, which reportedly affected him so greatly that he became a victim of psychogenic dwarfism—a disorder which could have accounted for his small stature for the rest of his life.  Barrie reportedly attempted on numerous occasions to fill the void in his mother’s life that was created by David’s death to partial avail.  The theme of being replaced or not truly prized by his mother can be seen in one of Peter’s returns home from Kensington Gardens in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.  However, I believe that the trauma of a life not fully recognized by his mother may have been what was truly too hard to handle perhaps even more so than his own brother’s death.  The character Peter Pan is first introduced as an infant who escapes from his home on an adventure to Kensington Gardens, a place filled with magic and fantasy.  As a reader, I believe that this portrays Barrie’s desire to escape to the Kensington Gardens and, later, Neverland that he described in his books—an opportunity to live a magical and forever-childlike life away from the problems associated with reality.

J. M. Barrie appears to have an obsession with childhood.  Readers can see Peter’s eternal childhood as either a blessing or a curse, but I believe that Barrie truly envied this quality of his most famous creation.  I believe that his inner feelings appear through much of the text, and it seems as if he views childhood and youth as a blessing and the consequential growth into adulthood as a curse.  In Peter and Wendy, Barrie states that Wendy knew she needed to grow up at one point in her life after one of her conversations with her mother and that this realization often comes after the age of two, which he defines as being the beginning of the end.  The claim is true that all children eventually must grow up no matter how hard they try to fight it.  However, J. M. Barrie made an interesting case for the opposition.  With the stature and emotional or even mental capacity of a child, he may have succeeded in temporarily elongating the length of his childhood through the creation of a character and story that he could live vicariously through—the story of Peter Pan.


2 responses to “Everyone Grows Up Eventually—Or Do They?

  1. I really enjoyed this post regarding Barrie’s personal experiences in accordance to the notion of an everlasting childhood as revealed in Peter Pan. It is evident that his traumatic past definitely affected his literary works. As you mentioned, Barrie’s small, physical stature is very similar to that of a child. In addition, his apparent unconsummated marriage can be described as child-like. In this sense, Barrie really remained an eternal boy. The death of his brother and the subsequent somewhat abandonment by his mother created a very sad and lonely life for Barrie. As a child, it is safe to say that he would have longed for an escape from reality. I agree that this notion of an escape and refuge inspired Barrie to create the worlds of Kensington Gardens and Neverland. The character of Peter Pan is able to enter a world full of magic, wonder, and fancy. The troubles of the real world are not present and he can totally remove himself from the struggles of reality. I wholeheartedly agree with your assertion that Barrie lived vicariously through Peter Pan. Through his writing, Barrie was able to offer himself a sort of new life where he did not have to worry about death, lonesomeness, and other worries. It is very apparent that Barrie had a deep love of childhood. He thoroughly enjoyed spending time with the Davies brothers and entertained them through the stories of Peter Pan. Many people might find Barrie’s love of children and never growing up to be misguided and creepy; however, I believe that it can be attributed to the fact that Barrie suffered greatly in his own childhood. As a result of his tragedies and physical shortcomings, Barrie himself really did remain in a childlike state for the rest of his life. Thus, the character of Peter Pan came to be an embodiment of himself and his desire to remain an eternal boy who never grows up.

  2. Emily Troilo says:

    I definitely agree with your psychoanalytic reading of Barrie’s Peter Pan stories (Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and Peter and Wendy). I always place a lot of emphasis on biography of the author providing meaning in their texts, and Barrie’s biography is a minefield of explosive bits of information that could permanently traumatize a writer. The narrator in both of Barrie’s Peter Pan books is never named but sounds an awful lot like Barrie himself, and I think Barrie’s developmental stunting and feelings of childishness come across evidently in the narration of these books. First of all, the narrator seems to be an adult but to also be in cahoots with a child (David) in writing the stories. Every now and then he will say something about how he and other adults are not able to return to Neverland like children are, but every moment he is regaling us with fantastical stories of Neverland supposedly in the present tense. The pronouns of the novel switch all the time, possibly representing a confusion about where Barrie really belongs—with adults or with children. It switches from a “we” that is inclusive of children—“we children are the cruelest”—to a “we” that is inclusive of adults. It also switches its pronouns in regards to the audience the narrator is addressing—sometimes the “you” is an implied child audience and sometimes it is an implied adult audience. Likewise, the narrator’s tone switches from one of explaining things to a child to one of elevated language and descriptions of fairies returning home from an orgy. These switches would be problematic in any other work, but if the reader knows anything about Barrie’s life, they make complete sense.

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