LIT 4334: The Golden Age of Children's Literature

Malnutrition and Imaginary Meals in Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan

Upon looking for sources for my paper, I stumbled upon an article that talked about how hunger and malnutrition are represented in Alice in Wonderland, as a commentary on the famines of the Victorian era. According to the article, Lewis Carroll included the tiny pieces of food, about the place, to express that Alice is essentially scrounging for her meals. She is lucky to stumble upon something, but is often left looking about for more food to return her to normal. In the Victorian era, there were enormous food shortages, causing the price of food to be raised to an intolerable level. As a result, meals became hard to come by. Considering Lewis Carroll saw this occurring, and experienced it himself, he felt the need to use it as a theme in Alice in Wonderland, and seek a solution for it.
At one point, in the novel, Alice meets the caterpillar, smoking atop a giant mushroom. When leaving, he tells her that one side will make her small, and one side will make her big. Alice then attempts to regain her original size, and upon doing so, realizes the value of the mushroom. From then on, Alice stores the mushroom pieces in her apron, thinking that she can use them as needed. This mushroom is thus Carroll’s solution for Victorian society–to find food in nature.

In Peter and Wendy, the lost boys complain about having to occasionally make believe their dinners. I personally found this to be one of the most pitiable situations in the book, and I was curious as to why J. M. Barrie might have written such scenes. After reading about the high price of food in the Victorian era, I wondered if perhaps Barrie was also making a commentary about the Edwardian era, through Peter and Wendy, by expressing that, due the food shortages, little boys and girls sometimes had to imagine they had meals. The Edwardian era, however, was described as a golden age between the Victorian era and World War I, hence I am led to believe that the food shortages improved. What I did read was about a Poor Law that was implemented, which gave relief funds to unemployed women, but not to unemployed able-bodied males. As a result, if one was married to an unemployed male, one was cut off from funds, as well. Upon reading this, I wondered about the financial situation of the Davies boys, and if the imaginary meals were an idea thought up by Barrie to quell their growling stomachs, rather than that of society as a whole. Children often play make believe, when it comes to tea parties, but in Peter and Wendy there is an obvious expression that these boys are hungry, despite having nothing,

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Everyone Grows Up Eventually—Or Do They?

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.

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Peter Pan: Appropriate for Children Today?

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J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan or Peter Pan and Wendy has been classified as a children’s novel during its initial release, however, for contemporary readers it can be read by young adults. Most children would recognize the character of Peter Pan through the animated Disney films and the wide variety of film adaptations of the novel. The novel during the time was undoubtedly considered a novel for children despite the violent scenes and dark undertones. For children today it may be a little too much for them to handle, especially with the rise of parental concern and censorship. Children ranging for ages 5-9 would probably be better off watching the interactive animated show, Jake and the Never Land Pirates, which is based on the Peter Pan franchise. Once a child is a little older and less sheltered they may be allowed to read the original novel considering it still provides elements and themes a child would love.

Some portions in the novel that may concern some parents may include the actions and personalities of some of the characters. For example, there is a location in Never Land known as Mermaid’s Lagoon where mermaids sing songs to entice and attract potential victims in which they then drown for their own amusement. Then we have the notorious Captain Hook, who dedicates his life to get revenge on Peter Pan for literally cutting his right hand off and feeding it to a crocodile. To a child today, they would most likely view Hook as the obligatory antagonist whose sole purpose is to oppose the hero, Peter Pan. However, there is more to Hook than just the character with the role of the dastardly villain, in fact he can be interpreted as an intimidating adult who is obsessed with finding and killing a mere child. If the hook for a right hand was not enough, the pirate seems to have psychopathic tendencies throughout the novel. Although it may be an exaggeration, Hook may be too scary of a character for young children considering he is not a comedic buffoon as his Disney animated film counterpart. He even attempts to kill Peter Pan by switching his medicine with poison. Moreover, if Hook is not a nightmare inducing character for a young child then perhaps being devoured alive by a crocodile would seal the deal.

Aside from some dark moments in the novel, the overall story is perfect for any child who has a sense of adventure. Considering Peter Pan and Wendy was initially in the form of a play, the novel incorporates some interaction between the characters and the readers. Children are able to relate to these characters or at times even look up to them as possible influences. Barrie’s writing style compliments the interests of many young readers and it can be certain that contemporary young readers would get the same feel from the novel as children did throughout the early 20th century. In fact, the novel can be read by both male and female readers as it includes elements of action, adventure, and a small hint of romance. Overall, Peter Pan and Wendy can be an interesting read for a contemporary younger audience; however, perhaps those under the age of 8 may have to wait a little longer to get a better grasp of the novel and handle some of the dark themes that were acceptable during the Golden Age of literature.

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The Classic Character

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            While doing research for my group’s presentation on J.M. Barrie and his most well-known character Peter Pan, the question emerged whether or not this was considered a classic. Prior to this class, I was never of aware of the Little White Bird or Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, and my knowledge of the boy who would never grow up was mainly secluded to what Disney mass produced as a part of the “Masterpiece Collection”. While I agree that Peter Pan is a classic, it is not the books, but rather the character that has true lasting power in the cannon of children’s literature. Barrie’s novels have the ability to apply to both the audience of the child and the adult, which is certainly no easy feat, and a result of popularity, this story has been able to grow into a category of its own, which continues to be proliferated today. However, Peter himself is the true star that endures as an archetype of the boy who never turns into a man. While Wendy, Tinker Bell, Captain Hook, and the Lost Boys all serve an important part and are certainly known in their own right, it is the story of Peter that consistently prevails.

Peter Pan, the self-assured and smug boy of Neverland, has helped this story achieve notoriety because of the theme that he represents to many children and adults. In a society where we are forced to grow up and accept the realities of our day-to-day lives, Barrie questions this as he creates a character who not only refuses to grow up, but is also proud to stay a boy forever. As a result of Peter Pan, Barrie was able to capitalize and create multiple story lines as well as create a play that made this character an idol to those who wished they could step away from their own responsibilities and never stop believing in the impossible. While in all reality, Peter Pan is certainly not pure and innocent, his mischievousness goes unnoticed at times because I believe people are more focused on wishing they were more like him, living life free of accountability, and with the belief that they can do anything, including fly.

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Peter Pan: the Replacement Child

J.M. Barrie and one of the Llewelyn Davies boys

When one reads any Peter Pan works by J.M. Barrie, one may note dark undertones for a tale that is depicted as lighthearted and encouraging of the free spirit. Much of Barrie’s own experiences contributed to the work and it is said this is the reason for any of his works’ peculiarities. Barrie was described as childlike, no taller than 5’4” and almost incapable of real adult relationships. This fixation on childhood may be in part due to the loss of his brother David, who died two days shy of his 14th birthday in an ice skating accident. David was his mother’s favorite child (or so we think), and Barrie spent much of his childhood dressing in David’s clothing and trying to console his mother of her loss. Barrie began to fill the shoes of what is known as a “replacement child.” In most cases, a replacement child is a child born after the death of a sibling, however, when David died, expectations for his life and future fell onto Barrie.

One can draw a few parallels between Peter Pan and David, as Peter does not grow up and David is barred from adulthood in his death. Peter & Wendy opens with the famous line, “Every child grows up, except one.” David, who died at 14, is frozen at that age in childhood. He will never be thought of as a grown man or adult, but forever as an individual untouched by the experiences of adulthood. Many people often ask why or how Peter gains the ability to fly, and one may argue that he is in fact a ghost thus having the ability to fly to “other worlds” such as Neverland. Peter Pan also buries young children in Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and leads the lost souls of children in Peter & Wendy. These roles have very much to do with the dead and perhaps Peter performs these duties because he feels partial to dead children, as he is one.

Peter Pan is a mysterious figure in children’s literature that has intrigued and fascinated people always. We all experience a sense of never wanting to grow up and this has allowed Peter to remain such a prevalent character in literature, movies, and other works. Though his origins are unknown, one thing is certain: Peter and his stories are peculiar. Peter Pan works have a few minor creepy details and this may be attributed to Barrie’s childhood experiences especially given the loss of David and having to replace him in order to console his unstable mother.

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The Boyhood in Barrie

In exploration of J.M. Barrie’s life it proved impossible, for himself and the reader alike, to be able to extricate the events of Barrie’s life from that of his writing.  They are completely impossible to untangle and have undoubtedly informed and inspired one another.  I think the experiences Barrie bore throughout his life that created and manifested within him this enduring essence of ‘boyhood’ became both his downfall and his triumph.  I believe that without the childlike qualities and identification with the manners and minds of children that Barrie possessed; he would not have been able to write and weave so beautifully the imaginative stories he did.  However, it cannot go unacknowledged that his unyielding grip on childhood, which revealed itself in his novels and plays, were also a source of criticism from critics, it formed the backbone of his attachment to the Llewellyn Davies boys which ended in heartbreak, and it created in him a characteristic of asexuality that plagued his adult social life.  So the question I am posing hear is, was the boyhood in Barrie and blessing or a burden, or possibly both?

Barrie is a contradiction, he was born to working a family of nine children and the tragedy of his brother’s death devastated his mother and him, and essentially took his childhood away from him as he assumed responsibility for his mother’s happiness, essentially, he had to grow up early.  In the Introduction to our book, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and Peter and Wendy, by Peter Hollindale, Hollindale astutely observes of Barrie and his mother, “Both of them appe

ar to have felt a lasting need for an exceptionally close and equal companionship with children, and it could be argued that in trying to satisfy this need they committed innocent but harmful trespass on the lives of children – he in course of time on the Llewellyn Davies boys, and she on Barrie himself.” (Pg. xiii)

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J.M. Barrie, dressed as Captain Hook, plays with Michael Lewelyn Davies in August, 1906.

Even Barrie’s physical traits were childlike, growing no taller that 5’3”, his hair not graying until unusually late in his life, and he is reported to have possessed youthful and boyish features. Barrie’s marriage that took three years to finally come to be and ultimately ended with a divorce due to his wife’s adulteration, was childless and allegedly unconsummated – it could be argued that he considered women in his life just as he wrote about them in his literature, as desexualized.  Again Hollindale writes of Barrie an encompassing description of his childlike tendencies, “For him there was no continuum from child to adult, nor yet the usual transition from conventional boys’ make-believe to conventional male adult life, but rather perhaps a no man’s land between the two.” (Pg. xiv)  Upon reading this I couldn’t help but to wander, was Barrie, just as his famous little boy Peter Pan was, caught betwixt and between?

However, if it were not for his ability to be immersed in childhood would Barrie have been able to so beautifully and accurately craft the descriptions and stories he did from the widened, innocent eyes of a child?  Would he be able to capture children’s fits to be ‘wild dog’ or ‘mary-annish’, which prove, if one knows children well, to be uncannily fitting?  How could he have known that, for a child, a stick-boat at the round pond would and will always beat the shiny yacht from your uncle if not for the boyhood that lived in him?  Would he have been able to capture the imaginations of children in his books quite so perfectly?  I think not.  I truly believe that it was the boyhood in Barrie that gave Peter Pan life, but it was also the reason for heartbreak in his own life and the lives of many others’.

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Peter Pan in Popular Culture: An Icon for Children and Adults

Though many children and adults may not be familiar with the exact story Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, most are definitely aware of the character of Peter Pan. Regardless of what inspired J. M. Barrie to create this ageless boy, it is clear that Peter Pan has become a popular figure worldwide.

However, a comparison between how the original character is described with how he is depicted in popular culture today suggests that Peter Pan has taken a completely different role in modern society. Barrie writes that the original Peter “escaped from being a human when he was seven days old” and that the reason he stopped being able to fly was because “he had lost faith.”  This is quite different from modern depictions of Peter Pan, who is famously seen in the 1953 Disney movie Peter Pan as forever twelve, wearing the hallmark green outfit, and being able to fly thanks to his trusty fairy sidekick, Tinkerbell. Though these are considerable differences, the real question to answer is how Disney’s Peter Pan has become a completely different character with different meanings in modern society.

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Though the increased popularity of the Peter Pan clad in green may be attributed to the availability and novelty of the animated film, I believe that his role as an icon can be credited to several other factors. The infant Peter Pan in Barrie’s novel was a realistic portrayal of the devilish side of children that the Victorian era denied. Being a rough and rowdy boy with the only intention of playing, having fun, and staying young forever was a testament to how real young boys acted. However, the Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens can be most favorably directed to exact that: young boys.

The modern day idea of Peter Pan taken from popular culture’s Disney film encompasses a much broader audience with present day themes. Specifically, both children and adults, male and female, find themselves associating with this Peter Pan icon. First of all, most can agree that it is easier to relate to a twelve year old on the brink of puberty than an infant of seven days. Second, he is actively portrayed as a lovable boy and a symbol of the younger years where adult responsibilities had not yet taken over. He is used as an icon of the freedom of childhood, and even commercialized for children. This can be seen in the popular brand of peanut butter named after this character. Furthermore, while Barrie’s original story contains themes of gender roles, popular culture expresses the character of Peter Pan with more acceptance to all children. These features are what make the modern character of Peter Pan more available to everyone, and also the icon of childhood.

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Altogether, Barrie’s character Peter Pan has become an icon of childhood in the modern day. His portrayal is often linked to freedom, fun, and a nostalgic glimpse of childhood but is definitely remembered for these positive elements and not for the truth behind Barrie’s Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens where Peter would have liked to become a real boy again but was replaced and so was exiled to childhood forever. While some could argue if the modern day Peter Pan icon is a sign of disrespect to the author, the only concrete truth is that Peter Pan is kept alive in the minds of young and old as the boy who will never grow up.

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Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens Bibliography

Academic Sources:

Barrie, J.M. Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2008. Print.

Barrie, J.M. The Little White Bird. New York: C. Scribner’s sons, 1915. eBook. <http://uf.catalog.fcla.edu.lp.hscl.ufl.edu/uf.jsp?st=the little white bird j.m. barrie&ix=kw&fl=bo&V=D&S=0271363712044011&I=6>

Birkin, Andrew. J.M. Barrie and the lost boys. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. Print.

“J.M. Barrie.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 19 Mar. 2013. <http://www.britannica.com.lp.hscl.ufl.edu/EBchecked/topic/54080/J-M-Barrie>.

Griffith, John. “Making Wishes Innocent: Peter Pan.” The Lion and the Unicorn. 3.1 (1979): n. page. Web. 19 Mar. 2013. <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/lion_and_the_unicorn/v003/3.1.griffith.html&gt;.

Nonacademic Sources:

“Biography: True Story.” J.M. Barrie Biography. A E Networks, n.d. Web. 19 Mar 2013. <http://www.biography.com/people/jm-barrie-9200058&gt;.

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