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?

Peter Pan Wendy 03

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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An Afterthought

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After the production of Peter Pan, J.M Barrie began receiving questions about what happens to Wendy after her encounter with Peter and Neverland. He decided to include “An Afterthought,” to satisfy the curiosity readers, and followers of the beloved characters had about what was to come for the boy who never grows up, and his female friend.

In the epilogue, Barrie brings the story full circle and explains how the passing of time means his  young companions will age, and soon forget the wonders they shared in the fantastical world of Neverland. But with this aging also brings new daughters, and therefore new generations for Peter to influence.

Many view this alternate ending as a bittersweet way to bring the story to a close. Upon Peter’s initial return to the Darling house, after many years, he is greeted by an adult Wendy putting her own daughter Jane to bed. Wendy must break the news that she has grown past the age of flying capabilities because she has “forgotten.” This is heartbreaking for Peter because he is being forced to face the reality that everyone he loves and has emotional attachments to will  advance him temporally and eventually forget his existence. This is precisely why he must start over every few years with a new child–a fresh imagination, ready to be taken away to a land only their wildest dreams could’ve conceived.

This entire sequence is commonly left out of later adaptations of the story, which seems unusual considering the initial interest in the afterthought was the reason Barrie included an epilogue to the story in the first place. Perhaps it is to spare the audience of having to accept the truth that Peter and Wendy can never be together, and if this is true, the story is being deprived a perfect connecting thread to the beginning of the story.

“If you ask your grandmother if she’s heard of Peter Pan…”

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Hook: The poor man who can never achieve Form

One of the more interesting parts about Peter and Wendy is Hook’s constant fascination over the concept of “Form.” Throughout Peter and Wendy we see him obsessing over it and, as we discussed in class, the people who worry about form generally don’t have it and those that don’t concern themselves with form attain true grace. However, I would like to further argue that it is physically impossible for Hook to achieve any semblance of true form because of one factor: his deformity, his namesake, his hook, and that this represents for Barrie a method of comparing adulthood with children.

Its a hook

Dun….dun…dun…

Hook, as should be apparent, has lost something that is extraordinarily important to nearly every person: his hand. He is therefore a mangled, deformed human being and, despite being quite deft with his hook, it is no real replacement for the working marvel that is a human hand. Thus, we see that Hook can never truly achieve true, great form for himself because no matter how much he may practice and wax on about great form, he is, in effect, a lesser creature. He is lesser than even the slouching most bestial and uncouth human being, for this human can, at any time, decide to correct his ways and “stand tall.” To bring this to an even more depressing view – Hook, a grown man who cannot stop thinking about his form, cannot maintain a superior form to that of a one-week baby, Peter Pan.

This utterly broken man then must be pitied for he is more of an animal: always gnawing away at some problem that is nearly impossible for him to fix and dies worrying about it. Hook – poor, malformed, missing an essential part of himself that he can never recover – directly corresponds to Barrie’s skewed perspective towards childhood and adulthood. In my interpretation there is no question that Hook, the deformed pirate, comes to represent adulthood for Barrie. I believe that Barrie believes that Adulthood then requires absence – that of some wonderful grace of childhood (form) – and oftentimes is accompanied by constant regret and anxiety  as well as extreme physical changes – the loss of Hook’s hand and puberty respectively- that create a bitter adult who is harassed by childhood (Peter).

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