Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Book Review: Peter Pan

Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie

I'm assuming you don't need a summary of this one, right? If you haven't seen one movie version of this, you've probably seen another. Or a spin-off movie, like Hook or Finding Neverland (both of which, I would argue, are better Peter Pan adaptations than any movie of the original story).

But how many of you have actually read the original book?

If there is a single message I want to convey in this book review, it is this: no movie or other adaptation has done this book justice. The original is delightful, magical, insightful, and beautiful in a way that I was completely unprepared for, despite the fact I've seen nearly every movie version.

In short, it is SO GOOD.

I'm not really sure how to organize my thoughts on this one, so this may be a bit of stream of conscious, but let's talk about what I loved so much. First, can I just exclaim a little over how utterly in tune Barrie is with the childhood imagination and the way a child's mind works? There were so many moments while reading this book when I had flashbacks to my own childhood, remembering the imaginative games I used to play, and how my childhood logic worked, and I'm amazed at how well Barrie was able to capture that logic.

But what I found most interesting about reading the book is how Barrie both romanticizes childhood but also makes the idea of eternal youth a tragic thing. This is a nuance that I completely missed from the movie versions, where it feels like the whole emphasis is on how magical and beautiful childhood is, and how adults are evil, and how we should all strive to stay young at heart and never grow up. But in the book, I really felt the tragedy of Peter's never-ending childhood. In order to stay eternally young, Peter sacrifices the love of a mother. He is perpetually alone. Yes, he has Tinkerbell and the Lost Boys and Wendy in this book, but by the end of the story they've all moved on, and Peter is the only one left in Neverland. Captain Hook is defeated, and even Tink dies. Peter also sacrifices his memory. This was a fascinating part of Peter's character to me, because living without memory does seem to be a part of youth (isn't it so hard to remember details of your childhood?), but it also makes his situation so sad. He forgets his friends almost as soon as they are out of sight.

Yes, much of the picture depicted about childhood is nostalgic and beautiful and romantic, but the very last line of the book just captures the true essence so perfectly:
And thus it will go on, so long as children are gay, and innocent and heartless.
Heartless. That's the descriptor that got me, because it's so true. Children are gay, and innocent, but they are heartless as well. Children have moments of kindness and empathy, but especially for young children, it is not a consistent part of their character. Empathy takes a certain amount of cerebral cortex development, and kindness is a social skill that must be taught and reinforced over and over and over again with children. Left to their own devices, children may be innocent and gay, but they can be selfish and unwittingly cruel as well. Peter is unwittingly cruel to Wendy because he cannot understand how she feels. The Darling children are unwittingly cruel to their mother, who they abandon for months and months, assured that they will be welcomed home at any time despite the pain they've cause. My own children can be quite heartless to me as well, demanding so much service with nary a thank-you in return.

Barrie depicts this side of childhood just as faithfully as he depicts the fantastical, imaginative, innocent sides of it too, I think to show how necessary it is to grow up. We must grow up so we can develop hearts, so we can be loved and truly love in return. It was quite a profound message that was completely lost in the movie adaptations, at least for me.

There were some other interesting things going on in this book too that I really want to talk over with someone (which is why I convinced my virtual book club to read this book next). For instance, Barrie's definition of "innocence" is an interesting one. I was kind of shocked at how real the violence was in this book. Peter actually kills people rather frequently, and somehow a child-warrior (or child-murderer, if you want to be more dramatic), is not my idea of "innocence." Peter's innocence seemed more or less defined by his lack of sexual attraction and experience (not knowing what a kiss is, etc.).

And on that note, can I just say how surprisingly Freudian this whole book was? I mean, maybe it's just because I'm in my modern theory class right now, so Freud is on the mind, but my goodness there was a lot of interesting stuff going on with Wendy pretending to be the Lost Boys' mother (including Peter's mother), but then also pretending to be Peter's wife, and there were moments that felt a little Oedipal to me.

Oedipus aside, the "mother" figure certainly was a powerful symbol in this book, and I'm not entirely sure how I feel about the way Barrie depicted mothers. Mrs. Darling, in particular, was practically perfect in every way, kind and understanding and unendingly patient, and it was a beautiful image, but as a practically imperfect mother myself I wonder if such a depiction of perfect motherhood is useful (or whether such a depiction is more just the innocent image a child has of her mother being perfect, which is a different thing altogether). But then there was Peter's mother, who did not wait for her son like Mrs. Darling waited for her children, but appears to have completely forgotten him (although we only heard Peter's version, so we are never quite sure what his mother felt). Peter's abandonment is the underlying motivation behind his rejection of adults and adulthood. But he also recognizes how much he wants and needs a mother (thus Wendy).

Wendy's pretending to be the mother of the Lost Boys was interesting as well, since it highlighted so acutely the point of children's pretend play: to prepare them for the roles they will have when they grow up. I know modern feminists might take issue with how Wendy's imaginative play was limited to these mothering roles (where the boys got to "play" at war and whatever else), but I think it highlighted this irony very well. Wendy was pretending to be an adult, and Peter often felt uncomfortable with this game, checking to make sure they were just pretending, and that they weren't actually grown up. But Wendy, unlike Peter, understood that even though it was pretend, someday she wanted it to be real. Her play was preparing her for real motherhood someday. Peter's play was preparing him for eternal, endless play, and there seemed something very sad about that.

Speaking of modern feminists taking issue with this book, I recommend skipping out entirely if you're touchy about your modern political correctness, because this book is rife with all sorts of stereotypes: the mother/wife roles I've already mentioned (although some very nice things are said about girls in general), the very stereotypical depictions of Indians, and I don't know, the stereotypes of pirates (is anyone really offended by pirate stereotypes?). If you can forgive the book for being written before such things were known to be offensive, I assure you there's plenty to enjoy.

There is a reason this book has inspired so many adaptations, and has managed to stay current and popular for well over a century. It is simply magical and beautiful. I want to reread this over and over, and I want to read it to my children. Although, that is another thing the adaptations of this story have been misleading about. This is not a children's story. Yes, it is about children, and children are capable of understanding the basic story-line. But this is a book that can only truly be understood by adults, those of us who have already traveled through childhood and left it behind. I will probably read this to my children someday, but they won't understand it until they grow up and have children of their own.

Because right now they are still too young, and innocent, and heartless...

1 comment:

  1. This is a truly fantastic review (although your Oedipus reference went right over my head...). It's been too many years since I last read it to be able to engage in any sort of discussion about it, but reading your review was so enjoyable--I definitely need to read this book again!