What happens when you put 5 children under 9 years of age, a pregnant woman, and her husband in a car for 17 straight hours? The mobile universe that is a Honda Odyssey becomes one of two places: either the portico of purgatory; or Never-neverland. On Sunday last, our silver bullet of a minivan became Neverland for 968 miles (okay, there were moments of purgatory as well) as our sore selves sat enthralled by the audiobook of J.M. Barrie’s masterpiece Peter and Wendy. I’m ashamed to say it, but I’d never actually read the book before. Having encountered the tale as a child through animated films and the feature film Hook, I thought we’d hear a splendid tale of heroism, joy, and virtue with some facile reflection on the freedom of childhood and the drudgery of adult life. What I heard, instead shook and troubled me deeply. I heard tell of a world where a good man is not merely “hard to find,” but simply put, a good man can’t be found.
Barrie’s London and Barrie’s Never-neverland refuse the reader even a single exemplary character. One is hard-pressed to find any paragon of virtue in the work at all. For me, this is what gave the work power. Barrie rendered painfully honest and incisive characterizations of men. What husband and father fails to find himself in George Darling and (dare I write this) Captain Jas. Hook?
We witness George Darling, a proud though cowardly man, force some foul-tasting medicine upon his children while refusing to take his own. Mr. Darling is all the more pathetic in that his children are conscious of the fact that they are witnessing the monument of their father’s moral integrity crumble. This moment highlights for any father the fault-lines on the continent of his own moral integrity. Do I give the children fruit for snack while sneaking a bit of chocolate myself? Do I refuse my children’s feeble exculpatory excuses in the face of paternal correction, only to offer my own weaker excuses in the face of my wife’s gentle correction? Mr. Darling does not improve much, however, even after the fateful night when he loses his children. In fact, his pitiful pride blossoms in the wake of the children’s flight. Mr. Darling gives himself the penance of spending every hour of his domestic life in Nana’s dog kennel. He puts himself, quite literally, in the dog house. (At least its an indoor kennel.) He goes as far as to be carried out to the cab in the kennel on his way to work, and to return to the kennel upon return home. Perhaps the penance began well, after all it was his rash decision to chain Nana outside that gave Peter Pan opportunity to take the children away. Soon, though, Mr. Darling’s penance garners popular acclaim and fame. Various important dinner invitations arrive, making sure to say…”and do come in your kennel.” In short time, even Mrs. Darling begins to wonder: “But it is punishment, isn’t it, George? You are sure you aren’t enjoying it?” (ch. 17). His sharp denial, “My love!” tells us all we need to know.
“But wait,” you might say. Doesn’t Mr. Darling adopt all the lost boys? Yes, but only after making known to his family how heroic he thought it and how hurt he was to have been asked for permission only after recourse had been made to Mrs. Darling. Sure, Mr. Darling’s interaction with his children can be jovial, playful, and imaginative even, but these are glimpses and moments. They are, too, at his own service rather at the service of his children. As a case in point, after agreeing to adopt the children and sleep them in the drawing room (which may or may not have really existed) Mr. Darling says, “‘Then follow the leader,’ he cried gaily. ‘Mind you, I am not sure that we have a drawing-room, but we pretend we have, and it’s all the same. Hoop la!’ He went off dancing through the house, and they all cried ‘Hoop la!’ and danced after him, searching for the drawing-room; and I forget whether they found it, but at any rate they found corners, and they all fitted in” (ch. 17). His behavior eerily matches Peter Pan’s in the forests of Neverland when Peter takes care of his band of boys. It is not the good of the boys that gives him joy here but the sheer cleverness of his invented adventure. This is in him no virtue, but merely a vestige or relic of his own Peter Pan, of the Never Land that was once his childhood mind. We see here, Mr. Darling is the man (or at least the grown up boy) who wishes he hadn’t grown up. He is Everyman.
While Mr. Darling unveils to fathers their own inconsistencies and fractured integrity, as well as their own secret remorse at having grown up, worse still is Captain James T. Hook. Hook is entirely consistent and entirely hateful, even in his seeming courage. Barrie’s Captain Hook puts flesh on the age-old tension between generations. He is the personification of Cronos fearing Zeus, Saul fearing David, David fearing Absolom, etc. Why is it that the old simultaneously hate, fear, desire to destroy, and vaguely love the young? A familiar reason might be that “the young nowadays have no respect. They’re cocky.” On the one hand, this is true of Peter, but it isn’t true in the way the grown man usually thinks it true of the young. Men, on the face of it, despise cockiness in youth because they think it inaccurate. Digging deeper with our hooks, however, we discover with Captain James that we despise the child’s cockiness because almost nothing is impossible for the child. Barrie tells us of Peter, “there was almost nothing he could not do, and now he imitated the voice of Hook” (ch. 8). The child’s overtaking me, the man, is a historical inevitability, even if not realized at this moment. Men are ceaselessly jealous of the young, a jealously which can lead them to a desire to destroy it as Hook desires to destroy Peter. The funny thing is, in his impotence to destroy Peter, Hook desperately grasps at the one satisfaction the old will have over the young, the “nitpick.” Hook’s dying words to Peter are, “Bad form!” In the end, Hook tricks Peter into kicking him from the ship’s edge rather than stabbing him. Hook considers the move bad form. It is, however, entirely fitting. For Hook is kicked into the awaiting jaws of the beast that devours all men, the beast from which all men cower yet cannot escape…time. The crocodile with the clock is, of course, time itself, which inevitably gives victory to the young over the old, and the old will go to their end crying out, “bad form!” I can hear myself now, saying, “kids these days!” How often do I, as a father, squelch the zeal and life of my children on the altar of “good form”? How often does my jealously of their vast potential and the power of their youth find expression in an empty critique of their “cockiness?”
At the same time, Barrie makes no great claims for the moral excellence of children. Children are children, after all, only so long as they are “gay, and innocent, and heartless” (ch. 17). Did you catch that? Heartless. Wow. Those are at once beautiful and cold words. What makes Peter Pan the quintessential child? It would seem his sheer immediacy and ultimate self-concern. Not moral excellence.
Here’s the conundrum: Barrie shows us a world where, for the child morality of any kind is psychologically elusive but for the man moral excellence is performatively elusive. The child is ever premoral while the man is always immoral. For Barrie, it seems, the child’s immediacy and ultimate self concern at once chains him or her into his own world and at once frees him from the adult world. That world, the child’s mind, is Neverland. In it, to be sure, dwell adventures galore, but caprice rather than constancy rules the day. The child cannot break out into the world of responsibility. The child can play at responsibility as Wendy plays at motherhood, as Peter plays at being husband, father, captain, etc. The role, though, must always remain at play, in flux. The moment responsibility becomes real, the child’s mind dies. The radical ambivalence of the role-play that determines a child’s mind shows itself in one of my favorite passages about Peter at battle. Peter was known to change sides at random during the middle of a battle with the savages, whom he would then convince to pretend to be lost boys. Tiring of pretending to fight lost boys, he would switch back to being a lost boy and convince the savages to be savages once again. How amazing is that? For Peter, for the child, one’s side in the battle makes not the slightest difference! More shocking still, after defeating Captain Hook, Peter dresses in Hook’s clothes, occupies Hook’s quarters, and postures his hand after Hook’s hook. But even this foreboding play, this glimpse at the fate of all childhood, cannot conquer Pan. He remains ever the child and sheds this role as well. After Wendy returns to London, he visits her occasionally, but ironically, he cannot remember their previous adventures. They hold no place in his heart or mind. In fact, during one visit, Wendy is shocked to discover that even Tinkerbell has flown from Peter Pan’s memory. For Barrie, Children, it seems, have no moral memory. Interestingly, although this fact is driven home in the final chapter, we get a hint of it when Peter flies the children to Never land for their first visit. In this first flight, the children find hints of Peter’s consummate childishness and its moral ambivalence:
“Peter was not with them for the moment, and they felt rather lonely up there by themselves. He could go so much faster than they that he would suddenly shoot out of sight, to have some adventure in which they had no share. He would come down laughing over something fearfully funny he had been saying to a star, but he had already forgotten what it was, or he would come up with mermaid scales still sticking to him, and yet not be able to say for certain what had been happening. It was really rather irritating to children who had never seen a mermaid.
‘And if he forgets them, so quickly,’ Wendy argued, ‘how can we expect that he will go on remembering us?’
Indeed, sometimes when he returned he did not remember them, at least not well. Wendy was sure of it. She saw recognition come into his eyes as he was about to pass them the time of day and go on; once even she had to tell him her name” (ch. 4).
J.M. Barrie makes all parties, all readers, of Peter and Wendy uncomfortable. Again, I say that fact is the work’s power. Moral order is true, good, and beautiful, but our harmony with it ever elusive. Whose purchase on moral order is stronger, the child’s or the man’s? The power of the child, or the consciousness of and acceptance of responsibility by the man? The capricious heroism of the child, or the mediocre constancy of the man?
What do you think?