The Cruel Innocence of Children

When I was child I never read Peter and Wendy by J.M. Barrie. Now, before you gasp and drop your monocle in your tea, the main reason I did not come across this book was because I was reading, and my parents were reading to me, other wonderful books. Also, my first exposure to Peter Pan was the Disney film, which I did not like. My mother did take me to a local theater’s production of Barrie’s play, but the main thing I remember was coming down with a fever halfway through the performance.

I decided to listen to the book on my commute and have come to two conclusions. The first is that I wouldn’t have liked this book when I was a young. I would have been annoyed with Peter’s inflated ego.  As I lonely, shy, often bullied, and eternally spiteful child, Peter’s lack of empathy and how he got what he wanted, for the most part, would have annoyed me to no end.

The second conclusion that I came to was that Peter Pan is a powerful and terrible god. Terrible not in the sense that he is bad at being a god, rather terrible in the sense that he inspires terror. Never Never Land—which seems to be the dreamland that all sleeping children visit—is not the home of Peter but rather the realm that he rules over. In the book, when he is returns with Wendy, John, and Michael to the island, Barrie describes it as waking up:

In his absence things are usually quiet on the island. The fairies take an hour longer in the morning, the beasts attend to their young…and when pirates and lost boys meet they merely bite their thumbs at each other. But with the coming of Peter, who hates lethargy, they are all under way again: if you put your ear to the ground now, you would hear the whole island seething with life.

Never Never Land exists for Peter to have adventures. When left on its own the island enters a stagnate period, but his return causes things to happen, causes different fractions to start hunting each other. The pirates aren’t real pirates just what children imagine fighting, just as the racist caricatures of American Indians are the racist caricatures that British children in the Victorian era imagined fighting. At the end of the book, when Peter returns to Wendy’s window he doesn’t remember the long dead Captain Hook. After all, he has had his adventures with the swash bucklers, and pirates don’t necessarily have the same novelty that they once did. I couldn’t help but think that new inhabitants come to Never Never Land as children imagine battling different things.  As time progresses, I could see Peter fighting space aliens and the such. And of course, if pirates ever caught his interest again, I’m sure that Hook, long dead, would return to the island. Peter Pan is the god of children’s make believe and dreams.

What makes him so terrible—other than his godhood—is his eternal childhood.  Barrie points out that children are “gay and innocent and heartless,” which is a perfect description of children. Young children (stressing the word young) rarely bite or pull hair because they enjoy inflicting pain on others—they probably don’t understand that they’re hurting their victims—but rather they enjoy the reaction and the attention that it gets them. That is the terrible nature of children’s innocence: they are without empathy.  One of the burdens of growing up is understanding how our actions can harm others.  Peter doesn’t care about his fellows; he is just interested in having fun. In fact when he first appears on the scene, he seems like an animal in many ways, “the most entrancing thing about him was that he had all his first teeth. When he saw [Mrs. Darling] was a grown-up, he gnashed the little pearls at her.”  He is both young and viscous.

In fact there is a darker edge to Peter that goes beyond that of a vicious child. Barrie writes “The boys on the island vary, of course, in numbers, according as they get killed and so on; and when they seem to be growing up, which is against the rules, Peter thins them out.” How does Peter thin them out? I very much doubt he returns them to the world of adults. The only reason we see the six lost boys return in the book is because of Wendy’s intervention.

Ultimately, what clinches the idea, for me, that Peter is a god is the very end of the book.  Wendy has grown up and become a real mother, so she cannot go on adventures with him and pretend to be his mother. Peter instead takes Wendy’s daughter, Jane, with him.  And as years go on, he takes Jane’s daughter, Margaret. Barrie writes, “When Margaret grows up she will have a daughter, who is to be Peter’s mother in turn; and thus it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless.” When I came to this ending, I couldn’t help but feel that this was a type of family curse. Or maybe, it was something along the lines of Persephone’s obligation to both the world above and the world below.

As I stated, when I was a child I would have hated Peter and Wendy. I would have been enraged that Peter could forget Hook, Tinkerbell, and eventually Wendy. I would have bristled at the line “They [the lost boys] are forbidden by Peter to look in the least like him, and they wear the skins of bears slain by themselves.”  Peter Pan is childhood incarnate and because of that people tend to view him with the same nostalgia that they often view childhood itself. However, I was a fairly miserable child and Peter Pan would have been a representative of all those things that made it such an awful time. When I was kid, I needed to escape childhood, and Peter Pan would not have helped me. (By the way I’m not saying this isn’t great book for kids, but, as with all things, not all children will like it.)

As adult, I love the book. Peter Pan is unsettling and attractive. He’s innocently vicious. His resolution to remain young is truly a tragic one, because it means that he will never connect and empathize with others. He will always be alone. Barrie understood that children can be both filled with wonder and a dangerous self-absorption. Peter Pan comes at night to take the naughty, and not so-naughty, children away to a land where they will have fun and games until they start to grow up.  No one knows what happens to them after that.

Illustration form F. D. Bedford

Illustration form F. D. Bedford

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2 thoughts on “The Cruel Innocence of Children

  1. Pingback: Memory of a Moral: “The Ladybug” | Jelly-Side Up

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