Peter Pan is no doubt one of the most appealing subjects for “deep” psychological analysis. Interpretations of this character run from the pop-psychology term the “Peter Pan Syndrome” coined by Dr. Dan Kiley (1983) to refer to adult males who refuse to grow up and face their responsibilities, through Kenneth Kidd’s (2004) sociocultural study of boys and the feral tale which questions Peter’s masculinity and sexuality, to his alleged homosexuality which, according to Dore Ripley (2006), reflects Victorian longings for Hellenistic homosexual culture. In our opinion, however, these interpretations are too narrow and do not do justice to the story as whole. Focusing on Peter Pan per se offers no understanding of the narrative itself or of the psychological structure and motivation of the other characters. In contrast, analyzing the story from Wendy’s point of view reveals a whole new mosaic of emotional and psychological dynamics.
At the beginning of the story, we meet Wendy at a time of upheaval in her life. She has been informed by her parents (representing, for our purposes, the adult world) that she is too old to remain in the nursery and must move into a room of her own. The move is associated with a range of developmental and psychological changes (both internal and external) which Wendy must now face, and which serve as the motivational foundation of the story. Wendy does not receive the news enthusiastically, to put it mildly, but at the same time she can not ignore the first signs that she is becoming a woman. This stage in her development is reflected not only in her maternal feelings toward her younger brothers, but even more so in her semi-romantic/sexual fantasies about Peter Pan.
As we delved deeper into the character and journey of Wendy Darling, we were struck by the parallels between this story and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll, 1865). In both cases, prepubescent girls set out on an adventurous quest in a world that affords access to the imagination and unconscious contents. And in both, they are “proper” young ladies brought up in the refined (and hypocritical?) British tradition of restraint, common sense, and integrity, qualities they display admirably when confronted with the underlying madness of the experiences they encounter. The fact that their strict, highly disciplined upbringing is a stark contrast to the cacophony of outlandish voices around them clearly reinforces their status as the heroines of the story.
Unlike the traditional heroines of fairytales, however, this distinction does not derive from the circumstances of their birth (they have no royal blood), but from their inner strength and personality. Indeed, Wendy and Alice may very well be expressions in children’s literature of the emergence of the “modern woman,” a woman whose sexual/emotional/psychological identity is not automatically determined by biology or lineage; rather, she is increasingly capable of defining her own identity. As we see it, the subject of female identity is also the point at which the two stories diverge. Whereas Lewis Carroll chooses not to deal with this issue, leaving the question of Alice’s definition of herself as a woman outside the scope of the tale, James Barrie, and even more so the Disney movie, take Wendy on a profound journey of discovery that reveals modern and postmodern contents relating to the definitions of sex and gender.
The frame narrative of Peter Pan takes place in early 20th century London and presents the realistic characters of Wendy’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Darling, her brothers John and Michael, and the family dog, Nana. In contrast, the story within the story, Wendy’s journey in Neverland with her brothers, is a fantasy that is not subject to the laws of time and place and is populated by a wealth of imaginary and semi-imaginary figures. By moving between the worlds of reality and imagination, the narrative structure creates suspense, simulates internal and external processes in the two worlds, and provides a sense of irony and sarcasm, since it is the “realistic” characters who appear to be grotesque while the “imaginary” figures, impossible though they may be, seem much more authentic. Wendy’s journey of adolescence touches on the most basic issues of identity (sex and gender) as she wends her way among a multitude of options (characters), some of which draw on objective social materials and others on subjective unconscious contents in her personality.
On the surface, there appears to be no doubt as to Wendy’s sexual and gender identity. She is a girl and older sister whose gender and biological identities are one and the same. She exhibits maternal instincts toward her younger brothers and the Lost Boys, and is captivated by manifestations of female beauty and femininity (she is excited by Mrs. Darling’s elegant gown, Tinker Bell’s audacious femininity, and the allure of the mermaids, and is envious of Tiger Lily’s regal feminine persona). At the same time, as a child of the generation of the “modern woman,” she questions (albeit not consciously) the authenticity of the male and female traits presented in the story.
Mr. and Mrs. Darling
As stated above, Peter Pan is the story of female adolescence (the passage from childhood to adulthood) which takes place in a period of transition from perceptions rooted in the “old order” (represented by Wendy’s parents) to the world of the “modern woman” (represented by Wendy, Tinker Bell, and Tiger Lily). The collapse of the old order is inevitable, as the psychological disorders and distortions it brought about can no longer be ignored. The hypocrisy, sham, and most especially lack of authenticity displayed by Wendy’s parents is shamefully apparent to their daughter, and while there is no doubt as to their dedication to her, it is largely misconceived. Such parents are incapable of providing their daughter with the psychological and emotional nourishment she needs as she sets out on the road to adolescence.
Mrs. Darling is the embodiment of the “ideal woman” by all the sociocultural standards of her time. She does not work outside the home, but rather devotes herself to her household and children, is governed by the will of her husband, and displays the restraint and manners of an English lady. It soon becomes clear, however, that something is awry behind this fine social façade of perfection. Her functioning as a mother (to say nothing of her maternal judgment) must be called into question by the fact that she relegates the role of nanny to the family dog. There may also be doubts about her functioning as a wife, since it is based primarily on an attitude of submission or a rather maternal indulgence toward her husband. It would thus seem that Mrs. Darling is, in effect, a distorted and inauthentic version of the “proper girl” who grew up to become an English “lady,” a role Wendy is also expected to slip into effortlessly and without protest.
Mr. Darling is no less superficial and grotesque than his wife, and even more childish than she. Like Wendy’s mother, he is the product of sociocultural norms and expectations, a fact which might appear to bode well. He is an English gentleman, loyal to the principles of law and order, a married man with three children who conscientiously provides for his family. Within his home, however, he displays not a single example of mature responsible behavior. He pours his daily dose of medicine into Nana’s bowl, is envious of his children’s affection for the dog and consequently chains her up outside, and after struggling unsuccessfully to tie his tie properly, he becomes frustrated and throws a temper tantrum like a little boy. Ironically, it is Mr. Darling who insists on respect from his wife and children as the male head of the household, and when he does not receive it, he unhesitatingly invokes the authority and power he holds by virtue of his social and family status (rather than by virtue of his mature personality). He demands that Wendy “grow up” overnight, and forces his wife to comply with his will on this and other issues.
Wendy’s parents are not role models, and definitely not characters that can be identified with and internalized. Mrs. Darling is so anemic, so lacking in imagination and passion, that even Nana appears to be a better example of a maternal figure. It is abundantly clear (both to her daughter and to the readers/audience) that Wendy’s mother has nothing to offer her that will be of help on her journey of adolescence. Mr. Darling is presented as no less ridiculous than his wife. His behavior is childish, and he is so emotionally remote and detached that his children might as well be orphans. At this time in Wendy’s life, the lack of a father figure who appreciates and encourages the various aspects of femininity, first of all in his wife but also in his daughter, is critical. In our opinion, Peter Pan deals with the far-reaching implications of a father’s emotional absence on a girl’s life, particularly in the context of her search for sexual and gender identity. This is not meant to detract in any way from the significance of the mother in female adolescence, a subject discussed elsewhere (Rakover-Atar, 2002; Rakover & Noy, 2006). However, we believe that less emphasis is placed in this story on the lack of a female role model than on the absence of a father figure.
Within the pervasive atmosphere of pretense and inauthenticity distorting her world, Wendy must find her unique voice. She must set out on a quest to discover her own “loyalties,” her instinctive nature, and the features of her personality (feminine/masculine and others) with which she identifies. From this perspective, the story within the story may be seen as a dream-like stage occupied by characters that represent Wendy’s unconscious contents and attributes.