Peter Pan: Peter and Wendy

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Peter Pan: Peter and Wendy

by James Barrie


A novel adapted from the play, set in an Edwardian London home and on the fantasy Klan Neverland; published in 1911.


The three Darling children fly with eternally young Peter Pan to a dreamland of mermaids, lagoons, pirates and Indians. Here the Darling join the orphaned “lost boys” and Peter Pan in a string of adventures that culminate with their battle against the pirates, led by the notorious Captain Hook.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

James Barrie was born into a Scottish weaver’s family in 1860. When Barrie was six, his 13-year-old brother died, leaving Barrie with an enduring image of the perfect child who would never grow up, and a melancholy mother, who then pinned all her hopes on James Barrie. From an early age Barrie was a passionate reader with dreams of being a writer. Deferring to his mother, he postponed this career to attend Edinburgh University but, in 1885, settled in London to work as a freelance journalist, novelist, and playwright. Barrie’s first taste of success came in 1891, with the publication of The Little Minister. Set in a fictionalized version of his birthplace, Kirriemuir, the novel established Barrie as a leading writer of the “Kail-yard” school—fiction writers who sentimentally stereotyped the Scottish lowlanders. The following year, Barrie had great success with his play, Walker, London, in which he cast as lead actress Mary Ansell, the woman whom he would marry. In the next few years came several novels that dealt with Barrie’s major subject—the desirability of boyhood: Sentimental Tommy (1896), Tommy and Grizel (1900), and The Little White Bird (1902). Eventually Barrie concentrated on writing for the stage. No work brought him more fame and fortune than Peter Pan, first performed for the 1904 Christmas pantomime season. Peter and Wendy, the 1911 novel, is based directly on the play; its significant addition is a narrator’s voice—by turns playful, sentimental, nostalgic. The novel assimilates and responds to elements of classic boys’ adventure Stories an island setting and attacks by pirates and Indians—melding them with a scathing portrayal of bourgeois English domesticity in the Edwardian period.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

British imperialism

At the time Barrie wrote Peter and Wendy, the British Empire was at its height. Great Britain had become the richest country in the world, its empire the largest and the most successful. Britain’s colonies covered more than a quarter of the earth’s land and citizens. By 1900, the British Empire controlled the following territories:

Aden, Antigua, Ascension, Australia, the Bahamas, Barbados, Basutoland, Bechuanaland, Bermuda, British Guiana, British Honduras, British North Borneo, British Solomion Islands, British Somaliland, Brunei, Burma, Canada, Cape of Good Hope, Cayman-Turks-Caicos Islands, Ceylon, Christmas Island, Cocoas-Keeling Islands, Cook Islands, Cyprus, Dominica, the East African Protectorate, Egypt, Falkland Islands, Fiji, Gambia, Gibralter, Gilbert and Ellice Islands, Gold Coast, Grenada, Hong Kong, India, Jamaica, Labuan, Lagos, Leeward Isles, Malay States, Maldive Islands, Malta, Mauritius, Montserrat, Natal, New Zealand, Newfoundland, Nigeria, Norfolk Island, Northern Rhodesia, Nyasaland, Papua, Pitcairn, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Helena, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Sarawak, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Southern Rhodesia, Straits Settlement (Singapore, Penang, Malacca), Sudan, Swaziland, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tristan ha Cunha, Uganda, Virgin Islands, Windward Isles, Zanzibar.

(Mitchell, p. 284)

Most of the world had been mapped and divided by turn of the twentieth century, and a time of relative peace ensued among the European powers. Great Britain focused its energy on the details of governing through such British agencies as the Foreign, India, War, and Colonial Offices. The empire had reached its apex, while James Barrie’s island paradise, Neverland, looks back to its sixteenth-century beginnings. As the narrator says, “Of all delectable islands the Never land is the snuggest and most compact; not large and sprawly, you know, with tedious distances between one adventure and another, but nicely crammed” (Barrie, Peter and Wendy, p. 74).

The imperialist project reinforced ideas of British cultural and racial superiority, with the empire enlisting many messengers of such propaganda. Official government propaganda was less pervasive than that found in the military, the schools, churches, and popular entertainment. Juvenile literature, in particular, adventure tales and novels, played a key role. The most popular story for boys in the nineteenth century, R. M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island (1858), presents at a relatively early date the many elements of the imperialist tale: the boy hero as colonizer, the conquest of nature, the savagery of the indigenous, salvation at the hands of an English missionary, the glories of British civilization, and the evils of those outside it. Ballantyne’s novel was Barrie’s favorite as a boy. He wrote in his note-book: “want to stop everybody in street & ask if they’ve read The Coral Island.’ Feel sorry for if not” (Birkin, p. 12). Another classic island adventure, Treasure Island, by Barrie’s idol Robert Louis Stevenson, appeared in 1883. Both novels are nineteenth-century rewritings of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and precursors to the Peter Pan saga, which makes full use of the desert island, the stereotypic indigenous “savage,” and ruthless pirates. In fact, The Coral Island, Treasure Island, and Peter and Wendy all invoke imperialist themes, though not as stridently as novels that dominated the end of the nineteenth century. Such authors as G. A. Henry, who wrote over a hundred novels for boys between 1868 and the century’s end, articulated the mission of young Englishmen: to spread superior British values around the globe.

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, “penny dreadful,” cheap boys magazines, such as The Bad Boys’ Paper, glamorized crime and accompanied it with a crude imperialism. Boy’s of England, published between 1866 and 1899, featured the widely popular Jack Hark away, who runs away from school to have a myriad of adventures against the backdrop of the empire. Barrie himself was a great fan of the penny dreadful; as he wrote of his young self, “He buys his sanguinary tales surreptitiously in penny numbers” (Barrie, Peter Pan, p. xiv). Improving, or improvement-oriented, magazines such as the popular The Boy’s Own Paper arose in response to the penny dreadful. Established in 1879, The Boy’s Own Paper included writings by G. A. Henry and R. M. Ballantyne. Along with other similar magazines, The Boy’s Own Paper pushed a well-received imperialist ideology, based, as its title suggests, partly on an affirmation of the Victorian notion of separate spheres for men and women. Boys live adventurously and for themselves; girls stay at home and care for others. More dramatically, these magazines reinforced racial hierarchies. In stories of private school life, colonial wars, and emigration adventures, “the world,” as John M. MacKenzie writes, “became a vast adventure playground in which Anglo-Saxon superiority could be repeatedly demonstrated vis-á-vis all other races, most of whom were depicted as treacherous and evil” (MacKenzie, p. 204).

Racism and the indigenous

A sense of racial superiority provided a rationale for imperialism. The eighteenth-century view that human nature was universal yielded to the view that racial differences were essential and unchanging. Racial others, “half-devil and half-child,” in Rudoyer Kipling’s words, needed to be subdued and governed by the Anglo-Saxon race, who were fulfilling the “White Man’s burden” (Kipling in Porter, p. 24).

In Peter and Wendy, Barrie populates his island with an amalgam of indigenous peoples.

On the trail of the pirates, stealing noiselessly down the war-path. come the redskins, every one of them with his eyes peeled. They carry tomahawks and knives, and their naked bodies gleam with paint and oil. Strung around them are scalps, of boys as well as pirates, for these are the Piccaninny tribe, and not to be confused with the softer-hearted Delawares or the Hurons. . . . Bringing up the rear, the place of greatest danger, comes Tiger Lily, proudly erect, a princess in her own right. . . . [There is not a brave who would not have the wayward thing to wife, but she staves off the altar with a hatchet.

(Peterand Wendy, pp. 115-16)

A caricature of native Americans, the “redskins” are also called “Piccaninnies,” a word introduced by colonizing Europeans to apply to black and aboriginal children. These “redskins” speak a stereotyped Indian speech (“me his velly nice friend”), and are portrayed in the novel as one step up from the beasts (Peter and Wendy, p. 157). In the adventures of Never land, the pirates chase the lost boys, the Indians steal after the pirates, and the beasts stalk the Indians. Living on a tropical island of the imagination, these American Indians stand in for all conquered indigenous peoples and hark back to a romanticized period of colonization that involved war rather than rule.


The “Golden Age” of piracy occurred in the first quarter of the eighteenth century, when an unprecedented number of pirates attacked the growing merchant fleets crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Although piracy exists today, for the most part the practice has become the stuff of legend and story, whose main features were in place in literature by 1800. Literary pirates distinguished themselves by their “filthy habits” and rapaciousness; they displayed earrings, tattoos, and their own bare chests; they searched for buried gold with treasure maps (RoRozinski, pp. it-xiv). Not only did pirates make frequent appearances in nineteenth-century stories for boys, from the penny dreadfuls to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island; they also found their way onto the stage in Victorian melodramas. In 1879, W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan parodied these stage pirates in The Pirates of Penzance.

J. M. Barrie placed his pirates amidst those from literature and history. Captain lames Hook, the narrator states, “was Blackbeard’s bo’sun [boatswain]. . He is the only man of whom Barbecue was afraid (Peter and Wendy, p. 108). Black-beard was one of the many names of an English pirate also known as Edward Teach, who operated in the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea in the first part of the eighteenth century, and who had a reputation for appalling ferocity. Barbecue is another name tor Long John Silver, the great pirate of Treasure Island. Barrie’s pirate Skylights is “Morgan’s Skylights” (Peter and Wendy, p. 114); that is, a crewmember of Sir Henry Morgan, the famous seventeenth-century Welsh buccaneer. Barrie incorporated other legendary aspects of piracy in his own pastiche. The name of Captain Hook’s pirate ship, The Jolly Roger, is the term tor the pirate flag itself. First used at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Jolly Roger featured a white symbol of death (for example, a skeleton, skull, or sword) on black background. Captain Hook orders the Darling boys and the lost boys “to walk the plank,” a brutal punishment exacted only by literary pirates. With eyes blindfolded, victims were forced to walk along a narrow plank extended over the ship’s edge, until they fell or were tipped into the water, or were shot.

Barrie’s imagination may have been fueled not only by the adventure stories he loved but also by the continual spectacle of American Indians in London. Wood engravings, based on photographs, brought the Indian Wars to a British audience. Barrie moved to London in 1885, two years before Buffalo Bill’s (William Frederick Cody’s) “Wild West” show arrived in the city. From shows came details that contributed to stereotypes of Indian behaviors. An exhibit performed for Queen Victoria began on the Great Plains of America with the Indians sleeping in their tents, then emerging at dawn to dance a war dance. Then a messenger announced the approach of hostile Indians, whereupon the whites who were alerted made a rush for their weapons and horses, and a loud battle was simulated. Barrie invokes comparable “codes” of Indian behavior in Peter and Wendy: “By all the unwritten laws of savage warfare it is always the redskin who attacks, and with the wiliness of his race he does it just before the dawn” (Peter and Wendy, p. 173). “The Great White Father,” one of Barrie’s early titles for Peter Pan, emphasizes the racial difference between the novel’s protagonist and its caricatured natives, as well as spotlighting the overlap between British imperialism and paternalism.

Middle-class childhood

Barrie wrote Peter and Wendy during the period often called “The Golden Age of Children’s Literature.” E. Nesbit’s The Railway Children was published in 1906; Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows appeared in 1908; Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden was released in 1911, the same year as Peter and Wendy. Stellar writers for children often worked closely with highly talented artists, such as Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, and Charles Robinson. Using advances in color printing, they produced gift books like the Rackham illustrated Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.

Was this also a golden age for children? It is fair to say that life for British children had improved dramatically over the previous century. Most children were healthy; fewer children were put to work; Balfour’s Education Act of 1902 led to the formation of a truly national school system. In regard to social attitudes towards children, however, we must carefully distinguish between the idealized child of art and literature, and the actual child who lived in the confines of Edwardian domesticity.

The Edwardians, like the Victorians, were child-worshippers. They celebrated the innocence, energy, and creativity of childhood. The writers who expressed this cultural longing were not on the margins of their societies, but central to it. Jackie Wullschlger makes this case by pointing to the books embraced by each period, and the dominant roles of children in these books. A partial list would include Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1837-39), the young Jane in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886) and Sarah Crewe (1888); and Kipling’s Kim (1901) (Jane Eyr and Kim also in WLAIT 4: British and Irish Literature and Its Times). Barrie’s Peter Pan (1904) falls in line next. However, Wullschl&ger claims that there is a significant difference between the Victorian and Edwardian eras: the Victorians adored little girls, while the Edwardians preferred little boys (Wullschl&ger, p. 109).

Wullschlger points to historical and artistic phenomena to explain the new emphasis on boyhood, which began about 1880:

The new image . . . was encouraged by the role of Edward, the Prince of Wales, as the irresponsible, pleasure-seeking playboy of Europe, and by the Edwardian decade the image had crystalized. Virile, outward-bound, ever-young men are the cult figures of the 1890s and 1900s, and a sense that life beyond youth was not worth living contributed to the fervor for youthful martyrdom that came in 1914 [in World War I]. Leading up to it, the model of the dangerously attractive young man, immortal but in some way doomed, ’the lad who will never grow old’ stands at the heart of thirty years of English culture.

(Wullschlager, p. 109)

Actual middle-class Edwardian children lived not in an idyll, but within a tightly ruled family and school system. At home, their father was firmly in charge, even if he scarcely saw his children. At school, corporal punishment kept students in line. There were plenty of books at home, and summer holidays at the sea, but as Robert Cecil notes, “many of the same adults [who applauded Peter Pan] exercised a resolute, if discreet, tyranny in the home and repressed with a stern hand the waywardness that sounded so captivating in the mouths of Peter and Wendy” (Cecil, pp. 160-61).

Edwardian boys and girls grew up in a world still tightly controlled by their gender. Respectable married women did not work. Their lives revolved around the comfort of their husbands and the management of the children and home. Parents believed that choosing the right school for their boys was very important. The private schools attended by boys were bastions of a smug conservatism that continued to emphasize the classics and athleticism. Parents were not so concerned with their daughters’ education. Prior to World War I, it was still common for girls to receive much of their education under a governess, at home. Moreover, the goal of her education was not scholastic achievement but social advantage. Children’s gender roles groomed them for their proper part in Britain’s large empire. Boys needed to demonstrate independence and courage; girls, as J. S. Bratton indicates, “had to leam to be wife and mother to the pioneer and the soldier, and therefore the depository of the ‘home values’ and the guarantor of ‘higher’ feelings and motives for the men’s conquests” (Brat-ton, p. 196).

Children’s extracurricular activities served a similar function. In 1907, Robert Baden-Powell, a great fan of Barrie’s Peter Pan, held an experimental Boy Scouts camp. In 1908, he published Scouting for Boys, and the following year conducted his first official camp. Though the Boy Scouts would appeal to all classes, the original intent had been to prevent the further “degeneracy” of working-class children, to make them healthier and more fit—should it be necessary— to defend Great Britain. The Girl Guides formed in 1909. Baden-Powell clearly wanted the two organizations to be separate. There was no mili-


No character in Peter Wendy is more important than the shifting narrator. Sometimes the narrator addresses a child reader: “If you could keep awake (but of course you can’t) you would see your own mother doing this’ Peter and Wendy, p. 73). Sometimes the narrator addresses an adult reader: “On these magic shores children at play are forever beaching their coracles. We too have been there; we can still hear the sound of the surf, though we shall land no more” (Peter and Wendy, p. 74). Sometimes the narrator seems to be a child himself: “Off we skip like the most heartless things in the world, which is what children are, but so attractive; and who have an entirely selfish time; and then when we have need of special attention we nobly return tor it, confident that we shall be embraced instead of smacked” (Peter and Wendy, p. 166). The narrator’s varied) modes of address reinforce the conflicts in the novel between children and adults, setting them in separate categories, and defining them as separate audiences. At the same time as the narrator indicates the distance between childhood and adulthood, he communicates the culture’s nostalgic desire for childhood, either by playing (he adult who longs to be a child, or by magically transforming into a child himself.

tarism in the Girl Guides. Its leader, Agnes Baden-Powell, Robert Baden-Powell’s sister, had no intention of imitating the Boy Scouts. Instead, the Girl Guides set out to teach girls how to be fine housewives and mothers to guide the next generation. The Girl Guides, explained Agnes Baden-Powell, aimed only to make participants more capable in the “womanly” areas of life (Agnes Baden-Powell in Dyhouse, p. 111). By all measures, scouting was a success. By the time Barrie wrote Peter and Wendy in 1911, there were more than 100,000 participants.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

Peter and Wendy opens with the narrator’s statement that “All children, except one, grow up” (Peter and Wendy, p. 69). That one is Peter Pan, and the novel charts his effect on the Darling family, whose staid London life provides the novel’s frame. Mr. Darling, who knows about “stocks and shares,” works in the financial district of London (Peter and Wendy, p. 70). Mrs. Darling, the ideal mother, nurtures Wendy, John, and Michael. The family has little money, but a great concern for respectability; thus, they employ a Newfoundland dog as a nurse. On the night the story begins, Mr. and Mrs. Darling are preparing for a dinner party. Mr. Darling is petulant; first, because he cannot fasten his tie; secondly, because his practical jokes misfire; ultimately, because he feels he does not get enough respect, from his family or from Nana, the dog who serves as “nurse.” In a fit of pique, he ties Nana outside, leaving the nursery open to the arrival of Peter Pan.

Accompanied by the fairy Tinker Bell, Peter Pan flies in through the nursery window, seeking his lost shadow. It is not his first visit. He has always lived in the dreams of the Darling children. And it was a week before this night that he awakened Mrs. Darling; Nana sprang at him and tore off his shadow. On this evening, one week later, his sobs over his shadow awaken Wendy. He tells her that he ran away from his parents on the day he was born, so he would not have to grow up. Now he lives in Neverland with the lost boys, children who have fallen out of their carriages and remained unclaimed by their parents.

Peter is charmed by Wendy’s knowledge of fairy tales. Wendy, enticed by Peter’s description of Neverland, has visions of flying, mermaids, and the chance to play mother to the lost boys. She awakens John and Michael. Peter teaches them all how to fly, and away they go, “Second to the right, and straight on till morning,” to Neverland (Peter and Wendy, p. 102).

The book now moves to Peter Pan’s and the Darling children’s adventures in Neverland, the scene of most of the novel. Wendy recreates Victorian domesticity in their underground home. She cooks, sews, keeps schedules, and quizzes the boys on their home life; that is, she reminds them daily of the civilization they have left behind. Meanwhile, they are engaged in adventures with the other occupants of the island and its waters: Indians and pirates.

Boyhood fantasies have become reality. The Indians, of the “Piccaninny tribe,” carry tomahawks and adorn themselves with scalps. Though the “redskins” are fierce, the pirates pose a greater challenge because of the long enmity between their captain, James Hook, and Peter Pan. Hook, sinister yet of impeccably good breeding, lost his hand to Peter Pan and awaits his revenge. Hook is followed by a crocodile; having tasted Hook’s right hand, the crocodile searches for the rest of him. Not only did the crocodile swallow Hook’s hand, but a clock; thus, his arrival is always heralded by a familiar “tick tick.”

The adventure at the Mermaid’s Lagoon displays the personalities of all these players. Captured by Hook, the dangerous Tiger Lily, daughter of the Indian chief, has been left on a rock to drown. Peter Pan tricks the pirates into setting her free by imitating Captain Hook’s voice. Even though he has achieved his objective, Peter Pan cannot refrain from playing games with Hook. The two engage in a guessing game in which Hook comes closer and closer to discovering his nemesis. Finally Peter Pan, much taken with his own courage, identifies himself by name. Hook attacks, and the pirates and the lost boys do battle. Of course, Hook does not fight fairly. He bites Peter Pan and claws him with his iron hand, but is prevented from doing further mischief by the arrival of the crocodile. Meanwhile, Peter and Wendy, stranded on a rock in the middle of the lagoon, seem fated to die. Wendy floats away on the tail of a kite, whereupon Peter prepares to die by “standing erect on the rock again, with that smile on his face and a drum beating within him. It was saying, ‘To die will be an awfully big adventure’” (Peter and Wendy, p. 152). However, Peter Pan does not die. The Never Bird floats a nest his way, which Peter uses to reach home. Because he saved Tiger Lily, he becomes the “Great White Father” to the Indians; thus an alliance is forged between the lost boys and the Indians.

The adventures in Neverland might continue forever, but the Darling children fear that their parents will forget them. They decide to return home, and bring the lost boys with them. Just as the decision is made, the pirates attack the Indians, breaking the pattern of Indian warfare by striking first and thus defeating them. Tricking the children into believing the Indians have won, the pirates successfully ambush the Darlings and the lost boys, and bring them back to the pirate ship. Peter Pan, alone in the underground home, has fallen asleep, which leaves him defenseless in the presence of Captain Hook. Hook poisons Peter Pan’s medicine. Soon after, Tinker Bell arrives and breathlessly informs Peter Pan that the pirates have captured his friends. Peter leaps up to rescue Wendy and decides to take his medicine first. Tinker Bell intercedes, drinks the poison, and prepares to die. Maybe, she says, she could recover if enough children believed in fairies. In a passage of the book that borrows closely from one of the play’s most famous scenes, Peter flings out his arms.

There were no children here, and it was nighttime; but he addressed all who might be dreaming of the Neverland. . . . “Do you believe?” he cried. . . . “If you believe,” he shouted to them, “clap your hands; don’t let Tink die.”

(Peter and Wendy, p. 185)


The lost buys, abandoned children sent lo Neverland, have their Edwardian counterparts in the destitute children shipped abroad. In the lltter part of the Victorian period, reformers such as Thomas Barnardo (1845-1905) zealously took up the idea or forcing children to emigrate. Between 1875 and 1925, 80,000 children went to rural Canada, where reformers believed they would profit from a better environment than the British cities. Barnardo’s National Waif’s Association sheltered and fed vagrant children. The “Guiding Principles” of his homes included not only that no destitute child would ever be refused admission, but also that the homes would constitute England’s largest emigration agency for the young. Despite the good intentions of such people as Barnardo, emigration frequently led to great suffering for the young. Children sent to Canada were often treated cruelly, distrusted by the farming families that boarded them, and sometimes sent away from all that remained of their own families in Britain.

Tink is saved, and Peter Pan can now attend to freeing Wendy and killing Hook: “Hook or me this time,” he swears (Peter and Wendy, p. 186).

The last scene in Neverland takes place on the pirate ship, the Jolly Roger. Captain Hook, melancholy and musing, finds himself tortured by considerations of “good form” (Peter and Wendy, p. 188). As a graduate of a famous public school (namely Eton), does he still show his good breeding? Meanwhile, Wendy has been tied to the mast, and the lost boys are set to walk the plank. Peter, imitating the ticking crocodile, boards the Jolly Roger, and hides in the cabin. Any pirate who ventures in is killed by the hidden Peter as if by a phantom. Finally it is time for one more battle between the lost boys and the pirates, and the final sword fight between Hook and Peter. James Hook, “not wholly unheroic,” says the narrator, fights to the end in good form, before plunging into the sea and the crocodile’s maw (Peter and Wendy, p. 204). After some time at playing pirates, the Darling children fly home to London with the lost boys.

Back in London, Mr. Darling has condemned himself for his role in the children’s departure— his removing Nana allowed Peter Pan to whisk away his children unimpeded. He has taken to living in the kennel until his children return. Mrs. Darling waits, and keeps the house ready for Wendy, John, and Michael. In the window fly the children, to a place they barely remember and into bed they creep, as if they had never left. Mrs. Darling sees them as if in a dream, and a joyful family reunion occurs. Peter Pan, looking at them through the window, sees “the one joy from which he must be for ever barred” (Peter and Wendy, p. 214).

The novel, however, does not end at this point, where the play always did (except for once in 1908). The novel’s final chapter, “When Wendy Grew Up,” describes the fate of the Darlings and the lost boys. Adopted by the Darlings, the lost boys quickly forget about their lives in Neverland. Twice in the coming years, Wendy goes to Neverland for a week to help with spring cleaning; after that, she does not see Peter Pan until she is grown up with a daughter of her own. It becomes Jane’s turn and then Jane’s daughter’s turn, to accompany Peter to Neverland, “and thus it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless” (Peter and Wendy, p. 226).

Barrie and the golden age of childhood

In Peter and Wendy, the three Darling children are born into a family with tenuous middle-class status and strict gender divisions. Barrie satirizes middle-class concerns in his depiction of the Darling parents, especially the father, “one of those deep ones who knows about stocks and shares” (Peter and Wendy, p. 70). Mr. Darling works in the financial district of London, where, as a note in the play tells us, “he sits on a stool all day, as fixed as a postage stamp . so like all the others on stools that you recognise him not by his face but by his stool” (Peter Pan, p. 11). Mr. Darling’s white-collar job is the result of a burgeoning number of clerical positions in Britain’s economy. The novel clearly expresses middle-class concerns over money and respectability. When the first Darling child is born, “it was doubtful whether they [Mr. and Mrs. Darling] would be able to keep her, as she was another mouth to feed” (Peter and Wendy, p. 70). Maintaining one’s status meant keeping up appearances, which entailed employing at least one servant, an attitude that Barrie mocks in the Darling family’s choice of a dog as a nurse: “Mrs. Darling loved to have everything just so, and Mr. Darling had a passion for being exactly like his neighbours; so, of course, they had a nurse. As they were poor, owing to the amount of milk the children drank, this nurse was a prim Newfoundland dog, called Nana” (Peter and Wendy, p. 71). The Darlings have only one other servant, a young girl whom they sometimes refer to as “the servants.”

1f Mr. Darling is responsible for financial security, Mrs. Darling is in charge of psychological security. With a kiss permanently in the corner of her mouth, Mrs. Darling is the “angel in the house.” In other words, she tells the fairy tales, keeps the peace, and follows “the nightly custom of every good mother,” to survey her children’s sleeping minds and “put things straight for next morning” (Peter and Wendy, p. 73). The narrator indicates his own partiality by saying about Mrs. Darling, “Some like Peter best and some like Wendy best, but I like her best” (Peter and Wendy, p. 210).

The children, therefore, have clear gender and class role models, which they emulate throughout the novel, from the very first scene in which Wendy and John play at parenting. Wendy is as maternal as a little girl can be. Her first step in Neverland is to recreate Victorian bourgeois domesticity in the house under the ground. It is from this house that the lost boys, the Darling boys, and Peter Pan go out to have adventures. Wendy is either absent from them—at home sewing and cooking—or a spectator, rather than an actor. By contrast, Peter Pan, the quintessential boy, who “hates lethargy,” is all energy, activity, and instinct (Peter and Wendy, p. 112). The lost boys, adept at woodland skills, bear some resemblance to Baden-Powell’s Boy Scouts. They are hardy and independent, scarcely needing a mother at all.

Peter and Wendy, thus, is a typical Edwardian production in its idolization of boyhood. The novel takes boyish games and desires—to play at pirates and Indians all day—and gives them literary status. As Barrie said, “The next best thing to being boys is to write about them” (Barrie in Wullschlager, p. 1). This idolization, though, is not always sentimental. Though Peter and Wendy’s narrator describes children as “gay and innocent and heartless,” (Peter and Wendy, p. 226), Peter Pan’s dreams make him cry in his sleep. The novel touches on childhood fears of abandonment and rejection. Though Wendy speaks of the greatness of mother love, Peter Pan tells a different story:

Long ago . I thought like you that my mother would always keep the window open for me; so I stayed away for moons and moons and moons, and then flew back; but the window was barred, for mother had forgotten all about me, and there was another little baby sleeping in my bed.

(Peter and Wendy, p. 167)

In Peter Pan’s experience, children are replaceable. The situation of the lost boys may be even worse. As Peter Pan explains, “they are the children who fall out of their perambulators when the nurse is looking the other way. If they are not claimed in seven days they are sent far away to the Neverland to defray expenses” (Peter and Wendy, pp. 94-95). The lost boys are like mislaid packages. They have been abandoned to their own fate. Even the opening of the novel, which shows Mr. Darling calculating the expense of a new child, invokes such fairy tales as “Hansel and Gretel,” in which parents “lose” their children in the woods because they can’t afford to feed them. Though children may be as “savage” as the pirates and Indians they emulate, it is adults who are truly immoral in Barrie’s world.

Sources and literary context

As noted, Peter and Wendy continues a line of island adventure stories stretching back to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. In fact, Robinson Crusoe was the first book the boy Barrie and his mother read together.

Famous Island Adventure Stories
1719:Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe
1812-1813:Johann David Wyss’s Swiss Family Robinson
1841:Frederick Marryat’s Masterman Ready
1858:R. M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island
1874:Jules Veren’s Mysterious Island
1883:Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island
1911:J. M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy
1954:William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

Barrie states about this young self that “the reading he is munching feverishly is about desert islands; he calls them wrecked islands” (Barrie, Peter Pan, p. xiv). Even when he began to write plays, he remembers “quaking a little lest some low person counts how many islands are in them” (Barrie, Peter Pan, p. xv).

Barrie, however, pays far more credit to the inspiration provided by the Llewelyn Davies boys; collectively, they were the muse that inspired the many versions of Peter Pan. The swash-buckling boy hero of the play was largely the product of Barrie’s own meeting in 1897 in Kensington Gardens with George, Jack, and Peter Llewelyn Davies—later on came two more boys, Michael and Nicholas. Barrie grew close to the Llewelyn Davies family; he recorded his early intimacy in a privately published fantasy, complete with photographs, of his summer adventures with the three older boys: The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island. Barrie claims that this slight volume and the five Davies boys themselves were the main sources of the play. In its dedication, Barrie pays tribute to them and the fantasy games he played with them:

What I want to do first is to give Peter to the Five without whom he never would have existed. . . . You had played it [Peter Pan] until you tired of it, and tossed it in the air and gored it and left it derelict in the mud and went on your way singing other songs; and then I stole back and sewed some of the gory fragments together with a pen-nib.

(Barrie, Peter Pan, pp. v, viii)

Barrie played Captain Swarthy, the pirate who would become Captain Hook; Peter, Jack, and George were the wrecked survivors; Barrie’s St. Bernard, Porthos, played any number of supporting roles.

When Barrie wrote Peter Pan, he incorporated the names of the Davies children. Peter’s name was used for Peter Pan, Jack and Michael for John and Michael Darling, and George for Mr. Darling. Barrie believed Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, the mother of the Davies boys, to be a model of motherhood, and used her to create Mrs. Darling. Andrew Birkin argues that Mr. Darling is, in fact, a caricature of Arthur Llewelyn Davies (Birkin, p. 46). The name “Wendy” has a different origin. Barrie invented the name for the play, taking it from Margaret Henley, the young daughter of editor and poet W. E. Henley. Margaret lispingly called Barrie “My Wendy,” meaning “My Friendy,” and thus the name was born. Though Margaret Henley died when she was six, the name she invented and the cloak she wore were immortalized in Barrie’s play.

Barrie’s sentence—“There never was a simpler, happier family until the coming of Peter Pan”—can be read, as Birkin does, with a certain self-irony about Barrie’s own disruptive role in the life of the Davies family (Birkin, p. 46; Peter and Wendy, p. 72). Barrie himself, then, is also a model for Peter Pan. A man of short stature, under the influence of his mother for a long time, unable, biographers speculate, to consummate his marriage, consumed with childhood games and talk, Barrie refused to let go of boyhood. As Max Beerbohm wrote in reviewing the play, Barrie “has never grown up. He is still a child, absolutely” (Beerbohm in Birkin, p. 118). Barrie came to a similar conclusion in 1922: “It is as if long after writing Peter Pan its true meaning came to me—desperate attempt to grow up but can’t” (Barrie in Wullschl&ger, p. 131).


In 1929, Barrie gave the royalties From Peter Pan to London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children. When Barrie died, he reconfirmed the gift, and requested that the amount received by the hospital be kept secret. In 1987, the copyright expired. A year later the British Parliament acted to maintain the royalties to the hospital.

Before and after the novel Peter and Wendy, elements of the story appeared in various forms, the key source being the play Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. Barrie had written the play Peter Pan for the Christmas pantomime season. Pantomime, which literally means “an imitator of all,” was a popular form of drama in eighteenth-and nineteenth-century England. Incorporated into Barrie’s play are basic pantomime principles: a boy hero played by a girl; a villain scorned by the audience; many roles for children; and audience involvement.

Elements of the Peter Pan story surfaced in works harking back to the beginning of the twentieth century.

Peter Pan’s Major Appearances
1901:The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island. A memoir by Barrie of his summer adventures with three older boys: George, Jack, and Peter, of the Llewelyn Davis family. Two copies were privately published; one was kept by Barrie, the other given to Arthur Llewelyn Davies, the boys’ father.
1902:The Little White Bird. A novel that contains chapters on Peter Pan as a baby who flies to Kensington Gardens and remains always one week old.
1904:First performance of the play Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Would Not Grow Up.
1906:Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens (based on the Peter Pan chapters of The Little White Bird, and illustrated by Arthur Rackham).
1911:Peter and Wendy.


James Barrie was an immensely popular writer in his time, and no writings of his have been more popular or lasted longer than his incarnations of Peter Pan. The play was enthusiastically received, and has become the most popular children’s play ever. In London, the Daily Telegraph wrote that the play is “of such originality, of such tenderness, and of such daring, that not even a shadow of doubt regarding its complete success was to be discerned in the final fall of the curtain. . It is so true, so natural, so touching, that it brought the audience to the writer’s feet and held them captives there” (Daily Telegraph in Hanson, p. 45). The play opened subsequently in Washington, D.C., and traveled across North America, where an American critic wrote that “it is a bit of pure phantasy by the writer who, since the death of Robert Louis Stevenson, has most truly kept the ear and mind of a child” (Outlook in Dunbar, p. 146).

Peter and Wendy, published with illustrations by F. D. Bedford, was greeted with as much applause as the play. Critics praised Barrie’s portrayal of “the mother heart and child-nature,” his “delicious humour,” and his ability to write a book that is “neither a boy’s book, nor a girl’s book, nor a fairy book, nor anything but just a book which is a delight for everybody” (Markgraf, pp. 230-232). A review in Punch made the following assessment:

[Peter and Wendy is] not merely the play of Peter Pan with “observed he” and “remarked she” stuck in all through to make it look like a book; it is packed with island lore that is new to us. . It is the whole play, and yet so much more the whole play. . . .

(Punch in Markgraf, p. 232)

—Danielle Price

For More Information

Barrie, J. M. Peter and Wendy. In Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens; Peter and Wendy. Ed. Peter Hollindale. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

____. Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Would Not Grow UP. The Plays of J. M. Barrie. New York: Scribner, 1928.

Birkin, Andrew. J. M. Barrie and The Lost Boys: The Love Story that Gave Birth to Peter Pan. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1979.

Bratton, J. S. “British Imperialism and the Reproduction of Femininity in Girls’ Fiction, 1900-1930.” In Imperialism and Juvenile Literature. Ed. Jeffrey Richards. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989.

Cecil, Robert. Life in Edwardian England. London: B. T. Batsford; G. P. Putnam’s, 1969.

Dunbar, Janet. J. M. Barrie: The Man Behind the Image. Newton Abbot: Readers Union, 1971.

Dyhouse, Carol. Girls Growing Up in Late Victorian and Edwardian England. London: Routledge, 1981.

Hanson, Bruce K. The Peter Pan Chronicles: The Nearly 100 Year History of “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.” New York: Carol, 1993.

MacKenzie, John M. Propaganda and Empire: The Manipulation of British Public Opinion, 1880-1960. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984.

Markgraf, Carl. J. M. Barrie: An Annotated Secondary Bibliography. Greensboro, N.C.: ELT Press, 1989.

Mitchell, Sally. Daily Life in Victorian England. West-port, Conn.: Greenwood, 1996.

Porter, Andrew, ed. “Introduction.” The Nineteenth Century. Vol. 3 of The Oxford History of the British Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Rogozinski, Jan. Pirates! Brigands, Buccaneers, and Privateers in Fact, Fiction, and Legend. New York: Fact, Ficti on, and Legend. New York;Facts on File, 1995.

Wullschlager, Jackie. Inventing Wonderland: The Lives and Fantasies of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, ]. M. Barrie, Kenneth Grahame and A. A. Milne. New York: Free Press, 1995.