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Themes in Peter Pan
Growing Up: The character of Peter embodies the central theme of childhood and growing up. Barrie uses his narrative to demonstrate the natural transition between childhood freedom and adult responsibility. Peter, “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up,” chooses to remain a child forever. Peter gets to continue having adventures and living a life of freedom and imagination. However, Peter’s choice means he also misses out on familial love. Some readers may see Peter Pan as a story of how we lose imagination and freedom as we grow up. However, other readers may see the story as demonstrating how growth and change can be hard, but it are a necessary part of life.
Motherhood: Motherhood is represented by Mrs. Darling and Wendy. Peter distrusts mothers because he believes that his own mother betrayed him. However, Peter and The Lost Boys still desire a mother, which is why Peter flies Wendy to Neverland. Even the pirates admit they long for a mother to take care of them. Wendy pretends to be a mother to The Lost Boys, but later wants to return home to her own mother. Some readers may see the depiction of women’s primary role as a mother as a confirmation of stereotypical gender roles.
Themes Examples in Peter Pan:
Chapter 1 - Peter Breaks Through
"rummage in their minds and put things straight for next morning..." See in text (Chapter 1 - Peter Breaks Through)
This metaphor shows how parents talk to their children before bed. Parents are supposed to protect children, so when things go wrong, they talk to them and make things right. Children’s sense of wonder is a prevalent theme in the story, and sleep represents the travels from the real world to Neverland: the world of children’s dreams.
"Children have the strangest adventures without being troubled by them..." See in text (Chapter 1 - Peter Breaks Through)
The wonder of children is a main theme in the story. Barrie portrays children as mentally stronger and more morally sound than adults to exhibit this theme.
"He had his position in the city to consider..." See in text (Chapter 1 - Peter Breaks Through)
Unlike Mrs. Darling, Mr. Darling is more concerned with “his position in the city.” Barrie portrays Mr. Darling in such a way to show what happens to children who grow up and lose their sense of wonder: they begin to worry about money and jobs, instead of adventure and joy.
"Of course we can, George..." See in text (Chapter 1 - Peter Breaks Through)
Motherhood is one of the major themes in the story. When Mr. Darling doesn’t seem to think keeping Wendy is a viable financial option, Mrs. Darling appeals more to their will, than their reality, because of her love for her daughter and her husband. She knows that he wants to keep her, and just needs the peace of mind and encouragement that she has to offer.
Chapter 2 - The Shadow
"So the older ones have become glassy-eyed and seldom speak (winking is the star language), but the little ones still wonder..." See in text (Chapter 2 - The Shadow)
Barrie uses stars as an extended metaphor for how humans mature. He states that the “older ones have become glassy-eyed” (talking about the stars), to symbolize how adults lose their “sparkle” and wonder.
"Wendy was wiser..." See in text (Chapter 2 - The Shadow)
This follows the theme of motherhood in the story. Wendy immediately knows the difference between Nana’s happy and unhappy bark because of her protective instincts.
Chapter 3 - Come Away, Come Away!
"Wendy, one girl is more use than twenty boys..." See in text (Chapter 3 - Come Away, Come Away!)
This response supports the major theme of motherhood in the story. Even though Wendy herself is just a little girl when she meets Peter, she begins to take on responsibilities of a mother to Peter and the Lost Boys, because they don’t have mothers of their own.
"I want always to be a little boy and to have fun..." See in text (Chapter 3 - Come Away, Come Away!)
Peter’s explanation highlights the major theme of avoiding duty and responsibility. In Peter’s mind, growing up is the worst thing that can happen to a person because the freedom and wonder of childhood should be endless.
"It must be sewn on..." See in text (Chapter 3 - Come Away, Come Away!)
Wendy’s quick thinking follows the major theme of the story of women as caretakers for men. Throughout the story women are portrayed as strong and individualistic, always willing and ready to help out more foolish and self-absorbed male characters.
"to see a mermaid!..." See in text (Chapter 3 - Come Away, Come Away!)
Wendy dreams of seeing a mermaid, and Peter uses this to lure try to lure her to Neverland. In the story, Neverland symbolizes children’s ideal reality, a place where dreams become reality.
Chapter 4 - The Flight
"It just goes out of itself when she falls asleep, same as the stars..." See in text (Chapter 4 - The Flight)
Throughout the story, characters continuously exhibit a lack of control. Tinker Bell can’t control her light because she is a fairy, just like Wendy can’t control her urge to pick the flower in the first chapter. Such moments are metaphorical reminders of all children’s inability to control growing up.
Chapter 6 - The Little House
"O Wendy lady, be our mother..." See in text (Chapter 6 - The Little House)
The Lost Boys' desire for a mother emphasizes the theme of motherhood running throughout the story. While adult men, like Mr. Darling, are described as stern and difficult to relate to, women have "romantic" minds and are easier for the Lost Boys to get along with. Barrie defines Wendy as a strong character but careful readers will question why her strength, and the strength of women, needs to be so explicitly connected to motherhood.
"A lady to take care of us at last..." See in text (Chapter 6 - The Little House)
Wendy takes on responsibilities of a mother for the Lost Boys, but Peter refuses to follow lead and act as a father. While Wendy's actions support the theme of motherhood in the story, they also potentially reinforce stereotypical gender roles, suggesting that her only use in Neverland is to take care of the Lost Boys.
Chapter 7 - The Home Under The Ground
"By the way, the questions were all written in the past tense..." See in text (Chapter 7 - The Home Under The Ground)
The use of the past tense shows how remote and removed Mr. and Mrs. Darling are from the kids, making it seem as though they no longer exist. Perhaps the memory of their parents has vanished because Neverland is a place built of children’s imaginations instead of realities.
Chapter 8 - The Mermaids' Lagoon
"would the mother desert her eggs? No..." See in text (Chapter 8 - The Mermaids' Lagoon)
Again the mother bird protecting her eggs builds on the theme of motherhood in the story. This symbol also parallels Wendy’s choice to brace herself for the pirates as she let the children sleep. Sleep is important for children (in the story) because it is the time when their imaginations can birth a sort of wondrous reality.
"she was too proud to offer a vain resistance..." See in text (Chapter 8 - The Mermaids' Lagoon)
Barrie uses “pride” to highlight character weakness in the story. Recall in chapter 2 how Mr. Darling blames his wardrobe decisions as one of the reasons the children vanished; he was too proud to wear a “made-up tie.” In both Mr. Darling and Tiger Lily’s scenarios, “pride” is seemingly their downfall.
"she must die as a chief's daughter..." See in text (Chapter 8 - The Mermaids' Lagoon)
Barrie portrays Tiger Lily as brave in times of distress, showing an ability to be “impassive” during a life-threatening situation. This supports the argument that Barrie portrays women in a positive light (a heavily debated upon topic). Compare how Barrie portrays Wendy and Tiger Lily with Tinker Bell. The fairy's character is interesting because she seems to be petty and emotionally unstable.
Chapter 10 - The Happy Home
"loyal a housewife to listen to any complaints against father..." See in text (Chapter 10 - The Happy Home)
In this scene during Peter and Wendy’s role play as mother and father, Wendy’s submissiveness as a housewife contrasts the strong and courageous character she has demonstrated thus far. Although Barrie has promoted the idea motherhood so far, traditional and fixed gender roles have begun to appear during the second half of the story.
"There is something she wants to be to me, but she says it is not my mother...." See in text (Chapter 10 - The Happy Home)
While all the women in the story (except Mrs. Darling) have romantic feelings for Peter, he does not feel the same way. This imbalance presents damaging notions of behavior, implying that women are meant to fawn over men. While Peter stands atop a metaphorical pedestal, the other women crave his affection and continuously try to win him over.
"It is only make-believe, isn't it, that I am their father?..." See in text (Chapter 10 - The Happy Home)
Peter wants to avoid growing up to avoid responsibility, thus he is only willing to act as a father if it is “only make-believe.” Wendy on the other hand is ready to accept the responsibility in a sort of Neverland reality, suggesting that women are more ready for responsibility than boys.
Chapter 11 - Wendy's Story
"Off we skip like the most heartless things in the world, which is what children are, but so attractive..." See in text (Chapter 11 - Wendy's Story)
Peter Pan presents a fictional scenario where children have no need for parents to survive and thrive. However, here Barrie presents theme that concerns the emotional immaturity of children. Although the story seems like an adventurous bedtime story, underlying themes of staying young forever against aging into maturity are constantly in conflict with one another.
"If you knew how great is a mother's love..." See in text (Chapter 11 - Wendy's Story)
This statement emphasizes one of the key points Barrie wants to make about motherhood in this story and the strength of parents' love for their children. Wendy teaches the Lost Boys that no matter how badly you treat your mother, she will always love you.
Chapter 16 - The Return Home
"it was quite time we came back..." See in text (Chapter 16 - The Return Home)
This Darling children’s return home represents one of the most enduring themes of the story: childhood play is valuable and fun, but in reality it does not last forever. Although the Darling children enjoyed their time in Neverland, they understand the love of their parents and their lives at home are more important than playing make-believe forever. Perhaps this is a sign that they are already starting to grow up.
Chapter 17 - When Wendy Grew Up
"what it really meant was that they no longer believed..." See in text (Chapter 17 - When Wendy Grew Up)
Peter was right all along. While the children had personally experienced Neverland, they quickly forget it when put into the real world. This symbolizes how easily people lose memories of childhood because of brain maturation. In forgetting these memories, they also forget the carefree and adventure-driven lifestyle they loved when they were young.