J. M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy (1911) is a novel that was greatly influential to and a reflection of Edwardian English society. This story includes Barrie’s perpetually young Peter Pan whose invention began with short stories and a play. The character of Peter shows Barrie’s “extravagant devotion to childhood and his horror of maturity” which at the time “coincided with a period when the British public felt much the same” (Avery 173). Children were revered as pure and encouraged to stay young as long as possible. Barrie had his own “obsession with immaturity” (Avery 174), which is evident in Peter’s actions. He is impulsive and unrestrained. However, Wendy’s actions do not reflect this theme. From the very beginning of the novel, Wendy is portrayed as very mature. The maturity and adult-like behavior in young girls seems to be a theme with Barrie, for “…Barrie’s heroines are romanticized far beyond credibility, but that may well have contributed to his considerable power as a promoter of traditional standards of female behavior” (Shout 360). So while Peter and the lost boys are wild, Wendy is portrayed seemingly as the responsible one of the group. Although Barrie depicts Wendy Darling in adult roles such as a wife and mother she is still, in all actuality, still a girl.
Peter and Wendy opens with the Darling family, a middle class family in England. Wendy Darling is the eldest of three children and “was every inch a woman, though there were not very many inches” (Barrie 26). She is concerned with cleanliness and propriety, particularly when she first discusses Peter Pan’s existence with her mother. It has been noted “…the first portion of the novel focuses on the inversion of adult/child relationships…” (Clark 305). This can be seen in the way Wendy interacts with her father when they are trying to convince her youngest brother Michael to take his medicine. Wendy sees herself as being helpful when she fetches Mr. Darling’s medicine so he can set an example of how to bravely take it. When Mr. Darling tries to back out of the deal by feeding it to the dog, Nana, Wendy scolds her father like a mother would do to a son. Mr. Darling actually pouts at the treatment while Wendy comforts Nana. This interaction shows Wendy being placed in the role of an adult early on. We see this also when Mrs. Darling flatters Wendy by borrowing her bracelet when she gets dressed up for a dinner party. Though Wendy is not attending herself, she invitation is extended to her jewelry and becomes a way for Wendy to feel a part of the adult world. Still, to Wendy maturity is a game, as she is a proper child and follows the “Edwardian concept of what constituted an ideal child: it had to be imaginative” (Avery 178).
Wendy’s imagination is clearly at work when she and her brother John play-act at being their parents at the time of their births. John proclaims to Wendy “you are now a mother” and she goes on to take care of Michael like he is her son (Barrie 16). That is the same way she looks at Peter when she meets him for the first time. Peter is crying on the floor because he cannot get his shadow to reattach to his body so she sews it on, comforts him, and calls him “my little man” (Barrie 25). Peter tries to take credit for her work, which angers Wendy. One author said this of Wendy’s reaction: “Her ensuing retreat back into her bed and refusal to encourage his arrogant attitude depicts Wendy as an unyielding proto-feminist, rather than a submissive future housewife… she views her domestic accomplishments as a sign of both maturity and empowerment, not an indicator of Peter’s male superiority” (Clark 305). However, Barrie does not keep Wendy in this empowered position for very long. Peter quickly placates Wendy by saying “in a voice no woman has ever been able to resist” that “one girl is more use than twenty boys” (Barrie 26). Peter can manipulate her because she doesn’t have true maturity. For Wendy, maturity is a game.
Wendy is fascinated by Peter and wants to give him a kiss, something that Peter cannot understand because he is a child. Wendy is imitating the actions of adults and possibly has actual feelings for Peter, as she is a growing and developing girl. This introduces the concept of adolescence and female competition and jealousy. Tinker Bell sees Wendy as a threat to her relationship with Peter, and thus begins a Wendy’s first unintentional journey into the adult world. She is a girl with a crush, wishing that Peter came for her and not just the stories that she can tell (even when she plays at being his wife, he much prefers her to play his mother). But now she has made a real enemy out of Tinker Bell and though she does nothing to provoke Tinker Bell, she understands her jealousy. When Peter flatters and entices Wendy into joining him and Tinker Bell on their trip back to Neverland, Wendy, ever the responsible and considerate girl, brought her brothers along, making sure they were safe while under Peter’s distracted guidance. Tinker Bell takes advantage of their arrival to tell the lost boys to shoot Wendy out of the air. In Neverland, a fantasy-land of fairies, mermaids, Native Americans, and pirates, a place where children never grow up, “…Peter functions as the central Patriarchal authority figure…” and Tinker Bell enforces his role (Clark, 304). So the boys take her word as Peter’s actual orders and Tootles nearly kills Wendy. Tinker Bell is a deadly enemy, and Wendy, still a girl, is unable to contend against the fairy’s anger.
Once they arrived in Neverland, the boys asked Wendy to be their mother, to which she responded, “”Ought I?… Of course it’s frightfully fascinating, but you see I am only a little girl. I have no real experience” but when Peter says she just needs to be a “nice motherly person” she says, “you see I feel that is exactly what I am” (Barrie 65). And she takes on the role right away: admonishing them, putting them to bed, and telling them a story. “Wendy Darling, ten years old or so, can only play at being wife and mother (she delights in doing both, before Peter’s arrival as well as after), but having played these roles she puts them to consistent and effective application” (Shout, 361). For example, Wendy immediately comforts Tootles when he feels guilty for shooting her. She is the victim and never met her attacker before, but she still felt it was her job to comfort him. After the boys build her a house to her exact specifications she begins doing all the cooking, washing, disciplining, comforting, and sewing “when she had a breathing time for herself” (Barrie 69). She makes herself so busy that she begins to think (more than once) “spinsters are to be envied” (Barrie 69, 90). As she builds a life in Neverland “She will be dependent on Peter and her boys, like any sanctified Victorian wife/mother, but still be very much the mistress of the Lost Boys’ domicile…” (Shout, 361). The boys respect and revere Wendy and even her brothers begin to believe that she, though not much older than them, is their actual mother.
One might see it as one author wrote, “I couldn’t bear to be boxed in as Wendy boxes herself, with Peter’s complicity: she sews on pockets and prepares meals in the underground lair, spending her Neverland time playing Edwardian household rather than having adventures” (Jenkins). But for Wendy, pretending to be a mother is her adventure. Because she doesn’t have the experience of real motherhood, Wendy improvises and makes mistakes. It is the mistakes she makes that further the plot in Peter and Wendy. When the boys are swimming near Marooner’s Rock one day, Wendy orders them to take a half-hour nap after their make-believe lunch. She makes the mistake of a “young mother” when she decides not to wake them when she hears pirates approaching because she thought she must always stick to the half-hour rule, though none of them had actually eaten (Barrie 75). Because of her inexperience, Wendy puts them all in danger, but she also inadvertently adds excitement to the story. This happens again when Captain Hook finally captures the children. She is described as “only a little girl” when she is fascinated by Hook and the narrator wishes that she had reacted differently which would have prevented the children from being tied up (Barrie 108). However, if she had not reacted in the way she did, the story would have lost its dramatic appeal, so one can believe that the narrator’s wish is disingenuous. These scenes are the only scenes where Wendy displays any real fear and vulnerability and Wendy finds herself “long[ing] to hear male voices,” a symbol of security for her (Barrie 75). Wendy can convincingly mimic a wife or mother, but she still makes the mistakes of a novice. This only changes when she becomes a real mother.
When the Darling children and the lost boys return to England they begin to grow up and the memories of the Peter and Neverland begin to fade away. Wendy does return to Neverland to do spring cleaning for Peter. But soon she is ineligible to return and becomes an adult, playing to roles of wife and mother for real this time. When Peter returns again he is saddened to see that she has grown up, “He sat down on the floor and sobbed, and Wendy did not know how to comfort him, though she could have done it so easily once. She was only a woman now…” (Barrie 151). Wendy was once able to play a mother to Peter, but once she became an actual mother, she is unable to satisfy Peter’s expectations for a make-believe mother. Wendy’s daughter Jane now takes on the role. Jane is only a girl, and that, along with being “nice and motherly” is exactly what is needed to be a mother in Neverland.
Wendy Darling is seen as a mature child from the very beginning of the novel. Her journey to Neverland requires her to take on the adult role of mother, and sometimes wife, but she was still a girl. She played the role for fun, continuing her nursery games in her new surroundings with nine sons instead of just Michael. She tries to be a wife to Peter but only attracts Tinker Bell’s jealousy. It is in times of danger when one is reminded of her status as a girl. She may have played a mother convincingly, but she only is an adult after all her games and adventures are over.
Avery, G. (1986). The cult of Peter Pan. Word & Image: A Journal of Verbal/Visual Enquiry, 2(2), 173-185.
Barrie, J M, Jack Zipes, J M. Barrie, and J M. Barrie. Peter Pan. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. Print.
Clark, Emily. “The Female Figure in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan: The Small and the Mighty.” J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in and out of Time: a Children’s Classic at 100. By Donna R. White and C. Anita Tarr. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2006. 303-19. Print.
Jenkins, Emily. “Peter Pan. I Am He. I Am Not.” The Horn Book Magazine, 83.5 (2007): 502.
Shout, John. “From Nora Helmer to Wendy Darling: If You Believe in Heroines, Clap Your Hands.” Modern Drama V. 35 (September 1992) P. 353-64, 35 (1992): 353-364.