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I Don't Want to Grow Up: Re-Reading Peter Pan

Well, it happened again. Twice now, in less than one month, I cried at the end of a book. The last time it was reading Amos Oz’ moving memoir,...

Well, it happened again. Twice now, in less than one month, I cried at the end of a book. The last time it was reading Amos Oz’ moving memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness.

This time, it was reading Peter Pan, which I just finished with my five year old.

I don’t usually go in for children’s literature all that much. I’m too much of a sucker for dark realism – Where the Wild Things Are – but for adults.

But I must say that Peter Pan won me over. Maybe it was because I identified so much with Wendy – the designated “adult” amongst the kids at Neverland. Wendy is always so responsible – putting the boys to bed, making sure they’re fed. It isn’t until she’s grown up and with a child of her own and Peter makes that last visit that she realizes that she can no longer fly – literally or figuratively. Her childhood is long gone and with it, her imagination and even her ability to comfort Peter when he sobs because she’s no longer part of his world.

I look at my kids sometimes – both of whom still play imaginary games with some regularity – and I wonder when the day will come that they’ll give them up. Of course, when I said this to my daughter – whose list of imaginary friends runs the gamut from the more mundane Maya and Annie to the more exotic Cherard and Zoma – she cheerfully said that she’d always be friends with them and that I shouldn’t worry. But I can see with my eight year old that the older he gets, the games become fewer and fewer.

So for those of you who are willing to engage in the occasional bout of nostalgia, I heartily recommend that you dip back into Peter Pan when you next have the chance. It won’t be long until, like Wendy watching her daughter fly off to spring clean with Peter Pan, your own kids will be the ones reading it to their children.

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  1. The Never Fairy March 17, 2009 at 5:07 pm #

    Well, “Peter Pan” is a dark story, too. :) Glad you found something in it to appreciate as an adult. That’s the beauty of the story. It magically works on both sides ;)

    I recommend this one to you… it’s very different from all the others!

    http://www.peterpansneverworld.com/

    BELIEVE!

  2. rebecca hardin March 30, 2009 at 6:58 pm #

    What i’d give for an afternoon tea with JM Barrie.

    WAS he in love with those boys’ mother as he wrote the novel? smitten, and smart enough to see with empathy and pathos her predicaments, her creativity and strategic vision held hostage in the household?

    Or was he merely longing, too, for citizenzhip within her care? Throughout the novel wendy performs that kind of care so naively, even to the extent that it imperils her charges. They bow to her rigidly enforced afternoon naps and end up arranged like bits of tender meat on the banks of the lagoon. There they lie, obedient, waiting to be gobbled up by the forces of evil in a world whose pirates are actually far less predatory than much of life in London neighborhoods at the turn of the century.

    Or is Barrie so capable of describing the delicious, cruel insouciance of youth because he seeks to consume it through some impulse closer to predation than care, or some place where those two forms of intimacy meet–as so often they do? Bourgeouis care: the contradictory control exercise in hemorrhaged energy from those of us who have been educated to loathe the fullness of our forms. As grown up wendy gets to her feet, ungainly and self-conscious in her nightie and hating her full girth and height, she greets the terrified peter with whom she once flew and swam and slept. He shrinks in horror from her and i cannot help but revisit the light princess, learning clumsily to walk and bear children for her prince at the end of McDonald’s similarly light-yet-dark story warning children of what is to come.

    Don’t those same voices echo even more darkly in morrissey’s, singing about the wardrobe towering like a beast of prey as the self-loathing father sings to his three year old, conjuring the threat of violence both out there and in the territoriality of care? The song fades with a haunting refrain “and your mother….and your mother….” that reminds us of what neverland never really can be: escape from the mediation of our worlds by adults’ own visions, needs, and aspirations. All that foucault can offer us on the sexualization of children and the production of our own docile bodies through the history of sexuality cannot tame these powerful laments that travel across the years, in our ears, and which we transmit to our children.

    Each time I go back to the original Peter Pan i seek new evidence of Barrie’s misogyny, or pedophelia…many of my children’s friends in this country, and their parents, are concerned that naina so treasures a parallel world of her own in neverland. they find that i should disabuse her of the notion that fairies exist. Is it because this narrative is so unsettling?

    Anyway, it doesn’t matter what they say. i return like an addict. Most recently i was unable to resist listening to Tim Curry read the original unabridged novel aloud on a road trip. My daughter liked his irish accent for the bosun, smee…and the way he said “doodle doo,” and “codfish.” i find comforting closure in his guiding me through this story with my child, as he was my fishnet-and-garter-clad compass in adolescence. How better to learn that the most exuberant shirking of social mores can land one in tragic territory, exiled, mascara streaked,and sincerely pathetic (yet still so stirring, so worthy of emulation despite the fact of likely disaster?)

    Mostly what i find when i go back to Peter Pan is the way the original story offers redemption of one kind or another for most of the characters, if only they can seize it, or be brought somehow to their knees for it. What i love is the mosaic: the marvelous fragments of turn of the century “civilization” that barrie assembles with loving satire and nuanced attention to the violence done our souls in their encounters with social status-be we private bankers or pirates. And even in that, he does not conjure some naive world where status is absent; peter is, after all, a tyrant.

    But this is no Lord of the Flies. Closer, perhaps, to Brideshead in its attention to the way it brackets race and empire in its own cruelly naive way, honing in instead upon actual indeterminacies of gender, and imposed social controls thereof–also in its affection for the many journeys that life involves. Knowledge of self, for George Darling, brings absurd groveling and self loathing one day, then new heights of social accomplishment the next, so capable are status systems of absorbing our sincere heights and valleys and transforming them into the cheap currency of social capital. Real understanding is a freight we carry and that makes us–however large bodied–smaller and smaller in ways against which we must struggle if we are to arrive where Peter is always already: able to say, sincerely: “to die…THAT shall be a grand adventure.”

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