I have learned the hard way that "Peter Pan" is deranged

I take no pleasure in reporting this.

I have learned the hard way that "Peter Pan" is deranged

Because life is pandemonium and my brain constantly feels like if molasses could be anxious, I’ve tried a number of sleep podcasts to help me descend into a better level of consciousness. A common trend among sleep podcasts, I’ve learned, is reading a chapter or two of a book that’s in the public domain, which usually works well for all involved: I’m lulled to sleep by the dulcet murmuring of the podcast host, and said host can produce content without the threat of copyright litigation.

So I had no objections with this arrangement. Until one night, when my favorite sleep podcaster announced that he would be reading from Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie’s beloved children’s novel from 1911. Having seen the Disney movie, I assumed I knew the gist. I was wrong.

The first paragraph of this book is as follows:

All children, except one, grow up. They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this. One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs. Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, “Oh, why can't you remain like this for ever!” This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end.

That’s when I knew that this trip to Neverland wouldn’t be so soothing after all. As a rule, I don’t want my sleep podcasts or my children’s novels starting off with such existential dread. I lay in bed, fully awake and stunned, as the rest of the chapter unfolded.

Thus began my new ritual. Every night I’d anticipate what wild shit J.M. Barrie would throw at me from beyond the grave and every night I’d be shocked nonetheless. Naturally, any story conceived by a Victorian Englishman is going to be disturbing at times, because theirs was a racist culture of repressed perverts. Barrie’s style is marked by matter-of-fact surrealism, which was somewhat disorienting to adapt to — the Darling family hires a Newfoundland dog named Nana to watch their children, Wendy, John, and Michael, for instance. Mrs. Darling is able to snatch Peter Pan’s shadow one night when he visits and she keeps it in a drawer. I suppose that’s an acceptable level of whimsy for a children’s book.

But there’s a darkness to marital life in the Darling household. I suppose Mrs. Darling seems happy enough, but I worry about her. Our introduction to the Darling marriage contains (1) racism and several bleak connotations:

She was a lovely lady, with a romantic mind and such a sweet mocking mouth. Her romantic mind was like the tiny boxes, one within the other, that come from the puzzling East, however many you discover there is always one more; and her sweet mocking mouth had one kiss on it that Wendy could never get, though there it was, perfectly conspicuous in the right-hand corner.

The way Mr. Darling won her was this: the many gentlemen who had been boys when she was a girl discovered simultaneously that they loved her, and they all ran to her house to propose to her except Mr. Darling, who took a cab and nipped in first, and so he got her. He got all of her, except the innermost box and the kiss. He never knew about the box, and in time he gave up trying for the kiss.

I feel like Mrs. Darling shouldn’t have settled for the man who simply called “dibs” on her first. Mr. Darling is an insecure, self-serious man. He’s probably harmless but I still hate his vibe. He “used to boast to Wendy that her mother not only loved him but respected him,” which is a very weird flex, and he was “troubled” by Nana, the Newfoundland, because “had sometimes a feeling that she did not admire him.” Men will literally complain about not earning a dog’s esteem instead of going to therapy. When Mr. Darling got especially depressed about this, Mrs. Darling “would sign to the children to be specially nice to Father” and the whole family would dance together to cheer him up. They seem well-adjusted by old-timey standards, but I do wish that this man’s negative energy was not a burden they had to bear.

Peter Pan does not simply enter this family’s life unannounced, as he does in the Disney adaptation. No. There are warning signs for weeks. “Mrs. Darling first heard of Peter when she was tidying up her children’s minds,” J.M. Barrie states as if that’s not going to ruin my night. “It is the nightly custom of every good mother after her children are asleep to rummage in their minds and put things straight for next morning, repacking into their proper places the many articles that have wandered during the day.” Mrs. Darling sees that her three children have been thinking about a boy named Peter Pan and a fantasy world called Neverland. When she asks Wendy about it, Wendy reports that Peter is probably a boy who comes into the nursery to play the flute when she’s sleeping. And indeed, Mrs. Darling finds leaves inside the nursery by the window, as if someone had entered in the night, though the room was on the third floor.

The night that Mrs. Darling is able to steal his shadow, she had nodded off while sewing some clothes. She wakes up to see Peter in the nursery, and their interaction is tense: “He was a lovely boy, clad in skeleton leaves and the juices that ooze out of trees but the most entrancing thing about him was that he had all his first teeth. When he saw she was a grown-up, he gnashed the little pearls at her.”

Mrs. Darling warns her husband about the intruder, but he dismisses the concept as “some nonsense Nana has been putting into their heads; just the sort of idea a dog would have.” Nana can’t talk, for the record. This man seems to be projecting his insecurities onto his canine employee. In the Disney adaptation, Peter comes back one night when the parents are out at a party, but that version omits several upsetting details about what happened before and after the inciting incident. In the original text, we learn that Mr. and Mrs. Darling actually return home to find their children missing and are distraught, grieving for their missing children for months!

Mr. Darling, at least, regrets his behavior on the night that his children went missing. As well he should! He’d reproached his youngest child, Michael, for not wanting to take his medicine, telling him to be a man. He boasted that he’d always taken medicine easily, so Wendy helpfully suggested that he take the medicine with Michael to encourage him. But Mr. Darling is actually thin-skinned lying-ass bitch who hates taking medicine, so he let his little child take a spoonful while he only pretended to. And his children knew he’s a little bitch. “It was dreadful the way all the three were looking at him, just as if they did not admire him.” So this fool doubled down! He poured his medicine into Nana’s bowl and says he actually wanted to play a trick on his children’s loyal nurse! Nana takes a slurp and is upset! All of the children are sad, and Nana “gave Mr. Darling such a look, not an angry look: she showed him the great red tear that makes us so sorry for noble dogs, and crept into her kennel.”

Mr. Darling was frightfully ashamed of himself, but he would not give in. In a horrid silence Mrs. Darling smelt the bowl. “O George,” she said, “it's your medicine!”

“It was only a joke,” he roared, while she comforted her boys, and Wendy hugged Nana. “Much good,” he said bitterly, “my wearing myself to the bone trying to be funny in this house.”

And still Wendy hugged Nana. “That’s right,” he shouted. “Coddle her! Nobody coddles me. Oh dear no! I am only the breadwinner, why should I be coddled—why, why, why!”

The children wept, and Nana ran to him beseechingly, but he waved her back. He felt he was a strong man again. “In vain, in vain,” he cried; “the proper place for you is the yard, and there you go to be tied up this instant.”

“George, George,” Mrs. Darling whispered, “remember what I told you about that boy.”

Alas, he would not listen. He was determined to show who was master in that house, and when commands would not draw Nana from the kennel, he lured her out of it with honeyed words, and seizing her roughly, dragged her from the nursery. He was ashamed of himself, and yet he did it. It was all owing to his too affectionate nature, which craved for admiration. When he had tied her up in the back-yard, the wretched father went and sat in the passage, with his knuckles to his eyes.

Masculinity is a prison and this is how Peter Pan got to snatch this man’s kids away. Poor faithful Nana was tied up outside and could not protect the children while their parents were at a party.

So Peter shows up and the kids are fine with him because they already know him from their dreams or whatever. Peter has a lot of sexual tension with Wendy — he has “a voice that no woman has ever yet been able to resist” and “Wendy was every inch a woman, though there were not very many inches” — but that doesn’t surprise me because I saw that very horny 2003 adaptation with Jeremy Sumpter.

And he flies them off to Neverland, and that sounds like it should be pretty fun. Wrong again! The journey takes days. The children have to fight birds for scraps of food from their beaks. Sometimes Peter just zips off on his own and eventually meanders back, having forgotten their names. If one of the children falls asleep, they plummet out of the air to their death unless Peter catches them in time. It sounds wildly stressful. But they make it to Neverland, an island populated by pirates and mermaids and [a racist term for Native Americans, yikes] of the tribe [a racist term for Black people, double yikes!].

Wendy is carried off in a gust of wind with Tinker Bell before she can land. Tinker Bell does not support other women. She’s jealous of Wendy and Peter’s sexual tension, so she leads Wendy in flight to Peter’s tribe of Lost Boys, then she tells the Lost Boys that Peter wants Wendy dead. So they shoot her with arrows and one pierces her in the chest and she falls to the earth. She ends up surviving and the Lost Boys feel bad about the mix-up. Peter and the Lost Boys build Wendy a little house as a way to apologize. In a completely unexpected aside, fairies walk by “on their way home from an orgy,” which I hope meant something different in 1911 but I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t. It was a time of sick freaks.

Wendy, being a girl, becomes the mother figure for all the Lost Boys, which involves telling them stories, sewing clothes for them, and tending to the house. The implication is that Wendy loves it because girls love to take on women’s work. And that’s life on the island for Wendy, pretty much. She tends to the other children proudly and occasionally goes entire weeks without leaving the house because she’s so busy with chores, real and make-believe. Yeah, some of the chores are just pretend, because she’s a girl and that’s what our imaginations do: conjure up household tasks to keep our silly little hands busy. I do love that Wendy implements a policy where all disputes must be announced with a child raising their hand and saying “I complain of [insert name here].” I just think that’s a funny requirement, and if I were in charge of a bunch of my peers for no reason other than my gender, I’d also implement bizarre rules to amuse myself. The children all call her “Mother” and Peter “Father” and Peter calls her his “old lady,” and the two play-act at being married people. They send the children to bed and say things like “Peter, I think Curly has your nose” and “Michael takes after you,” but when Wendy asks Peter what his feelings are toward her, he replies, “Those of a devoted son, Wendy,” which is exactly the level of weird old British psychosexual confusion I was bracing myself for.

I considered writing a 17-part series called Peter Pan Reviewed and subjecting you all to it for months on end so that every week I could analyze the disquieting nonsense in each chapter. But I’m not going to go that far. We can skim a lot of this. There are thrilling adventures with the mermaids and pirates and extremely racist adventures with the indigenous tribe, who “called Peter the Great White Father, prostrating themselves before him.” I complain of J.M Barrie! There’s a big climactic scene where all the children are kidnapped by pirates, and you probably know the basics of it. Captain Hook, ticking clock in a crocodile, this stuff is canon across all adaptations. You might not know that the grown adult man Smee, while tying Wendy up onboard this ship, has this aside: “See here, honey,” he whispered, “I’ll save you if you promise to be my mother.” I am convinced that Sigmund Freud was at least partially inspired by this book to look into why people have fucked-up mommy issues.

So let’s skip to the end. John and Michael have fully forgotten their parents over time, which is distressing, and Wendy worries that her mother might be on a late stage of mourning at that point, which is also upsetting. Back at the Darling household, things aren’t going well. Mr. Darling, correctly convinced “in his bones that all the blame was his for having chained Nana up,” has taken on a fascinating punishment for himself: living in the dog kennel where he declares he belongs.

And there never was a more humble man than the once proud George Darling, as he sat in the kennel of an evening talking with his wife of their children and all their pretty ways.

Very touching was his deference to Nana. He would not let her come into the kennel, but on all other matters he followed her wishes implicitly.

Every morning the kennel was carried with Mr. Darling in it to a cab, which conveyed him to his office, and he returned home in the same way at six. Something of the strength of character of the man will be seen if we remember how sensitive he was to the opinion of neighbours: this man whose every movement now attracted surprised attention. Inwardly he must have suffered torture; but he preserved a calm exterior even when the young criticised his little home, and he always lifted his hat courteously to any lady who looked inside.

It may have been Quixotic, but it was magnificent. Soon the inward meaning of it leaked out, and the great heart of the public was touched. Crowds followed the cab, cheering it lustily; charming girls scaled it to get his autograph; interviews appeared in the better class of papers, and society invited him to dinner and added, “Do come in the kennel.”

Meanwhile, Mrs. Darling waits at home, depressed. The author opines that her children should be punished harshly for causing their mother such anguish but feels sympathy for her: “If she was too fond of her rubbishy children, she couldn’t help it.” When her rubbishy children return, they decide to trick her by going back into their beds as if they’d never left, and Mrs. Darling finds them and assumes that she’s dreaming. It’s all a bit heartbreaking.

The epilogue is frankly shocking. All of the Lost Boys just live with the Darlings. Mr. and Mrs. Darling just adopt six extra kids. Mrs. Darling and Wendy talk to Peter about his intentions, offering to adopt him too. Mr. Darling isn’t involved, which doesn’t surprise me. Peter Pan appeals to the ladies. Peter doesn’t want to stay in the real world because doing so would mean growing up, even though Wendy promises to still love him if he grew a beard. Recognizing that Peter “needs a mother,” Mrs. Darling says that Wendy is allowed to visit Peter once a year to do his spring cleaning. Very cool arrangement for both of them!! Peter flies off, and “took Mrs. Darling’s kiss with him. The kiss that had been for no one else, Peter took quite easily. Funny. But she seemed satisfied.” Look, is this kid her son or her ex-boyfriend or her future son-in-law or what? Is Wendy his wife or his mom? None of this is allowed.

The Darling children go back to school. They forget how to fly — “Want of practice, they called it; but what it really meant was that they no longer believed.” Why would they stop believing? They have six new siblings to prove that they really did fly off to an island once. Peter comes back, too. The first year, he takes Wendy off for spring cleaning and can’t remember Captain Hook or anything they did together because “new adventures had crowded the old ones from his mind.” Also Tinker Bell is dead. Peter couldn’t even remember her name. He comes back for Wendy almost every year — he misses one and doesn’t even realize it — until Wendy starts to become an adult, and then he doesn’t show up anymore. She gets married. She has a little girl named Jane, and she tells her about Peter Pan. Jane says she’s heard Peter’s call in her sleep, and Wendy replies (rather smugly, imo) “Ah yes, many girls hear it when they are sleeping, but I was the only one who heard it awake.” But then of course, Peter comes back one night. He and Wendy have a sad reunion where she tells him that she’s grown and married now. So Peter simply takes Jane to do his spring cleaning and be his mother. And when Jane grows up and has a daughter named Margaret, she flies off to Neverland once a year with him as well. It’s all depraved.

My review of Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up by J.M. Barrie is that it was not great and I remain suspicious of any man who’s overly attached to Neverland, from MJ to Pete Wentz. I guess it’s effective as a cautionary tale, warning bad dads to shape up lest they end up childless and living in a kennel, but besides that I can’t say I learned much from it. It didn’t help me sleep at all!

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