What is Peter Pan's shadow like and what does it mean?
In many ways, Peter Pan is a playful story about the innocence of childhood, but the symbolism of Peter's shadow—which can be detached from the rest of him, a flat and uninteresting piece of matter in the shape of its former owner—can be interpreted rather darkly. J. M. Barrie's novel opens with the declaration that "all children except one grow up" and states that "growing up is the beginning of the end." It has long been suggested that Peter Pan and his lost boys—"babies who fell out of their prams"—are in fact the spirits of dead children gone to a Neverland in which they will never grow up. In this interpretation, then, Peter's shadow, albeit described with a light touch in the story, would seem to represent his physical body or physical life, tied to the earth. It is a "shadow" of the whole person he is in the same way that a corpse is only a thing in the shape of a deceased person, and our memories of a person who has passed on are only a shadow of who that person truly was. It is particularly notable that Peter becomes distressed when he realizes his shadow is detached from him, attempts to reattach it with soap, and then behaves—after Wendy has sewn it back on—as if he was able to reunite himself with it easily, a rejection of the true facts of the matter. It is as if Peter does not want to face the reality that he and his shadow are no longer naturally attached to each other.
J. M. Barrie himself never grew taller than five feet, and, in many ways, Peter Pan is often thought to be his avatar, but Barrie was also strongly influenced by the death of his older brother, David, in a skating accident in childhood. So, Peter can be seen to represent not only the continued physical childishness of Barrie, but also those children suspended in a perpetual Neverland of the mind, never achieving adult understanding of the world because of their untimely deaths.
The shadow scene in Peter Pan is a perfect example of the play's playfulness and cartoonish nature. For instance, the shadow, in contrast to the insubstantial shadows of real life, has an actual substance of its own. For example, Peter's shadow is snapped off by the window, and then Mrs. Darling rolls it up and stores it in a drawer without a second thought. This sequence of events is obviously impossible and goes against the laws of physics, as no one's shadow can be detached from his or her body and then rolled up like a yoga mat. However, this scene sets a tonal precedent for the rest of the story, showing us that the world of Peter Pan is one dominated by a playful rejection of the real world. As such, this shadow scene acts as a jumping off point that teaches us to adjust to the fantastical, child-like world of the narrative.
Peter Pan's shadow seems to symbolize some sort of tie to the human world of the Darlings. Mrs. Darling sees Peter's face at the window and when he flees the window snaps his shadow off. Mrs. Darling rolls it up and puts it in a drawer.
When Peter returns, he is unable to attach his shadow with soap and Wendy offers to sew it back on for him. Interestingly, Peter takes credit for Wendy's actions. After Wendy attaches his shadow, Peter thinks he has done it himself. "How clever I am!" he cries, "oh, the cleverness of me!" The shadow scene shows that Peter is still boylike, and very self-involved.