The Depiction of Women and Men in Peter Pan

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1563

Many critics have argued that Peter Pan idealizes women, especially in their roles as mothers. By idealize, critics mean Barrie oversimplifies them, seeing them only as mothers rather than wellrounded human beings. While Barrie does idealize women, the female characters are not so simple. By looking at the main female characters, how they are idealized, and the development of their roles within the play, it becomes clear that they are complex idealizations. Barrie emphasizes this complexity by contrasting the women with his less favorable depictions of adult males; the men in his play are silly and in dire need of mothering.

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Mrs. Mary Darling is the most idealized female character in Peter Pan. She is the epitome of motherhood. She has sacrificed her wedding dress to make coverlets for her children’s beds. She dislikes going out or socializing, preferring to stay at home with her children. When she has to go out, as she does in Act I for her husband’s job, she is reluctant to leave and believes that something is wrong. She even acts like a mother to her husband. When he cannot tie his tie, she does it for him, soothing his anger like she would a small child. In Act V, scene ii, when the children return home, she agrees to adopt all the Lost Boys and even offers to adopt Peter. When Peter refuses, she will not allow Wendy to go back with him to Never Land but only to visit once a year to do his spring cleaning.

Mrs. Darling is the baseline for women in Peter Pan. She could be no more perfectly written for such a role: she is polite and giving, without faults, desires, or ambitions, except those that relate to her children.

In many ways, Wendy is her mother’s daughter. About eight- or ten- years-old, Wendy likes to play house with her brother John. When her father tries to convince her brother Michael to take his medicine, she is the one to immediately help him deal with the situation. After Peter Pan enters the nursery and explains the situation with his shadow, Wendy solves the problem and sews it on for him. Wendy is a junior version of Mrs. Darling.

But when Wendy is in Never Land, she proves that she is more than a petite version of her mother. She does act as mother to the Lost Boys—though she admits ‘‘I am only a little girl; I have no real experience’’—though her actions are not solely motivated by the interests of her ‘‘children.’’ She wants to swim with mermaids, though Peter warns her they like to drown children. In Act IV, Peter becomes uncomfortable with being the father to Wendy’s mother, even if it is only pretend. Wendy knows there is more to these kinds of relationships, a fact unclear in the depiction of Mrs. Darling. When Wendy asks Peter, ‘‘What are your exact feelings for me, Peter?,’’ he replies, ‘‘Those of a devoted son.’’ This upsets Wendy, but she cannot tell him what she wants him to be exactly because ‘‘It isn’t for a lady to tell.’’ This statement reveals Wendy’s desires—as well as an understanding of the mores in male/female interactions—in her relationship with Peter.

In Never Land, women, including Wendy, are allowed to be more complex, perhaps because it is a fantasy land that exists outside of the rigid social conventions of England in the early-twentieth century. Tiger Lily is a prime example of Never Land’s empowered females. Though she is a minor character, Tiger Lily is not a mother or surrogate nurturer; she is an Indian leader, the daughter of an Indian chief. Barrie describes her as ‘‘the belle of the Piccaninny tribe, whose braves would all have her to wife, but she wards them off with a hatchet.’’ In Act II, when she learns pirates are in the area, she wants to attack them and collect their scalps. They lose this battle, and Tiger Lily nearly dies in the process. Peter Pan steps in and saves them, and Tiger Lily and her men act as guards to the underground home of Peter, Wendy, and the Lost Boys.

These are not the typical acts of a woman (let alone a mother) in this time period. Like Wendy, Tiger Lily wants Peter to be fulfill a relationship with her other than as a son. Peter tells Wendy of the similarity, reporting that ‘‘Tiger Lily is just the same; there is something or other she wants me to be, but she says it is not my mother.’’

Tinkerbell, the fairy, is more like Tiger Lily than Mrs. Darling or Wendy. Though in the earliest stage production Tinker Bell was no more than a reflection off a piece of glass, she nevertheless has a multi-faceted personality. Her primary loyalty is to Peter Pan, and she does not want anyone to interfere with it. Unlike any other female character in Peter Pan, Tinkerbell displays jealousy, especially towards Wendy, and acts on it regularly. She pulls Wendy’s hair and tricks the Lost Boys into shooting Wendy with an arrow. Even when Wendy wants to go back home, Tinkerbell is reluctant to aid her in any way. Also, whenever Peter, or anyone else for that matter, says something that Tinkerbell thinks is stupid, her response, in the fairy language, always translates as ‘‘you silly ass.’’ Like Tiger Lily, Tinkerbell also exhibits considerable bravery, swallowing the poison intended for Peter at the end of Act IV. Also like Tiger Lily, the fairy has an occupation that is not directly related to motherhood. Tinkerbell is so named, as Peter explains to Wendy, ‘‘because she mends the fairy pots and kettles.’’

The primary female characters in Peter Pan are not merely idealized stereotypes. They are much more, albeit in the safety of a fantasy world. Though this aspect implies that ‘‘real’’ women do not act this way, there is another angle in which to explore Barrie’s idealization of women: via their male counterparts in the play. Barrie’s women are defined by what his men are not. The adult males in Peter Pan need women and make them look like the paragons of sensibility, adding a luster to their ideal portrait.

Both Mr. Darling and Captain Hook are rather childish and incompetent in their own way. Mr. Darling is easily frustrated over such simple acts as tying his tie. A little later in the same act, he is desperate to get his son Michael to take his dose of medicine. While telling Michael to be a man, Mr. Darling proceeds to fake taking his own bitter medicine in an attempt to trick the child into swallowing his. It does not work, and Mr. Darling’s other children catch him in the lie. Mr. Darling continues to try to deceive his children, trying to turn his cowardice into a joke by putting some of the potion in Nana’s bowl. Mr. Darling’s frustrations come to head, and he finally insists on locking Nana outside like a ‘‘proper dog.’’ This leads directly to Peter Pan leading the children away from home and into Never Land.

Mr. Darling is glib, heartless, and immature, quite the opposite of his wife. Though he feels repentant enough to live in Nana’s dog kennel the whole time the children are gone, he suggests in Act V, scene ii, that they close the nursery window. This is significant for this is the window through which the children left, and Mrs. Darling believes, correctly, they will come back. Mr. Darling fails to comprehend such a notion and, on the whole, does not understand much of anything.

Captain Hook is a bit more perceptive than Mr. Darling, but he lives in the fantasy world of Never Land. Barrie describes him as courageous with but two exceptions, ‘‘the sight of his own blood, which is thick and of an unusual color’’ and crocodiles. Because of a previous battle with Peter, Hook has a hook in place of one of his hands. Like Mr. Darling, Hook’s plans are based on trickery. He wants to kill the Lost Boys by poisoning some cake and leaving it out for them. This plan fails because of Wendy’s mothering. Indeed, when Hook finds out that Peter and the Lost Boys have a mother in Wendy, he plans on capturing them, killing the boys, and making her the pirates’ mother. Hook’s desire is that of a boy, not the grown man he is appears to be. The Captain is also easily tricked by Peter on a number of occasions, making him more like a boy than a man.

If these are adult male role models, it is no wonder that Peter Pan has no desire to grow up. He is already more of a man than either of them, in a way. He wins battles, defends his home, and goes on adventures. But as much as Barries idealizes women, however complexly, Peter Pan ultimately rejects full-time mothering. He refuses to be adopted by the Darlings and the ideal mother, Mary. No matter how idealistic Barrie’s depiction of women may be, though, the fact that Peter rejects such domesticity undercuts his message in a very profound way.

Source: A. Petrusso, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.

The Peter Pan Principle

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 622

Peter Pan, the boy who refused to grow up, has flourished in the hearts of children and adults since he first took flight 83 years ago. The stage and book versions, written by Englishman J.M. Barrie, have never been entirely out of fashion. But now a new generation is learning to love Peter Pan—and his struggle with the villainous Captain Hook. For many Canadians, the highwater mark of the current revival is the Shaw Festival’s spectacular production at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., which opened Aug. 14. But publishers, too, have been getting in on the action. Montreal’s Tundra Books has just released The Eternal Peter Pan, the first volume of a trilogy of Pan-related books. As well, the rights to Barrie’s drama and novel, now held by a London children’s hospital, become public next year—giving added momentum to rumors that Hollywood director Steven Spielberg is planning a film version starring Michael Jackson. It all confirms Barrie’s genius in finding a theme that has caught the imagination of four generations.

That theme is simple: growing up is not as wonderful as adults sometimes pretend. Peter Pan has seen the writing on the wall—the dull jobs and bored faces of so many grown-ups—and he wants no part of it. In the book version, his quixotic revolt is frequently overburdened by Barrie’s ponderous commentary. But the play sticks economically to the story line, a virtue wonderfully enhanced by the Shaw’s magnetic production. Its Peter Pan has more gusto than an old Errol Flynn adventure film. It also has the nerve to look into the darker corners of Barrie’s vision—his references to death and the sadness of growing old—from which more saccharine versions, from Broadway and Hollywood, have tiptoed away. Most important, this Peter Pan generates magic—the result of a successful melding of astounding technical effects and oldfashioned acting skill. Only the most thoroughgoing cynic would be bothered by a glimpse of the wires holding up Peter and his fellow fliers: this Peter Pan compels belief.

In the past the roles of Peter and his band of followers, the Lost Boys, have frequently been played by mature actresses. Other versions have featured children in those parts. But director Ian Judge has opted for an all-adult cast of both sexes, a tack that simultaneously ensures strong acting and infectious comedy. To watch Ted Dykstra as the toddler Michael Darling, hugging his Teddy Bear and moving about on all fours, is to be struck by both the latent infantilism of adults and the charm of children.

When Michael and his two siblings fly to Never-Never Land, where Wendy (Marti Maraden) is to take care of Peter’s tribe of orphans, the audience gets its first glimpse of designer Cameron Porteous’s wizardry. Not only do Peter (Tom McCamus) and the Darling children levitate; their beds do too, turning into clouds as the miniature lamplit city of London revolves below.

The technical sleight of hand, however, never overwhelms Barrie’s attempts to reveal the world of the imagination—Peter’s kingdom. It is a place where evil men are more comic than dangerous. The Shaw’s artistic director, Christopher Newton, returns to the stage as a deliciously frightening Captain Hook, swaggering, sulking and muttering dark piratical oaths (‘‘Bicarbonate of soda!’’) with relish.

As the hero, McCamus is at once ethereal and boyish. He also has just the right touch of coldness. Peter, after all, is not human like the others. He can remain a child forever, but in his immortality he can never know what it is to have a fully human heart.

Source: John Bemrose, ‘‘The Peter Pan Principle’’ in Maclean’s, Vol. 100, no. 35, August 31, 1987, p. 127.

Review of Peter Pan

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 749

I would feel a good deal safer dealing with this review of the Barrie classic if I had managed to get a child to go with me. As a matter of fact I did vainly try to seize a child, with somewhat mixed results. My first (progressive) nephew had the chicken-pox, and the school in which my second (progressive) nephew abides, refused to release him in mid-week. Thirdly, the daughter of one of my best (Jungian) friends flatly refused to go, although her little brother, aged four, kept shouting into the telephone, ‘‘Peter Pain! Peter Pain! Me. Me.’’ Needless to say, I gave up on that one.

The reason for all this benevolence was frankly in the interests of criticism as well as curiosity. Admitting, as I must, to a real nostalgia for Eva Le Gallienne’s distinguished and absolute production of the play in the early thirties, it seemed to me I ought to temper possible prejudice with some outright junior reaction. Failing this conspiracy however, I might as well confess to having had a very good time at the present Lawrence-Stevens production. The business adds up, surprisingly, to fair Broadway. There is, in the person of Boris Karloff, the very best Captain Hook imaginable; there is, in Jean Arthur, an intriguing Peter; there is an enchanting Nana (you remember the sheepdog nurse) played by Norman Shelly; there is one excellent Ship set by Ralph Alswang; and there is music by Leonard Bernstein which is up-to-the-minute and sensitive, saving only those moments when he descends into radio solos with interpolated lyrics of his own. And finally there is, alas, our ridiculous system of rehearsal- time which literally forces a show as technically complicated as this one before the public before it can possibly be ready.

One can only suppose that Wendy Toye, the choreographer, must be even now delivering a few honest war-whoops to her Indians, and that she is also removing her Pirates from the chi-chi ballet class into some degree of grrr. Again, someone or other must be working to pull the grand final battle up into a real fight rather than a romp. But by far the most serious difficulty will be that the vaunted flying devices do not work invisibly, a circumstance which puts a grave kink in a good many of the lines of the play, not to say its point. All of the wires are visible against the backdrop and the costumers have not managed to conceal that lump between the shoulder blades of the air-borne children which makes them look like ill-managed puppets. I don’t know how the wonderful Shultz Family got away with these impossibilities for Maud Adams and the other American productions, but certainly someone ought to find them and ask immediately. It’s important. In a play that is all illusion, surely the illusion ought to be delivered; particularly a play for children. I daresay there will be some people who will be gratified that their offspring will not now be hurling themselves from the window on nothing but faith. But think of the questions these worthies are going to have to answer: why? why? why? Think of the explanations: it’s a joke and yet not a joke; it’s only a play; no, it isn’t a lie.

I must say the parental tone of this account is tedious even to me. But I can’t escape it now and it’s good to be able to close on an encouraging note. Miss Arthur’s job is a subtle achievement. Her Peter is certainly a boy: he is lithe, fresh, knobby, cropheaded, laughing, clever. And astonishingly enough, he is the opposite of romantic. The actress seems to rely on remoteness far more than the swaggering bruhaha that the part also provides. Somehow or other, she is playing it as all Pan, a true sprite, elusive as a snowflake. It is true she has no trouble vanquishing Mr. Karloff; we watch her doing it. But in the end, it seems to me it is Mr. Karloff, with his ruffles, his inky cloak, his rolling r’s, his grand style, who really wins. I don’t earnestly think anyone under ten is going to emerge from this version of Barrie wanting to wander off and be a Lost Boy. I think everyone is going to want to play Captain Hook from now on.

Source: Kappo Phelan, review of Peter Pan in Commonweal, Vol. LII, no. 5, May 12, 1950, pp. 127–28.

Barrie Wins Through

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 528

Considering the perishability of fantasy, the low esteem in which whimsy is now held and the knowing smiles of the recently analyzed, it must require a good deal of courage to offer ‘‘Peter Pan’’ today. Peter Lawrence and R. L. Stevens, producers of the current Jean Arthur-Boris Karloff revival, are suitably rewarded for their daring—they seem to have a hit on their hands.

But having taken the plunge with Barrie, it is too bad that the present backers then lost their nerve a bit and decided to help him along with a few ideas of their own. They engaged Leonard Bernstein to write ‘‘additional’’ lyrics and music, and hired a small male ballet troupe to fill out what they must have regarded as a thin evening. But the foxy Barrie needs no plumber’s helpers, and ‘‘Peter Pan’’ is not thin; the additions merely slow up the action, clutter the stage with a number of unemployed merrymakers and from time to time overpower the innocence of the play with a ‘‘production number’’ vulgarity. Bernstein’s contributions are the more unfortunate because they are the more obtrusive. His songs are not only unwanted; with one or two possible exceptions they are strikingly inferior. In particular, ‘‘Who Am I,’’ inflicted on Wendy, who is otherwise touchingly played by Marcia Henderson, is a stale and cynical song-mill concoction. The settings, to get the rest of the trouble out of the way, are heavily jocose in the Disney toadstool manner and the mermaids are from Minsky.

Against these very real obstacles, Jean Arthur and Boris Karloff lead an admirable cast to triumphant success. It is astonishing that anyone today can be as beguiling a Peter as Miss Arthur. She plays the part with wonderful taste, neither kidding the sentimentality being seduced by it. She is frankly boyish, embarrassed and unembarrassing, evidently enjoying herself enormously. I cannot make comparisons because. I did not see Maude Adams or even Marilyn Miller or Eva Le Gallienne in the role, but Miss Arthur is the right Peter for 1950. She lets Barrie the cuteness and confines herself to the matter-of-fact business of flying through space and conversing with fairies.

Karloff in the dual role of father and pirate builds his share of the evening almost to co-star stature. It is much too late discover that the dreadful Mr. Karloff is a fine comic, but his fastidiously bloodthirsty Captain Hook will be convincing proof for anyone who may have missed ‘‘Arsenic and Old Lace.’’ The lost boys of The Never Land are an engaging sandlots group, Joe E. Marks is ridiculously sprightly as Smee, the timid pirate, and Norman Shelly produces an air of lunatic solicitude in Nana, the children’s St. Bernard nurse. His crocodile is a little dispirited, but it is a thankless role.

Despite its age and despite the meddling of well-meaning friends, ‘‘Peter Pan’’ is as shrewd and winning entertainment as Broadway is apt to offer this year, but it would be bad luck to see it on a night when either Miss Arthur or Karloff missed the performance.

Source: Robert Hatch, ‘‘Barrie Wins Through’’ in the New Republic, Vol. 122, no. 19, May 8, 1950, pp. 20–21.

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Critical Overview