Places Discussed

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*Bloomsbury. Fashionable district of London. James Barrie lived in Bloomsbury before achieving financial success, which is perhaps his reason for locating the home of the Darling family in a somewhat run-down section of the district. One of the place’s fantastic touches is the family’s Newfoundland dog, which acts as the children’s nurse.


Neverland. Fantastical island home of Peter Pan and other parentless boys that the Darling children glimpse during the moment before they fall asleep. Thus, it is not a dream, but a physical analogue of the state between waking and sleeping, a condition when vivid fantasies can be shaped to fit one’s wishes. Barrie describes Neverland as a compact place for adventures, with wild Red Indians in the woods, mermaids in the lagoon, and pirates in the river. Because Neverland also condenses Earth’s seasons, the river is frozen in winter (appropriate to its evil inhabitants), while the lagoon and forest remain in summer.

Among the land’s inhabitants are fairies, seen as a series of lights projected on the stage; lost boys, who fell from their mothers’ perambulators as babies and were taken to Neverland by the fairies; and an assortment of animals, including a musical ostrich and a crocodile with a loudly ticking clock in its stomach.

Since the games of real children in London’s Kensington inspired the drama, Barrie writes that Peter first lived with the fairies there before they took him to Neverland. Indeed, Neverland itself combines the comfort and beauty of that park with characters and sites from the adventures the real children imagined they were having while in the Gardens. In Neverland, the lost boys’ cavern, with seven hollow trees as entrances, is a place of eternal play, threatened by Captain Hook, who in early drafts of the drama appears as a schoolmaster.

Historical Context

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At the turn of the twentieth century, Great Britain was a formidable world power, controlling territory on nearly every continent. Queen Victoria ruled the country from 1837 until her death in 1901, and her influence on Great Britain was still felt in 1904 though her son Edward VII was on the throne. The Edwardian era was extravagant for those with money, but the difference between the rich and the poor was a sharply divided line. Though the United States was still a developing nation, its industrial power gave it a burgeoning reputation.

While London was the center of several international markets, including currency and commodities, there was economic doubt and tension after years of prosperity due to the Industrial Revolution of the late-nineteenth century. Certain commodities suffered while others prospered. Farmers who grew grains did not do as well as dairy or fruit farmers. Industry moved towards consolidations and concentrations of power, but exports continued to fall. Still, London was the capital of finance and banking, and this market made up for the overall trade deficits in other areas. The national average income continued to increase, but the gap between classes continued to grow.

Despite wage increases, there was a movement among laborers in Great Britain to organize. Both skilled and unskilled workers joined unions in record numbers to address their concerns. Many labor leaders professed socialist and Marxist beliefs. A political party often sympathetic to many of the concerns of workers and lower classes was the Liberal party. When they won parliamentary control in 1906, they addressed many social reform concerns. They made free meals available to poor schoolchildren and founded a medical service to address those children’s health concerns. Still, poverty was widespread in England, with one study showing that 27%...

(This entire section contains 501 words.)

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of the population of York lived below the poverty line.

One source of controversy in both Great Britain and the United States was the use of child labor in factories and mills. In the United States there was a call for regulations on the number of hours a child could work as well as a call for mandatory attendance at school. In 1904, the National Child Labor Committee was formed in the United States. The first child labor law was passed in the United States in 1908.

Women also worked in these factories and rarely received the same wages as men; women’s job opportunities were limited to certain sectors as society still believed a woman’s place was in the home. Some women in the United States demanded the right to vote to address these and other concerns while others organized their own unions and formed other groups to promote their agendas, which often focused on social welfare. The Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) was formed in the United States in 1903. A similar voting and social reformminded organization was formed that same year in Britain. Called the Women’s Social and Political Union, its leadership called for violent acts against unsympathetic forces and hunger strikes among its members to dramatize its message.

Literary Style

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SettingPeter Pan is a children’s fantasy/adventure set in turn-of- the-century London and an imaginary place called Never Land. The action that takes place in London is focused in the nursery of the Darling household, located in the borough of Bloomsbury. Never Land is an island, and the action in these scenes takes place in the forest, including shelters both above and below ground; there is also a lagoon where mermaids swim. The other Never Land location is Captain Hook’s pirate ship, the Jolly Roger, where the play’s climactic battle takes place. These diverse settings emphasize the difference between reality and fantasy. Though the Darling household has a dog for a nanny (a slightly fantastic notion), the household is predominantly rooted in sober reality; order prevails within the home. In Never Land, there is no mature authority so the island features forest, lagoons, and pirate ships—things that appeal to a child’s sense of adventure and fun. There is very little order or responsibility; the Lost Boys and the pirates are dutiful followers of their respective leaders, but there is little organization beyond obedience on the field of battle.

Special EffectsPeter Pan features numerous special effects to emphasize the fantastic elements, especially of the otherworldly Tinkerbell and Peter. Tinkerbell is a fairy. In the earliest productions, she was not played by a person but was merely a lighting effect (some latter-day productions have employed an actor to portray Tinkerbell, mostly informed by Walt Disney’s animated adaptation of the play which depicted the fairy as an actual, tiny person). Tinkerbell often appeared as a ball of light created by light hitting an angled mirror, her voice a splash of bells. As little more than light and sound effects, Tinkerbell could appear otherworldly to the audience, able to flit about the stage very quickly. Like the fairy, Peter exhibits extra-human characteristics: he is able to fly, he is ageless, and much about his person defies reason—such as his shadow being detached from his body.

The special effects are an essential part of Barrie’s play and a primary reason for its popularity among generations of audiences. For a production to be effective, the play must realistically present such things as Peter flying, a dog that acts human, and a magical fairy. Most productions of Peter Pan employ some type of wire and pulley system that enables stagehands to lift the actors off the ground and move them about as if they are flying. Nana the dog-nanny is frequently played by a human in costume. Various lighting and sound effects are used to convey Tinkerbell’s presence and fairy-like abilities. If properly executed, these effects heighten the sense of fantasy and fun in the play.

Foreshadowing: Mother’s Instinct When the dramatic technique of foreshadowing is used in Barrie’s play, it is most often in conjunction with mothers and mothering; maternal insights usually telegraph important events in the play. Mrs. Darling had previously seen Peter in the window when tucking her children into bed and reading them stories. She is reluctant to go out to dinner with her husband in Act I because of what she has seen. Her worst fears are realized when Peter does come back for his shadow and convinces the children to come to Never Land. When Wendy assumes the role of mother to the Lost Boys and her own little brothers, she, too, develops a mature instinct. While telling her ‘‘children’’ a story about her home, she realizes, with the help of John, that her mother probably misses her and that they must return home.

Compare and Contrast

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1904: Child labor is common in both the United States and Great Britain but is a source of controversy. Legislation is proposed to regulate it, including laws that would require children to spend a certain amount of time in school.

Today: Child labor in American and England is highly restricted. Still, several American companies, including Nike, employ factories in developing countries to manufacture their goods at an extremely low cost. These factories often use child labor in sweatshop-like conditions.

1904: People flying in airplanes is an almost unheard-of concept. The Wright brothers made their first successful flight in 1903.

Today: Commercial air travel is common all over the world. Thousands of flights span the globe daily.

1904: Women comprise nearly one-third of the workforce in the United States. They are con- fined to certain jobs, mostly of a domestic nature, and receive low pay.

Today: Women comprise approximately half the workforce in the United States. While job opportunities are available in nearly every field, on average women make less than 80% of their male counterparts.

1904: Education has only recently been made compulsory in the United States and is still not required in Great Britain.

Today: Education, at least to age 16, is mandated by law in the United States and Great Britain.

Media Adaptations

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Peter Pan was adapted as a silent film in 1924. This version was released by Paramount and was directed by Herbert Brenon. It starred Betty Bronson as Peter Pan, Mary Brian as Wendy, and Virginia Brown Faire as Tinkerbell.

An full-length animated version was filmed in 1953. Released by Disney, it was directed by Clyde Geronimi and Wilfred Jackson. It featured the voices of Bobby Driscoll as Peter Pan, Kathryn Beaumont as Wendy, and Hans Conreid as both Captain Hook and Mr. Darling.

A live television version was performed on NBC in 1955, then done again live in 1956. Both versions featured Mary Martin as Peter Pan, Kathleen Nolan as Wendy, and Cyril Ritchard as Captain Hook.

A made-for-television adaptation was shown on NBC in 1976. It featured Mia Farrow as Peter Pan and Danny Kaye as Captain Hook.

An animated television series based on the stage play was shown in syndication in 1990. Known as Peter Pan and the Pirates, it featured the voice of Tim Curry as Captain Hook and Jason Mardsen as Peter Pan.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Barrie, James. Peter Pan, Or, the Boy Who Would Not Grow Up, Scribner, 1928.

Beerbohm, Max. ‘‘The Child Barrie’’ in the Saturday Review, January 7, 1905, pp. 13-14.

Green, Roger Lancelyn. Fifty Years of Peter Pan, Peter Davies, 1954, pp. 2, 155.

Green, Roger Lancelyn. J. M. Barrie: A Walck Monograph, Henry Z. Walck, 1960, p. 34.

Jack, R. D. S. The Road to the Never Land: A Reassessment of J. M. Barrie’s Dramatic Art, Aberdeen University Press, pp. 167-68, 170.

Review of Peter Pan in The Illustrated London News, January 7, 1905.

Shout, John D. ‘‘From Nora Helmer to Wendy Darling: If You Believe in Heroines, Clap Your Hands’’ in Modern Drama, 1992, p. 360.

Further Reading Barrie, James. Margaret Ogilvy, Scribner, 1896. This is a biography Barrie wrote about his mother. It offers considerable insight into the playwright’s psyche as well as the roots of his fascination with motherhood.

Birkin, Andrew. J. M. Barrie and the Lost Boys: The Love Story That Gave Birth to Peter Pan, Clarkson N. Potter, 1979. This book details the complex relationship between Barrie and the Davies family. It features pictures, letters, and other primary source information.

Jack, R. D. S. ‘‘The Manuscript of Peter Pan'’ in Children’s Literature, 1990. This article discuses the original manuscript of Peter Pan and the evolution of the basic story.

Walbrook, H. M. J. M. Barrie and the Theatre, F. V. White & Co., 1922. This book offers both analyses of Barrie’s plays, including Peter Pan, and background information on Barrie and his work.


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Birkin, Andrew. J. M. Barrie and the Lost Boys: The Love Story That Gave Birth to Peter Pan. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1979. Collective biography of Barrie and the Davies family, told primarily through documentary evidence. Explores in considerable detail the significance of Barrie’s love for the boys and their mother for the writing of Peter Pan.

Frey, Charles H., and John W. Griffith. The Literary Heritage of Childhood. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987. Treats play as a fantasy that, against tradition, emphasizes its own distance from reality. Focuses on Neverland as a psychic map, simultaneously revealing unconscious desires (specifically, mother fixation) and attempting to deny those desires by shutting them out of the fantasy world.

Geduld, Harry M. Sir James Barrie. Boston: Twayne, 1971. Clear account of the development of the Peter Pan story from Peter’s first appearance. Freudian interpretation of womb imagery and of Mr. Darling and Wendy.

Hanson, Bruce K. The Peter Pan Chronicles: The Nearly One Hundred Year History of “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.” Secacaus, N.J.: Carol Publishing Group, 1993. Performance history of the play, with detailed discussions of the most famous productions. Organized around the performer playing Peter in various productions.

Rose, Jacqueline. The Case of Peter Pan: Or, The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993. Heavily theoretical analysis questions how the play constructs a child audience for the benefit of adult illusions about childhood.




Critical Essays