Peter Pan Themes
The main themes in Peter Pan are imagination, courage versus cowardice, maternal love, and preserving memory.
- Imagination: The Darling children’s make-believe world becomes a reality in Neverland, and for Peter, imagination and reality are one.
- Courage versus cowardice: Peter demonstrates great courage, while his nemesis, Captain Hook, displays cowardice.
- Maternal love: Wendy acts as a mother to Peter and the lost boys and continues to believe in her own mother’s enduring love.
- Preserving memory: Wendy keeps the memory of her parents alive for herself and her brothers in Neverland, and the story of Peter Pan is kept alive through the sharing of childhood memories.
Last Updated on March 16, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1271
More than a century after its publication in 1911, Peter Pan remains a celebrated children’s story because of its ability to capture the magic and power of a child’s mind. Blurring the lines between make-believe and reality, J. M. Barrie suggests that the imaginary characters, creatures, and worlds are real in their own right.
In conveying the imagination’s influence on childhood experiences, Peter Pan illuminates how, through dreaming, the unconscious mind has its own intrinsic storytelling powers. As such, dreams unfold certain internal truths that, with growth, allow children to begin to understand how to embrace both the real and the make-believe. The narrator illustrates the subconscious workings of the dreaming mind in the following passage:
When you wake in the morning, the naughtiness and evil passions with which you went to bed have been folded up small and placed at the bottom of your mind and on the top, beautifully aired, are spread out your prettier thoughts, ready for you to put on.
Peter, however, is unable to distinguish between these two states of being, because “make-believe and true were exactly the same thing” to him. His character therefore represents how the imagination is a catalyst for adventure, but his inability to separate make-believe and reality manifests in dreams that are “more painful than the other boys’ ” and often concerned “with the riddle of existence.” In a sense, the narrator portrays Peter’s dreams as too powerful—perhaps even fueling his stubborn naiveté—and hence he can only exist in the world of make-believe.
Furthermore, dreams take hold of Mrs. Darling’s mind during her children’s absence; thus, when the children do finally return and she sees them in their beds, she believes them to be “just the dream hanging around her still.” In this moment, Mrs. Darling’s dreams become reality, much in the same way her children’s dreams came alive on their adventure to Neverland. J. M. Barrie therefore illustrates how the imagination’s revelatory power, particularly in painting the narratives of each character’s dreams, evolves from childhood to adulthood.
Courage versus Cowardice
Considering that the plot’s action largely relies on the rivalry between Peter and Captain Hook, Peter Pan examines contrasting approaches to honor and power. As leaders, both Peter and Hook have significant influence over their comrades, and both of them relish in having this power and influence. However, because Hook is blinded by selfishness and greed, he abuses his power in ways that Peter refuses to.
Significantly, while Peter’s insistence on fighting fairly often results in negative consequences, he prioritizes honor, even in combat. For example, during his encounter with Hook in the Mermaids’ Lagoon, Peter stops himself from stabbing Hook, because he realizes “he was higher up the rock than his foe.” In recognizing his unfair advantage, he helps Hook up the rock, and immediately Hook bites Peter:
Not the pain of this but its unfairness was what dazed Peter . . . Every child is affected thus the first time he is treated unfairly. All he thinks he has a right to when he comes to you to be yours is fairness.
Hook’s petty motives for destroying Peter—for both personal revenge and from a desire to see Peter in “bad form”—indicate his cowardice. Accordingly, he betrays the rules of war and makes numerous panicked efforts to avoid one-on-one combat with the boy. Ultimately, Hook throws himself overboard rather than fight Peter.
While Peter “was never one to choose the easy way”—as a result of his overwhelming taste for adventure and his daring, reckless nature—his profound commitment to honor gives him genuine courage. Contrastingly, Hook always chooses the easy way and takes every opportunity to run or hide when he has no advantage in the face of danger. Ruled by greed and vengeful pride, Hook’s cowardice seals his fate, and he immediately meets his end during a final encounter with the dreaded crocodile that took his hand.
Throughout Peter Pan, Barrie accentuates the importance of maternal and familial love as markers of identity and growth. In exploring Wendy’s transformation into a mother figure for the lost boys, Barrie shows that each child inherently seeks a nurturing, caring, supportive presence in their lives.
As the story progresses, Wendy begins to recognize maternal love as an everlasting, indestructible force, both through taking on the role of a mother to the boys and reflecting upon how her mother is coping with the disappearance of her children. When Wendy tells the story of their journey to Neverland to the lost boys, she internalizes her own mother’s despair:
“See, dear brothers,” says Wendy pointing upwards, here is the window still standing open. “Ah, now we are rewarded for our sublime faith in a mother's love. So up they flew to their mummy and daddy, and pen cannot describe the happy scene, over which we draw a veil.”
This “sublime faith in a mother’s love” guides Wendy’s growth, and it is her mother’s love for her that fuels her maternal instincts. Peter, dejected, responds to this story by claiming that his mother never left the window open for him. Despite Peter’s outward contempt toward mothers, however, his actions and behaviors all point to this inherent desire for maternal love. As such, he ecstatically appoints Wendy as the mother to the lost boys and cultivates a familial environment with her. He even takes on the role of a father figure within their family, and the narrator illustrates how he and Wendy’s make-believe dynamic mirrors that of the Darlings. After she leaves Neverland, Peter mourns Wendy’s love, even if make-believe, and perhaps in recognizing her love as real—and his attendant desire for this constant, nurturing presence—Peter thus learns to have faith in a mother’s love.
Peter Pan emphasizes that childhood memories are eternal and thus give adults the strength to carry on the innocence, joy, and adventure that children experience. Accordingly, Peter’s stubborn defiance toward growing up informs his character, and in keeping him alive through stories passed to future generations, this seminal children’s story stresses the importance of conserving a youthful perspective and adventurous spirit.
Likewise, the complexity of time’s fleeting ambiguity—as contrasted between the make-believe world of Neverland and reality—impacts how the story’s characters grow. As Wendy contemplates how long it has been since she and her brothers flew from their home to Neverland, “where [time] is calculated by moons and suns,” she becomes concerned when John and Michael begin to forget about their parents. Wendy, “nobly anxious to do her duty,” thus confronts this fear of forgetting by trying “to fix the old life in their minds,” recognizing the importance of preserving memories. Similarly, she repeatedly expresses her distress about Peter’s inability to remember, believing that he will forget her. However, as Wendy grows older, she accepts that Peter has forgotten her, because he still exists in her fond memories of him.
In capturing how a child’s mind operates, Barrie portrays fairies as symbolic of preserving childhood innocence. As Wendy explains to her mother in the final chapter, having learned from Peter, “when a new baby laughs for the first time a new fairy is born, and as there are always new babies there are always new fairies.” This emphasis on the beauty of youthful optimism—especially considering that it is children’s belief in fairies that dictates a fairy’s life span—mirrors the ephemerality of childhood innocence. Therefore, a fairy’s light can only fade with death.