Peter Pan was written by J. M. Barrie and is the story of a magical young boy who refuses to grow up. This lesson looks at gender roles in the novel as well as the idea of innocence versus goodness.
Background on the Novel Peter Pan
Peter Pan was written by J. M. Barrie in 1911. The title character, Peter Pan, is a tribute to Barrie’s brother who died in childhood and is eternally young. Peter lives on Neverland, a magical island, with the fairies and the Lost Boys, his band of followers. The novel details his adventures with the Darling family of England: Mr. and Mrs. Darling and their three children Wendy, John, and Michael.
Summary of the Novel
The novel begins with Mr. and Mrs. Darling’s marriage, shortly followed by the birth of their children. The early scenes take place in the nursery where Mrs. Darling worries about her children’s fascination with a mysterious boy named Peter Pan. She has heard rumors of a strange boy who lives with the fairies and has found disturbing evidence that he has visited the nursery. She shares her concerns with Mr. Darling but he is selfish and unconcerned. This sets the stage for Peter to swoop in later that night and convince Wendy to run away. He teaches the Darling children to fly, and they head out the window to Neverland.
Once there, Wendy becomes the surrogate mother of the Lost Boys. Wendy is thrilled with a traditional domestic role. She does the household chores and fusses lovingly over the boys. She encourages Peter to do the same, calling him the father of the group. He is willing to play along but only up to a point. Peter needs reassurance that it is all make-believe.
However, all is not peaceful on the island. In addition to the Lost Boys, there are wild animals, Indians, and pirates. Captain Hook is the main antagonist of the novel and is the leader of the pirates. Hook is a foil for Peter, a character who is a direct opposite of the main character. Hook is angry and obsessed with others’ opinions of him. Most importantly, Captain Hook is vengeful; he wants revenge against Peter because in an earlier sword fight, Peter cut off Hook’s right hand and flung it to a passing crocodile. In contrast, Peter is innocent; he doesn’t really understand the concept of evil. He also forgets the wrongs that are done to him almost as soon as they happen.
Throughout the novel, Wendy preaches about the importance of a mother’s love, convincing the boys that Mrs. Darling will leave the nursery window open, waiting for them forever. Peter doesn’t understand this kind of devotion and makes the mistake of convincing the others that it’s not true. His own mother, he claims, had forgotten all about him. She’d even had another son to replace him. He says this to convince them to stay in Neverland but his plan backfires. Wendy immediately decides to return home, and all the boys beg to come with her.
In the end, Wendy’s faith is justified. The nursery window is open, and Mrs. Darling is not only overjoyed to see her children, she offers to adopt the Lost Boys without a second thought.
To really understand Peter Pan–both the book and the character–it helps to take a look at the themes in the book. Let’s look at a couple of the main themes: gender roles and innocence.
A main theme of the novel is gender roles: specifically, the different ways men and women respond to parenthood. Barrie depicts women who have a natural instinct for motherhood contrasting with childish men who want to avoid the responsibility at all costs. When each of the children are born, Mr. Darling sits down and figures out the financial benefits, warning Mrs. Darling that they may not be able to keep the child. When the children are older, he is often as foolish and childish as they are. When the Darling children and the Lost Boys return to England, Mr. Darling pouts because no one asked him his opinion about adopting the boys.
Similarly, Peter refuses any paternal responsibility unless he’s convinced it’s all pretend. Even when Peter acts like a father, John points out that it’s not instinctive; he taught Peter everything he knows.
Mrs. Darling, on the other hand, wants children no matter what the cost. All the children know that she is the one who will keep the nursery window open, waiting for them to fly back in someday.
Similarly Wendy, and later her own daughter, Jane, falls naturally into the role of mother. She is enticed to Neverland by the thought of a houseful of children who need her. Wendy is such a good mother, in fact, that the pirate Smee offers to rescue her from Captain Hook’s clutches, if only she’ll agree to mother him. When Peter insists that he’s not the Lost Boys’ real father and that it’s all just make-believe, she agrees but adds, ‘But they are ours, Peter, yours and mine.’
Innocence is the true magic of Neverland; it’s a place where children can stay innocent and heartless. This leads to another main theme of the book: the difference between innocence and goodness. Peter is an absolute innocent. He can’t understand any female/male relationship other than mother and son. He is stunned by unfairness and is certain that there is little difference between pretend and reality.
This does not make him an inherently good person. He is often selfish; he does not hesitate to take Wendy from her mother or to manipulate her emotions. He is not intentionally cruel; rather he is impulsive and thoughtless. He sometimes feels remorse but he forgets his mistakes as soon as he has apologized for them. Therefore, he never learns from his actions and never changes. He will always be innocent, but he will also always be heartless.
J.M Barrie’s novel Peter Pan is a study of gender roles and their effect on parenthood. Mrs. Darling and Wendy represent the caring, ever-supportive mother. Peter and Mr. Darling, on the other hand, depict immature father figures. Peter also represents the always-loved eternal child: innocent but heartless. It is a novel that appeals to the child in all of us and to the desire for unconditional love.
Peter Pan Plot & Themes
- Peter Pan: novel by J.M. Barrie about an eternal boy looking for a mother for the Lost Boys
- Gender Roles: a theme of the novel in which the women represent care and support and fathers and men are immature
- Innocence: Peter represents innocence and does not understand unfairness and thus is a heartless being
After completing this lesson, students should feel confident with the following tasks:
- Describe the plot of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan
- Discuss the themes of the novel including gender roles and innocence
- Illustrate how Peter epitomizes innocence and selfishness