The Magazine

The Parent Trap

A sesquicentennial for the father of Peter Pan.

Nov 8, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 08 • By DAWN EDEN
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"All children, except one, grow up,” wrote J.M. Barrie, and Dr. Dan Kiley, despite his self-identification with the eternal boy of Barrie’s fiction, was no exception. 

Kiley, a psychologist, died of a heart attack at age 54 in 1996, 13 years after hitting the bestseller lists with The Peter Pan Syndrome: Men Who Have Never Grown Up. The New York Times obituary noted that, while The Peter Pan Syndrome “dovetailed with a widespread feminist view of relations between the sexes,” the author’s next effort, The Wendy Dilemma, failed to capture the zeitgeist. His agent told the Times that the follow-up’s failure was, in part, “because women resisted Dr. Kiley’s suggestion that while the men in their lives might be jerks, the women who mothered them were responsible for their own problems.”

If that is true, Kiley’s audience understood Barrie (1860-1937)—the Scottish author who was born exactly 150 years ago—better than he himself did. To
Barrie, as he scribbled in his early notes for Peter Pan, Peter is “a demon boy (villain of [the] story).” Seized by “the horror of growing up,” he “runs away from pain & death” and has a “tragic horror of matrimony.” He is a boy when he
literally sweeps Wendy off her feet; he is a boy when he makes a home with her; he is a boy when she decides, after a taste of Neverland domestic life, that she would rather fly off home to Mother. And he will be a boy until the end
of time. 

How can Wendy be “responsible for [her] own problems” when, as every little girl who sees Peter Pan knows, all her attempts to change Peter are futile? Witness this exchange in the home where Wendy and Peter pretend to parent the Lost Boys:

WENDY [knowing she ought not to probe but driven by something within]: What are your exact feelings for me, Peter?

PETER [in the class-room]: Those of a devoted son, Wendy.

WENDY [turning away]: I thought so.

PETER: You are so puzzling. Tiger Lily is just the same; there is something or other she wants to be to me, but she says it is not my mother.

Peter’s helplessness, and Wendy’s inability to change him, is emphasized by his creator’s answer when asked by the producer Charles Frohman to provide a new subtitle for the play: “The Boy Who Could Not Grow Up.” According to
Barrie biographer Andrew Birkin, Frohman suggested that “Could” be changed to “Would”—“thus transforming Barrie’s tragedy into
Peter’s triumph.”

The idea that human beings are
fundamentally unable to change is a theme repeated throughout Barrie’s work, embodied in the counsel that a feathered friend named Solomon Caw gives Peter Pan in The Little White Bird (the 1902 novel in which Peter’s character was introduced): “In this world there are no second chances.” 

In Barrie’s plays, this philosophy is expressed in the essential unchangeability of the relationship between the sexes. Man and woman, by his account, do not grow in their relationship with one another; the most they can do is come to an understanding about who is in control. Successful marital unions, by his account, are built not upon shared sacrifice but shared selfishness, with each spouse granting the other an
unalienable fiefdom. 

Not even his happiest marrieds, the Darlings, escape this transactional view of love. Mr. Darling’s duty is to bring home a salary while Mrs. Darling’s duty is to make her husband feel admired. (Child care is delegated to their dog.) The opening chapters of Peter and Wendy accentuate the truce-like quality of their relationship, seen in the husband’s practice of keeping his wife in suspense for two weeks after the birth of each of their children while he reviews their accounts to determine whether they can afford to keep the newborn. Mrs. Darling holds up her end of the bargain, attending a dinner party with her husband in order to impress his boss, even though it means leaving her children alone when she knows Peter Pan is at the window.

Following Peter Pan’s 1904 premiere, Barrie showed his support for the women’s suffrage movement by making his heroines increasingly mannish—that is, mannish in Barrie terms, e.g., prideful and manipulative. In Alice Sit-by-the-Fire (1905), a childish wife battles her husband for the admiration of their children—and wins. Theirs is not a marriage per se; the children are merely pawns in their power struggle. In What Every Woman Knows (1908), the title refers to the inconvenient truth that the wife holds the true power behind the throne. This is borne out by heroine Maggie Shand’s control over her husband’s career, as she feeds him the inspirations that lead to his political success, and does it so subtly that he does not even realize he is being manipulated. Yet the play marks a certain feminist progression for Barrie as Maggie, unlike his previous female protagonists, is not a mother. In fact, she seems to have no interest in children at all—they are not so much as mentioned in the play. 

Maggie’s resorting to subterfuge did not sit well with those who sought greater influence for women. The feminist writer Beatrice Forbes-Robertson Hale, writing in 1914, called What Every Woman Knows “almost a contribution to the opposition, for it showed the heroine using those indirect arts of which we are so weary. .  .  . ‘The Twelve Pound Look,’ however, is pure gold,” she added, “and we owe Barrie sincere gratitude for it.”

There was, indeed, joy in suffragette city over that 1910 comedy. Ex-wife Kate deflates the pride of her former husband Harry, a wealthy egotist, by revealing that she left him not for another man but merely for the freedom afforded her by a typewriter she bought for £12. In Barrie’s world, the clickety-clack
of the machine signals the death knell of men’s absolute monarchy. While Harry has two sons by his new wife, Kate has no children. Like
Maggie of What Every Woman Knows, she doesn’t need them in order to extend her control over men. Moreover—and here is the progression from
Maggie—Barrie makes it clear that Kate
has spiritual progeny. We see her eyes gleam as she envisions the “two little girls” who will one day break the hearts of her ex-husband’s sons by choosing men who “don’t get on.” We hear her voice lower as she slowly warns Harry, and “all” husbands, to be on the watch lest that “£12 look” come into their wives’ eyes. Lo and behold, Harry’s comeuppance is assured as his current wife admires Kate’s typewriter at
play’s end.

But it wasn’t enough for Barrie  merely to create a feminist heroine. As the originator of the Wendy Dilemma, he had to atone for his previous crimes against the women’s movement. This he did in remarkable fashion in his next play, A Kiss for Cinderella (1916), by effectively killing off Wendy and raising up Kate in her place.

Cinderella is a London charwoman who has fallen under the adorable delusion that she truly is the fairy-tale heroine. A make-believe “little mother” in the classic Barrie mode, this ultra-feminine factotum plays nurse, seamstress, and confidante to the wayward souls in her picturesquely poor neighborhood. Like Wendy, she even takes in “Lost Boys”—four young war orphans, each sleeping in a treehouse-like box nailed five feet high along the walls of her flat.

But, while Peter Pan can live forever by shirking responsibility, mother figures in Barrie’s world are doomed to mortality—like Mrs. Darling who, by the time her daughter marries, is not merely dead, but “dead and forgotten.” (Not for nothing did Barrie originally give Peter Pan the title The Boy Who Hated Mothers.) And so the final act of A Kiss for Cinderella finds its protagonist at a convalescent home, where she is dying of pneumonia. The home is run by Barrie’s ideal woman, a female doctor named Bodie—a fiercely independent, no-nonsense suffragette, unmarried and childless, who does Kate of the £12 one better by doing a man’s job. Barrie’s stage direction gushes, “If we did not have a heroine already, we would choose Dr. Bodie.”

Yet, while one of Dr. Bodie’s charges raves that she is “an angel,” she is more like an exterminating angel—giving Cinderella a bucolic haven to spend her final days while sending the patient’s employer a “whacking bill.” No wonder that, in this revision of the tale of the glass-slippered heroine, it is Dr. Bodie who wears the expensive shoes. (She is, as Cinderella observes, “very particular about her feet.”) The clock struck midnight a long time ago. Now the Great War is on, it’s a new day in England, the modern woman is in the ascendant, and the self-sacrificing Cinderellas of the world are destined to devolve into dust and rags. Mrs. Darling is indeed dead and forgotten; Wendy, too. Long
live Kate!

No such succession occurs with Barrie’s male protagonists. Throughout his career, his men remain boys. They may be boys who have charm, or pride, or courage, or brains, or (like the title character of The Admirable Crichton) all of the above. In his final play, the biblical drama The Boy David, he turned the young king of Israel into a proto-Peter Pan—even to the point of, as with Peter Pan, writing the role for a female actress. Not only are his men boys; his women are boys and, like David, are destined to rule, but minus the divine call to parenthood. Theirs is the independence of pure isolation from responsibility, the kind that the 19th-century feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton championed: an impregnable “solitude of self.”

It is not without irony that the very date that would have been Barrie’s hundredth birthday, May 9, 1960, saw the FDA approval of the birth-control pill, making Barrie’s vision of sexually stunted solipsism available to all. In 1984, trying to promote his ill-fated Wendy Dilemma, Dan Kiley told People magazine, “I tell these women that society is responsible for the Wendy in them, but that they are responsible for right now. That’s what scares them.”
Neverland, it seems, has become a nightmare. But wasn’t it always? As Barrie observed in Peter and Wendy, “When you play at it by day with the chairs and table-cloth, it is not in the least alarming, but in the two minutes before you go to sleep it becomes very nearly real. That is why there are night-lights.” The difference is that the child exercises control over his daydreams. “The
Neverlands vary a good deal,” reports Barrie. “John’s, for instance, had a lagoon with flamingoes flying over it .  .  . while Michael, who was very small, had a flamingo with lagoons flying over it.” At night, however, Neverland comes under the demon boy’s jurisdiction.

G.K. Chesterton found this “subjective school of symbolism” entertaining, but ultimately unsatisfying: “It is the whole point of the best work of Barrie, for instance, that somebody is deceiving himself, but also that somebody is looking on at somebody who is deceiving himself; and if they are both deceiving themselves, so much the better for the third person who is looking on from a third angle.” It is like “a world of mirrors reflected in mirrors; the reduplication of reflection; the shadow of a shade.” To borrow a phrase from a certain subjectivist par excellence, there is no there there.

Once caught in Neverland’s liminal limbo, the Darling children found that escape from the solitude of self was beyond their own power. They needed Peter’s aid to find their way home. But what keeps the modern-day Wendys locked in the dilemma that finds them acting as men’s mothers rather than their lovers? As Dr. Kiley discovered, much to his (and his publisher’s) chagrin, it is their refusal to admit that they entered their nightmare with both eyes open. In this, at least, Barrie’s heroine, upon growing up, has one up on her dilemma-ridden descendants. Wendy admits to her daughter, upon learning that the girl has heard Peter’s crowing sound in her dreams, “Many girls hear it while sleeping, but I was the only one who heard it awake.”


Dawn Eden is the author of The Thrill of the Chaste: Finding Fulfillment While Keeping Your Clothes On.



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