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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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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