Childhood Studies Peter Pan
by
Kirsten Stirling
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0069

Introduction

Peter Pan is a classic of children’s literature, and the name of its hero has passed into the English language and taken on a life of its own. Everyone has heard of Peter Pan, whether or not they have encountered J. M. Barrie’s original works, and he has acquired a significance in popular culture that goes far beyond the reach of Barrie’s texts. The story of Peter Pan, who entices the Darling siblings to fly away to the Neverland, and their storybook adventures involving fairies, pirates, mermaids, and battles with the eternal enemy Captain Hook, enchanted its original audiences in 1904 and continues to fascinate children and adults today. Drawing on the pattern and archetypal characters of the fairy tale and the British pantomime tradition, Peter Pan gives the impression of being a much older story than it actually is, an effect that Barrie carefully crafted. Although Peter Pan is a play (and later also a novel) that has always been accessible to adults as well as children, it has children and the nature of childhood at its center. It dramatizes imaginary childhood games, both fantastic and domestic, and it stages the relationship between parents and children, as well as a child’s grief at the absence of that relationship. It can be read as a celebration of eternal childhood; however, it can equally be read as a cautionary tale about the risks of committing to such a state. The fact that the villainous pirate captain, Hook, is traditionally played on stage by the same actor as the children’s father, Mr. Darling, illustrates the play’s interest in family relationships and how they may be expressed in imaginative play. Not only has Peter Pan proved a goldmine for critics using psychoanalytic theory and gender theory, but popular psychology has also used Barrie’s eternal boy to name a psychological type: “the Peter Pan syndrome” describes men who seem to have difficulty growing up and assuming the responsibilities of adulthood. The 1953 Disney cartoon of Peter Pan is still, for many people, their first access to Barrie’s iconic character, but the range of critical approaches gathered here bears witness to the fact that Barrie’s original Peter Pan texts are much more complex and disturbing than the Disney adaptation makes apparent.

Editions and Related Texts

The complicated history of the Peter Pan texts sees the character move from prose to drama and back to prose again. Peter Pan first appeared in Barrie 1902, Barrie’s novel for adults The Little White Bird, but it was the production of the play Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up first performed in 1904, that proved so popular with first British and then American audiences. Although various non-authorial literary spin-offs from the play were produced in the following years, Barrie did not write his novelization of the play, Peter and Wendy, until 1911 and did not publish a definitive script of the play until 1928 (all cited under First Editions).

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