Peter and Wendy by J. M. Barrie

Yep, that’s the name of the famous book. It’s not actually called Peter Pan!

I saw the play at least once long ago, and the Disney movie at least once not so long ago. I was curious to read the book. When I did, several things surprised me.

  • Disney didn’t change the story much; in the book as well as the movie, Nana is a dog, for example, and many other character, setting and plot details line up surprisingly well.
  • The Lost Boys and Peter Pan actually kill pirates. Descriptions of the fights aren’t particularly graphic, but the idea of orphaned children using sharp, deadly weapons on adults—on anyone—is disturbing.
  • The narrator is rather intrusive. Sometimes the effect is humorous, but sometimes it’s just annoying. Children’s books aren’t often written this way anymore.

More on characterization of Peter, Tinker Bell, Mr. and Mrs. Darling, and Hook below.

Characterization in Peter and Wendy

We get a glimpse into Peter’s character during a long sequence in which the children are flying so long that they fall asleep in the air and fall.

The awful thing was that Peter thought this funny. “There he goes again!” he would cry gleefully, as Michael suddenly dropped like a stone. “Save him, save him!” cried Wendy, looking with horror at the cruel sea far below. Eventually Peter would dive through the air, and catch Michael just before he could strike the sea, and it was lovely the way he did it; but he always waited till the last moment, and you felt it was his cleverness that interested him and not the saving of human life. Also he was fond of variety, and the sport that engrossed him one moment would suddenly cease to engage him, so there was always the possibility that the next time you fell he would let you go.

It’s a brilliant bit of characterization, but the impression I have of Peter is incompatible with that of an admirable hero. Peter’s own pride and amusement clearly matter to him more than anything else, including the lives of his three new pet humans. This “boy” is not a welcome, innocent playmate, he’s a horrible, monstrous sociopath!

Tinker Bell is called “Tinker Bell” because she mends the pots and kettles. I don’t know about you, but when someone says “tinker”, I don’t think of a tiny, vain, flying woman in a green minidress, I think of a lonely, scruffy man wandering around historical Europe with a cart full of tools and things that clank and clatter. Meanwhile, large swaths of the internet seem to think “tinker” is a rather lovely looking breed of horse, which, to be fair, it is—further proof that we assign meaning to words in arbitrary, idiosyncratic, and ever-changing ways.

The characterization of Mr. Darling is charming, but perhaps I only think that because two of Mr. Darling’s attributes are ones he shares with my spouse.

Mr. Darling used to boast to Wendy that her mother not only loved him but respected him. He was one of those deep ones who know about stocks and shares. Of course no one really knows, but he quite seemed to know, and he often said stocks were up and shares were down in a way that would have made any woman respect him.


It is an astounding thing to have to tell, but this man, though he knew about stocks and shares, had no real mastery of his tie. Sometimes the thing yielded to him without a contest, but there were occasions when it would have been better for the house if he had swallowed his pride and used a made-up tie.

The traditional feminine gender role is charmingly demonstrated by Mrs. Darling:

Mrs. Darling first heard of Peter when she was tidying up her children’s minds. It is the nightly custom of every good mother after her children are asleep to rummage in their minds and put things straight for next morning, repacking into their proper places the many articles that have wandered during the day. If you could keep awake (but of course you can’t) you would see your own mother doing this, and you would find it very interesting to watch her. It is quite like tidying up drawers. You would see her on her knees, I expect, lingering humorously over some of your contents, wondering where on earth you had picked this thing up, making discoveries sweet and not so sweet, pressing this to her cheek as if it were as nice as a kitten, and hurriedly stowing that out of sight. 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.

Reading about Captain Hook, I felt pretty sorry for him. He has a kind of Kierkegaardian air about him, as, amid the inferior pirate followers the narrator calls ‘dogs’, he ponders his inevitable death by crocodile.

Hook was profoundly dejected. He was often thus when communing with himself on board ship in the quietude of the night. It was because he was so terribly alone. This inscrutable man never felt more alone than when surrounded by his dogs.

The reason he’s scared of the crocodile is that he can only hope to escape it as long as the clock keeps ticking. It’s not the ticking that scares him, it’s the idea that someday the clock will stop, and then his time will be up too.

Other things that stood out
when I read Peter and Wendy

I live on a small island. But Neverland is even smaller; a couple dozen people on it are walking in a continuous ring round its edge, each one following the one in front:

On this evening the chief forces of the island were disposed as follows. The lost boys were out looking for Peter, the pirates were out looking for the lost boys, the redskins were out looking for the pirates, and the beasts were out looking for the redskins. They were going round and round the island, but they did not meet because all were going at the same rate.

I’m not sure whether that’s clever or just ridiculous.

Here’s an interesting approach to gender identity:

“[W]hen 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. They live in nests on the tops of trees; and the mauve ones are boys and the white ones are girls, and the blue ones are just little sillies who are not sure what they are.”

What, the fairies get to decide whether they’re boys or girls, and aren’t either until they make up their minds? And what’s with the associated colors? White is for girls and mauve is for boys? “Mauve” is one of the more exotic crayon colors, wouldn’t you say? For the longest time I didn’t know how to pronounce it correctly. Thanks to in part to King Julien, now I’ll never forget.

When and Why I Read Peter and Wendy

I needed an ebook to read. This is a classic children’s book that so far I’d never read.

Genre: fiction (children’s literature)
Date started / date finished: 27-Dec-16 to 01-Jan-16
Length: 119 pages
ISBN: Project Gutenberg 16
Originally published in: 1911
Gutenberg link: Peter Pan [Peter and Wendy]

I read an article on Peter Pan and copyright that said British law has made an exception to the expiration of copyright so that royalties from performances of the play in England benefit a children’s hospital. Interesting.