Review: Peter and Wendy by J.M. Barrie

Peter And Wendy CoverPeter and Wendy is the 1911 children’s fantasy novel by J.M. Barrie based on his earlier 1904 play Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. It tells the story of Wendy Darling, and her two yougner brothers, John and Michael, who are visited and taken to Neverland by Peter Pan, the one boy who does not grow up, and his fairy Tinker Bell, whose dust allows the Darling children to fly. The children join the Lost Boys in Neverland, and together they have multiple adventures involving mermaids, American Indians, and Captain Hook’s pirate crew.

Of course, the fame of the characters Barrie created is so great that it is impossible to not be aware of them; in fact, Peter Pan seems more famous than either the play or the novel, or even Barrie himself. Because of that, I was very excited to read the novel so that I could see where it all started from. To some extent, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the novel; but, on other fronts I was also quite disappointed with what I found there.

But, the very first that struck me about the novel was the title, and how prominent Wendy is in it. And that reflects the novel itself: Wendy Darling is just as much a main character in the story as Peter Pan, if not even more so. This was exciting to me, both because I was excited to see a prominent female character, and because it diverted some of the attention away from Peter Pan. As an eternal child, Peter has a number of character traits that could easily outstay their welcome (self-centred, callous, etc.), but because the novel focuses on Wendy more than Peter, he doesn’t have the space to do that, and thus can instead remain a charming and quirky character. Moreover, Wendy is a much easier point of empathy for the reader than Peter is. This all works very well.

What doesn’t work quite so well is Wendy’s role in the story. Wendy is the only main female character in the story, and her main role in the story is to act as a mother to Peter and the Lost Boys: she keeps house for them, fusses over their bed-times, mends their socks, etc. This has some worrying implications: firstly being the rigid notion of gender roles that seem to be enforced, and second being the implication that girls can’t be children in the same way that boys are, having to be immediately mature for the benefit of men. While there is a slight suggestion in the story that Wendy has repressed desires to share in the adventures that the boys have, it doesn’t change the fact that the novel represents a regressive portrayal of gender.

Which is a real shame, because the other parts of the novel are really solid. The narrator is wonderful, making the novel something that just demands being read out loud by parents to their children. Moreover, the adventures that take place on Neverland are exciting and wonderfully fantastic, and episodic in just such a way as to make the story enjoyable in a series of short sittings (also helping the story to be something that can easily be read out loud). Furthermore, the novel has a fantastic meditation on what it means to grow up.

In the end, however, the regressive gender representation in this novel leads me to suggest this novel only for those who are curious about Peter Pan’s origins, and are willing to look past the problematic aspects of it. In other cases, I don’t recommend it.

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