Academic journal article Studies in the Humanities

Mrs. Darling's Scream: The Rites of Persephone in Peter and Wendy and Wuthering Heights

Academic journal article Studies in the Humanities

Mrs. Darling's Scream: The Rites of Persephone in Peter and Wendy and Wuthering Heights

Article excerpt

"All rites of passage are paradoxical. On the one hand, there's the opportunity for personal growth, the promise of transcendence. But there is terror and disintegration, too--deep blows to the ego. No wonder that the day a mother hands off her daughter to Pan is unquestionably her worst.... From this moment on, they will fly on their own fuel and eat from the tree of imaginary fruit. They no longer need their mothers, all of whom have taken a bad fall and make their peace with gravity."

~Wendy, of Laurie Fox's The Lost Girls, 165

When J. M. Barrie adapted his 1904 play Peter Pan into the 1911 novel Peter and Wendy, he wrote a crucial opening paragraph in which he signals the novel's concern with female development. The paragraph constructs an origin myth of mother-daughter unity, which awareness of time disrupts:

   All children, except one, grow up. They soon know that they will
   grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this. One day when she
   was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked
   another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must
   have looked rather delightful, for Mrs. Darling put her hand to her
   heart and cried, "Oh, why can't you remain like this for ever!"
   This was all that passed between them on the subject, but
   henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after
   you are two. Two is the beginning of the end. (69)

This passage recites the fall of the daughter from a pre-linguistic mother-daughter Eden, framing the eternal child-son Peter Pan as a transitional figure between mother and daughter. Mrs. Darling introduces the idea of time and division--the knowledge that mother and daughter are "two"--through verbalizing desire for perpetual unity and thus ushering in the language that divides and allows individuals social expression. Wendy cannot remain in Mrs. Darling's garden, and in fact rivals her position. The next paragraph continues with "Of course they lived at 14, and until Wendy came her mother was the chief one" (69). Creation myths teach us that once children take on individual existence, they rival their creators. This is always viewed ambiguously by parents, who feel their own mortality in conjunction with the growing child, just as God's power is immediately rivaled when he creates man "in his image."

What Mrs. Darling does in the above paragraph is make a wish, and the rest of the fantasy represents, with fairy tale logic, her struggle to expel that wish, of which she is guilty. With that wish she has conjured the kiss of the vampire, who comes through the window at night and shows his teeth, anxious to carry her Persephone to the underworld:

   While [Mrs. Darling] was dreaming the window of the nursery blew
   open, and a boy did drop on the floor ... She started up with a cry,
   and saw the boy, and somehow she knew at once that he was Peter
   Pan. If you or I or Wendy had been there we should have seen that
   he was very like Mrs. Darling's kiss. He was a lovely boy, clad in
   skeleton leaves and the juices that ooze out of trees; but the most
   entrancing thing about him was that he had all his first teeth. When
   he saw she was a grown-up, he gnashed the little pearls at her.

   Mrs. Darling screamed. (Peter and Wendy, 77-78)

Peter embodies both youth and death, life and shadow. He is created by the kiss and speech of a woman. The "skeleton leaves" and the rotting "juices" oozing out of trees symbolize the rotting corpse (Reynolds 176), and the mature fluid-filled female body that births youth. The apparition makes Mrs. Darling scream because it is so entrancing. He has been conjured by her words, "Oh, why can't you remain like this for ever!," which is, actually, a death-wish because the alternative to growing up is to die.

What she fears is already desired by her daughter Wendy, whose mind, Mrs. Darling finds, is "scrawled all over with [Peter Pan]" (74). …

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