Why Wendy Does Not Want to Be a Darling: A New Interpretation of "Peter Pan"

By Rakover, Shelly | PSYART, January 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Why Wendy Does Not Want to Be a Darling: A New Interpretation of "Peter Pan"


Rakover, Shelly, PSYART


abstract

This paper proposes a new reading of J.M. Barrie's famous children's book Peter Pan (1911), and more specifically the Disney adaptation that is so deeply engraved in the collective consciousness of recent generations. The interpretation focuses not on the supposed hero of the story, but on its heroine, Wendy Darling, and her journey from childhood to adulthood. According to this reading, the internal processes and psychological changes that Wendy undergoes are the main subject of the book, while the other characters (including Peter Pan himself) are archetypal personifications that present a variety of potential identities and experiences for her to consider on her search for self-identity. The appeal of Peter Pan, as the hero of a "boy's story" and a persona with the infectious charm of the "boy who wouldn't grow up," may be the reason for the choice of title, but in our opinion, it is Wendy's journey that drives the plot and leads to its resolution.

Peter Pan is no doubt one of the most appealing subjects for "deep" psychological analysis. Interpretations of this character run from the pop-psychology term the "Peter Pan Syndrome" coined by Dr. Dan Kiley (1983) to refer to adult males who refuse to grow up and face their responsibilities, through Kenneth Kidd's (2004) sociocultural study of boys and the feral tale which questions Peter's masculinity and sexuality, to his alleged homosexuality which, according to Dore Ripley (2006), reflects Victorian longings for Hellenistic homosexual culture. In our opinion, however, these interpretations are too narrow and do not do justice to the story as whole. Focusing on Peter Pan per se offers no understanding of the narrative itself or of the psychological structure and motivation of the other characters. In contrast, analyzing the story from Wendy's point of view reveals a whole new mosaic of emotional and psychological dynamics.

At the beginning of the story, we meet Wendy at a time of upheaval in her life. She has been informed by her parents (representing, for our purposes, the adult world) that she is too old to remain in the nursery and must move into a room of her own. The move is associated with a range of developmental and psychological changes (both internal and external) which Wendy must now face, and which serve as the motivational foundation of the story. Wendy does not receive the news enthusiastically, to put it mildly, but at the same time she can not ignore the first signs that she is becoming a woman. This stage in her development is reflected not only in her maternal feelings toward her younger brothers, but even more so in her semi-romantic/sexual fantasies about Peter Pan.

As we delved deeper into the character and journey of Wendy Darling, we were struck by the parallels between this story and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll, 1865). In both cases, prepubescent girls set out on an adventurous quest in a world that affords access to the imagination and unconscious contents. And in both, they are "proper" young ladies brought up in the refined (and hypocritical?) British tradition of restraint, common sense, and integrity, qualities they display admirably when confronted with the underlying madness of the experiences they encounter. The fact that their strict, highly disciplined upbringing is a stark contrast to the cacophony of outlandish voices around them clearly reinforces their status as the heroines of the story. Unlike the traditional heroines of fairytales, however, this distinction does not derive from the circumstances of their birth (they have no royal blood), but from their inner strength and personality. Indeed, Wendy and Alice may very well be expressions in children's literature of the emergence of the "modern woman," a woman whose sexual/emotional/psychological identity is not automatically determined by biology or lineage; rather, she is increasingly capable of defining her own identity. As we see it, the subject of female identity is also the point at which the two stories diverge. …

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