When I was approximately four years old, my mother asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. At the time, I read books to my teddy bears, performed songs and dances for them, pretended to take care of their “boo-boos”, and took them through the jungle that was hidden in my closet. Much to my mother’s surprise, I did not answer “teacher” or “doctor” or “ballerina” like she assumed I might. Instead, I wholeheartedly answered that I wanted to be a mother. Reflecting on that day, I remember being told that I could be more than a mother, that the world was mine for the taking. Yet, the books I read as a child subliminally seared my brain and told me otherwise. The book that vividly depicted this was Peter Pan. Books had a certain authority over my life and at the time never understood the impact it played on my subconscious. Upon reading Peter Pan as an adult, I have developed a deeper understanding of the overarching themes present in the book and continue to ponder whether my desire for motherhood was nurtured through literature. Therefore, Peter Pan has made me grapple with my femininity and expectations of motherhood in a patriarchal society.
Globally, cultures are no strangers to patriarchal ideals, but how far has the fictitious Neverland allowed this notion to span across its ever-changing borders? The Neverland I had constructed from memory was one of mischief and adventure, vastly different than the society modeled in the Darling household. As the first chapter of the book comes to an opening, the notion of motherhood in comparison to patriarchal dominance is introduced by the birth of the Darling children. “For a week or two after Wendy came it was doubtful whether they would be able to keep her, as she was another mouth to feed. Mr. Darling was frightfully proud of her, but he was very honourable, and he sat on the edge of Mrs. Darling’s bed, holding her hand and calculating expenses, while she looked at him imploringly” (Barrie 2). Mr. Darling offers a voice of practicality in this scene as well as an authoritative role contrasted with the tranquility of Mrs. Darling’s plea when she states they can afford a child. This scene made me read the novel through a different lens than my childhood self; a novel previously focused on adventure soon became a revelation of female suppression. The notion of female suppression became a little unsettling with Mr. Darling’s commands of “now don’t interrupt” and “don’t speak” as I perceived the dynamic of power and control between the husband and wife (Barrie 2). Ultimately this led me to believe that the notion of female submissiveness is equated to motherhood, due to Mr. Darling’s financial control over the concept of childbearing. Yet, I had hope that the plotline would become more dynamic in its views of motherhood and female empowerment, only to find that the overarching theme of motherhood would remain static.
Before the arrival of Peter Pan, the Darling children had imagined Neverland and reveled in their fantasies but what struck me was the fantasies of each of the children. John dreamt of shooting flamingoes and living in a “boat turned upside down on the sands”, Michael living in a wigwam with “friends at night”, but Wendy had a “pet wolf forsaken by its parents” and lived in a “house of leaves deftly sewn together” (Barrie 6). Living in a patriarchal society, Mrs. Darling passed down these ideals to her daughter as can be seen in Wendy’s adoptive nature of motherhood and nurturing due to her ideal “adventure”. Rather than have a true adventure (as one might imagine) I believe the notion of female suppression had already been instilled upon the young Wendy. In turn, this makes me question whether the narrative of the story was meant to encourage young female readers to adopt motherhood as women’s greatest adventure. Argumentatively, one can say there was autonomy bestowed upon Wendy when given the option to go to Neverland. The power to make one own’s decision has been gendered as a masculine ability, yet Wendy is given an option. The option given was rather bleak, per my own personal standards, as Peter lured Wendy with flattery stating “one girl is more use than twenty boys” (Barrie 22). Wendy responds with glee as Peter later explains he had been listening to the stories Mrs. Darling had been telling in hopes to know the ending of Cinderella. Upon Wendy telling him the end of the story, Peter attempts to leave “to go tell the other boys.” Peter then realizes his plan is working as Wendy exclaims “Oh, the stories I could tell to the boys!” (Barrie 27). It was this moment I realized the story was never about the adventures of Wendy; it was a luring trap to gain the empathy of a female to get her to do the household chores and partake in motherly behaviors. Peter played upon the empathetic characteristics associated with females to have her return to Neverland to tuck the boys in, tell them stories, and darn their clothes.
While reading this book, I felt as if Wendy’s fate had been sealed in an implicit deal between her and Peter. When Peter is reunited with the Lost Boys he proclaims, “I have at last brought a mother home for you all” revealing his true intentions with the bringing of Wendy to Neverland (Barrie 55). Although Toodles strikes Wendy with an arrow and they believe her dead, Wendy still assumes the role of motherhood although she herself is “only a little girl” (Barrie 61). The acknowledgment of age made me ponder further the instilled values of motherhood in young girls. Wendy understands that motherhood is meant for older women but in Neverland, her adventure requires her adoption of a motherly role. It is almost as if Wendy knows that she is destined for this when she ages into an older woman, therefore, assuming the position now is practice for the time when motherhood reaches her. Wendy is put to work almost immediately in the home under the ground as she partakes in washing clothes, cooking, sewing, and darning clothing. At times, Wendy is unable to leave the home due to the amount of work required from her and at one point even exclaims, “Oh dear, I am sure I sometimes think spinsters are to be envied!” (Barrie 65). Although Wendy states this, her face shows no sign of envy but rather a beaming look of radiance. To me, this was a subtle way for young female readers to understand that although there are struggles that accompany domestic chores, women are to enjoy it. When we see Wendy in Neverland, she does not participate in dangerous adventures because it is seen as unfit (alluded by the narrator). When danger does occur, Wendy is practically of no use, therefore, this reiterates the notion that women are fit for domestic lifestyles as the housewife rather than one of adventure.
All things considered, Peter Pan, a book I had once considered adventurous and engaging as a child has now become a book of dullness and has become slightly infuriating. In a society where an emphasis has been placed upon females to maintain a household and bear children, I consider the book a subliminal manifesto of the author to encourage young readers to assume ownership of their role in our culture based upon their gender. The more I reread literature that I had built the basis of my childhood, the more I realize that I have started to embody the ideals represented in the novels. Peter Pan has awakened a new perspective on how I perceive literature and how I let the thematics define me as a person. The question of motherhood and my position in society as a woman is something I will continue to ponder as I continue in my literary career.