J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy tells the story of an idealistic island for young children filled with mermaids and fairies. This literature follows a common theme of children’s writing as it sets up the child as an outsider to its own process and then unashamedly takes the child in (Rose 2). The representation of childhood is evident in Chapter six of Peter and Wendy which both illustrates and challenges commonly held assumptions about childhood and gender. This is seen through the representation of motherhood, boyhood, and female relationships which are used to socially shape children and transcribe them with morals and values that adults see fit.
The representation of female moral development in Peter Pan illustrates commonly-held assumptions about childhood literature. When Peter Pan initially meets Wendy he lures her to Neverland, a place filled with magic and enchantment, where adult law does not exist. However, upon arriving in Neverland he tells the Lost Boys “I have brought at last a mother for you all” (Barrie 95). This displays how the social structure between men and women in Neverland is the same as London. Here, Wendy’s character is defined as a woman through her tendency to act under femininity and the traditional role of motherhood, thus confining her to stereotypical gender roles. This text genders activities of young boys and girls and perpetuates certain stereotypes regarding male and female interests and tastes (Nodelman and Reimer 87). Additionally, Wendy’s reaction to becoming a mother displays the commonly-held assumptions of childhood literature. This is seen when Peter tells Wendy “What we need is just a nice motherly person” in which she replies “Oh dear, you see I feel that is exactly what I am” (Barrie 108). Despite Wendy’s young age and her unfamiliarity with motherhood, she takes on the role of a mother based on the patriarchal social structure that exists in London where Mr. Darling is the breadwinner and Mrs. Darling happily engages in domestic chores. This writing is intended to socialize children into traditional gender roles and reinforces particular behaviours upon those genders (Meyers, McKight, Brabbenhoft 105).
Furthermore, the island of Neverland is used as a means to escape ordinary reality, however, this imaginary world acts as a parody to London and illustrates literary childhood assumptions such as consequences for bad behaviour and gendered activity. This chapter exemplifies the common behaviours ascribed to boys compared to girls, which is demonstrated through Peter Pan’s position as the patriarch of Neverland and his interaction with Lost Boys. He would punish them “if they broke down their make-believe he rapped them on the knuckles” (Barrie 102). This text labels young boys as disobedient and mischievous and acts as a tool to control boys who do not follow the rules. It depicts a common theme found in children’s literature that stories should contain positive role models: characters who act in acceptable ways and are rewarded for it (Nodelman and Reimer 87). The concept of punishment in Peter Pan is intended to teach boys valuable life lessons so that they can learn to control their behavior and act in accordance with ideas of what is right and wrong. Additionally, gendered interaction can be seen through the various descriptions of Peter Pan’s daily activities “the difference between him and other boys at such a time was that they knew it was make-believe, while to him make-believe and true were the same thing” (Barrie 102). Peter Pan’s character represents the importance of imagination and the role of fantasy during boyhood. Peter Pan displays how young boys should let their imagination run wild while young females should be confined to stereotypical gender roles without the same freedom. This portrays Peter Pan as a positive role model for young boys as he is courageous, playful, and obedient to society’s norms.
Additionally, assumptions about childhood literature can be seen through the establishment of gendered relationships, this text portrays the friendships that boys develop as loyal and trusting. On the other hand, female relationships are portrayed as manipulative and based on jealousy from a young age. This is evident when Curly comments on Tinkerbell’s reaction to Wendy surviving her fall he says “listen to Tink, she is crying because the Wendy lives” (Barrie 98). This relationship challenges the common theme found in children’s literature that children’s stories should not describe unacceptable behaviour such as violence or rudeness that readers might choose to imitate (Nodelman and Reimer 87). Tinkerbell possesses adult qualities such as jealousy, this differs from common gender assumptions and Victorian values where the child is often rendered innocent of all contradictions that flaw our interaction with the world (Rose 9). Additionally, the poor portrayal of female relationships can be seen when Wendy wakes up, “do you think Tinkerbell was grateful to Wendy for raising her arm? Oh dear no, never wanted to pinch her so much (Barrie 99).” In this chapter, Tinkerbell’s actions are highly regulated by Peter’s attention towards Wendy which pushes her act impulsively and irrationally, thus demonstrating stereotypical female qualities. The relationship between Tinkerbell and Wendy illustrates the theme of love and romantic jealousy found in adult literature and challenges assumptions about friendship found in children’s literature.
In J.M Barrie’s Peter and Wendy, Neverland is a place intended to be free from the direct rules of adults however their ideas of gender manifest this imaginary place. Chapter six illustrates and challenges commonly held assumptions regarding childhood and the notion of gender as seen through its representation of motherhood, boyhood, and female relationships. The portrayal of gender in this story makes for an adult audience and displays how children’s fiction is used to build a certain image about a child to secure the child reader (Rose 2). This text is used to push gender conformity among boys and girls from a young age and shape them in a way that is socially acceptable.