Barrie, J.M. Peter Pan and Wendy. Illus. F. D. Bedford. London, 1936.
© Copyright 2011, Vajiha Sipra
Seven years after the debut of J. M. Barrie’s critically-acclaimed play, Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, its literary adaptation took to bookshelves and classrooms across the British Commonwealth. First released as Peter and Wendy in 1911, and then as Peter Pan and Wendy, the book quickly became part of curricular reading in British elementary schools. As imperial rule spread across the globe, so did the story of Peter Pan. Accordingly, Peter Pan and Wendy was repeatedly published for several decades in London, Sydney, Toronto, Bombay, and several other prominent cities under British control. With detailed illustrations by F. D. Bedford intertwined with Barrie’s dynamic storytelling style, the book appealed to children’s imaginations. This narrative technique was considered progressive when the book was first published.
Following the Victorian era, early 20th-century Britain ranked among the world’s leading industrial powers. During this time, strong Protestant work ethics drove individuals across the hierarchal spectrum to expand and develop British civilization. Old colonies were supplemented with newer ones to preserve existing boundaries. Technological advancements, such as the steamship and telegraph, also allowed the United Kingdom to control and defend the empire (Atterbury, 2011). At the time of Peter Pan and Wendy’s publication, Britain assumed the role of universal law enforcer. Accordingly, the empire’s strong position in global trade allowed for the control of other economies, including those of China and Argentina. Consequently, notions of superiority, in terms of race and culture, rooted themselves within the British psyche, particularly from childhood ideologies.
Fairy tales and children’s literature have always shaped young minds by schooling them with society’s standards of gender roles, cultural norms and individual expectations. Even today, the story of Peter Pan not only mirrors society; it constructs the future. As University of London’s English professor Jacqueline Rose wrote, “Peter Pan . . . speaks to and for children, addresses them as a group which is knowable and exists for the book, much as the book exists for them” (Rudd 290). Through specific portrayals of ideal femininity, ideal masculinity, and foreigners, Barrie’s imperial biases establish frameworks of supremacy. Specifically, representations of Peter Pan, Wendy, and Indians in Peter Pan and Wendy contribute to the ideologies of race and gender typical of early 20th-century Britain and across the Commonwealth by shaping children’s line of thinking.
Peter brings Wendy to Neverland to become a mother to the Lost Boys, and it is this role that entices her to join him. Wendy’s role in Peter Pan and Wendy falls perfectly in line with British society’s expectations from women at the time. Even Mrs. Darling is a nurturing mother and an obedient wife. Evidently, motherhood is idealized throughout the book, which in turn reinforces feminine ideals of marrying young, staying home, and raising a family. Women in the early 1900s had little chance of evading the role that was expected of them. Men were the primary breadwinners, and the women who did work were paid significantly lower wages (Murray, 2011). As the civilizing figure, Wendy perpetuates stereotypical ideologies for girls across the Commonwealth nations and colonies. Seemingly, for women, true happiness is only achieved through possessing maternal characteristics, marriage and motherhood. In the early 20th-century, a woman who did not fit these expectations was harshly criticized (Murray, 2011). Girls who read the book were likely to identify with Wendy and the ‘feminine’ characteristics she embodies. They were trained to become obedient, unquestioning and passive young women. After all, Peter was there to fight Hook and save Wendy from any danger. Accordingly, girls viewed strength, certainty and independence as characteristics which are exclusive to boys.
Similarly, readers tend to view Peter as the protector and provider for the Lost Boys. He falls into the stereotype of a ‘strong masculine leader’ by fighting pirates and saving Wendy, the damsel-in-distress. Peter is a father figure to the Lost Boys; they come to him for guidance and even punishment. He also builds Wendy a house, further validating Peter as the dominant male in charge of all those around him.
In patriarchal Britain, the supremacy of the ‘white male’ resonates through Peter. He also possesses traits that are considered valuable for empire-building, such as stubbornness, endurance and wit . In fact, Barrie considered The Great White Father as the play’s original working title (Birkin 105) for the play, acknowledging Peter’s supposed superiority of gender and race. This is also a patronizing reference to how the Indians viewed Peter, or the ‘white man’. In accordance with Britain being at the height of empire-building at the time, both in terms of wealth and expanse, the mainstream view of British as the supreme race grounded itself. Practices of dividing people based on class and race commonly occurred within the imperial system.
Racism, sexism and class prejudice are envoys of political power; they are also measures which work in favour of society’s privileged individuals. Consequently, native Indians in Peter Pan and Wendy are portrayed as primitive, savage, and cruel. Such impressions enforce the notion of Indians as civilizations destined to remain on the margins of ‘true’ civilization. Setting these impressions at an early age makes them difficult to shake, thus enforcing colonial ideals of civilization.
As part of curricular readings for students, Peter Pan and Wendy delivered implicit Victorian ideals of British colonialism, in accordance with patriarchy and racial stereotypes, which were at the heart of empire-building endeavours. The fact that the book was read across the empire reinforced the importance of these depictions in the eyes of the dominant class. After all, these children were the next generation and they were taught the same values and ideologies responsible for imperialism. Those who planted and enhanced depictions of ideal gender roles and race relations from an early age strived for an even larger empire.
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Birkin, Andrew. J.M. Barrie & the Lost Boys. London: Yale University Press. Print.
Murray, Jenni. “20th Century Britain: The Woman’s Hour.” British History. BBC, 3 March, 2011. Web. 14 Nov. 2011.
Shout, John D. “From Nora Helmer to Wendy Darling: if you believe in heroines, clap your hands.” Modern Drama 35.3 (1992): 353+. Academic OneFile. Web. 12 Oct. 2011.
Wellhousen, Karyn, and Zenong Yin. “Peter Pan Isn’t a Girls’ Part”: An Investigation of Gender Bias in a Kindergarten Classroom.” Women and Language 20.2 (1997): 35,35-39. ProQuest. Web. 11 Oct. 2011.