When Peter Pan, "clad in skeleton leaves and the juices that ooze out of trees," flies for the second time into the Darling nursery, he departs with far more than his rescued shadow. Once sprinkled with fairy dust, the Darling children – Wendy, John and Michael – fly with Peter to a mysterious island called the Neverland. Here they encounter fabulous mermaids, the proud redskin princess, Tiger Lily, and Peter's clan, the Lost Boys, who desperately long for a mother. As Wendy settles into a maternal role and Peter battles his archnemesis, the pirate Capt. James Hook, the children lose themselves in the island's adventures and begin to forget their distraught parents back home.
J. M. Barrie's timeless story has been dissected, discussed, debated and deliberated over by scholars and students for years. It has been labeled racist, politically incorrect and even sexist, for its themes of motherhood. But to truly understand Peter Pan, the reader must understand the author himself.
James Barrie was deeply affected by psychogenic dwarfism. Measuring just 4' 10" in height, he naturally suffered from low self-esteem. In one of his old school notebooks, Barrie wrote how ashamed he was at, "being small enough to travel half ticket by rail." His brother's death at an early age also shaped Barrie's perception, as did his mother, who drew comfort from the knowledge that her deceased son would never age. Barrie's works prior to Peter Pan, such as Sentimental Tommy (1896) and Tommy and Grizel (1902), also drew on his childhood experiences, so it is not difficult to see how the spirit of the boy who never grew up developed.
Several strong themes run through Peter Pan: the desire for immortality, the urge to shirk responsibility and the role of motherhood are the most notable. The reader's own experiences will determine those most relevant to them. Some even suggest that the prominent themes of the book vary by culture, as Brian Szaks' review of Peter Pan’s Neverland shows. The play's executive producer, Mike Davis, explains that in the US the most appealing theme for people is to "never grow up." Yet in Japan, he adds, more emphasis is placed on, "the universal need for a mother figure."
George Bernard Shaw once said that the original Peter Pan was, “a holiday entertainment for children but really a play for grown-up people.” Melissa Rogers touches on this in her February 2011 review, "A Book to Share: Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie." Rogers argues that the book, "is not about the joys of staying young, but [...] the need to become something new every day." Barrie did not intend for Peter to be envied says Rogers, not when, "he lives forever moment by moment, and [...] cannot ever change."
What Peter Pan offers, aside from a simple adventure story, is a study into the culture, language and attitudes of late Victorian England. Were those viewpoints wrong? Absolutely. But they were customary and accepted in the period. However misguided, the tale does provide parents the chance to discuss why society thought this way, and how our mindset has evolved.
What cannot be debated is the success of Peter Pan and its enduring popularity. Adapted across multiples formats, it has been retold to children for more than a century. I prefer to see it as the classic children's adventure novel and a benchmark that all children's books should aspire to. Its conclusion always manages to leave me agonizingly bereft and yearning for more. As instances of this nostalgia niggle softly, I find myself concurring with Mark Twain, who wrote this of Barrie's work: "It is my belief that Peter Pan is a great and refining and uplifting benefaction to this sordid and money-mad age; and the next best play is a long way behind."