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ESSAY / The Philosophy of Peter Pan / Alice Lavren

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Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie is a door to a universe “where dreams are born and time is never planned.” The book overflows with magic and is thus seen as a wellspring of entertainment for little dreamers and rebels. However, a closer look at the timeless novel reveals that entertainment is actually its least important element. And the world of pirates, fairies and mermaids serves as an artful disguise for a parable about the tragic nature of human life.

Colorful descriptions of children’s personalities and activities they engage in leave no doubt that J. Barrie remembers childhood frightfully well. Such insight into the subject allows him to earn trust and attention of his young readers. The narrator addresses them through the free-spirited character of Peter Pan. By endowing the hero with an array of positive qualities Barrie confesses his respect and admiration for little ones.

A child, according to the author, is someone who can be happy without a reason and live in the present delighting in each moment. “To die will be an awfully big adventure”, Peter Pan’s inner voice once declares. When the forever-young boy hears it, he is “standing erect on the rock again with that smile on his face and a drum beating within him.” The drum is a sign of his readiness to die if the occasion calls for it. Peter appears to be totally comfortable with the idea of death because he has lived each day of his life to the fullest. And so has every other child. A unique capacity to enjoy life in the now and not worry about the future is what makes kids impeccably fearless. To them, the future is a notion so dubious and ethereal, it’s not even worth reflecting on, and in this attitude lies their greatest power: it enables them to take risks without considering the possibility of failure. Sadly, when one grows older the fearlessness dies away as one becomes acutely aware of the dangers lurking around him.

Yet another remarkable trait all kids have in common is what J. Barrie calls a “sense of wonder”. The most logical interpretation of this term would be an ability to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. Nonetheless, there’s more to the concept than that. A “sense of wonder” is excitement for novelty and openness to change. It’s creative thinking and curiosity. It’s belief in the unseen. It’s dreaming. It’s using each day as an opportunity to explore one’s potential and discover the world. It’s never feeling bored. Grown ups lose this “sense of wonder” as they become part of the unimaginative, monotonous society. A society that thinks in stereotypes and views life not as a gift but as a heavy burden.

The author’s admiration for youngsters may give an impression that he encourages his audience to postpone growing up and to dwell in a world “made of faith and trust and pixie dust” as long as possible. What he is trying to get across though is exactly the opposite. Again, Barrie communicates with his readers through the emblematic figure of Peter Pan, this time, unveiling to us his darker side. The magical boy has all the positive characteristics that make children so admirable and attractive. Yet he also embodies the disturbingly negative qualities inherent in every child. One of those is forgetfulness. Peter forgets every person he ever had feelings for, not realizing that memory is a key aspect of love. Memory has immense value because it allows us to keep people we love in the heart even when those are not around. As for kids, they don’t cherish recollections and “are always ready when the novelty knocks, to desert their dearest ones”. For this reason, J. Barrie calls them heartless. Heartlessness, to his mind, is emotional immaturity preventing the young from loving selflessly.

It’s no secret loyalty and responsibility are the basis of selfless love. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry used to write, “you become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed”. The writer implied that true love is a duty and oftentimes, a sacrifice. When you love somebody you are responsible for whole-heartedly taking care of them and doing all it takes to ensure their well-being. Not only are children too heartless to commit acts so noble but they are also too selfish for it. By the way Wendy behaves in the first chapters, one can tell how uncaring kids truly are. Her character is an allegory for those who are on the brink of adulthood and are facing a difficult choice between growing up and prolonging childhood. To make a conscious decision, the girl flew away to Neverland without thinking how it would affect her parents. She had no second thoughts since “she was absolutely confident that they (her parents) would always keep the window open for her to fly back”, and that upon her arrival she would “be embraced instead of smacked.” Wendy’s actions indicate that little ones only know how to consume unconditional, generous love of their parents but have absolutely no idea how to give it back.

Selfless love is known to be the ultimate and highest goal of human existence: it enriches and elevates the soul, advancing it to a higher level of consciousness. Children are unable to experience this kind of love and are therefore barred from spiritual growth. That is, perhaps, the biggest shortcoming of childhood. In order to eliminate it, the young must enter a hostile grown-up world, for always leaving behind joy, spontaneity, fearlessness and sense of wonder.

The author points out that unlike the children’s world, the world of grown-ups is strikingly unjust: “Every child is affected thus the first time he is treated unfairly. All he thinks he has a right to when he comes to you to be yours is fairness. After you have been unfair to him he will love you again, but he will never afterwards be quite the same boy.” The transition to maturity is bitter. One gets betrayed. One gets broken. 

As you grow up you learn how to love selflessly which is, beyond doubt, a blessing but at the same time a curse. Such love is risky and nearly always brings pain. In “Peter Pan” J.M. Barrie implicitly reveals to his young readers the unsettling truth about life: he argues that pain is unavoidable and necessary since it’s part of the process of spiritual growth. Pain cultivates humanity and compassion in people and prompts the latter to change. However cruel this may sound, one can’t deny that the sorrow of loss teaches us to be grateful for our loved ones. And only someone who has known true misery is able to appreciate the full glory of happiness. The narrator of the tale seems to say that a man is born to endure suffering because there exists no other way to evolve and fulfill his life’s purpose.

Barrie’s insight into the difficulties of growing up enables him to look at the issue from various angles. Realizing full well that far not everyone has the strength to confront adulthood, he once more uses the example of Peter Pan to express his position on the topic. The author shows his audience what awaits them should they put off childhood the way Peter did.

Peter Pan represents a person who has made a wrong choice on account of fear and weakness, who’s decided to live solely for himself, eventually becoming empty, callous and irrevocably lost. Despite his heroic qualities, the character is profoundly tragic and evokes nothing but pity. The boy finds satisfaction in what are seemingly entertaining things – games and adventures - but which, in reality, are trifles. There is a certain “knocking” Peter feels in his heart at the sight of Mrs. Darlings tears. This knocking is a poignant voice of moral consciousness the eternal child had drowned out long ago. It keeps constantly reminding him of his severely neglected yet desperate desire for love. Fleeing the world of adults didn’t really save Peter like it wouldn’t anyone else. Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy was once quoted as saying, “It is easier to live without love but without it, there’s no point”. Likewise, Peter Pan ran away from love and its sorrows but with it, he ran away from the true meaning of life.

Thus, it can be safely concluded that J. M. Barrie explores in Peter Pan the burdensome and tragic nature of our existence. In the author’s point of view, to become a worthy human being one must suppress his inner child and grow up. For the only way to evolve as a person – to know moral virtues, such as love, empathy, loyalty, responsibility and generosity – is to experience pain and go through the hardships adult life has prepared.


Alice Lavren is an aspiring writer, based in Saint-Petersburg, Russia. She focuses on writing essays and short fiction at the moment.