When addressing the topic of self-discovery within the context of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, it is imperative to acknowledge the fact that the text has previously been referred to as The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. This title implies several things, but the most important of all is that in order for Peter to discover himself he is forced to submit to the inevitability of time and growth. In order to trace the dynamism of self-discovery, it is vital to historically navigate the time in which the text is written. Thus, Peter Pan’s self-discovery can be associated with the decline of the British Empire and imperialism. Although these concepts do not directly relate, they address a similar experience, as Peter Pan is an individual who maps unmapped places and experiences by allowing himself to slightly leave his comfort zone (it can also argued that this process occurs by force) while the British are forced to step out of their affluent, comfortable position in order to address the turmoil taking place within the country.
Self-discovery is a constant theme throughout the narrative, as indicated in the first paragraph of Chapter 1, “You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end” (Barrie). This quotation not only speaks to the inevitability of time but it also speaks to the fear of growing up. This fear is constantly associated with Peter and Wendy, as they are described as being content with living carefree. In order to understand Peter Pan’s inhibitions with growing up, one must consider the role that he must assume in his community. Peter Pan’s quest is to emancipate the community of Never Land from Captain Hook and his clan of pirates, and also to emancipate the Darling children from their contemporary, controlled reality.
Peter Pan’s “choice” to live a carefree lifestyle is one proposed by the author. This is illuminated by Barrie’s creation of the Neverland and its incorporation in the text. Neverland seems to be an island of endless of possibilities consisting of an element of adulthood. However, Peter Pan seems to deviate from the typical experience of a young boy into manhood. One particularly interesting quotation that elaborated upon this idea is the following, “All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust” (Barrie). This is one of the most famous quotes from the text as it speaks to the idea of inevitability. Trust is defined as the firm belief in the reliability, truth or strength of someone or something in this context (Oxford English Dictionary). Thus, one can infer that Peter Pan believes that trust is one of the most powerful forces in our civilization. Thus, Peter Pan must trust himself enough to allow himself to develop into adulthood and accept his fate without reservation. However, this does not occur as depicted in the following quotation, “Of course in the end Wendy let them fly away together. Our last glimpse of her shows her at the window, watching them receding into the sky until they were as small as stars” (Barrie). This quote speaks to the element of growth at the conclusion of the text, as Peter Pan remains stuck in his state of immaturity while Wendy moves into adulthood without him.
Decline of the British Empire and Imperialism
Following the publication of Barrie’s text Peter Pan, the world experienced the decline of the British Empire. This event transpired without clearly defined warning, as the British became quite comfortable in their wealth that they did not establish safe borders nor did they protect commercial interests overseas and at their homesite. The British eventually found their pride eradicated as they became involved in a war that they were not prepared for. In the text entitled The Decline, Revival and Fall of the British Empire, author John Gallagher writes, “During the years 1919-22 the challenges to empire were ominous, but they were not yet formidable” (Gallagher, 94). This indeed indicates that there could have been some foresight, however it was not powerful enough to instill fear in the citizens of Great Britain. Gallagher also indicates that there were several precursors prior to the devastating decline and that there was general discussion of what action might remedy the situation,
“…the British world system was perilously fragile and had been showing signs of decay long before 1939; secondly, that important sectors of that system were decaying fast after the First World War, when it was moving away from a system of formal rule towards a system of influence; and thirdly, that a result of the Second World War was to reintegrate the system, reversing the trend and turning it back from influence towards empire before the downfall” (Gallagher, 73).
To further elaborate upon this quotation, it is important to discuss the idea that the decline of the empire forced Britain to grant independence to the nations and it also brought about what is commonly referred as a “wind of change.” This “wind of change” is indicative of the instability of the nation, as Britain’s days were numbered. After the war occurred, Britain realized that it could no longer afford the expense of administering one quarter of the world’s population, even though they had emerged victorious in the wars. Once stable, Britain adopted a policy of peaceful disengagement from its colonies. Many transformations had to occur in order to ensure that the nation would remain stable once it was able to recover from the war. This has resulted in the nation transforming from an industrialist colonist to a military colonist.
As defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, imperialism is a policy of extending a country’s power and influence through diplomacy or military force (Oxford English Dictionary). Imperialism itself is a term that speaks to the element of discovery and mapping of unmapped places. Thus, it helps to further bridge the gap between the British Empire and Peter Pan. Imperialism was a quite complicated notion during the process of the decline to the end that the country sought to expand the nation. While groups of people in Britain were supportive of this expenditure, many groups of people were against the idea. In spite of great uncertainty in Britain, the country sought to expand its role in the continent by gaining new territory. To this end, one can argue that the country’s lust for power had a greater affect on its resulting action than the threat of economic decline.
The ideas of self-discovery, the Decline of the British Empire and imperialism are related as they collectively address an issue of comfortability and how it is often difficult to escape a situation that an individual is conditioned to live in. Similar to the fact that there was great uncertainty associated with expansion in the midst of turmoil, there was uncertainty when Peter Pan considers his predestined adulthood.
As stated previously, in regard to the Decline of the British Empire and Imperialism, the reasoning behind the decline was pride and comfortability, as individuals felt as though they were in a affluent position and thus, they were not prepared for a failing economy. Similarly, Peter Pan evades responsibility by trying to maintain his youth at all costs possible. He lives in a society in which this desire is feasible, as Neverland is a space in which there are impossibilities of adulthood. Thus, Peter Pan eventually realizes that he must compromise to an extent and accept responsibility. This is his point of self-discovery. However, he is unable to let go of his childhood because that is not what his heart desires. Thus, Peter Pan is a text about the endless cycle of life and the anxieties and inevitability of growing into adulthood.
Are these two ideas one in the same or do they seem to differ?
What were you able to take away from this metaphor? How might the politics of society have contributed to Peter Pan’s road to self-discovery?
Barrie, J.M. Peter and Nora S. Unwin. Peter Pan. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950. Print.
Brendon, Piers. The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781-1997. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 20082007. Print
Gallagher, John, Anil Seal, and Ronald Edward Robinson. The Decline, Revival and Fall of the British Empire: the Ford Lectures and other essays. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire: Cambridge University Press, 1982. Print.
Orde, Anne. The Eclipse of Great Britain: the United States and British Imperial Decline, 1865-1956. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. Print.
“Tumblr.” peterpan. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Apr. 2014. <http://www.tumblr.com/search/peterpan