This page seeks to analyze Peter Pan through the lens of race relations in the Victorian Era. In the years leading up to the publishing of Peter Pan, theories of race were going through a scientific transformation. These ‘scientific’ theories on race captured the attention of the British as scientific journals and popular daily newspapers reported on new findings of the day. These theories were brought to the forefront of the British public discourse because the continuing expansion of the British Empire and the conflicts it was producing with the native peoples. It is this pseudo-scientific atmosphere that helped define race relations for the British public and more importantly for this paper, the author of Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie.
In the nineteenth century, theories of racial differences and hierarchy began being analyzed scientifically by medical professionals and all manner of social scientists. As one author put it, ‘the old concept of the great chain of being, marking graduations of mankind, was being subjected to a new scientific racism [Wohl].’ The science of phrenology and polygenism helped to couch racial prejudices in the language of modern science. These scientific theories attempted to explain racial differences by arguing that different races held different positions on the evolutionary scale. Phrenology, a pseudoscience that measured the human skull, became extremely popular in Britain in the 19th century. Proponents of this field argued that certain areas of the brain in certain races are larger and thus more powerful and that during infancy, the skull forms around the brain and therefore by measuring the skull one could understand which areas of the brain were more ‘powerful.’ Scientists often ‘discovered’ that other race’s skulls were significantly different compared to the Anglo-Saxon skull and thus their mental capacity was inferior. This medical theory was coupled with another model called polygenism which argued that human races came from different lineages. These two pseudoscientific theories were an attempt to legitimize racial prejudices, ‘polygenists stressed the unequal nature of various creations and this theory mingled with general evolutionary theories and concepts of arrested development to create an atmosphere congenial to racial stereotyping [Wohl].’
These medical theories were extremely popular with the British people because it made their imperialism and all the horrible things that come with the subjugation of different peoples, seem legitimate. Widespread disease, poverty, famine and death in all corners of the British empire, but the common citizen could feel justified in their subtle involvement because their public discourse was telling them that the country was interfering in far-flung nations in order to help improve the lives of the inferior races.
This is the atmosphere that helped define Barrie’s life and as I will show, it helped define the nature of race in his most famous story, Peter Pan.
As I mentioned above, the sense or racial difference allowed the British to justify all manner of unscrupulous acts because there was this deep seated belief that other races were genetically inferior. In this context Peter Pan’s ‘political unconscious [was] rooted in real stores of violent conquest…and Victorian notions of racial differences [Brewer].’ In fact, according to Jackie Wullschlager, author of Inventing Wonderland: The Lives and Fantasies of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, J.M. Barrie, Kenneth Grahame and A.A. Milne, the idea for Peter Pan arose from childhood games that Barrie used to play in which he and his childhood friends would travel to distant lands to fight off savages and return back to Britain as heroes. This dynamic is most certainly prevalent throughout the text and it seemed to hit a resonant chord with the British public who commented on the ‘reality’ of the play, which author Catherine Hiall ‘relates to the fact that it issues from the common dream among children of fighting the “baddies” and winning.’
These ‘baddies’ that the characters are always vanquishing are often portrayed as savages and often embodied racial stereotypes. For instance in chapter 12, Barrie describes a battle between Hook’s pirates and a tribe of ‘savages’ on a remote island in NeverLand, where Hook pulls off a surprise attack due to his ‘unscrupulousness’ because in order ‘to surprise redskins fairly is beyond the wit of the white man.’ In that same chapter, Barrie draws on the fear many British citizens had of ‘savage native’ peoples when we described the ‘unwritten laws of savage warfare’ and saying ‘it is always the redskin who attacks’ first and due to ‘the wiliness of his race he does it just before the dawn.’ When describing a pirate of Hook’s ship, Barrie said ‘that gigantic black behind him has had may names since he dropped the one with which dusky mothers still terrify their children on the banks of the Guadjo-mo.’ What these little excerpts in this text do is draw upon very real fears and prejudices the common citizen had towards other races.
Barrie’s ‘description of Never Land clearly reproduces’ the colonial mindset of ‘frequent small pitched battles over territory with Hook and his men on one side and the ‘pale-faces,’ Pan and his followers on the other. This was a typical imperial theme throughout the Victorian era with the whites battling the inferior native peoples. Due to the popularity of the pseudoscience I mentioned above, these engagements were often portrayed as good versus evil, white versus other and civilized versus savage. As Mary Brewer eloquently argued, ‘the racial schema that emerges…functions to render Peter as a representative of the white racial self – in other words as an effect of the white author’s and spectators’ location in the…racial order.’ These types of racial models were encouraged` and reinforced by the ‘science’ of race theory that was prevalent in Victorian Britain. These models made up Barrie’s world view and played an important part in his Peter Pan. With the benefits of hindsight, it may be somewhat accurate to refer to Barrie as a bigot because he did not use his novel to critique racial discrimination, rather he reinforced it. But would this be an entirely accurate description? Perhaps once could argue Barrie was merely a product of his time, relying and anachronistic pseudoscience to attempt to explain a rapidly changing world filled with new and different cultures?
Barrie, J. M. Peter Pan. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950. Print.
Brewer, Mary. “Peter Pan and the White Imperial Imagery.” New Theatre Quarterly 23.4 (2007): 387-92. Web. 22 Apr. 2014.
Wullschläger, Jackie. Inventing Wonderland: The Lives and Fantasies of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, J.M. Barrie, Kenneth Grahame, and A.A. Milne. New York: Free, 1995. Print.
Wohl, S. Anthony. “Victorian Racisim.” http://www.victorianweb.org/victorian/history/race/rc5.html