Wendy’s hut and the Lost Boys’ hideout encompass the themes of gender and domesticity. The play, written in 1901, and the novel (with which this website is mostly concerned), adapted in 1911, come out of the traditions of late Victorian society in England. This page aims to explore the historical relationship between these themes as society viewed them (historically, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) and as they are presented in the novel (thematically), especially in relation to the location itself.
“Polarization” of the Sexes
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, discourse regarding gender focused more and more on sexual difference, emphasizing the physical and psychological disparities between men and women. This discourse created a dichotomy between the sexes in terms of their respective natures; men were seen as rational, energetic, constant, active, and taciturn, while women were viewed as emotional, reposeful, variable or inconstant, passive, and talkative (Tosh 69). As a result of this dichotomization, masculinity came to be recognized only in comparison to the category of the “other,” which included women, children, and people of different races or classes. According to John Tosh, “Victorian manliness was premised on a powerful sense of the feminine ‘other’, with each sex being defined by negative stereotypes of the other” (91). In other words, being masculine, or manly, was understood in terms of unlikeness (i.e. not being effeminate, childlike, racially inferior, etc.).
In Barrie’s Peter Pan, even the children are aware of gender differences when John and Wendy play as Mr. and Mrs. George Darling: “[Mrs. Darling] had found her two older children playing at being herself and father on the occasion of Wendy’s birth, and John was saying: ‘I am happy to inform you, Mrs. Darling, that you are now a mother,’ in just such a tone as Mr. Darling himself may have used on the real occasion. Wendy had danced with joy, just as the real Mrs. Darling must have done. Then John was born, with the extra pomp that he conceived due to the birth of a male…” (Barrie 41). John, playing Mr. Darling, exhibits a reserved, rational demeanor in announcing the “birth,” while Wendy, playing Mrs. Darling, shows an emotional response to such an announcement, illustrating the dichotomy between male and female temperaments that is common in Victorian gender discourse. Additionally, Wendy possesses several more of the female stereotypes. During her long conversation with Peter about his origins and that of fairies, the narrator states, “Tedious talk this, but being a stay-at-home [Wendy] liked it” (Barrie 51). This quotation shows that Wendy is reposeful and passive, remaining in the home, and that talking, even about “tedious” things, entertains her.
On the other hand, Peter complicates and contradicts the Victorian idea of masculinity. When readers are first introduced to
him, he is “crying on the nursery floor” (Barrie 48). Since masculinity is defined in relation to its “other” (i.e. feminine emotion), Peter does not embody the qualities usually associated with masculine men. Rather, he literally exemplifies one of the “others,” a child. Yet in Neverland, he is the leader of the lost boys and the most masculine of them in that he disciplines
them, gives them orders, and knows how to fight—and even kill—pirates. Additionally, one of the most memorable passages of Peter Pan shows his bravery and his masculine mindset juxtaposed with his more childlike, effeminate one:
Peter was not quite like other boys; but he was afraid at last. A tremor ran through him, like a shudder passing over the sea; but on the sea one shudder follows another till there are hundreds of them, and Peter felt just one. Next moment he was standing erect on the rock again, with that smile on his face and a drum beating within him. It was saying, “To die will be an awfully big adventure.” (Barrie 98)
At first, he physically shows signs of emotion, but then he composes himself, like a man would, and seems to think of his predicament as an adventure to be faced. Because of this contradictory depiction, he is an ambiguous character who cannot be explicitly labeled as either masculine or feminine. Thus, Barrie seems to attempt to challenge the idea of the “man-other” dichotomy.
In 1865, John Ruskin famously described the gender dynamic in this way:
We are foolish, and without excuse foolish, in speaking of the ‘superiority’ of one sex to the other, as if they could be compared in similar things. Each has what the other has not: they are in nothing alike, and the happiness and perfection of both depends on each asking and receiving from the other what the other only can give.
Now their separate characters are briefly these. The man’s power is active, progressive, defensive. He is eminently the doer, the creator, the discoverer, the defender. His intellect is for speculation and invention; his energy for adventure, for war, and for conquest, wherever war is just, wherever conquest necessary. But the woman’s power is for rule, not for battle, – and her intellect is not for invention or creation, but for sweet ordering, arrangement, and decision. She sees the qualities of things, their claims, and their places. Her great function is Praise….The man, in his rough work in open world, must encounter all peril and trial; – to him, therefore, must be the failure, the offence, the inevitable error: often he must be wounded, or subdued; often misled; and always hardened. But he guards the women from all this; within his house, as ruled by her, unless she herself has sought it, need enter no danger, no temptation, no cause of error or offence. This is the true nature of home – it is the place of Peace; the shelter not only from all injury, but from all terror, doubt, and division. In so far as it is not this, it is not home; so far as the anxieties of the outer world are allowed by either husband or wife to cross the threshold, it ceases to be home; it is then only part of that outer world which you have roofed over, and lighted fire in. (qtd. in Maidment 45).
The polarization of the sexes apparent in this passage of Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies brings about the notion of each gender occupying a separate sphere: the domestic sphere (private, home life) and the public sphere (the outside world, politics, economics, etc.). This idea is prominent in Peter Pan. Firstly, the Wendy Hut is built apart from the hideout when Peter suggests that they “build a little house round her” since she has been shot out of the sky and cannot be moved (Barrie 78). Barrie further describes the hut’s separation from the hideout when they turn in for the night: “By and by she tucked them up in the great bed in the home under the trees, but she herself slept that night in the little house, and Peter kept watch outside with drawn sword, for the pirates could be heard carousing far away and the wolves were on the prowl” (Barrie 82). The Lost Boys return to their own dwelling, while Wendy remains within hers. Even Peter stays outside of the hut even though he does not return to the hideout under the ground. In this way, this passage illustrates that the ideology of separate spheres common in 19th century discourse is prevalent in this novel.
Despite the fact that the spheres were seen as separate, men could still enter into the domestic sphere at will. In fact, “men operated at will in both spheres; that was their privilege” (Tosh 71). As the head of the family, men owned the home they lived in and had the right to access the realm that women occupied. In Victorian illustrations of domestic scenes, the man is sometimes portrayed as threatening figure. In a wood engraved illustration to “Women’s Trials In Humble Life – The Story of Peggy Dickson,” the man is shown entering the home, while his wife, holding a baby, has an expression of surprise at his entrance. He appears to be “a disruptive intrusion into this scene, as he seems to lurk voyeuristically on what is presumably his own doorstep” (Maidment 45). F. D. Bedford’s illustration of Peter flying into the nursery in London exhibits a similar intrusive and voyeuristic quality. He is depicted as pushing his way in through the window onto a peaceful scene in which Wendy, John, and Michael sleep soundly.
Spaces within Victorian homes were highly segregated and gendered. The nursery was a space designated for the raising of children as well as for “keep[ing] children out of adult space…yet it was not inhabited by only children, as Nanny would have spent most of her day there too, taking meals with young children, dressing and schooling them” (Donald 107). Not only were homes segregated based on age, but there were also designated male and female spaces: “The ‘male’ areas included the library or study and the dining-room after dinner. There was no exclusively ‘female’ terrain ‘upstairs’, with the exception of a dressing-room in larger houses, but the bedroom and drawing-room were the areas in which the women of the house could move most freely” (Donald 107). The children in Peter Pan occupy the nursery (before their flight to Neverland), and their dog Nana, who serves as their nanny, stays in there as well. Yet we do not see any other rooms that comprise the Darlings’s home; instead we are given only a glimpse of the nursery and Neverland, two places in which children reign, essentially. In childhood, both genders are treated somewhat equally in that they occupy the same place and tend to have similar, irrational temperaments. Even Mr. Darling is likened to a child as “he was quite a simple man; indeed he might have passed for a boy again if he had been able to take his baldness off” (Barrie 148). Because of this focus on childhood and the inherent similarities of the characters of both sexes, this novel would seem to advocate equality of the sexes. This begs the question, did Barrie intend to challenge the idea of separate spheres and the polarization of genders that was common in the discourse of his time period?
Barrie, J. M. Peter Pan. New York: Barnes & Noble, 2005. Nook file.
Donald, Moira. “Tranquil havens? Critiquing the idea of home as the middle-class sanctuary.” Domestic Space: Reading the nineteenth-century interior. Ed. Inga
Bryden and Janet Floyd. Manchester: Manchester University, 1999. 103-120. Print.
Maidment, Brian. “Domestic Ideology and its Industrial Enemies: The Title Page of The Family Economist 1848-1850.” Gender Roles and Sexuality in Victorian
Literature. Ed. Christopher Parker. Gower House: Scolar, 1995. 25-56. Print.
Tosh, John. Manliness and Masculinities in Nineteenth-Century Britain: Essays on gender, family, and empire. Harlow: Pearson, 2005. Print.