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Searching for Mother in Peter Pan’s Neverland

Wendy is the real hero of this tale, willing to sacrifice herself for others, in true maternal fashion.

'Peter Pan and Wendy' by JM Barrie (1860-1937) (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

Neverland has everything imaginative children could desire: fairies, pirates, mermaids, Indians, epic battles, Lost Boys, and Peter Pan himself. Everything, that is, except a mother to tell stories, tuck the Lost Boys into bed, cook, and sew. This absence of a mother-figure is painfully noted by all, even the pirates. Neverland’s inhabitants want mothers, though they are quite unfamiliar with what that is. They do know, however, that a mother is valuable.

J.M. Barrie’s 1911 novel Peter and Wendy, is based on his earlier plays featuring Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up. Peter runs away from home as a baby, when he hears his parents discussing what he might become as a grown man. Revulsed by the very idea, he goes to live with the fairies in Kensington Garden and makes sure that he never grows up. He forever remains a boy, with all of his baby teeth intact. Peter embodies to an extreme all of the marked traits of children. He is only able to comprehend his own actions and desires in the moment. The here and now for Peter, though, palpably lacks something he knows should be there: a mother.

Drawn by Mrs. Darling’s stories (he secretly listens at the nursery window), Peter visits frequently, becoming bolder over time, until his presence in the nursery among the sleeping children is discovered by Nana, the canine nanny. When Nana tries to catch Peter by closing the window on him, Peter’s shadow is caught. He awaits an opportunity to find his shadow and re-attach it. When that opportunity arrives, Peter flies in, grabs the shadow from the dresser, and unsuccessfully tries to re-attach the shadow with soap. His frustrated tears awaken Wendy, who asks, “Boy, why are you crying?” Though he denies it vehemently, she believes him to be upset that he doesn’t have a mother. Peter growls at her. “Not only had he no mother, but he had not the slightest desire to have one. He thought them very overrated persons. Wendy, however, felt at once that she was in the presence of a tragedy.” 

Thus begins a friendship founded upon Peter’s need for mother-like care and Wendy’s compassionate desire to be a little mother to the motherless.

Peter convinces Wendy to fly with him to Neverland, where she can tuck in at night Peter and the Lost Boys. “‘And you could darn our clothes, and make pockets for us. None of us has any pockets.’ How could she resist. ‘Of course, it’s awfully fascinating!’ she cried.’’ With that, Wendy agrees to be a mother in Neverland, and brings her brothers along for the adventure. Surviving an attempt on her life by the jealous Tinker Bell, Wendy sets up a home in the little house the Lost Boys build for her, telling her that they need a “nice motherly person.” “‘Oh dear!’ Wendy said, ‘you see, I feel that is exactly what I am.’” She is soon busy cooking, darning socks, telling stories, and tucking boys into bed. The imaginative world of Neverland now offers a complete catalog of childhood fantasies: playing house and family takes its place with the pirates, fairies, mermaids, and Indians.

The pirates, Peter’s sworn enemies, sense that “the children” and Wendy are a vulnerability they can exploit. Their first plan, before Wendy arrives, centers on the Lost Boys’ ignorance. The pirates, who have scant knowledge of mothers themselves, plan to lure the Lost Boys out of their underground lair with a “large rich cake of a jolly thickness with green sugar on it.” Captain Hook explains to his men, “We will leave the cake on the shore of the Mermaids’ Lagoon. These boys are always swimming about there, playing with the mermaids. They will find the cake and will gobble it up, because, having no mother, they don’t know how dangerous ’tis to eat rich damp cake.” This thought made Hook cackle with glee. “‘Aha, they will die.’” 

Before the pirates could enact their cake plan, however, word comes of Wendy’s arrival. “‘The game’s up,’ he cried, ‘those boys have found a mother.’ O evil day!” cried Starkey. ‘What’s a mother?” asked the ignorant Smee.”  Hook describes a mother by pointing out a Never bird, using its nest full of eggs as a float around the lagoon. He explains with a catch in his voice, “See . . . that is a mother. What a lesson! The nest must have fallen into the water, but would the mother desert her eggs? No.” Impressed with the essence of motherhood, Smee hits upon “a princely scheme.” “‘Could we not kidnap these boys’ mother and make her our mother?’” Hook agrees, envisioning that he will make the boys walk the plank and then “Wendy shall be our mother.”

Wendy, like Tinker Bell and the Indian maiden Tiger Lily, have romantic designs on the boy who never grew up. Wendy asks at one point, “‘Peter, . . . what are your exact feelings for me?’ ‘That of a devoted son, Wendy.’” Peter muses that Tiger Lily also wants to be something to him that isn’t a mother. His confusion in wanting a mother coupled with his insistence on never growing up pushes Wendy to realize that he can only see her as a mother. 

This prompts some new thoughts during her bedtime story session, in which she tells her own story, about a mother’s love and “the feelings of the unhappy parents with all of their children flown away.” Peter hates this story, but listens anyway. Wendy’s autobiographical tale features her own mother leaving open the window for her children to fly back into the house and ends with a happy reunion. Peter declares Wendy to be “wrong about mothers,” recounting his own story of finding the window barred upon his return after a long absence, “for my mother had forgotten all about me, and there was another little boy sleeping in my bed.” This tale frightens Wendy’s brothers, who then beg to go home. The Darling children have lost track of time and of their own identities. They must return home immediately. The Lost Boys, having now experienced a mother’s love and care, try all manner of threats and pleas to keep Wendy from leaving.

As they exit the underground lair, the children and Wendy are captured by the pirates. Hook proceeds with the “princely scheme” to force the children to walk the plank and then make Wendy the pirate mother. Offering words of farewell to the boys, she declares: “These are my last words, dear boys . . . . I feel that I have a message to you from your real mothers, and it is this: ‘We hope our sons will die like English gentlemen.’” These final words impress even the pirates, who declare they also will do what their mothers hope. Smee tries to bargain with Wendy. He will save her if she will promise to be his mother. “‘I would almost rather have no children at all,’ she said disdainfully.”

Peter’s arrival in the guise of a crocodile provides an opportunity for an all-out battle and escape. Triumphant, Wendy and the children make plans to return home, where the Darlings have spent every night sleeping in the nursery with the window wide open, anxiously awaiting the return of their children. While Mrs. Darling sleeps, her children creep into their beds so as to surprise her in the morning. “The children waited for her cry of joy, but it did not come. She saw them, but she did not believe they were there.” The children have to run to her and make her understand they are real. She has imagined this scene so often that she believes herself to be dreaming. “There could not have been a lovelier sight; but there was none to see it except a little boy who was staring in the window.” Peter has fought his innermost suspicion, that mothers matter. He now watches the closest thing to a mother he has ever known reunite with her own mother. In doing so, Wendy rejects the life of never growing up that Peter offers. She very much wants to become a wife and mother.

Mrs. Darling makes a deal with Peter: the Darlings will adopt Peter as well as the Lost Boys. Adoption means that Peter would go to school and then to an office, and become a man with a beard. Rejecting this, he attempts to convince Wendy to return with him to Neverland. She is torn, believing that Peter “does so need a mother,” to which Mrs. Darling replies, “So do you, my love.” The three reach an agreement: Peter may take Wendy every year for Spring cleaning. Peter’s lack of memory and poor sense of passing time, however, keep him from returning annually. “When they met again, Wendy was married woman, and Peter was no more to her than a little dust in the box in which she had kept her toys. Wendy was grown up.” Wendy is now not just a mother-like girl, but a real mother with a daughter, Jane. Peter’s visit after an absence of many years catches them both off guard. He is shocked that Wendy has grown up and has a daughter of her own. Peter explains to Jane that he has come back for his mother “to take her to the Neverland.” Jane takes up the role that her own mother once played. “‘He does so need a mother,’ Jane said. ‘Yes, I know,’ Wendy admitted rather forlornly; ‘no one know it so well as I.’” When Jane inevitably grows up, her daughter Margaret makes the annual Spring cleaning trips to Neverland, as will her daughter after her.

On the surface, J. M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy showcases the fantasies and adventures of childhood. Underneath all of the adventure, however, is a wistful and sentimental tale of mothers as grown-up girls, who readily foster the adventures of their own progeny, leaving the windows open for their children to return from their flights of adventure. These children know that mothers are valuable, and are so much more than the story-teller, pocket-sewer, cook that Peter Pan desires for his Lost Boys. Wendy, not Peter, is the hero of this tale, willing to sacrifice herself for others, in true motherly fashion. She realizes that she hurt her parents by flying off to Neverland without even a note. The escapade to Neverland must end. Real people must grow up, otherwise there is no one to take care of and no one to love anyone else. Mrs. Darling’s refusal to leave the nursery or to close the window mirrors the Never bird’s refusal to leave the eggs in her nest. As Captain Hook said, brushing away a tear with his hook, “See, that is a mother.”

Dedra McDonald Birzer is mother to seven children (six living), ages 8 to 21. She is a lecturer in history and rhetoric at Hillsdale College.

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