Masaryk University Faculty of Arts Department of English and American Studies


J. M. Barrie: A Boy Trapped in a Man’s Body



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J. M. Barrie: A Boy Trapped in a Man’s Body


In many ways, J. M. Barrie was forever straddling lines―betwixt and between in real life and as narrator in his fictions.

Maria Tatar, “Introduction to J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan


Before beginning with the analysis of the character of Peter Pan, it is worth considering his author. As one studies the life and the personality of J. M. Barrie, it comes as no surprise that it was him that produced a character that can be regarded as a trickster figure in the context of the British culture because he is himself endowed with some of the typical trickster traits.

As noted earlier, one of the typical trickster features is the ability and the urge to imitate others, often resulting in the lack of the trickster’s own identity. Barrie developed this skill after the death of his brother David, their mother’s favourite. He wanted to alleviate his mother’s suffering by impersonating her favourite child: “Barrie describes how he developed an ‘intense desire ... to become so like [David] that even my mother should not see the difference,’ and he practiced in secret until he had the boy’s whistle and stance (legs apart and hands in the pockets of his knickerbockers) down pat” (Tatar, “J. M. Barrie” lxxii-lxxiii). But he did not stop after his mother’s recovery. Imitating and impersonating others had become his habit which came to be manifested in his writing: “Barrie himself recognized that his own voice rarely came through, for he had a habit of impersonating others: ‘Writing as a doctor, a sandwich-board man, a member of the Parliament, a mother, and explorer, a child ... a professional beauty, a dog, a cat. He did not know his reason for this, but I can see that it was to escape identifying himself with any views ...’” (lxxvi). Indeed, in his work, Barrie seems to be unsure about his identity, or rather, is unwilling to accept just one identity. That is why he is often changing perspectives, which can be demonstrated on his use of pronouns: “In his newspaper articles, as in his fiction, he moves seamlessly from ‘I’ to ‘he’ or from ‘we’ to ‘you,’ never allowing himself to be pinned down to one identity or point of view” (lxxvi). By not restricting himself to one view in his writing, he can enjoy the freedom of being whoever he wants to be, just like the trickster.

Most importantly, however, Barrie was a betwixt and between himself. With his work, he managed to “level distinctions between adult and child, as well as to dismantle the opposition between creator and consumer [ … ]. At long last, here was a cultural story that would bridge the still vast literary divide between adults and children”12 (Tatar, “Introduction” xlvi). The reason why he was successful in breaking down this barrier may lie in the fact that, psychologically, he was a still a boy, which made him an excellent candidate for the role of a mediator between the child and the adult: “Barrie’s addiction to youth―his infatuation with its games and pleasures―enabled him to write something that, for the first time, truly was for children even as it appealed to adult sensibilities” (xliii, original emphasis). In this respect, Barrie performed some of the typical trickster functions, disrupting boundaries, subverting hierarchies and opening up new possibilities:

Barrie turned a category that was once “impossible” (for [Jacqueline] Rose there is nothing but adult agency in children’s literature) into a genre that opened up possibilities, suggesting that adults and children could together inhabit a zone where all experience the pleasures of a story, even if in different ways. Old-fashioned yet also postmodern before his time, Barrie overturned hierarchies boldly and playfully, enabling adults and children to share the reading experience in ways that few writers before him had made possible. (xliii)

In fact, writing the story of Peter Pan had a therapeutic effect on Barrie, who, just like his iconic character, psychologically remained a boy even after he had grown up: “Barrie bemoaned the fact that ‘he was still a boy, he was ever a boy, trying sometimes, as now, to be a man.... He was so fond of being a boy that he could not grow up.’” (Tatar, “J. M. Barrie” lxxxvii). One of his notebook entries clarifies the relevance of Peter Pan to his own life: “It is as if long after writing ‘P. Pan’ its true meaning came to me―Desperate attempt to grow up but can’t” (Barrie, The Annotated 12, note 1). Unlike Peter Pan, however, Barrie could not avoid physically growing up and so became a boy trapped in a man’s body. As compensation, he enjoyed the joys of childhood vicariously through his writing and through his friendship with the Five.

In Peter and Wendy, Barrie uses the same strategy as in his previous work, i.e. refusing to identify himself clearly with one view. Indeed, the narrator’s identity is not clear because he sometimes uses a child’s perspective and at other times adopts an adult’s view: He is “forever flirting with readers without revealing an identity of his own. Shifting rapidly and with ease from the register of an adult narrator to that of a child, he seems sometimes to be a grown-up [ … ] and sometimes a child” (Tatar, “Introduction” xlvii). While using “sophisticated adult diction,” the narrator is also “playful, capricious, and partisan in ways that third-person narrators rarely are” (xlvii). Especially the words “playful” and “capricious,” coupled with the narrator’s overall paradoxical nature, evoke the trickster spirit that permeates the whole work. In fact, the narrator is able to combine both of the perspectives in one sentence: “Off we skip like the most heartless things in the world, which is what children are, but so attractive; and we have an entirely selfish time, and then when we have need of special attention we nobly return for it, confident that we shall be embraced instead of smacked” (Barrie, The Annotated 126). As Tatar points out in her notes, the narrator skilfully combines the child’s perspective with that of the adult, identifying himself with the children as the use of the pronoun “we” indicates, but at the same time producing adult judgments about the children, describing them as “heartless,” “attractive,” and “selfish” (126, note 2). Even when Barrie writes about himself in his introduction to Peter Pan, he keeps switching from “I” to “he” and vice versa, using the third person when writing about his younger self.

Moreover, there is one more barrier that Barrie manages to break down in his story, and that is the division between people and animals. By putting a dog, Nana, in the role of the nurse and later making Mr. Darling live in her kennel, Barrie managed to confuse the division between the world of people and that of animals (Barrie, The Annotated 16, note 12).

In one of the quotes noted earlier in the thesis, the trickster is called “a postmodernist gone riot.” The trickster indeed shares many of his features and some of his functions with postmodernism. Accordingly, the trickster-like narrator of Peter and Wendy offers not only multiple perspectives (or rather, is switching between the two mentioned already), but also multiple outcomes, which is a strategy typical for postmodernism. To put it more precisely, the narrator cannot decide which story to tell; he is not sure how to proceed with the narrative: “The extraordinary upshot of this adventure was―but we have not decided yet that this is the adventure we are to narrate” (Barrie, The Annotated 93). Thereupon, the narrator offers summaries of several adventures, voicing the flow of his thoughts and trying to decide which one to narrate in more detail. What is more, at times, the narrator seems to be genuinely confused about the story, supporting the impression that “the characters have a life of their own, with motives that are not always transparent to him” (171, note 17). This is particularly evident in his following statement: “Now I understand what had hitherto puzzled me, why when Peter had exterminated the pirates he did not return to the island and leave Tink to escort the children to the mainland. This trick had been in his head all the time” (171-172). This, indeed, conveys the impression that the narrator has no control over the characters. In her notes, Tartar draws attention to the postmodern nature of this strategy: “The narrator produces a fictional space in which multiple outcomes are possible and in which everything remains provisional and contingent. Like Peter, the narrator is unpredictable, mercurial, and resistant to being fixed” (93, note 12). Again, the words “contingent,” “unpredictable,” “mercurial” and “resistant to being fixed,” denoting some of the most typical trickster characteristics, strongly indicate the trickster nature of the narrator’s voice.

Interestingly enough, in his introduction to the play, Barrie confuses the notion of the authorship by saying: “I have no recollection of writing the play of Peter Pan” (“To the Five” 216). In this way, he supports (even if indirectly and may be unintentionally) the mythological character of the work. The story indeed resembles a myth in some respects. Not only does it revolve around a trickster figure, it also has a quasi-explanatory function, providing an imaginative explanation of (among other things) the way children come into this world: “[A]ll children in our part of London were once birds in the Kensington Gardens; and [ ... ] the reason there are bars on nursery windows and a tall fender by the fire is because very little people sometimes forget that they have no longer wings, and try to fly away through the window or up the chimney” (Barrie, The Little 16-17). The birds that are to become little children are born on a special island in the Kensington Gardens, from which they are then sent to their prospective mothers. No people have access to this unique island, except for Peter Pan because of his liminal status: “No one who is human, except Peter Pan (and he is only half human), can land on the island, but you may write what you want (boy or girl, dark or fair) on a piece of paper, and then twist it into the shape of a boat and slip it into the shape of a boat and slip it into the water, and it reaches Peter Pan's island after dark” (106). Through the whole introduction to Peter Pan, Barrie continues doubting his authorship of the story: “Notwithstanding other possibilities, I think I wrote Peter” (“To the Five” 218). His uncertainty is emphasised by the phrase “I think.” In fact, he even tries to come up with some evidence of his authorship: “This journey through the house may not convince any one that I wrote Peter, but it does suggest me as a likely person” (219). All this uncertainty of Barrie’s about having written the work seems to suggest that Peter Pan is a product of his unconscious and supports the dreamy and mythical nature of the story.

The story indeed seems to have a life of its own, or at least that is how Barrie perceives it: “The conventional story [ … ] is far less stable than most of us realize. [ … ] For Barrie, Peter Pan existed in performance, and the various typescripts reveal exactly how much he loved to see the character come alive onstage and transform and renew himself with each new production” (Tatar, “A Message” xviii). The permanency and lifelessness of the written word is probably one of the reasons why Barrie did not want to “fix his iconic character in print” (xviii). However, through the capricious and mercurial narrator, he managed to bring life into the written story, with all its contingency and unpredictability.

Even the method that Barrie used for constructing the story brings the trickster into mind:

Barrie borrowed much from his literary forebears, creating a story that is not so much original as syncretic, uniting disparate, often contradictory bits and pieces from his own experience and from the foundational stories of Western culture [ … ]. It was Barrie’s genius to use that same skill, what the anthropologists call bricolage, making resourceful use of materials close at hand to construct a new myth. (Tatar, “Introduction” xlviii)

Indeed, by his ingenious use of material that was available for creating something new, Barrie came close to the bricoleur aspect of the trickster.

The reason the author and narrator are analysed here along with the character of Peter Pan is to ensure that the trickster will not be taken out of context. According to Gerald Vizenor, it is not possible to successfully isolate the trickster from his background, which he is an inherent part of. To decontextualise the trickster in this way would mean to seriously distort his nature: “The trickster is a sign, a communal signification that cannot be separated or understood in isolation” (189). Vizenor describes the trickster as “a comic holotrope, and a sign in a language game; a communal sign shared between listeners, readers and four points of view in third person narratives” (187, original emphasis). The four points of view include the “author, narrator, characters and audience,” which are “the signifiers and comic holotropes in trickster narratives” (188). The author and the narrator have already been analysed, and so one of the following chapter will be dealing with the audience – specifically, with Victorian England and its perception of the child. But, before that, Peter Pan’s mythological origins must be explored. Without them, the context would not be complete.





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