As most of us are acquainted with the animation picture adaptation in 1953 by Walt Disney of Barrie’s fairy tale play “Peter Pan”  , we can perceive from our childhood memories that Never Land corresponds to an exotic, almost utopian-like location where children can behave uninhibitedly and enjoy the treasures of the island. Moreover, in Never Land only, they acquire the art of flying ; all it takes is some pixie dust and happy thoughts, remember? However, Barrie displays Never Land as a much gloomier, dangerous and primitive environment where Darwinian principles rule as in ‘the struggle for existence’ and ‘survival of the fittest’. Furthermore one can acknowledge that the play also reflects on and even attacks a couple of Rousseauian values, as in ‘the noble savage’ that focuses on the beauty of a primitive human condition. Attached to these values Barrie also displays, though underscores Rousseau’s theory on childhood innocence by exposing the children’s savage behavior. During this analysis it will become evident that both Darwin and Rousseau’s theories are in fact linked and share a common ground which is centered around the notion of the ‘primitive human condition’. Ultimately, this analysis will be reflecting on and evaluating the issue of barbaric behavior in the play from a relativist and realistic perspective.
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The publication of Charles Darwin’s most revolutionary theories in his Origins of Species published in 1859 was hailed, as Low et al (445) put it, as “the greatest event of Queen Victoria’s reign.” Some of the most significant, influential and crucial ideas that gave rise to the evolutionist theory, or so-called Darwinism, are ‘survival of the fittest’ and ‘the struggle for existence’ by natural selection. The latter is defined by Gause (1) as followed:
“Darwin considered the struggle for existence in a wide sense, including the competition of organisms for a possession of common places in nature, as well as their destruction of one another.”
Likewise, Hudson (316) argues that “[i]n this Darwinian world, [the inhabitants of Never Land] compete for survival in primitive battles.” On the island, Peter Pan and the Lost boys are constrained to share their territory with Hook and his pirate gang, vicious ‘Redskins’  , treacherous mermaids, and bloodthirsty animals so conflict is never far off. In Act 3 Pan and the Lost Boys face the pirates in a major battle when Pan commands, “Boys, lam into the pirates”( PP 118). In the following chapter, Barrie also depicts Peter as a truly barbaric creature with “a sword in his hand, the same he slew Barbicue [sic] (a pirate) with; and in his eye is the lust for battle”(PP 144). Furthermore in Act 4, one encounters a second battle, although this time between two different ‘species’, to be precise, the ‘Redskins’ and the pirates. During the fight, the author invokes the ferocity of the battle even more by implementing terms which reinforce the image of warfare, such as “carnage”, “attack”, “scalp”, “foe”, “tomahawked “and “onslaught” (PP144-145). Ultimately, as Jack suggest: “Peter Pan is, throughout, a tale of battles” (159).
Consequently, throughout the play the reader acknowledges the constant threat under which the Lost boys find themselves, mainly caused by the pirates. One of the Lost boys, Tootles, affirms this constant menace when he communicates, “I am always afraid of the pirates when Peter is not here to protect us” (Peter Pan, or the boy who would not grow up 81; from here onwards PP). Subsequently, Tootles’ anxiousness is justified since Hook proclaims: “I want to mischief all the seven. Scatter and look for them” (PP 86). Later on he even exclaims, “[a] holocaust of children, there’s something grand in the idea” (PP 164). Next to the threat of the pirates, the boys also need to be aware that they are not pulled into the water and drowned while playing at Mermaids Lagoon.
Warburton (14) then, cites that “Darwin showed how, by the process of survival of the fittest, those animals and plants best suited to their environment lived to pass on their characters to their offspring.” A major example of this Darwinian concept can be highlighted in Act Three when Peter is injured and thereby not capable of flying. After a battle with Hook he is abandoned on a rock to drown as soon as tide will come. Hence, Peter is determined by the ruthless force of nature. Fortunately there is a bird’s nest on the rock he is stuck on and after having had a conversation with the ‘mother-bird’, he is allowed to sail away in the nest. If it had not been for his wit and his ability of talking with birds, Peter had not been able to survive. The strongest survives, whereas the eggs are less fortunate.
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In “Peter Pan”, Barrie also alludes on Rousseau’s theories with regard to ‘the Noble savage’. According to Leerssen (68), Rousseau denotes the “innocence, simplicity and moral purity of Noble Savages,” before they were corrupted by modern Western civilization. Nonetheless, one can acknowledge that Barrie has definitely satirized these qualities. According to Cro (140), Rousseau denotes that this ideal of the Noble savage obtained in complete freedom but Barrie has proven differently, to be precise, the children are portrayed as barbaric, cruel and capable of committing murder. In act 2 for instance, the boys attack Wendy with their bows and arrows as she flies into the sky of Never Land. Next, when Peter discovers Wendy with an arrow in her heart, Tootless confesses that it was his and the next moment he is “kneeling and baring his breast”, ready to receive Peter’s dagger (PP 96). An eye for an eye it seems and Wendy only got up just in time to prevent the drama from happening. Subsequently it appears that to Peter, the act of killing is only a banal and minor issue, since he does it almost instinctively, automatically and apparently very often. To be exact, ‘the boy who would not grow up’  , frozen in childhood, kills four pirates in a row without remorse. Even Wendy’s little brother, Michael, kills a pirate, proclaiming that he likes it. Another example of the children’s uncivilized behavior regards one of Peter’s homecomings from hunt as he carries a bag with the heads of two tigers and a pirate. Wendy’s reaction on looking into the bag with the bloody heads is quite stunning as she proclaims that “they are beauties” (PP 132)! It is obvious, as Hudson (320) denotes, that “Barrie explores the primitive impulses, brutality and tyranny of children in Peter Pan.”
Ultimately, I would like to point out that, although the comments I have made do not deny that the issue of barbaric behavior is obvious in the play , I would prefer to put them in perspective. As savage and brutal Peter and the other inhabitants of Never Land are, they are generally accepted for being so, merely because they can be interpreted as creations of a child’s imagination. If you have ever observed children disguised as Indians or pirates while playing a fantasy game, you must have noticed that they appear to be attacking and killing each other. Besides, these barbaric actions are situated exclusively in Never Land, a creation of Barrie’s imagination where everything is allowed. When Peter is visiting the Darling home in Bloomsbury on the other hand, he does not attack or kill Nana, the dog, because in London he must adjust and adapt himself to a civilized world, whereas in Never Land he cuts off heads and hands on a daily basis.
On the whole one can conclude that in Barrie’s play “Peter Pan”, one can investigate a number of different perspectives and attitudes on which Barrie alludes, such as Darwin’s visions on the ‘struggle for existence” and ‘the survival of the fittest’, next to aspects of Rousseau’s philosophy on childhood innocence. Whereas Barrie prefers to incorporate Darwinian beliefs, he definitely seems to parody on and satirize Rousseau’s. Both theorists however allude on the primitive human condition, but differently; Rousseau in a naÃ¯ve and romantic way and Darwin in a more scientifically and rationally supported way. Finally, one should not forget that, although the inhabitants of Never Land seem ultimately cruel and savage, Barrie has incorporated child fantasies which are accepted merely because they are children’s fantasies.
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