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Nostalgia For The State Of Childhood English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1969 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The state of childhood in the Western world is generally thought of by adults as a carefree, innocent time of life. This for the majority of people is correct, however, this is not always the case. Children and adults from different cultures have ambivalent feelings towards their own childhoods. For Western society the character of Peter Pan embodies the nostalgic view of childhood. I will show how the text of Peter Pan depicts childhood and how much or little it provides for a nostalgic view of childhood.

During the first act in the nursery the Darling children are playing at grown ups. Wendy and John are re-enacting their parents' parts, Wendy is Mrs Darling and John Mr Darling. The children are aware through the actions of their parents and their pretend play that to have children involves a financial sacrifice:

John: We don't want any more.

Michael: (contracting) Am I not to be born at all?

John: Two is enough. (Act 1.1 Lines 110-113)

Barrie makes the remark 'The Darlings could not afford to have a nurse, they could not afford indeed to have children;'(Act 1.1, Line 51) Their nursemaid is a Newfoundland dog called Nana. Having a dog for a nurse is another financial sacrifice that the family had to make in regards having children. The Darling children must have been aware that having a dog for a nurse was out of the ordinary. This therefore would be an indication that the children were aware to some degree of the financial hardships that families/adults have to endure. Aside from the financial hardship depicted in the play the children are depicted as generally unaware of trouble in their own real world. The only time that the Darling children encounter trouble is when they are having adventures in Neverland. In their own real world they are protected from trouble by their parents. In Neverland Peter and Wendy are the replacement parents and it is only when their 'pretend' relationship is severed that the children encounter trouble. The Darling children and the Lost Boys are captured by the pirates as they leave Neverland for their 'real' world. The dissolution of the relationship between their pretend mother and father has led to their capture. Wendy and the boys' actions parallel those of leaving the Nursery for Neverland. Having left the protection of their parents for Neverland, Wendy and the boys now leave Peter's protection for their home. Both situations result in the children leaving one secure patriarchal situation only to find themselves encountering another. This would suggest that women/children needed to be protected by either a husband or a father to be able to live safely. Wendy and the other children have learnt through their pretend play that they need the protection of a dominant male figure. In the real world this is their father Mr Darling, in Neverland it is Peter.

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Peter Pan allows the boys to escape from this confining power of a patriarchal society, however it provides Wendy with nothing more than the opportunity to explore and act out the expected gendered role that someday will confine her. Having arrived in Neverland Wendy establishes her own home and family with herself as the mother and wife. This is not because she wants to carry out the job and chores of a mother, but because she wishes to feel value and importance which her own society denies her as a little girl. Wendy's desire to feel worth is what ultimately drives her into the decision to choose to leave her home for Neverland. Peter's attempt to persuade her to leave centre on how valued she would be:

Peter: Wendy, how we should all respect you. (Act 1.1, Line 504)

Wendy leaves home for the chance to carry out boring domestic tasks so that she can be valued by men. Once in Neverland she achieves the domestic value she has hoped for, but only because she has Peter's help and authority assisting her fantasy. Wendy has from birth been educated that her role in life must be that of a wife and mother. She has no fear of growing up and fulfilling the role that society expects. Peter on the other hand has from birth rebelled against expected roles. When he first meets Wendy he explains his existence in Neverland:

Peter: I ran away the day I was born.

Wendy: Ran away, why?

Peter: Because I heard father and mother talking of what I was to be when I became a man. I want always to be a little boy and to have fun; (Act 1.1, Lines 395-399)

Peter leaves behind the society that expects him to grow up and become a man. He is able to leave and go to Neverland and live free of the obligations that society has assigned to his gender. However, with Wendy he takes on the role of father of the Lost boys. However, despite his new role and responsibilities he is still able to continue having adventures fighting pirates and Indians. The same reason that John and Michael leave the security of the Nursery and fly to Neverland. The text implies that these adventures are only accessible to boys, and not men. So therefore Peter can never grow up as he would not be able to continue with his adventures. The island of Neverland is the physical embodiment of children's dreams and fantasies and Peter is the spirit of the island so when he is away it is sluggish, when he returns it is 'in a ferment' (Barrie, p.105)

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The duality of Neverland and the real world is reflected in the vision of childhood portrayed in the play. The structured, protected existence of the Darling children is juxtaposed with the carefree, independent lives of the Lost Boys. The children are ultimately linked together through the character of Peter Pan. The Darling children live in a world of routine, expectancy and rules. The opening of the play sees the ritual of the children's' bedtime. 'The cuckoo clock strikes six, and Nana springs into life.' (Barrie, p.88) The ritual is performed at the same time every evening, turning down of the beds, the lighting of the night lights and the evening bath. The children of the Darling family have familiarity, routine and security. Their childhood is safe, protected and mainly unadventurous. This is in contrast to the lives of the Lost Boys. They have no routine, no expectancies and only rules of engagement. The Lost Boys live independent lives, they have no adults telling them to bathe, or go to bed. Yet they are dependent, just as Neverland is, on Peter Pan. Peter is the leader of the Lost Boys and is respected by them for his bravery and courage. He is portrayed as their protector, a father figure for them. The boys are afraid when Peter is away from Neverland:

Curly: I do wish he would come back.

Tootles: I am always afraid of the pirates when Peter is not here to protect us. (Act 2.1, Lines 74-75)

They hold him in high esteem and try to imitate him in a show of respect. The boys shoot down the 'Wendy bird' because they believe it is what Peter wishes. They do not question his orders, this is in contrast to the Darling children who do question the authority of their parents. Michael questions the fearlessness of his father when Mr Darling declines to take his medicine. Mr Darling reverts to childish tactics to avert taking his medicine. His character is compared with Peter's as the role of protector, however, this demonstration also shows that Mr Darling, just like Peter, has the ability to act out childish behaviour.

Peter is also linked to the Darling children through the special relationship that he has with Wendy. This is displayed remarkably within the 2003 film Peter Pan directed by P.J.Hogan. The adolescent relationship between Peter and Wendy is explored and portrayed with a modern audience in mind. The character of Wendy is allowed to portray the obvious attraction that she feels towards Peter which as Peter Hollindale states 'the original …conceal her obvious attraction to Peter' (Hollindale, p.163) This depiction would not have been conveyed to an audience in 1904 but is very much accepted by a modern audience. Children are seen as maturing earlier and Wendy is seen as moving from a childish girl playing in the nursery to a sexually aware adolescent. (Hollindale, p.163)

The play of Peter Pan both adopts and challenges the sentimental view of childhood. Barrie is able to portray through Peter both eternal youth and sorrow. When Wendy and the boys decide to leave Neverland Peter bars the Nursery window. This is done with a dual purpose in mind. He wants Wendy to believe that her own mother has forgotten about her. In believing that her mother has forgotten about her, just as Peter's did about him, she will return to Neverland with him and continue being a mother to him. However, he watches Wendy's mother who is crying, 'A funny feeling comes over him' (Act 5.2, Line 70) This feeling maybe jealousy or sorrow or a mixture of both. However, this does provide evidence for the sorrow that he feels because he does not have a mother. The carefree, playful existence that Peter has is challenged by this depiction of a boy longing for a mother. Yet when Mrs Darling asks Peter if he wants to be adopted he declines:

Peter: (passionately) I don't want to go to school and learn solemn things. No one is going to catch me, lady, and make me a man. I want always to be a little boy and to have fun. (Act 5.2 Lines 133-135)

The adult world is pitted against the fantasy world of the child. The return from Neverland of the Darling children is a suggestion that they are rejecting the fantasy of never growing up and choosing growing up and their parents. The gap between the lower status of children in an adult society allowed Peter Pan to be used by adults as a creation for appropriate social roles for Victorian children. Adults were not allowed to enter the fantasy land of Neverland and they could not see Peter. The only adults found in Neverland are pirates, who were regarded as invaders in a space reserved for childhood. Consequently this reaffirms the outlook adults have regarding childhood in that children are assumed to be kept in a condition of innocence for as long a time as possible to be protected from growing up.

Peter Pan combines two genres of late 19th century children's literature, the domestic sphere and the adventure novel. It allows boys to escape and live through the adventures of Peter and the Lost Boys, whilst also demonstrating the realm of the domestic sphere which was generally assigned to girls. Peter Pan allows adults to relive their childhood fantasies and also allows children to believe that they can halt the aging process. It allows for a dual perspective, to escape or to accept the inevitable. Peter Pan has scenes that allow for childhood nostalgia, but it also has scenes which imply that childhood is a tense and trying time. The development of the play over time has allowed for different treatments of the text. Peter Pan is a pantomime, a ballet, an opera, an animated film, a play, a television series, numerous films and a novel. As Peter Hollindale comments 'they differ radically between one society and another, and in the same society across time.'(Hollindale, p.161) Peter Pan has an enduring quality that has allowed it to survive and remain popular for over 100 years. It has the ability to capture the spirit of childhood and show it in a physical form. This has allowed it to remain a firm favourite with both adult and child audiences, depicting childhood as both carefree and troubled. The magic of Peter Pan will only end when children and adults stop believing in fairies.

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