Children's Literature Review

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Title: The Neverland of Id: Barrie, Peter Pan, and Freud

Author(s): Michael Egan

Publication Details: Children's Literature 10 (1982): p37-55.

Source: Children's Literature Review. Ed. Tom Burns. Vol. 124. Detroit: Gale, 2007. From Literature Resource Center.

Document Type: Critical essay

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning

Full Text: 

[(essay date 1982) In the following essay, Egan provides a psychoanalytical interpretation of Barrie's Peter Pan, utilizing Sigmund Freud's theories of id, ego, and superego.]

The serious study of children's literature may be said to have begun with Freud, who found in folk and fairy tales evidence supporting his theory of the unconscious. More recently Bruno Bettelheim, taking his cue from The Interpretation of Dreams and other texts, has argued persuasively that the enduring appeal of many of the ancient classics of children's literature derives from their ability to resolve satisfactorily the symbolized confusions in their audiences' psyche.1 The great tales, he says, depict sibling rivalry, as in Cinderella and Goldilocks; they touch on incestuous love-feelings between children, as in Brother and Sister; they deal with separation anxieties, for instance in Hansel and Gretel; many of them, such as Snow White and Rapunzel, explore the sexual rivalry between mothers and daughters or, as in Jack and the Beanstalk, between fathers and sons; and still others dramatize, in rich, symbolic images, the theme of adolescent sexual awakening. The most striking examples of this latter type are Sleeping Beauty, The Frog Prince, and, although Bettelheim does not discuss it, Beauty and the Beast.

The reading of Peter Pan undertaken here accepts the broad outlines of Bettelheim's Freudian approach. I shall argue, first, that in his story Barrie unconsciously created a vast, symbolic metaphor--the Neverland--of the child's id; and that, secondly, he populated it with figures of an almost archetypal resonance. For example, the confrontation between Peter and his rival, Captain Hook, is, as we shall see, sharply Oedipal both in its nature and its resolution. Finally, I shall suggest that a Freudian analysis not only is the key to the fundamental meaning of Barrie's greatest work but is also indispensable in understanding its enormous popular success. Like the classics of the genre, Peter Pan successfully works through some of the important psychic tensions struggling for resolution in the child's developing mind, and this is the basis of its captivating charm.

Andrew Birkin's J. M. Barrie and the Lost Boys is a recent study which has updated and brought together in a masterly way the biographical and literary evidence bearing on the genesis of Peter Pan.2 What Birkin suggests is that in his work Barrie dramatized, to an unusual degree, the most distressing conflicts at war in his unconscious mind. Further, it appears that Barrie himself was only partially aware of the profound nexus between his inner psychic tensions and his art, and even then only towards the end of his creative life. Not until 1922, for example, when he was in his sixties, was he able to record in his literary notebooks following a particularly upsetting personal dream: "It is as if long after writing 'P. Pan' its true meaning came to me--Desperate attempt to grow up but can't."3

Birkin's conclusions, while by far the best-supported in terms of evidence and scholarship, are nevertheless--as he would be the first to agree--neither original nor unique. Cynthia Asquith, among others, made a similar point in her Portrait of Barrie (1955):

Besides, I know that, whatever his views about reticence, once Barrie took a pen into his hand something unpremeditated nearly always ran out of it. His subconscious was more than a collaborator. It could, too often did, take control. He might make a myriad notes before he began to write, but he never quite knew what would emerge.4

Asquith's observations are more than merely anecdotal; they are borne out in every way by Barrie's own revelations about his mode of composition. In 1928, for instance, he wrote a prefatory dedication to the playscript of Peter Pan, some twenty-four years after the first production. In it he remarked how "suspicious" it was that, despite his customary ability to "haul back to mind the writing of every other essay of mine, however forgotten by the pretty public," he had no recollection of having composed his most famous work.5 There seems to have been nothing tongue-in-cheek about this remark. It suggests either that he repressed what was in his thoughts at the time of composition, or that he wrote Peter Pan directly from his preconscious. As we shall see, a close reading supports both possibilities.

It is also relevant to recall that Barrie often spoke of himself as a divided personality, identifying what he called his "writing half" with an uncontrollable, "unruly" self. His sense of psychic fracture seems to have run deep. In December 1915, for instance, he had a nightmare which he subsequently drew on for a play, The Fight for Mr. Lapraik, the story of a schizophrenic. According to Cynthia Asquith the dream recurred--a significant emphasis. It was of "some vaguely apprehended interloper who was, and yet somehow was not, himself," attempting to thrust him from his bed. In Barrie's own words the struggle came to this terrifying climax:

At last I rushed from darkness to my mother's room (she has been dead many years) & cried to her abt my degenerate self--thing I have evolved into was trying to push me out of bed and take my place. Till that moment of telling I had no idea what the thing was.6

The unpublished play Barrie based on this experience described the struggle between two personalities, one good and one evil, for the possession of an ordinary man. Asquith later spoke of the "unforgettably eerie" experience of listening to Barrie read scenes from it, so persuasively was he able to enter into both roles. "I can't describe the disquieting tricks he played with face and voice," she wrote, "now how visibly and audibly he split himself into the two Mr. Lapraiks."7

We may note additionally that in 1920, when Barrie was working on Mary Rose, a play about a dead mother who returns as a ghost to search for her son, he developed what appears to have been a psychologically determined cramp in his right hand and was forced for the rest of his life to continue writing with his left. (Barrie was naturally left-handed but had been compelled as a child to learn to use his right.) Again the schizoid note is struck: his left side, he said, directly recalling the odd disclaimer published in the Preface to Peter Pan, "doesn't even know the names of my works." It seemed, he continued, to have "a darker and more sinister outlook on life," and was at that time "trying to egg me on" to make a woman knife her son. He warned his friends that "anything curious or uncomfortable" in his plays of this period should be attributed to the fact that they were "the products of my left hand."8 Later, again in that curiously revealing Preface, he noted his own preoccupation with islands as settings for his dramas and observed that over the years they had grown significantly "more sinister." The reason, he said, was that he had now begun to write "with the left hand, the right having given out; evidently one thinks more darkly down the left arm" (Play, p. xv). He might have added, "and more clearly, too," for his notoriously illegible scrawl had suddenly become sharper and more readable.

The evidence then supports the view that as a writer Barrie had unusual access to his own unconscious. An analysis of Peter Pan will bear this out. For in both versions of the story--play and novel--he appears to have successfully developed a complex set of metaphors and images which, as we shall see, agrees remarkably with Freud's tripartite theory of the human personality (id, ego, superego). And since Barrie cannot have been familiar with psychoanalytic thinking, given the exigencies of place and time, we must conclude that he achieved all this by scooping unwittingly, as it were, into the bubbling turmoil of his own half-formulated wishes and ambitions.


Peter Pan is evidently a childish dream, a psychodrama of the unconscious. We are plunged at the outset without warning into the surreal universe of a child's uncertain psyche as Nana, a St. Bernard, is shown turning down the beds, tidying the nursery, and preparing Michael's bath. Yet these opening sequences, together with the story's almost equally Beckett-like conclusion (a man lives and works in a dog kennel) are nevertheless the most daylit of the play. What transpires on the island is the real dream, the fulfillment of a range of childish wishes, including Oedipal sex, lust, flight, murder, and the capacity to transcend both Death and Time. The primitive nature of these gratifications and their resolution are among the reasons Peter Pan is a children's book.

The movement of the story, then, is from the recognizably everyday world of a middle-class household in Victorian London to the unconscious universe of the Neverland, and then back again to the waking reality of the closing scenes. By the time we and the Darling children return safely to the nursery, all the conflicting psychic tensions presented on the island have been pleasantly resolved--at least for now. Like Freud, however, Barrie emphasizes that each new generation of children must undertake the pilgrimage afresh, an essential condition for maturity. He looks ahead four generations and comments: "and thus it will go on, as long as children are gay and innocent and heartless."9

The bathetic climax of this verbal sequence--it is also the conclusion of the novel--sends us back in search of Barrie's meaning. What he seems to have in mind is something close to Freud's notion of the selfishly amoral child, a human whose superego is still in formation and thus whose conscience is still relatively weak. To be heartless, he says, is to be "entirely selfish." It is to be what children are, "the most heartless things in the world," creatures who abuse love and who take emotional security for granted. On the other hand--it is the paradox of the child--this heartless selfishness is the essential quality (after fairy dust) making flight to the Neverland possible. Adults may be more considerate, but they can neither fly nor venture into the child's unconscious. In other words, the world of Peter Pan is open to us only so long as we are free from the constraints of conscience (Novel, pp. 138, 213).

Near the beginning of the novel there is a nodal passage (given in the play as an extended stage direction) in which Barrie both clarifies and dramatizes his notion of the fully developed superego. Naturally, he does not call it this, nor does he deploy the metaphors of censorship or guardianship we find in psychoanalytic theory. Instead he allows the concept to gather around a sentimentalized vision of the role and function of the mother, principally in the character of Mrs. Darling but also in certain important secondary images to which she is explicitly related. Of course, as we would anticipate if our wider hypothesis about the story is correct, Mrs. Darling and all her subsidiaries have to be evaded or weakened before the dream itself may commence.

Barrie begins by observing that it is the custom of Mrs. Darling and every good mother to "rummage" in her children's minds "after they are asleep." The process, whose purpose is to "put things straight" for the next day, is "quite like tidying up drawers." This is an analogy perfectly consistent with Freud's theory of repression. What the mother does as her children sleep is "repack into their proper places" those thoughts that have either "wandered" or, even more disturbing, have inexplicably found their way in from the outside. Thus Mrs. Darling one night finds Peter lurking in her children's minds.

Barrie goes on to remark that as the busy mother continues her mental cleaning she makes other "discoveries." These may be of matters either "sweet" or "not so sweet." The nicer thoughts she fondles, like a kitten; the others she "hurriedly ... stows out of sight," wondering nervously "where on earth" her children can have "picked up" these things. Barrie then concludes, addressing his reader directly:

When you wake up in the morning, the naughtiness and evil passions with which you went to bed have been folded up and placed at the bottom of your mind; and on the top, beautifully aired, are spread out your prettier thoughts, ready for you to put on.[Novel, p. 18]

The parallels with Freud's depiction of the censoring purpose and activity of the superego are striking. Note too the accuracy of Barrie's intuition that the repressing mechanism is capable only of concealing from the child its "naughtiness and evil passions"; they cannot be thrown out. Instead these unsettling impulses are merely hidden at the bottom of the mind, ready to surface again as soon as mother's back is turned.

Barrie later supplements his image of the maternal superego with two associated figures. The first is the nursemaid, Nana, a character whose nurturing role establishes her both sociologically and psychologically as a surrogate for the mother. The second is the group of nightlights, earlier identified by Mrs. Darling precisely as an extension of herself--"the eyes a mother leaves behind her to guard her children" (Novel, p. 36). All three--Mrs. Darling, Nana, and the nightlights--are united in a tight, protective alliance which the unconscious must contrive to overcome before Peter, as Barrie neatly puts it, can "break through." Again, the language is strikingly Freudian.

The disabling of the superego is achieved elegantly and persuasively. Mrs. Darling goes out for the evening. Nana is literally chained up. And as for the nightlights: "Wendy's blinked and gave such a yawn that the other two yawned also, and before they could close their mouths all three went out" (Novel, p. 37). We gather that some mysterious agency wants them off guard before it can appear.

The charm of Barrie's manner conceals the profundity of his insight. Later, however, he is able to draw on the subtle implications of his images. He observes that "you"--an ambiguous, portmanteau category that could include himself, the reader, and the children of Arthur and Sylvia Llewelyn Davies to whom the play was dedicated--are relieved at bedtime to have Nana's reassurance that the Neverland is "all make-believe." But then he adds: "Of course the Neverland had been make-believe in those days" (i.e., when the child was awake), "but it was real now, and there were no nightlights, and it was getting darker every moment, and where was Nana?" (Novel, p. 61).

But Barrie was an artist, not a scientist. His images of the superego and its interaction with the id, therefore, lack descriptive precision. What he communicates marvelously instead is the felt experience of resistance--the pressure exerted by the superego. Just before the children, led by Peter, make their final descent into the seething maelstrom of the unconscious, he suddenly includes a passage so extraordinarily perceptive and yet so plainly intuitive in scope that he himself seems not fully to have grasped its meaning.

The passage in effect describes a final flourish of resistance by the superego, a sort of last-ditch stand before the real dream on the Neverland can commence. Swooping low over "the fearsome island," the children notice that Peter's eyes have begun to sparkle and that his body tingles to the touch. Abruptly Barrie says:

Nothing horrid was visible in the air, yet their progress had become slow and labored, exactly as if they were pushing their way through hostile forces. Sometimes they hung in the air until Peter had beaten it with his fists."They don't want us to land," he explained."Who are they?" Wendy whispered, shuddering.But he could not or would not say.[Novel, pp. 61-62]

This sequence can be read as mere device--a kind of mysterious rumbling of the literary drums to heighten tension and suspense. But I think it also shows how profoundly Barrie understood the fact, if not the theory, of resistance. His implicit point, like Freud's, is that although we may all journey to our idiosyncratic Neverlands at night, the "hostile forces" of the superego make it a thoroughly difficult undertaking. This is why we can usually only "break through" when asleep or when, as in the case of a parapraxis, the superego is momentarily off guard. Incidentally, resistance is also the reason most of us forget our dreams--quite like the way the Darling children and the lost boys soon forget all about the Neverland and Peter after returning to the mainland and reality.

In these remarkable passages and elsewhere Barrie makes explicit his interest in detailing the topography of what he calls the "map of a child's mind." At its core, of course, he locates the Neverland, a poetic version of the Freudian id. It is, Barrie suggests, the child's mind during sleep--a formulation very close to Freud's. In it are to be found, in a significant series of related images, religion, fathers, murder, hangings, a hook-nosed old lady, caves with subterranean rivers, savages, and lonely lairs (Novel, p. 19). The sequence, "fathers, murder, hangings," reverbates with particular meaning in a post-Freudian era, as may perhaps the hook-nosed old lady and the caves with underground streams. Later Barrie talks of "unexpected patches" in the Neverland that rise and spread threateningly at bedtime. "Black shadows" move about within it and the frightening roar of predatory beasts (familiar Freudian dream-symbols of sexuality) may be heard (Novel, p. 61).

Barrie's Neverland, however, is more than merely dark suggestive hints. In fact he endows it with an ambiguous status quite like Freud's conception of the unconscious, settling on it not only archetypal representatives of physical terror--beasts, savages, murderous pirates--but also fantasies of gratified sexuality.

The chief of these is the marriage between Peter and Wendy, itself replete with Oedipal significance. Although there has been no formal ceremony beyond the exchange of kisses and thimbles in the nursery, their marriage--that is, their symbolic sexual union--is treated as a fact shortly after Wendy's arrival on the island. She repeatedly refers to herself as a wife and mother, as does the narrator, and in the chapter called "The Home under the Ground" behaves exactly as a stereotypical Victorian wife. Peter reciprocates. She calls him "Father" and he responds by referring to her as his "old lady." They both cast the lost boys, together with John and Michael, in the role of their children.

The patriarchal family is recreated down to its most subtle details, including, at one point, even a sly hint of growing sexual rivalry between Peter and John, the eldest "son." Perpetually cleaning, cooking, and darning, Wendy exclaims happily: "Oh, dear, I'm sure spinsters are to be envied" (Novel, p. 102). Later, in the chapter pointedly entitled "The Happy Home," she is directly referred to as a housewife and we see that the children have begun to call her "Mummy." "Father knows best," she is inclined to say loyally when the boys complain to her of Peter.

Beyond this, Peter Pan confronts heterosexuality primarily in the figure of Tinker Bell, although there is a noticeable prurience in the way Barrie deals with Tiger Lily and the mermaids. Tink, however, is openly a sexy creature, modest and brazen by turns. She tends to wear seductive negligées in her curtained-off boudoir, and is "slightly inclined towards embonpoint" (Novel, p. 37). (Given the sexual connotations of France in the Victorian mind, it may be significant that these French euphemisms are used almost exclusively in relation to her. The single exception, which we will notice later, tends to support the point.)

When we first encounter her, Tinker Bell is "exquisitely gowned in a skeleton leaf, cut low and square, through which her figure could be seen to the best advantage" (Novel, p. 37). Peter describes her as "an abandoned little creature," and she retorts that she glories in her abandonment (Novel, p. 133). She is subject to raging sexual jealousies and, pushed by Wendy into the uncomfortable role of "other woman" in Peter's life, contrives to have her rival murdered. Like the other "heroic" characters in the story, she can fly (well known in Freudian dream analysis as a symbol of sexual intercourse) and, as a common "street fairy," may have participated in the drunken orgies which occasionally take place in the Neverland. Drunken orgies? Certainly. We gather this from Barrie's suggestive remark that, as Peter sleeps on guard one night, "some unsteady fairies had to climb over him on their way home from an orgy" (Novel, p. 95).

It may be objected, of course, with some justice, that these are rather ponderous reactions to what could have been intended merely as light-hearted satire. But in fact I think something more interesting and complex is involved. Barrie appears to be making use of one of the important but unrecognized conventions of writing for children: the Double Address. On the one hand the author speaks directly to his principal audience, his voice and manner serious and gentle, even conspiratorial. From time to time, however, he glances sidelong at the adults listening in and winks. Naturally, his jokes and references on these occasions are not meant to be understood by the children. And thus he is permitted a privileged discourse, unique to the genre, in which he is able simultaneously to quarry his own unconscious while denying, with a smile, that he is doing so. Most of the humor in Peter Pan is of this type.

Barrie completes his portrayal of the Neverland by claiming three more things about it. The first is that each individual possesses his own private island--Wendy's is concerned with this, John's with that, and so forth. This is an insight quite acceptable to the Freudian. At the same time, however, each Neverland participates collectively in the symbolism of its culture, or, as Barrie puts it, "the Neverlands have a family resemblance" (Novel, p. 19). By implication, then, and Barrie goes along with this, waking reality is imaged as "the mainland" (Novel, pp. 102, 105, 107).

These details are important, not only because they indicate the purely literary nature of Barrie's intuitions but also because of their sharply autobiographical character. As we have already seen, he was aware that his creative imagination was drawn compulsively to the idea of an island. To this we need only add that he once acknowledged in a public talk, possibly revealing more than he intended, "I should feel as if I had left off my clothing, if I were to write without an island."10 In order to create, it seems, he needed to put on the disguises of his unconscious. Without them he felt literally, perhaps even sexually, exposed.

Barrie's Neverland then is an unpredictably predictable universe to which each dreaming child can fly. It is a place where the inhabitants--Wendy and Tinker Bell, specifically--can die and yet survive death; where aging and growth can be transcended; where children may marry, and kill bloodthirsty pirates; where there are wild beasts of prey, and savages dangerous and worshipful by turns, and where half-perceived hints of adult sexuality and licentiousness abound. It is, in other words, an authentic vision of the Freudian id.11

At the center of the Neverland stands Captain Hook, at once Peter's greatest foe and the enemy of all small children. When he first bestrode the London stage, according to Daphne du Maurier, children were carried screaming from the stalls. In the story itself, both John and Michael weep in terror when his name is first pronounced because, says Barrie, "they knew Hook's reputation" (Novel, p. 63).

Yet this instant knowledge is a curious thing. After all, Hook is a fictional personality with no existence outside Barrie's imagination--unlike, for example, the Knave of Hearts in Alice. Certainly he has a literary ancestor in "Captain Swarthy," a "black man" and a pirate Barrie invented for the Davies children; but the reference is too esoteric to account satisfactorily for the universal recognition Barrie claims for Hook and with which he was received. When his name comes up in Peter Pan there has been nothing, including Peter's tone and manner, to justify the terror the boys display.

What is even more puzzling about their behavior is that, as we subsequently learn, "Hook was not his real name" (Novel, p. 167). Who is he, then? Barrie is as evasive about this as he was about the hostile forces of the superego. One possible explanation is that he is the author himself, for Barrie admits in his Preface that Captain Swarthy "is held by those who know to be autobiographical" (Play, p. xxiii). Unfortunately, however, this explanation obscures more than it reveals, for more than six years earlier, as we noted at the outset, he had already identified himself with Peter Pan ("Desperate attempt to grow up but can't"). In fact the apparent contradiction points to its own solution. As we shall see, he was both Pan and Hook, an unconscious condensation.

Barrie himself never understood this. In Peter Pan and elsewhere he is as genuinely ignorant of his villain's true identity as are his readers. Hook is simply "a dark and solitary enigma," an "unfathomable" man, the revelation of whose identity would "set the country in a blaze" (Novel, pp. 148, 166, 167).

Hook is also immensely powerful. During the final battle with the boys we are told that "this man alone seemed to be a match for them all" (Novel, p. 185). He is a cold-hearted killer whose menacing hook, as his man Skylights discovers, deals instant death. As the tale progresses his dark shadow looms ever larger until Peter, muttering "Hook or me this time," is forced at last into the final confrontation.

At the same time he is an oddly attractive individual, more an anti-hero than a fiend. "Thou not wholly unheroic figure," as Barrie apostrophizes, he is "not wholly evil" (Novel, pp. 190, 156). Disarmingly handsome, he loves flowers, music, and good clothes. He is also something of a gentleman and of course--one of those winks at the adults--an old Etonian. Finally, he possesses an outstanding brain and a code of honor which he calls "good form." His death is grotesque and almost pathetically triumphant.

The reader will have anticipated my view that Hook represents the Oedipal Father. Daphne du Maurier, who watched her own father play the role many times, describes his impact in terms which ineluctably evoke the Freudian idea:

He was a tragic and ghastly creation who knew no peace, and whose soul was in torment; a dark shadow; a sinister dream; a bogey of fear who lives perpetually in the grey recesses of every small boy's mind. All boys had their Hooks, as Barrie knew; he was the phantom who came by night and stole his way into their murky dreams.12

If Hook is the Oedipal Father, however, then within the structure of the story Peter Pan himself must be his Son. In great part the tale's popularity derives from its dramatization, in symbolic terms, of the Oedipal Son's victory over the Father. When Peter defeats Hook, every son in the audience crows with glee.

If this reading seems a little forced, let us recall that once the children descend into the unconscious Peter and Wendy undergo what is in effect a marriage. They set up house; they have children; Peter goes out to work and Wendy darns socks. At the same time, however, their roles oscillate ambiguously. Wendy is now a mother, now a wife; Peter simultaneously her husband, son, and, as he insists on being called, "The Great White Father" (Barrie's original title for the play). The Oedipal nature of their relationship emerges unmistakably in the following exchange:

"Ah, old lady," Peter said aside to Wendy, warming himself by the fire and looking down at her as she sat turning a heel, "there is nothing more pleasant of an evening for you and me when the day's toil is over than to rest by the fire with the little ones near by.""It is sweet, Peter, isn't it?" Wendy said, frightfully gratified. "Peter, I think Curly has your nose.""Michael takes after you.""Dear Peter," she said, "with such a large family, of course, I have now passed my best, but you don't want to change me, do you?""No, Wendy."Certainly he did not want a change, but he looked at her uncomfortably; blinking, you know, like one not sure whether he was awake or asleep."Peter, what is it?""I was just thinking," he said, a little scared, "It is only make-believe, isn't it, that I'm their father?""Oh, yes," Wendy said primly."You see," he continued apologetically, "it would make me seem so old to be their real father.""But they are ours, Peter, yours and mine.""But not really, Wendy?" he asked anxiously."Not if you don't wish it," she replied; and she distinctly heard his sigh of relief. "Peter," she asked, trying to speak firmly, "what are your exact feelings for me?""Those of a devoted son, Wendy."[Novel, pp. 132-33]

Sophocles excepted, it would be hard to find a more articulate literary presentation of the confusions and gratifications inherent in the Oedipal situation. It is notable too that at the crux of this exchange Peter is unsure whether he is dreaming or not--in other words, from the Freudian point of view the scene constitutes an almost classic wish-fulfillment. At its conclusion Peter is simultaneously Wendy's son, husband, and father to her children.

Yet this satisfactory arrangement is broken up, and by none other than Hook himself. He does so, furthermore, not only because he is the incarnation of evil but because he is, directly, Peter's sexual rival. He wants Wendy for himself.

Hook is indeed a highly sexual figure. First, he is overwhelmingly seductive. Wendy in particular displays a curious ambivalence towards him, as indeed she should, given the nature of this dream. Certainly she hates him, but at the same time she is not immune to his charm. After he has kidnapped her brothers and the lost boys, she nevertheless politely takes Hook's arm and allows him to escort her away from the "happy home." Barrie says that this was just a "slip" on her part because she is "fascinated" and "entranced" by his gentlemanly manner; he is "so frightfully distingué." But of course there are no slips, and in the context of the tale the meaning of this episode is clear. (Other than in the passages describing Tinker Bell, this is the only occasion in the story when French is used. Once again it appears in a scene charged with sexual significance.)

In more oblique but perfectly recognizable ways Hook's figure is replete with graphic phallic symbolism. The most vivid is the mighty iron hook for which he is metonymically named--a dangerous weapon which occasionally twitches or hangs idle of its own volition. He also wears a florid hat--according to The Interpretation of Dreams frequently a symbol of masculinity. And finally, in an amusing symbolic emphasis, he is shown smoking simultaneously not one but two cigars, in a strange double holder of his own design. These detailed images, as we see, turn out to be important in the story's climax.

My point that Hook is (unconsciously) the Great Black Father in the tale may be clinched by recalling that in the stage version, following a tradition that goes right back to the original production under Barrie's own direction in 1904, the part of Hook is always played by the actor cast as Mr. Darling. He is thus literally Wendy's father in elaborate disguise. When she takes his arm, therefore, and Peter rushes hotly in pursuit vowing vengeance, the archetypal Freudian triad (Oedipal Father-Mother-Oedipal Son) is complete.

But Peter Pan is not Hook's only enemy. His other indefatigable foe is Time itself, emblematically presented in the relentlessly pursuing crocodile. On the Neverland, where "it is quite impossible to say how time does wear on" (Novel, p. 102), the crocodile is chronology personified. "It must have been not less than ten o'clock by the crocodile," the narrator observes at one point; and, more explicitly elsewhere. "The way you got the time on the island was to find the crocodile and then stay near him until the clock struck" (Novel, pp. 159, 129).

Peter's final victory and the emblematic crocodile are linked in many ways. First, of course, Hook ultimately perishes in its jaws. Additionally, it has been imprinted on him by Peter's act--an important detail, for it shows among other things that the boy has already symbolically castrated the male parent. Peter's final victory is thus implicitly assured. This is indicated by the fact that at the moment of his amputation Hook's time starts to run out: the crocodile begins to tick. It will not cease, as we are told on more than one occasion, until the very hour of his death.

And then, in a stroke of real narrative genius, Barrie brings these elements dramatically together. His point seems to be that time itself is on the child's side. Just before the climax of the action--the final confrontation between the father and his son--two things happen simultaneously. First, the crocodile's clock stops running, and we know then that Hook is doomed. Second, Peter himself begins to imitate the sound--unconsciously, but so perfectly that when he climbs aboard the Jolly Roger the crew believe the crocodile itself has come at last. "It was Fate," Barrie has them thinking (Novel, p. 176). In these final startling moments Barrie allows all the deadly temporal meanings associated with the crocodile to gather around his hero.

Peter thus becomes both Time and Fate. He is also, in a closely related thought, Youth. Throughout the story Barrie has suggested that what Hook finds most irritating in Peter is his boyishness, his "cockiness." Now, in the final battle, Hook realizes that his opponent is something more than "Peter Pan the avenger," as he melodramatically calls himself.

Hitherto [Hook] had thought some fiend was fighting him, but darker suspicions assailed him now."Pan, who art thou?" he cried huskily."I'm youth, I'm joy," Peter answered at a venture. "I'm a little bird that has broken out of the egg."[Novel, p. 188]

I take this awkward exchange, which the text immediately dismisses as "of course ... nonsense," to be an indication of Barrie's dim perception that his protagonists stood for issues larger than themselves. Within a page Hook is dead, slain by his own symbolic progeny.

My general argument can be affirmed, I think, by an examination of the way in which Barrie follows up the defeat of Captain Hook. In Freud's analysis of the Oedipal dream, it is necessary that the youthful victor seal his triumph by replacing the father he has overthrown. Thus Oedipus becomes King of Thebes and marries his own mother. In Peter Pan Barrie offers us another version of this process, simultaneously completing the transformation of his hero (begun when he assumed the crocodile's emblematic status) and discovering a striking denouement for his drama. After bursting from the egg at the moment of his father's death, Peter undergoes a final and decisive transformation. He becomes Captain Hook.

It is doubtful if Barrie fully understood what he was doing. Although he prepares us for this event, showing Peter passing by slow increments into Hook, he also writes, perhaps speaking at the same time for himself, that Peter "did not know in the least who or what he was" (Novel, p. 188). At one point he even admits his own confusion.

The crucial moment occurs in the rescue of Tiger Lily, something Peter accomplishes by imitating Hook's voice so brilliantly that even the pirates are deceived. Superficially the incident is meant to illustrate Peter's limitless resourcefulness and to display his capacity for mimicry. More profoundly, however, the scene touches on the nerve of his identity. Barrie seems to have sensed this, but only vaguely, for in the play he suddenly includes a parenthetical comment--it can hardly be called a stage direction--which is, I believe, an authentic glimpse into his own unconscious mind. For Peter "can imitate the Captain's voice so perfectly," Barrie admits, "that even the author has a dizzy feeling that at times he was really Hook" (Play, p. 80).

Later there is another revealing stage direction, suggesting but oddly not requiring a wordless tableau of overwhelming psychological importance. Barrie's language also merits some attention, for it is like a voyeuristic peep at something he both does and does not want to see. The climax of Act V, Scene I is Hook's quasi-suicidal leap into the crocodile's waiting jaws. The curtain falls immediately. Then Barrie adds:

The curtain rises to show Peter a very Napoleon on his ship. It must not rise again lest we see him on the poop in Hook's hat and cigars, and with a small iron claw.[Play, p. 143]

End of scene. When the curtain does in fact rise again we are back in the Darlings' nursery. The dream is evidently over.

In the novel, however, Barrie explores this idea in more detail. Chapter 16, "The Return Home," reveals that all the boys have become pirates and Peter, "it need not be said," is their captain. So he has literally replaced Hook as master of the Jolly Roger. Like Hook, he treats his crew "as dogs," and they obey him with the same fear and trembling. There is even the appalling suggestion, albeit offered with another of those asides to the adults, that the lash itself is used. "Slightly," he writes, "got a dozen for looking perplexed when told to take soundings" (Novel, p. 192). Finally, having taken on Hook's role and manner, Peter assumes his full identity. He forces Wendy against her will to make a new suit for him "out of some of Hook's wickedest garments" and then drapes himself in the Captain's phallic symbolism:

It was afterwards whispered among them that on the first night he wore this suit he sat long in the cabin with Hook's cigar-holder in his mouth and one hand clenched, all but the forefinger, which he bent and held threateningly aloft like a hook.[Novel, pp. 192-93]

The wheel has come full circle. Having destroyed the Oedipal father the triumphant son becomes the Oedipal father. He takes his place completely.

These points look back to the whole question, which we touched on earlier, of whether Barrie was his hero or his villain. They suggest that, like the schizoid Mr. Lapraik, he was both.


1. Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment (New York: Knopf, 1976), pp. 5, 155.

2. Andrew Birkin, J. M. Barrie and the Lost Boys (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1979).

3. Ibid, p. 297.

4. Cynthia Asquith, Portrait of Barrie (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1955), pp. 220-21.

5. J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Would Not Grow Up (London: Holder and Stoughton, 1928), pp. viii-ix. Hereafter cited as "Play," parenthetically within the text.

6. Birkin, p. 253.

7. Asquith, p. 26.

8. Ibid, pp. 45, 66.

9. J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan (Puffin Books, 1978), p. 230. Hereafter cited as "Novel," parenthetically within the text.

10. Harry M. Geduld, Sir James Barrie (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1971), p. 29.

11. A psychoanalyst has pointed out to me that what I term the "id" is an inclusive definition of the Freudian unconscious, or "mixtures of id and ego that are unacceptable in waking life, censored by conscious ego values and superego attitudes."

12. Birkin, p. 110.

Source Citation   (MLA 7th Edition)

Egan, Michael. "The Neverland of Id: Barrie, Peter Pan, and Freud." Children's Literature 10 (1982): 37-55. Rpt. in Children's Literature Review. Ed. Tom Burns. Vol. 124. Detroit: Gale, 2007. Literature Resource Center. Web. 3 Nov. 2013.

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