Is Peter Pan one of the last examples of the childhood cult that dominated the Victorian era? JM Barrie’s fable devalues adult experience, but it does not idealize childhood. Both in his play ( Peter Pan, or the boy who would not grow up ( Peter Pan; or, The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up ) as in his novel, Peter and Wendy (1911), the childhood of which we do not fate pas becomes a regressive and dangerous fortress, marked by the threat of death and oblivion.
Céline-Albin Faivre warns against the current translation of “the boy who wouldn’t grow up” by “the boy who didn’t want to grow up”. She prefers “the boy who did not grow up”, which preserves the ambiguity of English between wanting and being able .
Lost children, forgotten children
In Neverland, “Land of the Never”, death is written everywhere and not just as a game. It is the supreme adventure, enshrined in Peter’s famous phrase: “it will be a great adventure to die” (“[… ] to die will be an awfully big adventure ”).
The funeral character of Peter Pan, a tribute to the author’s brother who died in childhood, has been widely commented on . Peter may be the ghost of a missing or never-born son, and Neverland would represent dechristianized limbo for “lost” children, that is to say deceased (English to lose carries the same ambiguity as French to lose). The hero’s flight likens him to the psychopompe angel who leads the little dead to Heaven, as Andersen , for example, has described it:
“Each time a good child dies, an angel of God descends on earth, takes the dead child in his arms, opens his wide wings […]”.
In the novel The Little White Bird (1902), where Peter Pan first appeared, mourning was more explicitly suggested: he was a newborn “flown” at the age of seven days, and his mother was crying.
Neverland, as its name suggests, is a place of erasure, of forgetting. It is first because the lost children are forgotten children, who have not been “claimed” by their parents:
“These are the children who fall from their prams when their nanny looks away. If they are not claimed after seven days, they are sent far away to the Land of Never ”(p. 72).
Mothers can erase the memory of their children and even replace them with little brothers. The detachment of the mother, who has “mourned” for the lost son, means a disappearance more radical and more painful than death itself.
On the island, the forgotten children in their turn become forgetful, like Peter, a little tyrant struck by a kind of permanent infantile amnesia. Unlike Captain Hook, who neither omits nor forgives anything, Peter is as if his memory is cut off. He even forgets his companions and the young Darling. Wendy will have to tell him over and over again who she is:
“If you ever see that I’ve forgotten you, just repeat, ‘It’s me, Wendy’ over and over, and it will come back to me” (p. 88).
Amnesia contributes to the character’s insensitivity, who appears incapable of attachment. She leads her “subjects”, Wendy in particular, to doubt their own existence. Above all, and this is the most frightening, the contagion of oblivion is gradually reaching the small inhabitants of the island. Here we find a motif of Robinson Crusoe, the fear of being enslaved by the erasure of cultural memory and language, in other words of humanity. Like Robinson, the Lost Boys are dressed in animal skins, Peter wears a garment of dead leaves. The porosity of species and kingdoms – human, animal and plant – accompanies dehumanization through forgetting.
Wendy and the remembrance job
Neverland therefore subverts the cult of childhood: from a utopian refuge, the island turns into a place of seclusion, the new avatar of Robinson’s prison island. Even childhood becomes there a regressive fortress, of which only Wendy seems to perceive the danger. The savage violence of the games undermines the moral foundations of human society: attachment, conscience, memory and mourning. On the island, the Darling siblings, in turn, are won over by oblivion – the brothers at least, as Wendy senses the threat of the erasure of the memory link with the past, that is, with the world. real and parents:
What disturbed her from time to time was that John had only vague memories of her parents, as of people he had once known, while Michael was inclined to believe that she really was his mother. . These things scared her a little […] and she tried to fix [she tried to fix] their old life in their mind […]. (p. 136)
“To fix” is both fixing and repairing. If Wendy escapes oblivion, it is not only that she is the eldest, but because she is a girl therefore, according to the conventions of the time, skilled in telling and in sewing, two related activities in more than one way. Wendy mends the briefs as she picks up the clothes. This feminine work, although servile, invests her with the power to bring together the members of the family by the repeated incitement of “remember”, both remembrance and regrouping, for forgetting is a barbaric dismemberment. Like Alice who, in the rabbit hole, felt the anguish of unlearning and recited her lessons to herself, Wendy, in the underground house, reconstructs the school, a mnemonic place, a place of civilization, and encourages her brothers to write their memories on improvised slates:
“What was the color of mom’s eyes? Who was bigger, mom or dad? Was mom brunette or blonde? You will answer, if possible, all three questions.
”(A) Write an essay of at least 40 words that tells the story of your last vacation […].
“Or (1) Describe mum’s laughter. (2) Describe daddy’s laughter. (3) Describe mom’s evening dress. (4). Describe the doghouse and its occupant. ” (p. 137)
The exercise, which could be called a duty to remember, offers both a derisory and tragic response to the fear of erasure. When the boys don’t know how to answer, they have to draw a cross: “The number of crosses even John could make was really appalling. »(P. 137) The forgetfulness of children draws a cemetery of adults. Peter knows well, moreover, that it is enough for him to breathe hard (in other words to live more) to make the grown-ups die: “in the Land of Never, a proverb says that every time you breathe, an adult dies” (p. 185-186). Amnesia childhood erases the generations that preceded it.
“It will be a great adventure to die”
But Wendy the seamstress is a small Parque (her middle name is Moira) who can also cut the thread of life: it is she who encourages the lost boys to sacrifice themselves rather than submit to the pirates:
“I feel like I have a message for you from your true mothers, and here it is: ‘We hope that our sons will die like true gentlemen of England .’ “(P. 224)
These patriotic and virile values greatly inspired Baden-Powell who had seen the play several times in 1904. He created the Boy Scouts movement in 1907 for a generation which would become that of the Tommies of the Great War. Barrie will be enlisted by the War Propaganda Bureau and his “to die will be an awfully big adventure” will be in war currencies. However, the phrase will be removed from performances of the play in 1915, after the death of George Llewelyn Davies, the eldest of Barrie’s adopted sons. In 1922 the writer will ask forgiveness for his lies, in the name of his generation (Age), from the decimated youth ( Youth ), for all these children who would not grow up .
Steeped in history, the fable of Peter Pan therefore marks the end of the nostalgic cult of the tender age and announces the enlistment of youth by nations at war. The stake of fiction is perhaps less education than a certain conception of childhood, not only as an age but as a state or an ethos. More subject to oblivion, and therefore to becoming wild, because closer to their native or natural state, the “lost children” make the dangers of a loss which also affects adults sensitive: that of narrative identity. and history, in other words individual and collective memory. The island of forgetful childhood could well be a political and moral allegory of our fragility.
Author Bio: Deborah Lévy-Bertherat is a Lecturer in Comparative Literature, École normale supérieure at PSL Déborah contributed to the collective work under the direction of Sylvie Servoise “Enfances dystopiques”, to be published in 2021 .
All quotes are taken from “Peter Pan” [“Peter and Wendy”], Maxime Rovere [transl.], Paris, Rivages, 2016. The page numbers in parentheses after the quotes refer to this edition. Sometimes the translation has been changed.