Why is a children’s book ranked fourth in my favorite books list? It’s simple really: Peter Pan isn’t a children’s book, much as Gulliver’s Travels isn’t for children. Unfortunately, when most people hear the title of J. M. Barrie’s book, they think of the Disney animated rendition, or worse the movie, Hook.
I fell into this camp until a little over seven years ago, content to keep my knowledge of Peter Pan purely theoretical. Then I started talking to, flirting with, and dating this young woman whom I later persuaded to marry me. Abigail was planning to do her master’s thesis on Peter Pan (though I think choosing to write a thesis on something indicates both that you love it and don’t want to love it anymore). Of course, I did the one thing any intelligent suitor would have done; I located a copy of Peter Pan and started reading.
I was caught off guard. From the beginning, I was enchanted. Barrie’s descriptions and his characterization are fascinating. The opening chapter, with its introduction of the Darlings and Nana, held my attention, and they were small players in the grand scheme of the story. Each new character was equally intriguing.
What’s more, Peter Pan is compelling and deeply nostalgic. I don’t think children, who have such a limited perspective of life, can appreciate the complex themes that the story addresses. Two of the themes—gender roles and duty/responsibility—cannot be experientially understood by kids. To the initiated, though, these themes are deep waters, easy to fall into but difficult to fully comprehend. Just consider the two main characters: Peter Pan is the boy who is constantly escaping adulthood while Wendy, as a young girl, is brought to Neverland to fulfill an adult role, that of mother to the lost boys.
Rather sadly, Peter Pan doesn’t really pose any answers; it just highlights the inevitable: We all grow up. There is no escaping it, only accepting the inescapable. I challenge any adult to read Peter Pan and not be overcome by melancholy.
I also have this theory that, while Wendy is symbolic of everywoman (I think most readers would agree with that), Captain Hook is everyman: I think the jadedness and disillusionment that Hook embodies is something grown, independent yet relied on men can identify with. Our youthful optimism and energy seems doomed in the drudgery of ordinary daily life. It’s hard not to feel cheated of or by the hopes and dreams that our childhood selves cherished. This is why Hook fears the crocodile, who represent time, and also hates Peter Pan, who somehow escapes responsibility.
In the end, it’s hard to find a more subtle yet emotional read than Peter Pan, which is why it ranks so high on my list. Of course, now that I’m thinking about it, I should read my wife’s thesis.