“All children, except one, grow up.”
So begins J.M. Barrie’s classic tale, Peter Pan. I have long adored this dark, modern fairytale about the boy who wouldn’t grow up who inhabits the magical, adventurous world of Neverland. But to me, the most compelling character is the girl who does grow up. I’m talking about Wendy Darling.
Despite its whimsical premise, Peter Pan can be haunting and tragic. Even though many things in Neverland are mere make-believe, the children often find themselves in very real danger.
And of course, there is the enduring tragedy of Peter himself, who refuses to give up his boyhood in order to become a man. While this may sound like fun and games—and Peter goes to great lengths to maintain a steady stream of both—in the end, it is a terribly lonely existence.
This is where Wendy comes in. The oldest of the three Darling children, whom Peter whisks away from their London nursery to Neverland, Wendy brings with her to Neverland the thing it most sorely lacks: an experience of family. Of course, she almost doesn’t make it there! Peter’s fairy friend Tinkerbell becomes jealous of Wendy and flies ahead of the children to Neverland. There she convinces the Lost Boys (a band of abandoned boys who follow Peter as their leader) that the incoming Wendy is actually a bird, which they have orders from Peter to shoot down. It is only thanks to a fortunate turn of events that Wendy is not killed by an onslaught of arrows. After Wendy’s near-fatal introduction to the Lost Boys upon her arrival in Neverland, Peter instructs the boys to build a home around Wendy while she recovers, beginning the maternal role that Wendy will occupy throughout the story.
Wendy’s very presence brings out the best in the boys. Over the course of the story, Wendy looks after the children, telling them stories, teaching them lessons, and seeing to it that they are properly cared for. It is, in many ways, a thankless task; the boys can be forgetful and are often distracted by the latest danger. But to have a mother—or at the very least, someone very like a mother—is the thing they need most of all. All of the Lost Boys, and indeed Peter himself, are only in Neverland because their parents (most notably, their mothers) forgot about them.
Even the Lost Boys’ greatest enemies, Captain Hook and his crew of nefarious pirates, long for a mother. Towards the conclusion of the story, the pirates take the children captive and threaten to execute them unless they join the Jolly Roger’s crew. Wendy encourages the boys to remain steadfast. The pirates ask Wendy whether she will likewise serve as their mother; she refuses.
Of course, Wendy is not really a mother, not yet, at least. Despite her maturity and precociousness, she remains still a child herself. As she realizes that her own brothers and even she herself have begun to forget their own mother, Wendy becomes anxious to return home to England. And, one daring battle later, the children do just that.
If you have ever seen the animated Disney version of Peter Pan, the sketch of the story thus far should sound familiar. But one important detail that is not included in this adaptation is how the story ends. While in the Disney movie the Darlings have not even realized that their children are missing, in Barrie’s telling, Mrs. Darling has been waiting faithfully at the window for her children for weeks. She welcomes the children with open arms; even more than that, the Darlings agree to adopt all of the Lost Boys as well.
Wendy attempts to convince Peter to stay with them. Of course, to do so would mean that Peter would have to grow up, an idea that utterly terrifies him. When Peter refuses to stay in England with her, Wendy considers returning to Neverland with Peter, but Mrs. Darling refuses. “But he does so need a mother,” Wendy pleads. “So do you, my love,” Mrs. Darling responds.
So Wendy stays at home with her family, while Peter promises to come visit her every year for spring cleaning. But children are not so mindful of their promises as adults. Soon, Peter’s visits become less frequent and more sporadic. Time passes. And, unlike Peter, Wendy grows up.
At the conclusion of the novel, Wendy gets married and has a daughter of her own, Jane. She tells her daughter all about Peter Pan and their marvelous adventures, as well as the secret to magical flight. For flight is only possible on one condition: “It is only the gay and innocent and heartless who can fly.”
Meanwhile, in his never-ending youth, Peter has failed to mind the time. He comes, years too late, to take Wendy with him to Neverland for spring cleaning. When Wendy appears, fully grown, Peter is horrified and reduced to tears. This wakes Wendy’s daughter, Jane, who has heard all about Peter Pan and is delighted to meet him. He immediately adopts Jane as a new mother and asks if he might bring her with him to Neverland.
“He does so need a mother,” Jane said.
“Yes, I know,” Wendy admitted rather forlornly, “no one knows it so well as I.”
While there is definitely something sad about the passage of time and the loss of innocence that comes with growing up, there is something so beautiful and fitting about Wendy’s acceptance of adulthood and, even more notably, motherhood. Yes, there is a fantastical part of the universe that is now closed off, forever inaccessible to the adult. But contrast this loss with Peter’s heartlessness. His refusal to grow up is to refuse to accept the love of a family, the love that prepares Wendy to have a family of her own.
What I love about Wendy is that growing up is her choice. I admire her decision to embrace the future and all it may hold, even with the bittersweet consequences of letting go of Peter and the joys of childhood. The decision to grow up goes hand-in-hand with her decision to embrace family—as a sister, as a daughter, and eventually, as a real mother. To accept and enter into family life comes at a cost, but without family, even an unconventional one like the Darlings and the Lost Boys, we are incomplete.
All of this came to mind recently after seeing a new adaption of J.M. Barrie's story: Peter Pan and Wendy, written by Lauren Gunderson. In Gunderson's telling, Wendy is an aspiring scientist who wants to study the stars and win the Nobel Prize like Marie Curie. Given this dream, she resists her mother’s expectations that she too will someday marry and have children of her own.
It is refreshing to see an adaptation that builds out Wendy’s character and gives her additional interest. Her know-how introduces a clever new element to the story. For example, when she sews Peter’s shadow back on (a matter of magic in the original), she inventively uses a lamp to create a shadow of the needle, so shadow can sew shadow.
However, this new interpretation of Wendy comes at a cost. Gunderson’s Wendy outright resents the implication that she could be a mother. At one point, Gunderson’s play alludes to one of the details of the original story, where Peter and Wendy pretend to be mother and father of the Lost Boys. In Gunderson’s retelling, Wendy emphatically refuses to play along and instead insists upon serving as their governor.
Changes like this one can be well-intentioned, and of course it’s important to remind girls that they can aspire to all kinds of things in life. However, changing the original plot where Peter brings Wendy to Neverland to be a mother to the Lost Boys misses something about why Wendy makes her choice. The experience of family and of home is essential for every child, boy or girl. And there is something special (dare I say, even magical) about the role of a mother. Wendy, like her own mother, brings not just domesticity but love to those who so desperately need it. To be regarded as a mother by the Lost Boys and the pirates of Neverland is far from an insult; it is a compliment of the highest order.