James Barrie’s Peter Pan illustrates the nature of the puer aeternus problem in a poignant and interesting way. For Peter not only will not grow up; he cannot – and this means that he can never properly come to life.
Like other personifications of the archetype – Narcissus, Icarus, Eros, for example – Peter possesses qualities which are recognisably human. Like them, however, he represents something essentially impersonal, which we might call burgeoning new life, and which is more primitive, more powerful, and more profound than the human personality.
Eternal Latency: James Barrie
Under the sway of the Eternal Boy, a person can become arrested at various different stages of development: sometimes in adolescence, sometimes earlier, before puberty. In looking at Peter Pan – and at James Barrie, his creator – I want to focus on this earlier time, with the psyche held ‘eternally’ when sexuality is still latent. Barrie clarifies Peter’s developmental stage in telling us that he still has baby teeth. He is also erotically impervious, as Wendy painfully discovers, and is very much an extrovert.
J M Barrie was born in 1860, the youngest of seven children, and died in 1937. He was a tremendously successful author and playwright, made a large amount of money, was created a baronet and was highly esteemed by contemporaries as diverse as Thomas Hardy, George Meredith, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Barrie’s father was a weaver and, though a good enough provider, seems to have been emotionally absent, at least for Barrie. The driving force in the family was his mother, Margaret, who had a big emotional investment in his older brother, David. David was her Golden Boy: bright, athletic, handsome, charming, and preparing to live out his mother’s dream by becoming a Minister. At this stage, Barrie lived disregarded, ‘the runt of the litter’, in the shadow of his mother’s love for David.
The genesis of Peter Pan
Suddenly, shockingly, David died in a skating accident on the eve of his fourteenth birthday. Barrie was six. His mother was inconsolable, and took to her bed for months in a darkened room. Poor Barrie felt this rejection very much, and made attempts to impersonate David in a desperate bid to revive his mother and get some attention. Eventually this succeeded, and after this he was very close to her for the remaining thirty years of her life.
In the course of this intimacy, Margaret shared with him her own girlhood experiences. In particular she told him how, when she was eight, her own mother had died, whereupon she had become, in Barrie’s words, ‘mistress of the house, and mother to her little brother’. We are left with the feeling that in place of having an experience of ‘good-enough mothering’, Barrie made do with the image of Margaret, the child mother, tending another boy long before he was born.
Certainly he never felt that he could get as close to her as David, who was always between them and who, as he said, for the rest of her life ‘was not removed one day further from her. Many a time she fell asleep speaking to him, and even as she slept, her lips moved and she smiled as if he had come back to her.’ He added, ‘When I became a man, he was still a boy of 13.’
We can see Wendy and Peter germinating.
It is as though, in his effort to replace David, Barrie became him, so that his own development was arrested at 13; or perhaps we might say with greater accuracy, it was arrested as a child of six impersonating a boy of 13. Even as a man, he never grew above five foot in height, and he felt inadequate about his manhood. At the height of his success, he noted poignantly: ‘Six foot three inches… If only I had grown to this. I would not have bothered turning out reels of printed matter… Read that with a bitter cry.’
Barrie was married for 15 years, but it ended in divorce, when his wife found sexual and emotional fulfilment with another man. She wrote of him later: ‘JM’s tragedy was that he knew that as a man he was a failure, and that love in its fullest sense could never be felt by him or experienced. One could almost hear him, like Peter Pan, crowing triumphantly, but his heart was sick all the time.’
The Llewelyn Davies boys
Barrie never had a child of his own, but he loved the company of children, and they, in turn, were fascinated by him. He would go to Kensington Gardens with his large dog, Porthos, and make friends with the children playing there with their nursemaids. It was in this way that he met the Llewelyn Davies boys, and then their parents Arthur and Sylvia, becoming deeply involved in their lives, into which he made what one critic has memorably called ‘innocent but harmful trespass’.
First Arthur, and then Sylvia died before any of the boys – now five in number – reached adulthood. At the last, their mother wrote a note, asking that Jenny, the sister of the family nursemaid, should move into the house to help to look after them. Barrie, however, told the world that she had written ‘Jimmy’, his own name, and in due course he became the boys’ guardian, a role which, on some important levels such as practical provision – he discharged well.
The avoidance of death
Peter Pan did not actually appear in print until nearly 25 years after it had been first performed. In his Introduction, Barrie claims not to recall writing the play and, addressing the five Llewelyn Davies boys, says: ‘I always knew that I made Peter by rubbing the five of you violently together, as savages with two sticks produce a flame. That is all he is, the spark I got from you.’ There is a conscious recognition here that Peter’s origins were collective rather than individual – though Barrie’s brother, David, still eternally 13, was surely also involved.
It is striking here how Barrie addresses the five ‘boys’ as though they were all still there to read his words. There is no hint that two of them – his favourites – were already dead. It is almost as though death had not happened – or did not matter. Behind this is an attitude which involves living in a sort of limbo – or Neverland – as though death can be diminished or avoided by never really coming to life. I think that this is a central part of puer pathology.
The Mother in Peter Pan
While Peter Pan was gestating, Barrie played with different ideas for titles, one of which was ‘The Boy Who Hated Mothers’. In the play itself, things are more ambivalent. Idealised and sentimental devotion to the mother wars with violent hostility towards her. This conflict is highlighted early in the play when Wendy, flying to Neverland is mistaken for a bird. Encouraged by Tinker Bell, Tootles (one of the Lost Boys) shoots her down. The murderous feelings about the mother in Peter’s shadow are split off into Tinker Bell and the Lost Boy. And Peter can feel completely self-righteous in condemning Tootles for what has happened.
There is, however, at least as much confusion about the mother as there is animosity. When one of the pirates asks Captain Hook: ‘What is a mother?’ Hook is at a loss, and can only explain by pointing to a great bird floating by, who has not deserted her nest, even after it has fallen into the water.
Wendy is a real child, who becomes a make-believe mother. She does this because the Lost Boys, and particularly Peter, seem to want it so much. She tells them that she is only a little girl with no real experience. But experience has little or no positive value for the Eternal Boy, so they reply that experience does not matter, and that what they need is a ‘nice motherly person’.
Another exemplar of motherhood in the play is Mrs Darling, or perhaps Mrs Darling plus Nana, the dog. She is idealised, undoubtedly, but she does seem to know that children need to grow up, and that they can do so – even though Mr Darling clearly has not – and she is ready to facilitate this. It is not, however, what Peter wants – or rather it is not what Peter can manage. When Mrs Darling offers to adopt him at the end of the play, he tells her: ‘No one is going to catch me lady, and make me a man.’
Under this bravado there is trauma. At Peter’s core there is a profound experience of maternal betrayal and rejection. A relationship which he was omnipotently confident would always be there, and which he simply wanted to postpone taking up for the moment, has suddenly and shockingly been denied to him for ever. Before the action of the play begins, Peter has flown away from home, on an adventure. When he comes back, entering through the window in his home, which he knows that his mother will have left open, he sees her asleep: beautiful, and sad with longing for him. He knows that he can wake her if he wishes, and he imagines her bliss if he should do so. She calls his name in her sleep, but he does not answer, telling himself that he will speak if she calls again. She does not.
He sees that her cheeks are streaked with tears, but instead of waking her, he plays a lullaby on his pipes, regretful only that since she is asleep, she cannot praise the performance. Then he flies away. Barrie comments: ‘You must not think that he meditated flying away and never coming back. He had quite decided to be his mother’s boy, but hesitated about beginning tonight.’
Peter continues his aerial adventures, and puts off returning until he dreams of his mother crying and knows that all she needs is a hug from her splendid Peter to make her smile. This time, though, he finds the window closed and barred. He sees his mother inside, once again asleep, but with her arm around another little boy. He calls out and beats on the bars, but she does not hear, and he flies away, sobbing, never to see her again.
This is very poignant. It is also tinged with sado-masochism: Peter’s enjoyment of his mother’s suffering, and his decision to prolong it, express unconscious, uncomplicated sadism; his turning away, the spurned victim, the polar opposite.
A person in the grip of the Eternal Boy lives a provisional life, in which it is always, ‘Not yet’. One of Barrie’s firmest convictions was that there are no second chances in life, and we have in this harrowing story of Peter and his mother, a demonstration of ‘Not yet’ transforming into ‘Never!’. I think that this is central to the tragedy. ‘Not yet’, if it goes on long enough, becomes the same as ‘Never’. What happened to Peter here is, I think, like a death experience. I believe that many who are stuck in puer pathology have undergone such an experience psychologically, and are left with an intense desire not to do so again. In eternity there is no death, and identifying with the Eternal Boy is a way of trying to avoid it.
Cherchez le père
Ideas of motherhood in Peter Pan may be confused, but there is evidence that the positive and the negative are both present, albeit in rather extreme forms: idealised or terrible. The father, however, is wanting in almost all respects.
He is represented by Mr Darling, whose personality is that of an attention-seeking child; full of envy, jealousy, and resentment, and a desire to offload his defects onto others. He demands, however, to be respected and admired, as though this were not so – he is as eager to deny his shadow as Peter. It is striking that he and Peter never meet, and that while the need for a mother is often mentioned in the play, the need for a father never is – as though such an idea never occurs to anyone. Mr Darling is in the grip of the Eternal Boy himself, and is no sort of father. I think that the curse of identification with the Eternal Boy can and does pass from father to son.
The Eternal Boy can be dangerous – especially when he takes the form of an extrovert, like Peter Pan, with all the concomitant aversion to exploring the inner world. For them the difficulties of engaging with what Jung called ‘the shadow’ are especially acute. Essentially the shadow refers to everything about ourselves that we do not wish to be; all those aspects of us that fill us with shame. People identifying with the Eternal Boy have an unusually acute problem with the shadow, and may utilise a powerful unconscious denial of all the uncongenial aspects of their life and self. Peter Pan highlights the issue.
When the play opens Peter has come to the Darling home specifically to look for his shadow, which he has lost on a previous visit. But although he wants it back, he has no idea of what to do with it once it has been found, and he tries reattaching it with soap – as if that might cleanse it, perhaps. Throughout the play he exhibits almost no awareness of it, and it is as though this denial is integral to his airborne nature; as though acknowledgement of the shadow might bring him tumbling down to earth.
A vivid portrayal of a bit of Peter’s shadow comes when the Darling children and the Lost Boys are on their way back from the Neverland to the Darling house. Peter arrives first, with Tinker Bell, and hears Mrs Darling tell her husband – who has been complaining of the draught – that the window must always remain open, so that the children can return. Peter’s response to this is immediate. He turns to Tinker Bell and tells her: ‘Quick, close the window; bar it! Now when Wendy comes she will think her mother has barred her out, and she will have to go back with me.’
The vengeful sadism here is palpable. The idea that Wendy and Mrs Darling might have something which he has been denied is intolerable, and he exults – out of Mrs Darling’s hearing: ‘You will never see Wendy again, lady, for the window is barred!’ In the end Peter relents and opens the window, though whether this is because of the ‘funny feeling’ he has when he hears Mrs Darling moaning for her daughter, or because he cannot find any other exit from the house, is moot: ‘Come on, Tink,’ he cries as they fly off, ‘we don’t want any silly mothers.’
Without a shadow there can be no substance, and so the Eternal Boy cannot be grasped, held, or even touched; hence the elusiveness of those who identify with the archetype. Barrie’s stage directions make it clear that Peter is never to be touched at any time.
Barrie wrote a sort of coda to Peter Pan in which Wendy returns to Neverland after a year. She is surprised to find that Peter can no longer remember Captain Hook, or Tinker Bell. When it is time to leave, she tells him how much she would like to embrace him, but he draws back. Whereupon she says: ‘Yes, I know.’
Barrie comments: ‘In a sort of way he understands what she means by “Yes, I know,” but in most sorts of ways he doesn’t. It has something to do with the riddle of his being. If he could get the hang of the thing, his cry might become, “To live would be an awfully big adventure,” but he can never quite get the hang of it.’ This sounds like a cry from the author’s own heart.
Rob Wood is a psychotherapist and a member of the Foundation for Psychotherapy and Counselling (FPC). This article is an edited extract from a lecture given in November 2001 under the auspices of the FPC (www.psychotherapy-counselling.org).
The illustrations are taken from the Pavilion edition of Peter Pan and Wendy, illustrated by Michael Foreman (1 85145 179 X, £12.99 hbk).