Looking Through the Telling of Peter Pan
Updated: Nov 8, 2020
Or: A Play in Prose
When we think about narration, we often think about perspective: where is this coming from? Who says that? When? Why? Sometimes the who and the when and the why are more complicated, sometimes less so.
All children, except one, grow up. They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this: One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful… (Barrie 5)
That should be enough to give us an idea of which category this famous text belongs to. The first sentence is a commonplace. A commonplace to J. M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy (1911) only, but a commonplace nonetheless. In a sense, nobody says it. And everybody. It’s a rather “cocky” (10) perspective to begin with, pushy and quite like Peter, the “one” child who is so different from “All” the rest.* The second sentence takes on Wendy’s perspective – “the way Wendy knew was this” –, it’s a description of what happened to her “One day when she was two.” One common way to learn something about a character in a novel: looking at or ‘through’ them. (It’s not necessarily clear which of the two we are doing here – especially because of the colon: do we move ‘inside’ of her mind for a moment?) The third sentence is where it gets really complicated: suddenly there’s an “I,” an unidentified narrator figure who “suppose[s]” things. In the “imagin[ative]” (OED, “suppose, v.” I.5.) quality of “suppose” lies uncertainty. It’s a first hint at a narrator who does not exactly turn out to be… reliable. And: it introduces retrospective, asks us to reconsider: has everything so far been filtered by this “I”? How commonplace is the commonplace? How ‘Wendy’ is Wendy’s memory?**
If narration is not reliable, perspective becomes difficult. Who tells this story? To what end? Are there things we are not being told about? Are there things they changed? The question, it seems, shifts from one concerning perspective to one of function. What can narrative do? What do different and/or shifting perspectives achieve? When are stories told in what way? To whom are they told? To what end?
Here’s a moment in which Barrie’s text openly reflects on this:
“Long ago,” he said, “I thought like you that my mother would always keep the window open for me, so I stayed away for moons and moons and moons, and then flew back; but the window was barred, for mother had forgotten all about me, and there was another little boy sleeping in my bed.” I am not sure that this was true, but Peter thought it was true; and it scared them. (98)
There’s Peter’s perspective, he’s telling his story, the narration is in the background, descriptive only: “he said.” Then there is, once again, the “I,” “[un]sure” about said story. And the “I” makes a very important observation: what matters more than the story being (un)true is that Peter believes in it and that it has the intended effect: “it scared them.” Unreliability becomes an asset as it creates story and effect – it is what makes them possible in the first place. Same holds true for the novel Peter and Wendy as a whole, of course. (And all other fiction.) What is more, the story does something to its listeners, it has a function, an end. So does Peter and Wendy. And that one definitely has nothing whatsoever to do with the “tru[th].” As long as it affects its readers…
Perspective is on the retreat.
This may have another reason: J. M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy is, after all, a rather special case. It’s a novel based on a stage play: Peter Pan (1904). Same author, different genre. A major difference between those genres is, of course, that one has some sort of more or less obvious narrator figure, someone (or in some cases something) telling the story, while the other generally has not. A filtering perspective, one or several viewpoints to the story. There are exceptions – think the chorus ‘narrating’ Shakespeare’s Henry V (ca. 1599) or very dialogue-driven novels such as the French novelist Anna Gavalda’s books which – at least partly – seem to do without a narrator.
Guidelines, not laws.
Hence, it comes as no surprise that Barrie’s adaptation of his own play into a novel introduces a narrator into the story. But the play is still there. In the dialogue, in the descriptions, and in the multiplicity of often inconsistent perspectives. As in the theatre, we look at all that enfolds before us: filtered perspectives, sifted and shifted and fitted with intentions, out to do something, action-driven rather than character-based. On top of it all, it ask us, the reader, to do some of the work also: to question, to probe, to “believe[…] in fairies” (114) – and to simultaneously know that it is this belief that will make the story come to life in the first place. A play in prose. A text juggling functional narration necessary to the genre – “he said” (98) – with a theatrical ‘narrative character’ – “I suppose” (5) – who is often as shifty as the story’s most artful protagonists themselves, pirate and eternal boy.
“I am not sure that this was true, but…”
* About a hundred years earlier, Jane Austen, too, had opened her novel Pride and Prejudice (1813) with a ‘story-internal’ commonplace – in purely ironic fashion, though: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (3).
** Here’s a more straight-forward example of this:
“He stood silent at the foot of the tree looking across the chamber at his enemy. Did no feeling of compassion stir his sombre breast? The man was not wholly evil; he loved flowers (I have been told) and sweet music (he was himself no mean performer on the harpsichord); and, let it be frankly admitted, the idyllic nature of the scene shook him profoundly.” (Barrie 111)
What does the narrator really know? How? What kind of information are we offered? Rumour – “(I have been told)” –, interpreted observation – “(he was himself no mean performer on the harpsichord)” i.e. a lover of “sweet music” –, and conclusions perhaps more drawn from what can be seen rather than what is actually felt: why is Hook really “sh[aken]”? Always assuming, of course, that he really is…
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. 1813. Oxford University Press, 1988.
Barrie, J. M. Peter Pan: Peter and Wendy and Peter in Kensington Gardens. 1911/1902. Edited by Jack Zipes, Penguin, 2004.
“suppose, v.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2020, www.oed.com/view/Entry/194694. Accessed 6 September 2020.