J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan is a children’s story about a boy who never wants to grow up, but it has serious themes. Among these is the theme of the idealization of motherhood. Although the concept of the mother is idealized throughout Peter Pan, it is motherhood itself that prevents Peter Pan and others from maturing into responsible adulthood. The novel begins with a scene in the nursery of the Darling household, and it will end in the nursery too. The nursery is an important place for the Darlings. It is where the Wendy, John, and Michael sleep, and where they are taken care of by the maternal figures of Mrs. Darling and Liza, and by their dog, appropriately named Nana.
The fact that Barrie chooses this location for both the beginning and the end of the novel is indicative of the importance of domestic life and maternal care in Peter Pan. After the Darling children complete their adventures in Neverland, they come back to the womblike embrace of the nursery room to be taken care of again by those maternal figures. Wendy, who promises to return to Neverland, is the only exception in this respect, but of course her promise to return is a promise precisely to resume a maternal role.
From the beginning of this book, then, we see an idealization of motherhood. Mrs. Darling is described as the “loveliest lady” (3), a sweet, kind mother who is nice to her children. She dresses in the gown that the children love to see her in, she sacrifices her wedding gown to create coverlets for the children’s beds, and she is always playful with her children, as when she jokes with Michael that she will be his mother if Wendy and John, who are playing a husband-and-wife game at the time, do not want her.
She describes her children as “sweet” (5) and fully enjoys being with them. She also shows motherly concern for her children, as when she alerts Mr. Darling to the apparent danger when Peter Pan breaks into their house. Mrs. Darling thinks naturally that it is a thief who might hurt her children. We also see Barrie’s idealization of motherhood in the fact that Peter Pan himself wants a mother. He comes into the nursery with Tinker Bell to seek out Wendy, who in his view would make the perfect mother.
Wendy is someone who already embodies the spirit of domestic life, as is clear from her enthusiasm for the husband-and-wife games she plays with her brother John. Wendy also undertakes domestic activities, such as sewing on Peter’s shadow, and generally acts in a sweet, motherly way towards Peter. Her relationship to him is neither like that between young friends, nor like that between young lovers, but rather like that between mother and child. When Wendy comes to Neverland, the theme of the idealization of motherhood can therefore continue despite the children’s removal from the domestic sphere of the nursery.
One of the Lost Boys, Omnes, directly tells Wendy that the Lost Boys and Peter need “a nice motherly person” (31). For that reason, they build a beautiful house for Wendy to live in, and are constantly obedient to Wendy just as children are expected to be obedient to their mothers. Indeed, Wendy takes her role as a mother figure very seriously. She feels responsible and acts with care for the children. She tells them stories, feeds them with “pretend” food, and makes sure that the Lost Boys are clean before they go to bed. She is also supportive of the children being children.
She allows them to dance to express themselves, and she praises Peter, to her another childlike figure, when he brings in “two tigers and a pirate” as sport, saying “They are beauties” (44). These are examples of how, throughout the story, motherhood is represented as a joyous thing. Barrie deliberately ignores the more difficult side of being a mother. All of the children in the book are obedient and polite. And if there is a little disobedience, it hardly matters.
When Michael and John complain about having to take a bath, there is no indication that Mrs. Darling is infuriated by their behavior, and the children generally are paragons of innocence and obedience. But the one thing that Barrie cannot hide about motherhood is that it causes Peter, the Lost Boys, and the Darling boys to evade personal responsibility. Peter never seriously takes care of the Lost Boys himself, preferring instead to go off and fight Hook, the symbol perhaps of an evil father figure. Fighting Hook and the pirates sometimes appears to be serious business, but essentially it is Peter’s way of having fun, and it allows him to avoid other responsibilities.
In fact, that is why he needs to recruit Wendy. He wants to give someone else the responsibility he avoids. Peter’s general irresponsibility is evident throughout the book. Repeatedly we hear that he wants “always to be a little boy and to have fun” (49, 68), and that he doesn’t “want to go to school and learn solemn things” (68). This irresponsibility and desire to avoid the rigors of a productive life, however, makes him, just as it makes the Lost Boys, forever in need of a maternal figure, and unable to grow up.
Even when Wendy leaves Neverland to go back home, she promises to return every year and perform Peter’s “spring cleaning” (68). In truth, none of the children of Never Land grow or mature at all in the course of the story, and they are left in a state of false, childlike innocence and irresponsibility. The only child who does grow and become responsible is Wendy herself, as she does not make herself dependent on a motherly figure. When she is put into a position of responsibility for Peter and the Lost Boys, she guides the children and acts maternal towards them.
She also makes the decision to go back home so that Mrs. Darling will not be worried about her children, a decision that her irresponsible brothers cannot make. Peter, in a state of childhood selfishness, tries to bar the window of the Darling house so that Wendy cannot do the responsible thing and go back to her mother, but in a twist of irony, it is Peter’s silly puerility that causes him to open the window to leave for Never Land and thus allow Wendy and her brothers back home.
Moreover, Wendy is the child capable of physical growth, which is to say, capable of aging, in the story. We know this from Peter’s expressing “displeasure at her growth” (69), and from the fact that her growth apparently prevents her from being able to see Peter very well. Her aging is perhaps also evident from the fact of her needing a broomstick to be able to fly to Neverland. By contrast, in any case, none of the others are ever imagined as having grown or aged.
Although the maternal qualities of Mrs. Darling, Wendy, and others hinder the maturation of Peter and the other boys, the gentleness that these mothers provide is exceptionally beautiful. Compared to Hook, who makes his victims walk the plank to their death, these maternal figures are source of gentle kindness and nurture. It may be that Barrie wants ultimately to suggest that only childhood innocence protecting by a loving mother can hold out against the darker forces of this world.