Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:01 Background on the…
  • 0:25 Summary of the Novel
  • 2:54 Gender Roles
  • 4:22 Innocence
  • 5:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kimberly Yates

Kimberly has taught college English and has a master's degree in education.

Peter Pan was written by J. M. Barrie and is the story of a magical young boy who refuses to grow up. This lesson looks at gender roles in the novel as well as the idea of innocence versus goodness.

Background on the Novel Peter Pan

Peter Pan was written by J. M. Barrie in 1911. The title character, Peter Pan, is a tribute to Barrie's brother who died in childhood and is eternally young. Peter lives on Neverland, a magical island, with the fairies and the Lost Boys, his band of followers. The novel details his adventures with the Darling family of England: Mr. and Mrs. Darling and their three children Wendy, John, and Michael.

Summary of the Novel

The novel begins with Mr. and Mrs. Darling's marriage, shortly followed by the birth of their children. The early scenes take place in the nursery where Mrs. Darling worries about her children's fascination with a mysterious boy named Peter Pan. She has heard rumors of a strange boy who lives with the fairies and has found disturbing evidence that he has visited the nursery. She shares her concerns with Mr. Darling but he is selfish and unconcerned. This sets the stage for Peter to swoop in later that night and convince Wendy to run away. He teaches the Darling children to fly, and they head out the window to Neverland.

Once there, Wendy becomes the surrogate mother of the Lost Boys. Wendy is thrilled with a traditional domestic role. She does the household chores and fusses lovingly over the boys. She encourages Peter to do the same, calling him the father of the group. He is willing to play along but only up to a point. Peter needs reassurance that it is all make-believe.

However, all is not peaceful on the island. In addition to the Lost Boys, there are wild animals, Indians, and pirates. Captain Hook is the main antagonist of the novel and is the leader of the pirates. Hook is a foil for Peter, a character who is a direct opposite of the main character. Hook is angry and obsessed with others' opinions of him. Most importantly, Captain Hook is vengeful; he wants revenge against Peter because in an earlier sword fight, Peter cut off Hook's right hand and flung it to a passing crocodile. In contrast, Peter is innocent; he doesn't really understand the concept of evil. He also forgets the wrongs that are done to him almost as soon as they happen.

Throughout the novel, Wendy preaches about the importance of a mother's love, convincing the boys that Mrs. Darling will leave the nursery window open, waiting for them forever. Peter doesn't understand this kind of devotion and makes the mistake of convincing the others that it's not true. His own mother, he claims, had forgotten all about him. She'd even had another son to replace him. He says this to convince them to stay in Neverland but his plan backfires. Wendy immediately decides to return home, and all the boys beg to come with her.

In the end, Wendy's faith is justified. The nursery window is open, and Mrs. Darling is not only overjoyed to see her children, she offers to adopt the Lost Boys without a second thought.

To really understand Peter Pan--both the book and the character--it helps to take a look at the themes in the book. Let's look at a couple of the main themes: gender roles and innocence.

Gender Roles

A main theme of the novel is gender roles: specifically, the different ways men and women respond to parenthood. Barrie depicts women who have a natural instinct for motherhood contrasting with childish men who want to avoid the responsibility at all costs. When each of the children are born, Mr. Darling sits down and figures out the financial benefits, warning Mrs. Darling that they may not be able to keep the child. When the children are older, he is often as foolish and childish as they are. When the Darling children and the Lost Boys return to England, Mr. Darling pouts because no one asked him his opinion about adopting the boys.

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