The Neverland of Id: Barrie, Peter Pan, and Freud
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The Neverland of Id:
Barrie, Peter Pan, and Freud

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The serious study of children's literature may be said to have begun with Freud, who found in folk and fairy tales evidence supporting his theory of the unconscious. More recently Bruno Bettelheim, taking his cue from The Interpretation of Dreams and other texts, has argued persuasively that the enduring appeal of many of the ancient classics of children's literature derives from their ability to resolve satisfactorily the symbolized confusions in their audiences' psyche.1 The great tales, he says, depict sibling rivalry, as in Cinderella and Goldilocks; they touch on incestuous love-feelings between children, as in Brother and Sister; they deal with separation anxieties, for instance in Hansel and Gretel; many of them, such as Snow White and Rapunzel, explore the sexual rivalry between mothers and daughters or, as in Jack and the Beanstalk, between fathers and sons; and still others dramatize, in rich, symbolic images, the theme of adolescent sexual awakening. The most striking examples of this latter type are Sleeping Beauty, The Frog Prince, and, although Bettelheim does not discuss it, Beauty and the Beast.

The reading of Peter Pan undertaken here accepts the broad outlines of Bettelheim's Freudian approach. I shall argue, first, that in his story Barrie unconsciously created a vast, symbolic metaphor—the Neverland—of the child's id; and that, secondly, he populated it with figures of an almost archetypal resonance. For example, the confrontation between Peter and his rival, Captain Hook, is, as we shall see, sharply Oedipal both in its nature and its resolution. Finally, I shall suggest that a Freudian analysis not only is the key to the fundamental meaning of Barrie's greatest work but is also indispensable in understanding its enormous popular success. Like the classics of the genre, Peter Pan successfully works through some of the important psychic tensions [End Page 37] struggling for resolution in the child's developing mind, and this is the basis of its captivating charm.

Andrew Birkin's J. M. Barrie and the Lost Boys is a recent study which has updated and brought together in a masterly way the biographical and literary evidence bearing on the genesis of Peter Pan.2 What Birkin suggests is that in his work Barrie dramatized, to an unusual degree, the most distressing conflicts at war in his unconscious mind. Further, it appears that Barrie himself was only partially aware of the profound nexus between his inner psychic tensions and his art, and even then only towards the end of his creative life. Not until 1922, for example, when he was in his sixties, was he able to record in his literary notebooks following a particularly upsetting personal dream: "It is as if long after writing 'P.Pan' its true meaning came to me—Desperate attempt to grow up but can't."3

Birkin's conclusions, while by far the best-supported in terms of evidence and scholarship, are nevertheless—as he would be the first to agree—neither original nor unique. Cynthia Asquith, among others, made a similar point in her Portrait of Barrie (1955):

Besides, I know that, whatever his views about reticence, once Barrrie took a pen into his hand something unpremeditated nearly always ran out of it. His subconscious was more than a collaborator. It could, too often did, take control. He might make a myriad notes before he began to write, but he never quite knew what would emerge.4

Asquith's observations are more than merely ancedotal; they are borne out in every way by Barrie's own revelations about his mode of composition. In 1928, for instance, he wrote a prefatory dedication to the playscript of Peter Pan, some twenty-four years after the first production. In it he remarked how "suspicious" it was that, despite his customary ability to "haul back to mind the writing of every other essay of mine, however forgotten by the pretty public," he had no recollection of having composed his most famous work.5 There seems to have been nothing tongue-in-cheek about this remark. It suggests either that he repressed [End Page 38] what was...