Peter Pan: the Ultimate Alt-Bro
(Puffin Books, 2013; first published as Peter and Wendy in 1911)
(New York Review Books, 2001; first published in 1979)
“I read it to [anonymous little boy] twice and cried both times,” my friend, then a nanny, told me. We were talking about Peter Pan, which I had read upon her recommendation. We agreed that the novel was sad but disagreed about why. My friend thought it inevitably disappointing that Wendy grew up, leaving Peter behind. As a kid who loved the musical with Mary Martin, I once thought the same thing. As an adult having read the book, I think the story is sad because Peter refuses to grow up and that this is unfortunate for all parties: Peter and the young girls he enchants, then abandons when they get too old.
In the following section, Peter has come to take Wendy—who was once in love with Peter—back to Neverland for “spring-cleaning” only to discover that she is too old to go with him. But Wendy has a daughter, Jane, who is of Neverland-ing age.
“If only I could go with you,” Wendy sighed.
“You see you can’t fly,” said Jane.
Of course, in the end Wendy lets them fly away together. Our last glimpse of her shows her at the window, watching them receding into the sky until they are as small as stars.
As you look at Wendy you may see her hair becoming white, and her figure little again, for all this happened long ago. Jane is now a common grown-up with a daughter called Margaret; and every spring-cleaning time, except when he forgets, Peter comes for Margaret and takes her to Neverland, where she tells him stories about himself, to which he listens eagerly. When Margaret grows up she will have a daughter, who is to be Peter’s mother in turn; and thus it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless.
Peter will be forever cycling through little girls and will never settle down. The twist is that though Peter Pan values youth above all else, he brings young girls to Neverland to play an adult role: to “be [his] mother.” In that, and in other ways, he ages them, encouraging their growing up precisely to sustain his eternal youth.
It is indeed sad that Wendy can’t go back to Neverland with Peter. But it’s also sad because it’s an unhappy ending for what isn’t supposed to be a sad story. Neverland—where kids can fly and fight pirates and slide down hollow tree trunks—is supposed to be wonderful. For the story to end with Wendy growing up and Peter returning to Neverland with a new kid casts a pall over the whole story and over the very existence of Neverland. It’s a disenchantment: not just “How sad that Wendy can’t go back!” but “Maybe Neverland was never that great after all.”
Peter Pan was first published by novelist and playwright J.M. Barrie in 1911 under the title Peter and Wendy. (Before that, Peter Pan appeared in Barrie’s 1902 novel The Little White Bird and in his 1904 play Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.) Since then, the figure of Peter Pan has taken the form of an animated Disney movie character (1953) and of a cross-dressing leading lady in the musical (which first opened on Broadway in 1954). In 1987, Joel Schumacher refigured Peter Pan’s Lost Boys as Ragan-era vampires. Puffin Books re-released Peter Pan in 2013, and now we can read Peter Pan as the ultimate Alt-Bro. He didn’t just resist adulthood, wandering in his 20s, then settling down: he never grew up. He’s an “adult-child” who, were he around today, might have read in cafés, written in Moleskine notebooks, and slept in the apartment of a well-employed girlfriend he didn’t call a girlfriend—in short, might have embodied the character in Gavin Tomson’s “A Portrait of the Alt-Bro as a Young Dumbass,” published at The Awl.
That’s not to say that immaturity is limited to literary men—all the talk of millennials, of HBO’s Girls, relates to a similar idea. Fittingly, Peter Pan’s most recent musical iteration, Peter Pan Live! on NBC, starred Allison Williams—known for her role as the neurotic-yet-clueless Marnie Michaels on Girls—in the title role; Williams changed channels but didn’t grow up. Nor is the childish adult particular to this era, despite all the attention it’s been getting lately; it’s an archetype, and who better to represent it than ageless Peter Pan?
Peter Pan lives in Neverland, land of the imagination, a place that, in the novel, seems to be constructed in the minds of children as they sleep. Here, Barrie is trying to describe the mind of a child as Mrs. Darling, who “tid[ied] up” her children’s minds before bed, might have seen it.
I don’t know whether you have ever seen a map of a person’s mind. Doctors sometimes draw maps of other parts of you, and your own map can become intensely interesting, but catch them trying to draw a map of a child’s mind, which is not only confused, but keeps going round all the time. There are zigzag lines on it, just like your temperature on a card, and these are probably roads in the island; for the Neverland is always more or less an island. . . . [description of the island follows] It would be an easy map if that were all; but there is also first day at school, religion, fathers, the round pond, needlework, murders, hangings, verbs that take the dative, chocolate-pudding day, getting into braces, say ninety-nine, threepence for pulling out your tooth yourself, and so on; and either these are part of the island or they are another map showing through, and it is all rather confusing, especially as nothing will stand still.
“Occasionally in her travels through her children’s minds,” Barrie adds a bit later, “Mrs. Darling found things she could not understand, and of these quite the most perplexing was the word Peter.”
More proof—if you need more!—that Neverland is made up of children’s imaginations exists in the fact that things that happened when the children were in Neverland—for example, Tinker Bell drinking Peter’s medicine, which was in fact poisoned by Captain Hook—relate to things from the “real world”; the evening the children left for Neverland, Mr. Darling had given his bitter medicine to Nana, the dog, to avoid drinking it himself. And Captain Hook seems to be an English-teacher/scholar-turned-pretentious-evil-pirate. So Peter lives in a world somewhat related to the collective unconsciousness of children. His own sense of imagination is also stronger than those of his peers, the Lost Boys.
The difference between him and the other boys at such a time was that they knew it was make-believe, while to him make-believe and true were exactly the same thing. This sometimes troubled them, as when they had to make-believe that they had had their dinners.
Peter doesn’t just daydream; in his world “make-believe and true were exactly the same thing.” He’s the ultimate extension of the café dweller looking glassily up from his book.
Like Peter Pan, the dreamy 20-something can buoy you along on currents of ambition and gesture toward rosy projections of life in the New York of our collective imaginations. Tomson caricaturizes the Alt-Bro in his reveries:
It’s 11AM on the 4th day of Spring Break. He’s reading Steppenwolf at a minimal loft cafe that sells tote bags and leather notebooks and beard lube. He’s drinking a $4 Americano and debating whether he should step outside to roll a cigarette. Earlier today, when he arrived at the café, which by the way is called “Brooklyn,” he thought to himself, One ought only to smoke on weekends. Yet Spring Break is currently revealing-itself-to-him-as-weekend, so he goes outside to smoke. As he observes, flâneuristically, the soft light play upon the Portuguese Church steeples across him, he feels he’s on the verge of a profound realization, a Joycean epiphany, something that will blow his mind. Google, is he manic-depressive? Sometimes he feels so much, it’s almost unbearable. There’s no way most people feel as much as he does. He’s unique. He might be a genius. He’s certainly heterosexual. He’s probably going to grad school.
He is the Alternative-Bro.
The best parts of this character, however, are probably imaginary, existing in what he thinks about, in what she is reading or writing or dreaming of doing.
Like the Alt-Bro, Peter Pan refuses to grow up. He did so first as a kid when he ran away from his parents “the day [he] was born,” as he tells Wendy when they first meet, after hearing his parents talking about what he might be “when [he] became a man.” He does so a second time when Wendy and the Lost Boys go back to London and Mrs. Darling offers to adopt him.
Mrs. Darling came to the window, for at present she was keeping a sharp eye on Wendy. She told Peter that she had adopted all the other boys, and would like to adopt him also.
“Would you send me to school?” he inquired craftily.
“And then to an office?”
“I suppose so.”
“Soon I should be a man?”
“I don’t want to go to school and learn solemn things,” he told her passionately. “I don’t want to be a man. O Wendy’s mother if I was to wake up and feel there was a beard!”
“Peter!” said Wendy the comforter, “I should love you in a beard!”; and Mrs. Darling stretched out her arms to him, but he repulsed her.
“Keep back, lady, no one is going to catch me and make me a man.”
Though he refuses to accept the offer of adoption, he also needs one aspect of a traditional childhood (i.e., the kind of childhood that involves growing up): a mother to take care of him. He waffles. He wants two contradictory things: a mother to raise him and to never be raised.
The defining feature of the Alt-Bro is his indecision, his failure to commit and to accept constraints. As Moira Weigel and Mal Ahern wrote in The New Inquiry: “The Man-Child has two moods: indecision, and entitlement to this indecisiveness.” Everything is qualified. Many things are ironic or, one degree further from commitment, on the fence about their irony. In an imitation of the authors of the former literary journal, Tiqqun, Weigel and Ahern write of this type:
The Man-Child tells a racist joke. It is not funny. It is the fact that the Man-Child said something racist that is.
The Man-Child wants you to know that you should not take him too seriously, except when you should. At any given moment, he wants you to take him only as seriously as he wants to be taken. When he offends you, he was kidding. When he means it, he means it. What he says goes.
Growing up is, to some extent, a series of irrevocable choices and events. Having a child with one person instead of another. Studying one subject and not another. Choosing a job. As an adult, certain things are true. As a child—or as an Alt-Bro—anything is possible. The Alt-Bro tries to keep everything up in the air, because choosing always has drawbacks. He likes his cat both alive and dead—in other words, theoretical. The Alt-Bro’s indecision is part of his refusal to grow up.
Another similarity between Peter Pan and today’s “adult-children” is the way he uses women, a.k.a., Wendy.
Peter takes her away from her childhood, away from her parents, in order to be mother—albeit pretend—to him and the Lost Boys in Neverland. It’s not a kidnapping—Wendy and her brothers do choose to go with Peter—but it is a case of luring. Peter is described as “sly” and “greedy” and “cunning” as he tells her about the mermaids in Neverland, how she could fly and talk to the stars, how much the Lost Boys need someone to care for them. “He had become frightfully cunning. ‘Wendy,’ he said, ‘how we should all respect you.’” Who knows whether Peter means it or, rather, sees the promise of respect as some kind of trick. In any case, Wendy buys it.
When they arrive at Neverland, the Lost Boys, children who fell out of their perambulators and were not claimed by their parents, are thrilled to have Wendy and put her right in her maternal place. “O Wendy lady, be our mother,” they say. She has some misgivings, but Peter smooths them over.
“Ought I?” Wendy said, all shining. “Of course it’s frightfully fascinating, but you see I am only a little girl. I have no real experience.”
“That doesn’t matter,” said Peter, as if he were the only person present who knew all about it, though he was really the one who knew least. “What we need is just a nice motherly person.”
“Oh dear!” Wendy said, “you see, I feel that is exactly what I am.”
He knew the least because he didn’t remember his own mother at all, whereas the others had some memories and yearnings for the childhoods they left. He admits, though, that they “need” a maternal figure.
Wendy effectively becomes a mother in Neverland, where she is taking care of her brothers, the Lost Boys, and, especially, Peter. It’s the first of several ways in which Wendy grows up in Neverland. Wendy and her brothers are beginning to forget their true parents. “What did disturb [Wendy] at times was that John remembered his parents vaguely only, as people he had once known, while Michael was quite willing to believe that she really was his mother. These things scared her a little.” In order to salvage their memories, Wendy begins giving the boys examinations, lessons, about their old life.
But the teacher also needs the exercise. “By the way, the questions were all written in the past tense,” Barrie writes of these exercises. “What was the colour of Mother’s eyes, and so on. Wendy, you see, had been forgetting too.” She begins to view her childhood and her mother as bygones.
Part of her mothering involves comforting Peter when he has bad dreams, dreams “more painful than the dreams of other boys,” about “the riddle of his existence.”
“At such times it had been Wendy’s custom to take him out of bed and sit with him on her lap, soothing him in dear ways of her own invention, and when he grew calmer to put him back to bed before he quite woke up, so that he should not know of the indignity to which she had subjected him.”
In short, Wendy absorbs some of Peter’s internal darkness, and then acts as if it’s nothing. It’s not nothing; it is serious business.
Peter’s need for this maternal figure persists through generations of young girls who fly off with him to Neverland, play at being grown-up, and then grow up themselves.
In addition to taking on a mothering role, Wendy also grows up in that she begins to see her childhood as a distant fabled thing, in part because, as mentioned above, she begins to forget it. In Neverland, she tells her brother and the Lost Boys stories, and in one of these, she tells them the tale of how the three Darling children flew off to Neverland, returned home to their parents, and then grew up. Wendy’s story shows how, in Neverland, she has come to view her childhood as something far away and mythical. Her perspective has become more adult.
The following is how Wendy’s story ends in Barrie’s novel. The double quotation marks seem to indicate that Wendy is giving herself dialogue as a character in the story:
“‘See, dear brothers,’ says Wendy, pointing upwards, ‘there is the window still standing open. Ah, now we are rewarded for our sublime faith in a mother’s love.’ So up they flew to their mummy and daddy; and pen cannot describe the happy scene, over which we draw a veil.”
In the novel, Wendy never loses that faith in her mother; she assumes that she can always go home when she chooses.
In the musical, this story, which takes the form of the song, “Distant Melody,” is darker. It shows Wendy as having grown up, perhaps, too fast; as viewing her childhood as something of the past. “Once upon a time and long ago/I heard someone singing/Soft and low,” the song begins. In it, Wendy recalls past bedtime songs in which a parent comforts a child: “My child my very own/Don’t be afraid you’re not alone./Sleep until the dawn/For all is well.” But she sees this mothering as a thing of the past: “Long ago this song was sung to me./Now it’s just a distant melody/Somewhere from the past I used to know/Once upon a time and long ago.” It’s haunting because it implies that the mother’s comforting words may no longer be true; in the present, there may be reasons to “be afraid”; the children are “alone,” or at least on their own, in Neverland.
In the analogy between Peter Pan and Weigel and Ahern’s Man-Child, Wendy plays the role of the Grown Woman: the responsible female who does things that the Man-Child finds tedious (or never learned to do for himself). The Man-Child wants the fun of intellectual life without the work, for which he hopes to rely on a woman. Weigel and Ahern mention, using a light, parenthetical tone, how their male colleagues once asked them to collaborate on a project that required translation because they, the men, “didn’t ‘do languages,’” as if translation were a boring chore. The authors say that they “try to shake it off.”
He cannot really imagine that we spent years of our adult lives mastering foreign words and grammar just so we could do the tedious housework of gathering sources while he takes credit for the conceptual heavy lifting.
I am reminded of the time Wendy sewed on Peter’s shadow for him and he “crowed rapturously, ‘oh, the cleverness of me!’” leaving Wendy to retort, with “frightful sarcasm; ‘of course, I did nothing!’”
The greatest way in which Wendy grows up is that she falls in love and has her heart broken. One evening, Wendy and Peter are sitting by the fire, pretending to be an old married couple. Peter asks Wendy, “a little scared. ‘It is only make-believe, isn’t it, that I am their father?’” Peter seems relieved when Wendy agrees, which is the opposite of what she hopes for, and so she asks him how he feels about her.
“Peter,” she asked, trying to speak firmly, “what are your exact feelings for me?”
“Those of a devoted son, Wendy.”
“I thought so,” she said, and went and sat by herself at the extreme end of the room.
“You are so queer,” he said, frankly puzzled, “and Tiger Lily is just the same. There is something she wants to be to me, but she says it is not my mother.”
“No, indeed, it is not,” Wendy replied with frightful emphasis.
It is true that Wendy had a crush on Peter from the minute he walked into her nursery and she wanted to give him a kiss. But it’s also true that the crush continued in Neverland, with Wendy wanting to continue playing father and mother with Peter in part because she loved him. Peter hasn’t matured enough to love anyone but himself. He is “heartless.”
The Alt-Bro breaks hearts in a similar way: he always seems to have a female companion but refuses to call her a girlfriend. As Tomson writes in The Awl, “The Alt-Bro is in ‘an open relationship’ with a girl who doesn’t call it an ‘open relationship.’” Or take this, from the same piece: “That afternoon, the Alt-Bro will meet a young woman for coffee. They are ‘really good friends, but it’s platonic.’ He’ll complain about his problems. The young woman will finally say, ending their friendship, ‘You need to grow up.’”
The night before Peter returns to the nursery to find Wendy grown-up, Wendy is telling her daughter Jane that:
“The last thing he ever said to me was ‘Just always be waiting for me, and then some night you will hear me crowing.”’
“Yes.” [the daughter says]
“But, alas! he forgot all about me.” Wendy said it with a smile. She was as grown up as that.
Of course, Peter does return and does remember Wendy—though he has forgotten Tinker Bell and Captain Hook and has arrived many years too late to take her back to Neverland.
But as the Grown Woman, Wendy can handle what might have been a heartbreak, and what was a slow heartache in the years spent waiting: “Wendy was grown up. You need not be sorry for her. She was one of the kind that likes to grow up. In the end she grew up of her own free will a day quicker than the other girls.”
There are, have been, and probably always will be women like this, who are willing to take care of men, who don’t mind growing up. Here she is, for example, in Elizabeth Hardwick’s 1979 novel Sleepless Nights, a woman of some money willing to support a tortured, poor artist.
The women were not necessarily sparkling and lighthearted. More often an impressive, thick, downright strength of purpose went along with them, like an overcoat.
Perhaps a sort of perverse complacency led the lucky women to rescue a smart, sulky man, one whose ambitions and gifts were far from settled, whose intelligence was certain but whose destiny was a curling, warning question mark. Gifts, sad and defining, books read, ideas stored—all intact and battered by an inconstant will.
Hardwick goes on to discuss the dissolution of the relationship between the Alt-Bro writer, Alex A. and the Grown Woman, Sarah.
Maybe Sarah didn’t like your having other women . . . if you did.
If I did? Of course I did. But that isn’t the point . . . The point is that my fatal type is a plain woman, somewhat stingy, not very interesting . . . but high-minded in a frugal way . . . And with her own money to be frugal with . . . Not a lot, just enough . . . Enough to make her appear in my dreams like some old loved school principal with the keys, the reports, generations of grades in her head.
But the fact that the bachelor needs money from the fatal matron and “lived out life in a populated singleness,” as Hardwick so aptly describes the life of prolonged bachelorhood a few pages earlier, is the point. In a similar oxymoron, Peter, the boy who ran away from his parents, doesn’t need a mother, yet has a succession of maternal young girls.
Wendy is Weigel and Ahern’s Grown Woman; she is Hardwick’s Sarah. She wanted to go with Peter and liked being his mother. He didn’t force her. But he did use her.
In their New Inquiry article, Weigel and Ahern describe how it sometimes seems that the purpose for having women in universities is to take care of Man-Children. “In institutions that reward competence with more unpaid labor, the Man-Child needs the Grown Woman to take care of him, and she needs him to need her,” they write. In a male-dominated world, women do need men to want them in their institutions. If “woman’s work” is what men want them for, is it better than not being wanted at all? Thinking about such questions is probably why the authors write that after incidents such as the translation gaffe, or the time when male colleagues asked them if they could supply clean bed sheets for a visiting artist, they consider the female faculty among them and “feel afraid.”
I think it’s important to point out that Peter Pan is not a celebration of the Man-Child. Barrie is clear about the fact that Peter is “heartless,” the last word in the book, and manipulative of Wendy, but he also makes it clear that Peter is unhappy behind his It-boy façade. He has nightmares. His legendary cockiness—“To put it with brutal frankness, there never was a cockier boy”—is part of it. Despite the fact that Peter always needs a mother, he claims not to care about them at all. For example, when the children are thinking about leaving Neverland, he tells Wendy that she is “wrong about mothers” and tells the children a story about how he had once tried to return to his mother, imagining that she “would always keep the window open for me.” Alas, he found that “the window was barred, for mother had forgotten all about me, and there was another little boy sleeping in my bed.” Barrie goes on to discredit the story: “I am not sure that this was true, but Peter thought it was true; and it scared [the children].” Barrie also describes Peter as “despis[ing]” mothers: “For one thing, he despised all mothers except Wendy, and for another he was the only boy on the island who could neither write nor spell; not the smallest word. He was above all that sort of thing.” He’s above schooling because he never had any and probably feels embarrassed. His cockiness is a feint to cover up the many times that he doesn’t understand one thing or another. For example, when Wendy asks to give him a kiss:
She also said she would give him a kiss if he liked, but Peter did not know what she meant, and he held out his hand expectantly.
“Surely you know what a kiss is?” she asked, aghast.
“I shall know when you give it to me,” he replied stiffly; and not to hurt his feelings, she gave him a thimble.
Do the academics who ask women to help with translation pretend languages are a chore that they “don’t do” out of a similar embarrassment?
Peter Pan both wants and needs a mother: he listens to bedtime stories at windows and year after year seeks out a young girl to play the role for him. He may pretend that the mother-girl is more for the Lost Boys than for him, but watch him cry in his sleep, and you’ll know it’s not true.
The truth behind the fairy tale is that having no parents and never growing up is a very sad thing. There is no childhood without adulthood, because without adults, there are no children. There are also no bedtime stories, no rules to break, no future to deny.
In refusing to grow up, Peter Pan also refused his childhood. He never had parents to love and care for him. He eats by stealing food out of the mouths of birds and, as Barrie writes, “Wendy noticed with gentle concern that Peter did not seem to know that this was a rather odd way of getting your bread and butter, nor even that there are other ways.” He doesn’t know what a kiss is and consequently has not even the slightest inkling of how to go about kissing—and loving—another person.
I don’t want to say that losing one’s parents is the end of the world, because everyone does lose them eventually. But hopefully, before that happens, someone loves you, cares for you, and teaches you to live on your own. You have a childhood, and it prepares you to be an adult.
Peter wants to have it both ways, but he can’t. Not only has he missed out on parental love as a child; he also misses the love that one can have as an adult, the kind of love he could have had with Wendy if he had grown up, the kind of love that, while not necessarily eternal, can last a lifetime. His existence is incredibly lonely and eternally so.
The Alt-Bro who was too cool for school as a precocious student may, later on, realize that he, like Peter Pan, is stuck between worlds. In the Awl piece, the Alt-Bro character tries to assume an adult role—he “appl[ies] to speak at panels on gender and colonialism”—but is rejected. His background is not strong enough, apparently. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the grades to get into that Ph.D. program in philosophy he has been considering, so he can’t continue as a student in that field. He either remains in the purgatory between student and professor, or he starts afresh, in a new subject. No doubt he pretends to change fields because his former discipline has “grown stale to him,” or something, not because he has failed at it. “The Alt-Bro would go on to study architecture,” the Tomson piece ends. In this new field he will, once again, be a child with a newborn dream, the kind of dream that might have come from Neverland, as Peter describes it in the musical:
And that's my home where dreams are born,
And time is never planned.
Just think of lovely things.
And your heart will fly on wings,
Forever in Never Never Land.
Childhood and new dreams and young love are nice as passing phases, but for these to remain forever nascent, to never mature, to never come true, is not a happy ending. It’s not an ending at all but an eternity of incompletion.
Unlike Peter Pan, the Alt-Bro won’t be able to do this forever. Eventually, he will fall, disenchanted, from the heights of his imagination to the depths of his reality, and it will hurt. And maybe after that, he will settle down, the way the Lost Boys grew up and settled down.
All the boys were grown up and done for by this time; so it is scarcely worthwhile saying anything more about them. You may see the twins and Nibs and Curly any day going to an office, each carrying a little bag and an umbrella. Michael is an engine driver. Slightly married a lady of title, and so he became a lord. You see that judge in a wig coming out at the iron door? That used to be Tootles. The bearded man who doesn’t know any story to tell his children was once John.
But Peter Pan never ever escapes.
ContributorAshley P. Taylor
ASHLEY P. TAYLOR is a Brooklyn-based writer of journalism, essays, and fiction. View more of her work at ashleyptaylor.com.
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