The Danger of Normality in J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy and Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit
academic essay by Tristen Kiri Brudy
Western society, the legal system and families are traditionally geared to protect children in order to properly prepare them for life as adults. The idea of putting a child in danger seems foolish at best and destructive at worst. However, for the queer child ‘danger’ can be viewed as not only beneficial but necessary as it allows the child to thrive outside of heteronormative developmental structures. Authors as varied as J.M. Barrie and Jeanette Winterson use danger to explore the ‘queer’ child, the child that does not or cannot fit into normal, safe structures. Within the novels Peter and Wendy and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, children explore dangerous ways of living in order to achieve a form of queer self-actualization. For these authors, queer is not simply equated with homosexuality. In her article on queer theory, Katherine Watson likens being queer to being a “person in flux, contesting boundaries, eliding definition and exhibiting the constructedness of categorization” (74). Queer relates both to a sexual categorization and the inability of a subject to conform to any sort of categorization. As these two texts demonstrate, one of the strategies of queer literature is to put children in danger so that they can fully realize their queerness. Only when they are freed from the ‘safety’ of both protective figures and heteronormative models can Peter and Jeanette come into their own as ‘queer.’
J.M. Barrie’s classic play turned novel, Peter and Wendy, places children in extreme danger. From deadly battles with pirates to poisoned medicine to the brutality of the Peter Pan regime, children in the novel are constantly in danger. Free of authoritative adults and any semblance of the rule of law, the realm of Neverland places Peter and the Lost Boys far outside the safe confines of normal family life or polite society. They seem to straddle an uncertain line between manly warfare and childish play. However, it is precisely this dangerous existence, free from parental input or guidance, which allows Peter to explore a queer kind of living.
Throughout the novel, Peter Pan queers his own existence by mentally, emotionally and physically rejecting traditional reality. In addition to his inability to physically mature by ageing, Peter seems incapable of holding onto a stable vision of the world around him. The novel is dotted with incidents where Peter seems curiously unable to remember the simplest of narratives or even the other inhabitants of Neverland. On a number of occasions during the flight to Neverland, Peter forgets the Darling children and asks Wendy to keep reminding him who she is: “if you see me forgetting you, just keep on saying “I’m Wendy,” and then I’ll remember” (Barrie, Wendy 62). He also very easily forgets his archenemy, Captain Hook, and his old familiar, Tinker Bell. Peter Pan is not the only child whom Neverland robs of their processes of recollection. The Darling children very quickly feel the mental effects of their new environment as they have trouble recalling details about their parents. Neverland not only endangers heteronormative or physical growth; it seems to attack any sort of stability in the boys’ lives by rendering any mental or emotional growth impossible. Peter Pan is rendered queer by an environment that disallows any sort of development along socially acceptable lines.
In contrast to the wildness of Peter Pan and the Lost Boys, Wendy seems to offer a safe and normal alternative to the dangerous lifestyle that Neverland affords. In his psychoanalytical essay, “Wendy’s Story: Analytic Perspectives on J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy,” Adrian Smith argues that Wendy, in contrast to Peter, represents the universal human experience of passing from childhood to adulthood (Smith 518). Within the framework of Neverland, she constructs herself as a model of feminine virtue and maternal wholesomeness. She takes on the role of mother to her siblings and the Lost Boys when Peter claims that all they “need is just a nice motherly person”(Barrie, Wendy 105). Despite her protestations that she has no real experience, Wendy fulfills her new role immediately. She polices the Lost Boys, tells them bedtime stories and performs a variety of domestic tasks. Even her own siblings refer to her as “mother.” Wendy fits into a heteronormative model in more than just her posturing as a mother figure; she also attempts to encourage Peter Pan to fit this domestic model by pressuring him into becoming a husband and father figure. Peter is more than happy to have Wendy act as a substitute mother in the realm of Neverland but has no interest in becoming her male counterpart.
As Michael and John make clear, Peter is ignorant of how a father is supposed to behave: “He is not really our father,’ John answered. ‘He didn’t even know how a father does till I showed him’” (Barrie, Wendy 146). Peter is either too ignorant or too queer to fit into this heteronormative model. As a child with no adult frame of reference, he relies on John and Michael to school him on how to act. Unlike Wendy, he cannot even convincingly pretend to belong to a normal frame of development and take on the expected masculine role of father and husband. Nor, as the text makes clear, is Peter interested in taking on this role: “I was just thinking,’ he said, a little scared. ‘It is only make-believe, isn’t it, that I am their father?’” (Barrie, Wendy 151). Peter is terrified by the prospect of actually falling into this heteronormative pattern of behavior and being forced to grow up.
Not only does Peter fail Wendy’s expectations of fatherhood; he also fails to conform to her heteronormative fantasy of a husband. When Wendy asks Peter, “What are your exact feelings for me?” (Barrie, Wendy 152), Peter replies, “Those of a devoted son, Wendy” (Barrie, Wendy 152). He is completely resistant to Wendy’s efforts to tease him into declaring romantic feelings for her. Peter has no interest in becoming the male sexual counterpoint to any woman; after Wendy expresses distress at Peter’s lack of interest in becoming her “husband,” he is puzzled by her response: “You are so queer … and Tiger Lily is just the same. There is something she wants to be to me, but she says it is not my mother” (Barrie, Wendy 152). Peter is not only unwilling to become a sexual partner to any girl within Neverland, he is completely ignorant of the entire culture of courtship and romance.
Peter queers his existence by completely rejecting heteronormative development; he is only willing to act as a father or a husband if it is understood as “pretend.” In his essay, “Peter Pan: Indefinition Defined,” Jonathan Padley argues that it is precisely that resistance to falling into a familial role which makes Peter such an indefinable or “queer” character. Peter’s refusal to become a stable father figure is exemplary of his wider resistance to definition (Padley 275). Peter refuses to settle comfortably into the role of father, son, or lover — definitions used by society to easily classify male figures. This refusal queers Peter as it places him as a “Betwixt-and-Between” figure (Barrie, Kensington 29) who defies social categorization.
Nat Hurley makes a similar argument in her essay, “The Perversions of Children’s Literature.” Much of children’s literature, she argues, offers examples of ‘perversion’ in the form of dissident or non-conforming children and it is this perversion that undermines the “normative narrative of child development and identity formation that persists in much of our thinking about children within and beyond books” (Hurley 119-120). Peter Pan operates as a perfect example of ‘perversion’ of both the child and how adults view the child. Peter Pan complicates the conventional idea of a successful adulthood as the desirable outcome of a childhood developmental trajectory, marking him out as ‘queer’ as he is unwilling or incapable of growing up.
The only way that Peter can maintain his status as a queer “Betwixt-and-Between” figure (Barrie, Kensington 29) is through danger. Peter explains to Wendy that he ran away the day he was born:
‘It was because I heard father and mother,’ he explained in a low voice, ‘talking about what I was to be when I became a man.’ He was extraordinarily agitated now. ‘I don’t want ever to be a man,’ he said with passion. ‘I want always to be a little boy and to have fun. So I ran away to Kensington Gardens and lived a long long time among the fairies.’ (Barrie, Wendy 41-2)
If Peter had grown up in the safe confines of his parent’s home he would have been forced into adopting a normal persona. The only way to preserve his queer state of existence was by running away and plunging into a world of danger. Kensington Gardens, in Barrie’s other Peter Pan novel, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, is an obvious site of danger as it ends with Peter making graves for children who get lost at night in the Gardens. Despite the obvious danger of living alone as a child, Peter sees it as his only option for escaping the greatest danger of all: growing up.
This non-conformist attitude seems to be firmly attached to the realm of Neverland. When the Lost Boys give up the danger of Neverland, they rediscover the safety and comfort of a heteronormative family life. In the process, their lives become decidedly more normal as they attend school and become “as ordinary as you or me” (Barrie, Wendy 238). When the narrator revisits the Lost Boys as adults, they have completely readjusted to heteronormative, middle class British society. Nibs and Curly go to an office everyday, Michael is an engine driver, Tootles is a judge and John is a negligent father. Their lives after reentering polite society have become so commonplace that even the narrator notes, “it is scarcely worth while saying anything more about them” (Barrie, Wendy 241). The safety of the real world cures them of the queerness of Neverland and the Lost Boys are able to develop within the confines of a civilized, heteronormative culture.
Similarly, in Jeanette Winterson’s semi-autobiographical tale, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, the character of Jeanette cannot realize her identity as a lesbian until she escapes the ‘safety’ of her mother’s home and religion. In the final chapter of the novel, “Ruth,” Jeanette contemplates how coming to the city allowed her to escape her past and wonders if she will ever be able to return. For Jeanette, the city has become a new world for her, a world in which she can become a “new creation” (Winterson 160). She recognizes that she cannot go back without losing herself:
Pillars hold things up, and salt keeps things clean, but it’s a poor exchange for losing your self. People do go back, but they don’t survive, because two realities are claiming them at the same time. Such things are too much. You can salt your heart, or kill your heart, or you can choose between the two realities. (Winterson 160)
In order to construct and maintain her own identity, Jeanette can never fully return to the safety of ‘home.’ She proposes that it is impossible to live in the past while she is in her present. Her life is always changing and going forward, and if she clings to her past identity, it will destroy her. Jeanette is able to liberate herself by letting go of her childhood home and identity. Her ejection from the safety of her own home eventually allows Jeanette to develop into her own person, free from the negative and hostile influence of her mother and her religious community.
In many ways, the supposed safety of home life is dangerous for Jeanette and her development of a queer identity. Jeanette’s queerness is viewed as not only ‘unnatural’ but also evil and she is believed to be possessed by a demon. When Jeanette’s affair with Melanie is uncovered, both her mother and her church take immediate actions to ‘cure’ Jeannette of her queerness. These cures manifest themselves as forms of abuse. From the perspective of her mother and her pastor, the only way to save Jeanette from the danger of her demons (i.e. her queerness) is to violently eject them from her. They attempt an exorcism, spending the entire day praying over top of her and begging the demons to renounce her: “They had spent the day praying over me, laying hands on me, urging me to repent my sins before the Lord. ‘Renounce her, renounce her,’ the pastor kept saying, ‘it’s only the demon’” (Winterson 107). When this fails, the pastor advises Jeanette’s mother to lock her up and starve her for the next thirty-six hours. Eventually, Jeanette’s mother ejects her from the family home because of her ‘evilness.’ Historically considered ‘safe’ environments, the home, the church and the community are hostile to Jeanette’s queer identity.
Peter and Jeanette’s experiences call into question what exactly is ‘dangerous’ for a child. In these texts, the safe spaces of the family home, the community, and the church refuse to nourish queer maturation and, in many instances, are openly hostile to the exploration of a queer identity. J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy and Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit demonstrate that the real danger to the queer child is, in fact, safety. Peter Pan remains in Neverland, forever a youth, avoiding the pressures and structures of heteronormative family life that would undoubtedly be thrust upon him back in Edwardian England. Jeanette is prematurely ejected from the safety of her family home but ultimately, this ejection and rejection allows her an unprecedented degree of self-determination. For both Peter and Jeanette, independence from ‘safe’ structures and socializing pressures allows them to grow into fully realized queer beings: Peter through his refusal to grow up and Jeanette in her refusal to conform.
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illustration by Laura Ritland