Mrs. Darling's Scream: the Rites of Persephone in Peter and Wendy and Wuthering Heights.

Author:Blackford, Holly
Position:Critical essay
 
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"All rites of passage are paradoxical. On the one hand, there's the opportunity for personal growth, the promise of transcendence. But there is terror and disintegration, too--deep blows to the ego. No wonder that the day a mother hands off her daughter to Pan is unquestionably her worst.... From this moment on, they will fly on their own fuel and eat from the tree of imaginary fruit. They no longer need their mothers, all of whom have taken a bad fall and make their peace with gravity."

~Wendy, of Laurie Fox's The Lost Girls, 165

When J. M. Barrie adapted his 1904 play Peter Pan into the 1911 novel Peter and Wendy, he wrote a crucial opening paragraph in which he signals the novel's concern with female development. The paragraph constructs an origin myth of mother-daughter unity, which awareness of time disrupts:

All children, except one, grow up. They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this. One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs. Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, "Oh, why can't you remain like this for ever!" This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end. (69) This passage recites the fall of the daughter from a pre-linguistic mother-daughter Eden, framing the eternal child-son Peter Pan as a transitional figure between mother and daughter. Mrs. Darling introduces the idea of time and division--the knowledge that mother and daughter are "two"--through verbalizing desire for perpetual unity and thus ushering in the language that divides and allows individuals social expression. Wendy cannot remain in Mrs. Darling's garden, and in fact rivals her position. The next paragraph continues with "Of course they lived at 14, and until Wendy came her mother was the chief one" (69). Creation myths teach us that once children take on individual existence, they rival their creators. This is always viewed ambiguously by parents, who feel their own mortality in conjunction with the growing child, just as God's power is immediately rivaled when he creates man "in his image."

What Mrs. Darling does in the above paragraph is make a wish, and the rest of the fantasy represents, with fairy tale logic, her struggle to expel that wish, of which she is guilty. With that wish she has conjured the kiss of the vampire, who comes through the window at night and shows his teeth, anxious to carry her Persephone to the underworld:

While [Mrs. Darling] was dreaming the window of the nursery blew open, and a boy did drop on the floor ... She started up with a cry, and saw the boy, and somehow she knew at once that he was Peter Pan. If you or I or Wendy had been there we should have seen that he was very like Mrs. Darling's kiss. He was a lovely boy, clad in skeleton leaves and the juices that ooze out of trees; but the most entrancing thing about him was that he had all his first teeth. When he saw she was a grown-up, he gnashed the little pearls at her. Mrs. Darling screamed. (Peter and Wendy, 77-78) Peter embodies both youth and death, life and shadow. He is created by the kiss and speech of a woman. The "skeleton leaves" and the rotting "juices" oozing out of trees symbolize the rotting corpse (Reynolds 176), and the mature fluid-filled female body that births youth. The apparition makes Mrs. Darling scream because it is so entrancing. He has been conjured by her words, "Oh, why can't you remain like this for ever!," which is, actually, a death-wish because the alternative to growing up is to die.

What she fears is already desired by her daughter Wendy, whose mind, Mrs. Darling finds, is "scrawled all over with [Peter Pan]" (74). Peter Pan is a construct of the female psyche and a transitional object between mother and daughter. He represents a site of struggle between Wendy's desire to fly the nursery and Mrs. Darling's desire to keep Wendy young, which is finally resolved by their bargain to share her, Wendy visiting Peter Pan during spring-cleaning and sending her daughters and daughter's daughters when she gets too old. The myth of Persephone prevails in the ending Barrie chose for his novel, proposing a solution to the paradox of desiring connection and separation, the paradox of mother-daughter desire. In the common logic of novels of female development, argues Adrienne Gavin, girls must die to become women (135), which, thanks to Peter and a harem of boys who build her a house and make her Queen of the underworld, Wendy does. The existence of a woman's Peter Pan is recognized by The Lost Girls, the recent film adaptation of Peter Pan, and even Disney's Peter Pan with its emphasis on Wendy's last night in the nursery and onset of menses, a thesis Donald Crafton argues in his explication of the film's images such as the moon and Big Ben. While many critics of Barrie's tale focus on Peter's immortal, masculine youth, fewer recognize the central role of Wendy's journey to the undead. (1) Hers is essentially a Gothic journey that expresses a culture's ambivalent feelings about female development.

Students of the Female Gothic tradition know that heroines, themselves in transition between states of being just as Peter is forever "betwixt and between" in Barrie's The Little White Bird, persist in being attracted to various kinds of creatures that embody both immortal youth and an opportunity to express sexual desire. Creatures that symbolize the liminality between life and death entice girls away from home and make them "fall." Wendy flies only to fall, in the same way that "Catherine's fall" in Wuthering Heights, brilliantly analyzed by Sandra Gilbert, is understood as a fall away from her youth, embodied by Heathcliff, in the novel's vision of a post-fallen world that yearns for a cosmic unity transcending time and culture. I propose that there is a way of "looking oppositely" (Gilbert's title) at Peter and Wendy by positing its relationship to Gothic romance plots of female development, particularly Wuthering Heights, in which a lost boy signifies female desire and the tension with which girls and women view female development in a patriarchal culture. Catherine's longing for Heathcliff, argue Gilbert and Susan Gubar in The Madwoman in the Attic, is Eve's connection with the scorned and exiled child Satan, Mary Shelley's identification with the monster rejected by its creator, women's desire for and abhorrence of the outlaw vampire, who takes the form of the Byronic hero. In the Female Gothic, women conjure their demon lovers to express their inner conflicts.

For example, the opening words of Louisa May Alcott's A Long Fatal Love Chase are the words of Rosamonde, "I'd gladly sell my soul to Satan for a year of freedom" (1). The incarnation of Mephistopheles in the figure of Tempest, a Byronic hero, swiftly appears to fulfill this deal. This tradition runs throughout the Female Gothic, even in Flannery O'Connor's The Misfit, in which the grandmother conjures the outlaw by reading about and imagining him. In the novel Peter and Wendy, Mrs. Darling conjures Wendy's death--her flight and fall--and Wendy conjures her own return, as argued by R. D. S. Jack, when she takes possession of the story of Neverland by telling the lost boys the story of the Darlings's flight from and return to the nursery. Natalie Babbitt discusses the importance of Peter Pan's structural role in summoning "the hero.... to cross the threshold--from the real world into mystery, from life into death, from waking state into dream" (150), a summoning from which Wendy emerges as her own storyteller. The films' clarification of the story as Wendy's is not an arbitrary introduction. Rather, it is a crucial part of the power of Barrie's classic over female readers.

The romantic journey of the two lead characters Peter and Wendy parallels the romance between Heathcliff and Catherine in Wuthering Heights, a novel written by a woman and canonized for girls as, presumably, an expression of female desire. The parallels between the two books are intensely revealing. Both harbor issues of female desire for youths who cannot follow them into the windowed worlds they grow into. The thresholds of windows and spaces outside chronological time, Neverland and Wuthering Heights, have tremendous significance in both novels. Both feature rival male and female storytellers, tensions between the narrator of Peter and Wendy and Mrs. Darling, tensions between Lockwood and Nelly Dean. Both novels feature spectral children lurking at the windows because they are in perpetual exile from the tale-telling world of adults. Both feature boys perpetually fixated on and unable to accept the women their childhood lovers become. The Byronic hero Heathcliff, both child and father-adult, provides a precedent for both Peter Pan and Hook, understood as "two sides of the same coin" (Lurie 131). Peter, who swiftly replaces Hook on his ship, shares with Hook particular romantic sensitivities and moody resentments. Lockwood's notation of the "shameless little boys" (2) etched on the estate of Wuthering Heights parallels the Neverland kingdom of lost boys, and several critics who interpret maternal longing in Wuthering Heights, such as Philip Wion, Margaret Homans, and Stevie Davies, help us understand a Persephone-Demeter developmental myth structuring both texts.

A comparison with Wuthering Heights moves Peter's role as Byronic hero to center stage, positing his function as a female construct that expresses ambivalence about, and yet enables, female development. Barrie's plays had various endings, but his novel most fully develops the idea of Peter Pan as a transitional object between girls and women, a significance that would influence the lasting life of Peter, particularly in cinema...

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