Peter Pan

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Children and Heartlessness Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Children and Heartlessness Theme Icon
Motherhood Theme Icon
The Fantastic and the Commonplace  Theme Icon
Fairness and Good Form  Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Peter Pan, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Children and Heartlessness Theme Icon

When Jane asks Wendy why she can longer fly, Wendy explains that only children can fly – “only the gay and innocent and heartless.” Peter and Wendy is a love song to children, but it is also a sad reproof, and a bitter clarification about what childhood and children are really like. Boring fairy tales and fatuous mothers like to pretend that children are little angels, but really children are selfish, conceited, and callous. These “rubbishy children” are very loveable, but they don’t deserve our love.

The narrator tries hard to assume this severe stance, but he falters again and again. He is charmed by Michael’s sleepy babble, by Slightly’s transparent pretensions, even by John’s bad temper; and he admires Wendy’s precocious seriousness and Peter’s wild bouts of courage. What exactly does the narrator mean when he calls children “heartless”? The Neverland children are full of enthusiasm and joy, they are full of sadness, fear, and certainly admiration: “I’m glad of you,” Michael says touchingly to his mother. What is missing?

Children can feel “glad of” many things, but they don’t feel loyal to anything. They are always ready to abandon their loved ones. They haven’t learned yet that a loved person may change or disappear if one turns away from them: they haven’t learned to identify the gladness of love with fear of loss. Their heartlessness is in fact an aspect of their innocence. And their adult hearts will be the reward of experience: when Peter’s cautionary tale about mothers makes the Darling children realize that the parents they are glad of may one day disappear from their lives, they feel a sad ache, an early sign of the adult heart.

Peter has felt the ache many times in his long life and he has always forgotten it. His forgetfulness protects him from loss, and so allows him to stay a child forever. The cause of this forgetfulness is one of the book’s most pressing mysteries: children are heartless from inexperience, but it may be that Peter is heartless by choice.

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Children and Heartlessness ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Children and Heartlessness appears in each chapter of Peter Pan. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Children and Heartlessness Quotes in Peter Pan

Below you will find the important quotes in Peter Pan related to the theme of Children and Heartlessness.
Chapter 3 Quotes

'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.'

Related Characters: Peter Pan (speaker)
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:

Peter Pan explains how he came to be a (perpetually) little boy. When he was a child, he become disgusted with the adult world--he hated adults for being so big and heavy and boring. As a result, he decided to run away from home to live with fairies.

Peter's description is both amusing and a little disturbing. In theory, the idea of a child never growing up sounds cute and charming, and yet Peter's explanation for why he never grew up isn't so cute. Peter is interested in embracing the fun and beauty of being a child, but not as much as he's obsessed with avoiding the fate of adulthood. In other words, Peter hates adulthood more than he loves childhood.


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Chapter 4 Quotes

Eventually Peter would dive through the air, and catch Michael just before he could strike the sea, and it was lovely the way he did it; but he always waited till the last moment, and you felt it was his cleverness that interested him and not the saving of human life.

Related Characters: Peter Pan , Michael
Page Number: 45
Explanation and Analysis:

Peter Pan takes Wendy, Michael, and John off to Neverland, but when the children fall asleep, they fall to earth. Peter saves them whenever they fall--and yet he seems to be doing so just to show off. The children sense that he's more interested in proving that he's powerful and quick than he is in getting to know his new friends--indeed, the three children have to keep reminding him who they are.

The passage begins to suggest that Peter might not be as wonderful as he's cracked up to be: for all his superhuman powers, he's vain and narcissistic, and seems not to care about other people very much. Perhaps it's because so many of Peter's visitors grow up and abandon him that Peter has learned not to make close friends with anyone. Or perhaps Peter has just gotten used to being the unquestioned leader of the other boys and girls.

Chapter 10 Quotes

'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.'

Related Characters: Peter Pan (speaker), Wendy , Princess Tiger Lily
Page Number: 119
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Peter deals with his own emotional immaturity. Peter senses that the women in his life (Wendy, Tinker Bell, Tiger Lily, etc.) want to be "something" to him. But because Peter has almost no experience interacting with the opposite sex, he has no way of conceiving what this "something" might be.

As we can deduce, Barrie is talking about love and attraction--the girls in the book have crushes on Peter. But Peter, perpetually immature, can't reciprocate the girls' feelings--he's so youthful (and so obsessed with himself) that he can never summon the maturity or desire to love someone in return. Barrie suggests that maturity consists largely of being able to love someone else--young people like Peter are so narcissistic (even if in an innocent way) that romantic love never occurs to them.

Chapter 11 Quotes

"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."

Related Characters: Wendy (speaker), Mrs. Darling , John , Michael
Page Number: 124
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Wendy tells the children of Neverland a story. In the story, a group of children fly away from home, only to find that, years later, their parents continue to love them and have left a window open for their return.

The story is interesting for a couple reasons. First, the very fact that Wendy is telling the children a story suggests that she's maturing, playing the part of a leader and a guide to the other children. Wendy's new authority among the children is also reflected in the content of her story--Wendy associates herself with motherhood by celebrating mothers in her story. Wendy is still very much a child, of course (she's still in Neverland, after all), but she's clearly starting to pine for her home--hence her story's ending.

Off we skip like the most heartless things in the world, which is what children are, but so attractive; and we have an entirely selfish time; and then when we have need of special attention we nobly return for it, confident that we shall be embraced instead of smacked.

Page Number: 124
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Peter has just finished listening to Wendy's story about loving mothers. Peter is angry with Wendy for telling "lies," and insists that mothers are cruel, and ignore their children when they fly away to Neverland. When Wendy insists that she and her siblings must return to their home right away, Peter is hurt, but he pretends not to care. In short, Barrie says, Peter is being "heartless"--he's a purely selfish creature, who just wants Wendy to spend time with him. Peter is such a child that he expects Wendy and the other boys to pay attention to him forever.

Barrie is remarkably cynical about children and what children are capable of. While he clearly adores and related to children, he also acknowledges that kids are basically selfish--like Peter, they just want other people to pay attention to them. Peter is particularly selfish because he's a "pure" child--he's given up on growing up altogether.

Thus children are ever ready, when novelty knocks, to desert their dearest ones.

Page Number: 128
Explanation and Analysis:

In this surprising scene, Wendy prepares to leave Neverland with her siblings, John and Michael. As Barrie describes the scene, he makes a note about children: in spite of their innocence and morality, they can be surprisingly callous and cruel. Indeed, children are often perfectly willing to lose the people they hold "dearest." Many children have such short attention spans that they can abandon a loved one when something better comes along, and only regret their actions later, if at all.

Barrie's description of childhood might sound harsh or cynical, and yet the passage has a positive point: Barrie suggests that growing into an adult isn't so bad after all. Most children are frightened of growing into adults, because adulthood seems like "a drag." Barrie suggests that adults, in spite of their many flaws, are capable of greater acts of goodness and kindness than children. Children are naturally good, and yet they're also selfish and quick to abandon their loved ones. Adults, by contrast, can be incredibly loyal to their loved ones. (Mrs. Darling is a great example.)

Chapter 13 Quotes

Sometimes, though not often, he had dreams, and they were more painful than the dreams of other boys. For hours he could not be separated from these dreams, though he wailed piteously in them. They had to do, I think, with the riddle of his existence.

Related Characters: Peter Pan
Page Number: 142
Explanation and Analysis:

Barrie describes the dreams that Peter has on some nights. Surprisingly, Peter's dreams are fitful, nightmarish, and altogether unfit for a child.

Why are Peter's dreams so vivid and so frightening? Barrie suggests that Peter can't handle his own existence--a "riddle" that he's ill-equipped to solve. Peter has no mother or father, and in spite of what he claims, his lack of parents seems to cause him great torment and jealousy (even if his torment only comes out in his dreams). Being a child is a mess of contradictions: children are both arrogant and humble, selfish and generous. Most kids learn to figure out their own contradictions by spending time with their parents, spending time with their peers, and growing up. But Peter can never grow up--and so he's doomed to experience the same contradictions in his personality via his nightmares.

Chapter 15 Quotes

'Pan, who and what art thou?' he cried huskily.
'I'm youth, I'm joy,' Peter answered at a venture, 'I'm a little bird that has broken out of the egg.'
This, of course, was nonsense; but it was proof to the unhappy Hook that Peter did not know in the least who or what he was, which is the very pinnacle of good form.

Related Characters: Peter Pan (speaker), Captain Jas. Hook (speaker)
Page Number: 172
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Peter Pan and Captain Hook have their climactic "showdown." As he stabs Hook in the ribs, Peter tells Hook that he is the embodiment of joy and youth.

Peter's claims seem nonsensical--after all, we've seen that Peter can be selfish and narcissistic to the extreme. And yet Peter possesses an innate goodness and innocence simply because he's a young child--without any effort, he is a "good person."

The passage reinforces Captain Hook's greatest fear. As the embodiment of the adult world, Hook is obsessed with the question of how to be good and proper. But no matter how hard Hook tries, he'll never manage to be intuitively "good," as Peter is. For all his vanity, Hook can never match Peter's natural innocence and instinctive morality.

Chapter 16 Quotes

If she was too fond of her rubbishy children she couldn't help it. Look at her in her chair, where she has fallen asleep. The corner of her mouth, where one looks first, is almost withered up. Her hand moves restlessly on her breast as if she had a pain there. Some like Peter best and some like Wendy best, but I like her best.

Related Characters: Peter Pan , Wendy , Mrs. Darling
Related Symbols: The Kiss
Page Number: 180
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Barrie describes Mrs. Darling, a woman who feels an unqualified, complete love for her children, no matter who they are or what they do. Barrie's description is Mrs. Darling is poignant because it emphasizes her tenuous connection to the world of children: her "kiss" (the dimple on her mouth) is almost gone--i.e., her connection to the gentle world of youth is dangling by a thread. Furthermore, the passage emphasizes Mrs. Darling's mortality--note the descrption of the "pain in her breast" (some have suggested that Barrie based Mrs. Darling on a beloved friend who was dying of tuberculosis).

The passage is important because, in claiming that he likes Mrs. Darlin best, Barrie is ultimately throwing his sympathies to the world of kind, empathetic adults, not the world of children. Barrie loves children, and understands them deeply. And yet in the end, he believes that children should not resist growing up to be adults--kind, fun, and gentle adults, with responsibility to other people (above all, to their own children).

He ceased to look at her, but even then she would not let go of him. He skipped about and made funny faces, but when he stopped it was just as if she were inside him, knocking.

Related Characters: Peter Pan , Mrs. Darling
Page Number: 184
Explanation and Analysis:

Peter Pan flies to the Darlings' house, intending to shut the window so that Wendy will believe that her parents have forgotten her. But when Peter see Mrs. Darling crying herself to sleep, he's touched. He tries everything he can to makes Mrs. Darling cheer up--but nothing works. Her love for her children is so complete that she won't be happy until they return to her home.

The passage has Peter showing a rare flash of maturity--instead of selfishly tricking the Darling children into staying Neverland, he decides to let them rejoin their mother, recognizing that it's the right thing to do. Furthermore, Peter feels a little of Mrs. Darling "inside him," suggesting that, perhaps, he's developing the tiniest bit of self-awareness and maturity.

He had ecstasies innumerable that other children can never know; but he was looking through the window at the one joy from which he must be for ever barred.

Related Characters: Peter Pan
Page Number: 186
Explanation and Analysis:

Peter has allowed the Darling children to return to their home, and he watches sadly as John, Wendy, and Michael embrace their mother--the scene is brimming with joy and love. Peter is sad because, in spite of the joys of Neverland, he'll never be able to enjoy the pleasure of having a mother and father. Peter has left his family long ago--his disgust for adults everywhere (and his parents' supposed refusal to let him back through the window) has separated him from family forever.

Note that the passage specifies that Peter is barred from the joy of having a family, not the literal circumstances of having a family. There's a very subtle difference between family happiness and the mere fact of having a family: Peter claims that his parents have abandoned him (and maybe they have), but in part, Peter chooses not to have a family; he chooses not to feel the pleasures of loyalty, love, and responsibility. 

Chapter 17 Quotes

He took Mrs. Darling's kiss with him. The kiss that had been for no one else Peter took quite easily. Funny. But she seemed satisfied.

Related Characters: Peter Pan , Mrs. Darling
Related Symbols: The Kiss
Page Number: 191
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Peter leaves Wendy and the Darlings for a year: he's flying back to Neverland alone. But Peter takes one memento of his time with the Darlings: the "kiss" hidden in Mrs. Darling's face.

The meaning of Mrs. Darling's "kiss" is so ambiguous that it's difficult to tell exactly what Barrie is trying to say in this passage. Peter has been craving a mother-figure in his life, though he's always denied it. Now, Peter is flying back to Neverland with a tiny sign that he does have a mother--Mrs. Darling. Mrs. Darling may not be his literal mother, but she gives him love and affection, a reminder that Peter is still a little boy, and needs a mother. Peter continues to live in Neverland, but Barrie suggests that he's finally gotten some of the parental love he's always been denied--and in the process, learned to respect the world of adults (or at least be a little confused in his dislike of it).

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 other girls.

Related Characters: Wendy
Page Number: 194
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of the story, the Darling children return to their day-to-day lives--and in the end, they grow up to be adults. The big question that Barrie poses at the end of his novel is: is growing up bad? Barrie insists that becoming an adult need not be so bad. For someone like Wendy, being an adult has all kinds of advantages. Wendy was always a good leader and a natural mother, who liked to take care of other people. Thus, Wendy's transition to adulthood isn't a hideous curse (as Peter Pan sometimes seemed to think)--rather, it's a blessing, as well as a natural part of life.

The passage further suggests that children who grow up into adults willingly are the most compassionate and sensitive ones. Selfish, wild children like Peter never grow up because they're too concerned with themselves. Wendy, on the other hand, cares too much about taking care of others to want to remain a child forever.

It is only the gay and innocent and heartless who can fly.

Related Characters: Wendy (speaker)
Page Number: 195
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Barrie sums up his point: to be a child is joyful, exciting, but also incredibly selfish. Children, he's shown, are blessed with a natural sense of morality and innocence. But children are also selfish and fickle--they tend to care about themselves far more than they care about others. Only adults can truly care about other people in a lasting, responsible way.

Ultimately, Wendy grows up into a woman because she genuinely cares more about other people than she cares about being young and happy. Wendy is a surprisingly noble character--she loves Neverland, but loves other people more. She's a natural adult and a natural mother--not just to Peter, but to her own child, Jane.