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.
Children and Heartlessness ThemeTracker
Children and Heartlessness Quotes in Peter Pan
'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.'
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.
'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.'
"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."
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.
Thus children are ever ready, when novelty knocks, to desert their dearest ones.
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.
'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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It is only the gay and innocent and heartless who can fly.