Shades of a Shadow - Symbolism in J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan

By Elizabeth G., published Feb 18, 2007


One of the most well known and best loved literary fantasies of this century, J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan romanticizes the world of childhood. While pirates, mermaids, and fairies give the story intrigue and adventure, Barrie's underlying themes are seen most clearly in the play's subtleties. In John Caird and Trevor Nunn's enhanced version of the play, descriptive stage directions and narration contribute to the audience's awareness of these otherwise veiled aspects. Of particular interest is Peter's shadow which somehow "falls off" in the first act. The notion of a free shadow, detached from its source object, is rather peculiar. In order to explain its purpose in the text, Barrie's themes of courage and fear, fantasy and reality, happiness and sadness, strength and weakness, and past and future must be kept in mind. A possible symbol of each of these elements, Peter Pan's extraordinary shadow sheds light on childhood and the process of growing up.

The shadow's most basic and obvious function is to contribute to the fantasy of the play. In reality, a shadow is simply a dark spot on the ground. In Peter Pan, a shadow has color, shape, texture, and mass; it is tangible. The stage directions describe it as "a flimsy thing, which is not more material than a puff of smoke, and if let go would probably float into the ceiling without discolouring it. Yet it has human shape," (Act I). At first, the Darling household seems very familiar and realistic. There are two parents, three children, a dog, and a servant. The children are rowdy and resist going to bed, the father is authoritative, and the mother is nurturing. Barrie shatters this familiar reality when Mr. and Mrs. Darling accept the fantasy of a shadow falling off as an everyday occurrence. Wendy reacts to this incident in a similar fashion. When Peter tells her that he cannot get his shadow back on, she is not at all surprised. In fact, she knows exactly how to reattach it. It in not uncommon for children to play with their shadows or to imagine that they are tangible. However, in order to grow up, children must leave behind this fantasy. In this light, Mr. and Mrs. Darling are seen as children. By creating adult characters with a childish belief in fantasy, Barrie suggests that no one ever fully grows up. Instead, growing up is a process that continues throughout life. Because the adult figures in Peter Pan do not understand the reality of a shadow, it becomes the audience's responsibility to do so.

In reality, a shadow is the projected image of a blocked light source. In a more abstract sense, a shadow is the darkness that results from the absence of light. Darkness and light are prevalent motifs throughout the play. Traditionally, darkness represents sadness, ignorance, and fear, while light represents happiness, knowledge, and courage. In order for a shadow to exist, light and darkness must both be present. Once Peter's shadow is attached to him, it does not come to life until the
lights are turned on. The light "awakens" the shadow. Although a shadow is dark, it is created by light. The same concept is true for happiness and sadness. How can one experience happiness if one has never known sadness? In Peter Pan, childhood depends on both of these elements. The children of Never Land are playful, free, adventurous, and happy. Yet at the same time, they are stranded, lost, and without a mother. If Peter had not experienced the disappointment of finding the window to his nursery barred, he would have never known the wonderful excitement of Never Land. In the same way that light and darkness coexist to form a shadow, both happiness and sadness must be present to create the childhood experience.

The peculiar existence of light, darkness, and shadow in the Darling nursery gives it magic and fantasy. While the nursery symbolizes childhood, the light and darkness within it symbolize the childhood experience. As the Darling children sleep, the room is dark, yet the night-lights burn. One of the most common childhood fears is that of the dark. Being surrounded by darkness is similar to being lost. Mrs. Darling does not leave her children in total darkness. She lights night-lights and says to her scared son, "they are the eyes a mother leaves behind her to guard her children," (Act I). It is somewhat ironic that after Mrs. Darling says, "Dear night-lights protect my sleeping babes, burn clear and steadfast tonight," the stage directions read "the nursery darkens and she is gone". Although the night-lights serve to protect the children, there is still an overwhelming darkness. Mrs. Darling tries to shelter her children from fear and sadness. However, children need to experience fear and sadness in order to appreciate courage and happiness. In this respect, the role of the mother limits the childhood experience. Once she leaves the nursery, childhood can exist in its natural state. Thus, Peter Pan enters. The first image of Peter is his lost shadow in the possession of Mr. and Mrs. Darling. Before he enters the nursery, his presence is indicated by the light of his fairy. The night-lights go out and Tinkerbell provides the room's only light source. By presenting Peter's shadow and light before presenting the actual character, Barrie subtly cues the audience that these elements are significant. In the midst of introducing Peter, Barrie, in the stage directions, compares the children to the night-lights: "They [the night-lights] blink three times one after the other and go out, precisely as the children (whom familiarity has made them resemble) fall asleep". By comparing the children to light, Barrie suggests that they symbolize goodness. It is childhood, not children themselves, that encompasses the evils of weakness, sadness, fear, and ignorance. When Wendy grows up and has her own daughter, the only thing that changes in the nursery is the light. An electric light has replaced the gas light to emphasize the passing of time. Like Mrs. Darling, Wendy lights her daughter's night light before she goes to sleep. Barrie uses the nursery and its light as the play's constant. He reminds the audience that even though children change and grow up, the childhood experience remains constant.

This constant becomes increasingly important as Barrie reverses the traditional connotations of light and dark. There are several instances where darkness is portrayed as positive and good while light is seen as frightful and unwanted. A close examination of her character reveals that Tinkerbell is a rather unpleasant, low-class, offensive fairy. Her most common line is "you silly ass", usually referring to the sweet and innocent Wendy. Yet, Tinkerbell is represented as a ball of light. When Peter finds his shadow, he is so joyous that he forgets that he has shut Tinkerbell up in the drawer. He then proceeds to describe her to Wendy as "not very polite", "quite common", and "naughty". He prefers his dark shadow over his light fairy. Peter has another adverse reaction to light at the end of the play. When the adult Wendy says she is going to turn on the light, the stage directions indicate that Peter is "frightened" and "husky". Although most children are afraid of the dark, Peter Pan is afraid of light. The fact that he is "in the dark" and ignorant of many things helps him continue to be a child. Part of growing up is seeing the world in a new light, a task that Peter refuses to do. When Wendy turns the light on, "a bewildered understanding comes to him. . . he shrinks back". This enlightenment that Wendy has grown up greatly disappoints Peter. By preferring dark over light, he does not face such disappointments. Thus, Barrie reverses traditional associations with light and darkness to illustrate Peter's peculiarities.

Peter's joy and comfort in darkness seem to justify his desire for his shadow. However, when examining the shadow's symbolism in its entirety, this desire has a more complex explanation. Traditionally, shadows symbolize the past. They are distorted images, lingering behind people at all times. An essential element of Peter's eternal childhood is his lack of memory. Without a memory, he cannot gain knowledge from his experiences and therefore cannot grow up. He is also weightless, most likely because he lacks the weight of a past. It appears as if supernatural forces operate on Peter to prevent him from growing up. These forces probably cause his shadow to fall off. To have no memory or past, he must not have a shadow. To have no weight, a shadow must not bind him to the ground. However, Peter resists his lack of memory and his weightlessness. By remembering where he lost his shadow and reattaching it to keep himself grounded, he defies two primary characteristics that prevent his growing up. In order to understand his actions, it is necessary to examine them from Peter's perspective- that of a child. As a child, he does not understand how lack of memory and weight prevent him from growing up. He wants to be a real boy with a real shadow to play with, and he keeps his weightlessness a secret. Not growing up is an unrealistic notion, so Peter Pan cannot be realistic. Peter does not understand or accept this concept because he is a child. Children inherently lack an understanding of the way the world works. In this regard, Peter must try to challenge his peculiar characteristics.

Peter Pan's is detachment from reality, does not make him inhuman. His acute sense of courage, fear, strength, weakness, joy and sadness gives him deep, human emotions. Peter's shadow invokes these strong feelings. When he finds his shadow, he is filled with joy. But, when he realizes that it will not stick to him, he begins to cry. When Wendy suggests that Peter is crying because he does not have a mother he replies: "I wasn't crying about my mother. I was crying because I can't get my shadow to stick on. Anyway, I wasn't crying". Peter obviously has more of an emotional attachment to his shadow than he does to his mother. In a sense, his shadow is his mother figure. He loses his shadow the same way he loses his mother: by leaving through the window of a nursery. When he returns to his mother, the window is locked, but when he returns to his shadow, the window is open. The shadow functions as a constant for Peter, a role similar to that of a mother. Therefore, the prospect of losing his shadow greatly saddens him.

Peter Pan needs his shadow to give him the human characteristic of emotion. But, at the same time, Peter must not have the shadow as it symbolizes a past and memory. Barrie develops the concept of a shadow with such complexity that it becomes a character in the play. In many productions of Peter Pan, an actor plays the part of the shadow. In the stage directions, Barrie even personifies the shadow: "The shadow awakes and is glad to be back with him as he is to have it. He and his shadow dance together," (Act I). If the shadow were not a character, Peter would be only dancing. The fact that it is a mother figure also gives the shadow human qualities. Peter's lines "it isn't quite itself yet," and "perhaps it's dead" give life to this otherwise intangible image. In the same way that the shadow gives Peter human characteristics, Peter brings the shadow to life.

Barrie's intriguing yet subtle development of the simple notion of a shadow greatly contributes to the richness of Peter Pan. The shadow carries different meanings for different people. To children watching this play, the shadow is simply an element of fun and amusement. They are not aware that the shadow helps define childhood. To Tinkerbell, the shadow represents competition for Peter's affection. Mr. Darling believes he can make money by selling the shadow to a museum. The shadow provides Wendy with an opportunity of being a mother, as she sews it on to Peter. Most importantly, Barrie's use of the shadow gives the adult audience insight on childhood and growing up. Whether as an element of fantasy, amusement, or symbolism, the shadow plays a fascinating role in the intriguing and imaginative world of Peter Pan.







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