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Everyone looks at growing up differently. Some wish to hold onto their childhood innocence, whilst others have lost it, struggling to find a more mature identity. The literary works of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll and Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie each tackle one side of the transition between childhood and adulthood. For Alice, the world of adults is confusing, but she wants to fit in, wants to be older, and is tired of being treated like a kid.
She strives to be older by acting the part of a mature young woman, her world of Wonderland reflecting this fact, as its older, contains more adult themes and concepts, and ultimately helps little Alice through her child to adult transition, allowing her to find herself.
Peter is quite the opposite. For him, growing up is a definite no, and he holds onto his innocence at any cost. His world, Neverland, portrays this, as things are strictly good or evil, black or white, with an obliviousness to see the fine line in between, and allows Peter to know exactly who he is.
These young protagonists are surrounded by a cast of characters that help outline which side the separate authors take on growing up, and how such things as innocence, maturity, identity and escapism all play parts in these coming of age tales.
Alice is seven-years-old. While most kids her age are playing “with a range of toys from wax dolls to toy soldiers and train sets” and enjoying their youth, Alice is reading, learning vocabulary from her sister, and thinking about the day’s weather (Lambert).
Quite a bit more grown up than the other kids in the 19th century, Alice believes herself to be an adult, acting far beyond her age, and facing challenges with a far more mature attitude. Although confused and a little frazzled when falling down the rabbit hole into Wonderland, she immediately sets herself goals and explores, pushing herself on with an air of experience. When faced with the bottle that says “DRINK ME”, she shows herself knowledgeable, letting readers know she’s heard all about different kinds of poison, and knows that “if you drink much from a bottle marked ‘poison’ it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later” (Carroll 8).
The promotion of her supposedly vast knowledge-beyond-her-years and maturity continues throughout the novel, as Alice points out several occasions to several of the Wonderland characters such as the Caterpillar and later, the Mad Hatter and the Queen, that she’s not just a child, and that’s she’s much more grown up than they think. Numerous instances in the novel show that Alice perceives herself to be older and more mature than she is, and show readers just what side Carroll seems to be taking on the issues of growing up. With the Caterpillar, it seems not to faze her at all that he’s sitting on a mushroom smoking, which isn’t something that typically occurs in a children’s novel, nor should she be exposed to. Secondly, one should note that the mushrooms and potions Alice must eat or drink to grow bigger to smaller are comparable to drugs of the real world, as they alter a person’s perception, much like how they affect Alice’s perception of the already whacky Wonderland. In addition, her constant growing and shrinking mirrors a child or adolescent undergoing changes through puberty and inability to adjust before going through a bit of self-discovery.
The only problem is that no matter how grown up Alice thinks she is, and can act, saying she knows just about everything, her meeting with the Duchess, who comments that Alice “[doesn’t] know much, and that’s a fact” causes her to realise she in fact knows nothing, and still has a great deal to learn from both Wonderland and her own world in order to grow up (Carroll 45). The more mature setting of Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland shows readers he clearly identified with children growing up, making the transition from innocent child to mature adult as quickly and independently as possible. In contrast to this, a book meant for kids, Carroll’s subjects, themes and symbols are far more mature than J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.
Some children simply refuse to grow up when it is time. They don’t want that responsibility, they don’t want to change, and they don’t want to become an adult. They wish to remain “gay and innocent and heartless”, and that’s exactly what Peter plans to do by staying in Neverland forevermore (Barrie 111). He tells Wendy right from the start that he ran away from home because he overheard his parents “talking about what [he] was to be when [he] became a man” and decided that he wanted to “always be a little boy and to have fun” (Barrie 17). Peter is afraid of losing this by growing up, and clings to anything that allows him to remain a child, the main example of this being that he needs a mother, which he finds in Wendy. Although he tells her he wishes for her to see the mermaids in Neverland, it is evident by his declaration to the Lost Boys that “[he hast] brought at last a mother for [them] all” that his plan all along was to get them a mother.
One would think that Peter would play the father to her mother, as he’s in charge of the Lost Boys, but such is not the case. Again Peter’s childhood innocence shines through, because he refuses to play the role of father: she’s meant to be his mother too. He doesn’t want that responsibility, he doesn’t want to become someone else, and he wants to go on adventures and fight pirates for all his life. At the end of the novel, Wendy brings the Lost Boys home, but Peter refuses to go along.
He knows that accepting means growing up, and that is something he will not do. He promises that he’ll bring Wendy back to Neverland, but when he returns, she has grown old, and he is unwilling to acknowledge this. So, he takes her daughter Jane to Neverland to be his mother and do his spring cleaning instead, and later takes her daughter Margaret, “and thus it will go on, so long as children are gay and innocent and heartless” (Barrie 115). In this way, we see that Peter never truly grows up, keeping his childhood values and innocence forevermore, and, unlike Alice, never wonders who he is, or what his place in the adult world will be.
Loss of identity is a frequent and sometimes unavoidable occurrence that accompanies becoming an adult and leaving the world of a child. Alice knows exactly who she is before her adventure in Wonderland, as well as after. But she experiences a change wandering through Wonderland that mirrors the self-discovery a child goes through when making the transition from child to adult. The confusion she experiences is mainly caused by the growing and shrinking and changes her body undergoes in Wonderland, comparable to puberty. When she stumbles across the Caterpillar following a series of growing and shrinking, he queries her:
“‘Who are YOU?’ said the Caterpillar. This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, ‘I-I hardly know, sir, just as present–at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then'” (Carroll 37).
This occurs several more times throughout Wonderland, with Alice being constantly ordered to identify herself the creatures she meets and unable to properly answer. In addition to the Caterpillar’s berating, Alice has a run in with the Cheshire Cat, where he tells her that quite simply “[they’re] all mad here. [He’s] mad, [she’s] mad” and that he knows she is, “or [she] wouldn’t have come here” (Carroll 48). This causes her to question herself and her own sanity, and wonder just what she is doing here in Wonderland, and who exactly she is.
Everyone has told her she is foreign, called her something other than Alice and accused her of something or other at some point in the novel, and it’s almost too much for the young girl to bear. However, she comes out on top of it all at the end, fighting back against the Queen of Hearts and becoming her own independent woman. The changes she undergoes in order to return home at the end of the novel are a parallel to puberty and the act of finding her own identity, showing that Carroll has demonstrated the transition between childhood and adulthood and that despite bumps along the road (finding herself), Alice has grown up properly. This is the opposite of Peter, however, who remains unchanging for the length of his story.
“All children, except one, grow up” (Barrie 1). It is evident from the first line of the novel that Peter won’t become an adult any time soon. He knows who he is: a kid. A kid who battles pirates, protects the Lost Boys and spends his days in happy bliss, doing what he wants when he wants, no rules or restrictions in Neverland. Not having to grow up means he gets to stay that way, and doesn’t need to undergo the self-discovery that comes with maturing and getting older. He displays this several times throughout the novel, the most notable being when Wendy offers to have him play the role of father to the Lost Boys and her brothers, as she is the mother. He refuses, preferring to remain in the role of the “son”, because that’s what he knows, and that’s the role he’s always played, unchanging.
He’s uncomfortable even pretending to be someone but himself, completely comfortable with his identity. Barrie conveys fear of growing up through Peter’s eyes, explaining that by maturing and becoming a man if he goes back home with the Darlings, then he’ll have to become someone else, and lose the identity of who he is now. It was the whole reason he ran away in the first place. In contrast to Alice, who undergoes a change in the novel and makes the transition by the end, he is still the same as ever by the time Peter Pan finishes.
When he drops in through an elderly Wendy’s window, she notes that “he [is] exactly the same as ever,” and she “sees at once that he still [has] all his first teeth” (Barrie 112). She’s grown up, Michael and John have grown up, even the Lost Boys she brought back are now adults, but Peter, as always, is a child. In this way, Barrie allows him to keep every aspect of his identity that he may have lost, becoming someone other than Peter Pan, by growing up, demonstrating again that staying youthful seems to be more favourable that growing up. Despite the fact that he didn’t grow up and Alice did, they share once common trait that ties together their views on growing up: escapism.
Escapism is described by the dictionary as a “habitual diversion of the mind to purely imaginative activity or entertainment as an escape from reality or routine” (Merriam 426). This is exactly how both Peter and Alice deal with their growing up, or lack thereof. This escapism is meant to ease them through their child to adult transition, or, in Peter’s case, to keep it from happening. In order to help achieve their goals, these worlds had to be adapted in order to reflect their author’s view of growing up that has been and will be underlined throughout the novel.
For Alice, there is Wonderland. A dream world created to escape the boredom of the adult world she faces and help her make the transition from child to adult easier. The name itself tells readers what is going on — a Wonder. It symbolizes Alice’s ever constant curiosity and wonder about everything as she learns she must control herself if she is to enter the adult world, as well as how wonderful the world is. Carroll allows himself to reflect his ideas that children should mature fast and grow up by creating mature themes and perhaps innuendos within the pages of Wonderland, the easiest example of this being the Caterpillar. Upon wandering through the forest, Alice’s “eyes immediately [meet] those of a large caterpillar, that [is] sitting on the top of a mushroom with it’s arms folded, quietly smoking a long hookah and not taking the smallest notice of her or anything else” (Carroll 36).
Hookahs are banned in most places as they are considered illegal as they are used for recreational drugs. In the real world, such a thing would never come anywhere near someone as young as Alice, nor would it be appropriate. To place such a mature theme in a children’s book shows that Carroll was all for growing up fast. In addition to this, the cakes and drinks that make her bigger or smaller are also a possible reference to drugs, as previously mentioned. They alter her perception of the world around her, much like they do in real life, demonstrating again that the world Alice has escaped to reflect the fact that she is growing up and becoming a mature adult. Although Neverland is a world just as magical as this one, its symbolism lies at the opposite end of the spectrum.
Neverland is and always has been Peter Pan’s home. A magical world filled with mermaids, fairies, pirates and Indians, where the “good guys” are kids and the “bad guys” are adults. This simple fact, that children are good and adults are bad, reflects Peter’s very mentality that growing up is a horrible thing, and Barrie’s ability to broadcast this fact to his readers. In a way, Neverland represents the “good” in the author’s eyes, as it is filled with carefree children, who can do what they want and never have any worries, whereas the “read world” would represent the “bad” as it is an adult’s world where reality must be faced and problems like money, food, violence and death come into play. It truly represents a child’s mentality, as a world away from our own to escape to when the going gets tough.
In addition, the name of Peter’s world reflects the position it has taken on growing up, as you “Never” grow up in Neverland. Barrie takes things a step further to outline the fact that Peter’s world must represent his ideas of never growing up so strongly that at one point in the novel, Peter begins to take “intentionally quick short breaths at the rate of about five to a second” because “there is a saying in Neverland that, every time you breathe, a grown-up dies; and Peter was killing them off vindictively as fast as possible” (Barrie 74), showing us Peter’s world really reflects the author’s vision of children staying children forever. Barrie has created a world vastly different from that of Carroll’s Wonderland, and this is because both authors have demonstrated their view of growing up by creating two children’s stories with totally different perspectives.
In the end, some people make the transition, changing and adapting in order to become a more mature individual, whilst others simply don’t, remaining the same as they have always been. For Alice, her journey through Wonderland has aided her in developing a new identity, in blending her childhood innocence and adulthood maturity together, as well as overcoming her escapism in order to become a grown up girl. Even early on, when the Caterpillar asks if she thinks she’s changed, she replies that she’s “afraid [she] is. [She] can’t remember things as [she] used-and [she doesn’t] keep the same size for ten minutes together!” (Carroll 38).
However, she has accepted that she is changing and growing up, which is more than can be said for young Peter. He refuses to change for Wendy all throughout the novel, and in the end, he is “exactly the same as ever” including having “all his first teeth”, not having made the transition, keeping a firm grasp on his innocence, his identity and escaping to Neverland in order to avoid his problems (Barrie 112). Two sides to one coin, Alice and Peter’s stories wonderfully reflect Carroll and Barrie’s stances on the issues of whether to grow up or not.
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