completing their PhD at the Stanford AI Lab,
supported by the Open Philanthropy AI Fellowship
+ the PD Soros Fellowship for New Americans.

Peter Pan is the villain

The play Peter Pan; or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up ostensibly positions Peter Pan as a sort of reigning prince of play—as if crowned in a perpetual game of King of the Castle. Peter possesses the attributes of a modern-day hero; he is the self-assured, immortal, flying protagonist in his namesake play. Closer inspection of Peter’s playing, however, reveals the notion of Peter as successfully reigning hero is suspect. Peter’s perpetual play precludes him from understanding real-world notions of time, entrapping him in time’s constraints. It is Mrs¬¬. Darling, who, in understanding and accepting the passing of time, gleans power over memory, earning her the capacity to have weight—seriousness and influence—over reality. This ultimately establishes Mrs. Darling, not Peter, as the subversive, successfully reigning hero of Peter Pan.

Close attention to Peter’s playing reveals he is highly concerned with reality, but his perpetual play precludes him from understanding real-world notions of time. Peter’s play episodically imitates and supplants real-world experiences, rendering Peter unaware of the role of time in triggering and linking those experiences. Adulthood is, demonstratively, played at and replaced with Wendy and the lost boys, but this play deranges Peter’s understanding of the causality of creation. After playing the lost boys’ father, Peter interrogates Wendy:

PETER (scared). It is only pretend, isn’t it, that I am [the boys’] father?

WENDY . . . Oh yes. . . But they are ours, Peter . . .

PETER (determined to get at facts, the only things that puzzle him). But not really?


Unlike real children, Peter’s play children can be simply called into existence. Peter’s play thus leaves him “puzzled,” with questions about what constitutes creation of children and what constitutes creation of reality. Peter’s confusion here reflects that he conflates stating with creating; he believes that making a statement equates to creating a corresponding reality. Instead of play and imitation yielding understanding, their episodic and transient natures engrain further confusion. When Peter plays at pain and death, further lack of understanding of time ensues. In a tense scene, Peter and Wendy are marooned on Marooners’ Rock, facing the prospect of death by the rising tide. Peter exclaims that he has been wounded by Hook and can “neither swim nor fly.” Just as we wait in suspense to learn how Peter and Wendy may escape, however, Barrie quips piercingly, “[Peter] is so good at pretend”—and the illusion is shattered (III). Peter’s wounds and the prospect of his and Wendy’s death are only make-believe. Even the gravest human experiences, pain and death, are refigured, by Peter, as transient games; the permanence of death is lost in Peter’s play. Perpetual play thus precludes Peter from understanding both creation and death—the temporal delimiters of reality. Barrie confirms these destructive effects of perpetual play through a poignant conceit, reflecting the characteristic lack of weight in Peter’s playing—that is, lack of seriousness, truth, and influence—onto a literal weightlessness of Peter, and Barrie blames both brands of weightlessness for Peter’s misunderstandings. As a kite floats to within reach, able to carry Peter and Wendy away from the threatening tides, Peter earnestly explains that the kite “can’t lift two” and uses the kite to rescue only Wendy; treated irrelevant is Wendy’s silent knowledge that “if [the kite] can lift her it can lift him also . . . [for] he is no weight at all” (III). Peter, like the stories he tells, has no weight—where weight, again, is used by Barrie as a marker of seriousness, truth, and influence. In this Marooners’ Rock quandary, it is precisely unacknowledged weightlessness—unacknowledged lack of truth to Peter’s play and unacknowledged literal weightlessness of Peter—that precludes Peter from concern over the permanence of even his own death. This scene enacts Peter’s central tragedy: unacknowledged weightlessness, in Peter’s self and Peter’s stories, triggers Peter’s inability to understand and intelligently acknowledge causality and permanence. Peter’s perpetual play intensely imitates reality, but ultimately confounds Peter’s understanding of real-world notions of time.

Peter’s inability to recognize time’s role elicits confinement by time: in not recognizing time, Peter becomes trapped by time’s constraints. Peter’s interactions with manifestations of time depict this entrapment. Peter Pan wanders the fantasy island of Neverland—even its name a negation of time—and reinforces his aversion to time with his persistent remark that he “[wants] always to be a little boy” (I, IV, V.II). Peter’s inability to understand and respect the role of time is manifest. Time, however, does not accordingly recede from Peter; it merely bears a more chaotic existence: “all the four seasons may pass [in the time it takes to fill] a jug,” on Peter’s island; the sun tumbles around, marking inconsistent days which Peter and his lost boys have “long lost count of”; Saturday nights are claimed when desired; and a crocodile who has swallowed a clock wanders the island, threateningly “tick, tick, tick”-ing (II, IV). Time chaotically encircles Peter’s island home. Peter’s aversion to time, then, does not prevent time from passing; rather, it removes useful restrictions on time, preventing Peter’s own use of time. Meanwhile, time serves as the dominant barricade between Peter and reality. As the play’s final line cleverly quips, Peter “plays on and on” only “till we wake up”; so, “in the daytime, you think the Never Land is only make-believe” (V.II, II). Peter’s existence is thus delimited and defined by time. While Peter’s time aversion renders him unable to use time to delimit consistency, time gains critical control over Peter’s setting and Peter’s self. Ultimately, by not recognizing the role of time, Peter thrusts his setting into temporal chaos and places himself under time’s control.

While Peter faces repercussions for his aversion to time, however, Mrs. Darling subtly emerges as Peter’s more competent counterpart. Language, structure, and narrative of the play each position Mrs. Darling as a competent foil to Peter’s inabilities. In Mrs. Darling’s opening scene, language of gravity subtly confronts Peter’s problematic lack of weight: the children rely on Mrs. Darling when there is a sensed “gravity [emphasis added] of the situation” (I). Because Peter’s weightlessness has proven problematic to understanding time, that Mrs. Darling successfully handles gravity hints that she may hold a distinct capacity to handle time more astutely as well. The play’s structure further insinuates that Mrs. Darling’s handling of time may allow her a more amiable relationship with reality. Mrs. Darling’s scenes with the children markedly bookend the play, existing nearest, in this way, to the audience’s own reality external to the play. This structure suggests Mrs. Darling is more directly compatible with reality than Peter, as Peter is barred from reality by this very structure of his namesake play. The narrative itself offers final confirmation of Mrs. Darling’s competitive advantage, depicting her win and Peter’s loss as mutually dependent. Should we reread the play as a genuine contest between Peter and Mrs. Darling, Peter loses the attention of and then his control over the real children, precisely because the memory of Mrs. Darling wins them back. The narrative thus confirms that Peter’s failure is intrinsically linked to Mrs. Darling’s success. While the source of Mrs. Darling’s competitive advantage is not immediately discernible, language, structure, and narrative of the play certainly affirm an advantage exists, and Mrs. Darling is established as the more successful foil to Peter.

As anticipated by Barrie’s positioning of Mrs. Darling as Peter’s foil, where Peter fails to recognize time and faces repercussions of entrapment, Mrs. Darling serves as the model of persistent recognition of time. In contrast to the volatile manifestations of time in Peter’s Neverland, the stable manifestations of time in Mrs. Darling’s home reflect her acknowledgement of time. Mrs. Darling is consistently found in her home’s nursery, a room built to contain and acknowledge distinct stages of life—the nurse and the nursed; thus Mrs. Darling spends time in a room intrinsically accepting of time’s passing. Structure and adornment in the nursery reinforce this ubiquitous acceptance of time: a bathroom for bath time, beds for bedtime, night-lights switched on and off in response to the consistent path of the sun, and the regularly referenced cuckoo clock hung static on the wall, chiming on the hour—each reinforces that, in Mrs. Darling’s home, time is no wobbly matter and is purposefully used to delimit experiences. While time pauses and plays at will in Neverland, time is a marker of consistency in the nursery. This recognition of time in the nursery is certainly a reflection on Mrs. Darling herself, as Mrs. Darling is responsible for “[making the nursery] the hub of creation by her certainty that such it was, and [adorning] it to match with a loving heart and . . . purse” (I). As Mrs. Darling bears personal and financial responsibility for the creation and adornment of the nursery, its recognition of time is a reflection of Mrs. Darling’s own recognition of time, which is contrasted sharply against Peter’s time-aversion. Mrs. Darling’s actions reinforce her recognition of time, and further demonstrate that she is the sole model of this time-recognition, where both Peter and the other Darlings remain time-averse. In the opening scene, Mrs. Darling is ready for dinner on time, while her husband roars at his own lateness and her children beg for extra minutes before baths (I). Mrs. Darling, then, is Barrie’s model of acknowledgement of time, contrasted against both Peter Pan and the other Darlings. As Peter’s aversion to time earns him confining entrapment, Mrs. Darling serves as the model of persistent recognition of time.

In recognizing time, Mrs. Darling earns herself a capacity to remember, while others are cast into subservience to time, marked by their persistent forgetting. Forgetting denotes the pervasive control of time over even perceived human reality; this forgetting marks all Barrie’s characters except Mrs. Darling as under time’s control. The narratives of all those around Mrs. Darling are dominated by forgetting, revealing ubiquitous subservience to time. In the opening act, Mr. Darling forgets to check the nursery for his wife while forgetting how to tie his tie, Peter “forgets that he has shut up [Tinkerbell] in the drawer,” and Wendy checks in on and then “happily forgets” John to talk with Peter (I). Later, Peter forgets the children including Wendy repeatedly, Hook “[forgets] the redskin [Tiger Lily],” and Peter forgets even the beasts he has killed (III, IV). Most disturbingly, the children eerily forget their beds, home, and even parents while on their adventures, and Peter forgets all, including nemesis Hook and companion Tinkerbell herself (V.I, V.II). For all those around Mrs. Darling, key incidents are triggered and progressed by characters forgetting—reflecting time’s prevailing control over the realities of these characters. Yet, in the midst of only forgetful characters, Mrs. Darling persistently remembers. Mrs. Darling remembers and reprises the precise time her son was born (“two o’clock in the night-time, dearest”), how to tie a tie (“she succeeds”), the face of Peter Pan looking into the nursery (“this is not the first time I have seen that boy”), and, most paramount, her children (I). Chiefly, the time-recognizing Mrs. Darling is the sole character who consistently remembers. While other characters are marked subservient to time by their persistent forgetting, Mrs. Darling’s recognition of time earns her capacity of memory.

The final, full efficacy of Mrs. Darling’s recognition of time lies in her capacity to leverage memory to garner influence. An extended, artful play on the word weight cleverly captures Mrs. Darling’s ability: while Peter’s lack of weight-as-in-seriousness yields a lack of weight-as-in-influence, Mrs. Darling waits, earning that very influence. Here, is the most incisive hint into the source of our Darling hero’s success. Mrs. Darling, in waiting, acknowledges time and leverages memory—as Peter and others never will; thus Mrs. Darling earns weight and influence over reality. The extent of Mrs. Darling’s power over memory is crystalized in one curious and beautifully crafted passage; Barrie writes:

[Mrs. Darling prefers] when the children are in bed to sit beside them tidying up their minds, just as if they were drawers. If [Wendy] and the boys could keep awake they might see her repacking . . . lingering . . . making discoveries . . . pressing this to her cheek and hurriedly stowing that out of sight. When [the children] wake [the naughtinesses] are placed at the bottom of the drawer; and on the top, beautifully aired, are their prettier thoughts ready for the new day. (I)

This curious passage demonstrates Mrs. Darling’s potent power over memory. In acknowledging the passing of time—notably during the temporal transition from one day to the next—Mrs. Darling develops an even more refined control over memories than time’s capacity to erase them. In this precise control over memory, Mrs. Darling establishes control that immediately competes with the control of time. Moreover, while Peter falteringly attempts to reject time and directly rewrite the narrative around him, Mrs. Darling, in acknowledging time, is able to successfully control the memories events leave, and, thus, the future events anticipate. Peter’s failed attempts to control reality and Mrs. Darling’s success at leveraging memory to shape reality are reflected in a stunning conceit exploiting the sun as a representation of time. While in the time negation fantasy of Neverland, the sun is “Peter’s servant”; in reality, the sun is subservient to no one, but Mrs. Darling, at the very least, captures shadows (I). Mrs. Darling’s control over memory, the shadow which reality leaves, is the intelligent alternative to Peter’s failed attempts to directly control reality. Mrs. Darling’s agency derives not from neglecting facts, but instead from shaping of memories. Wendy’s return to Mrs. Darling confirms the efficacy of Mrs. Darling’s methods. Blurry memories of mothers compel the children to return home, and, in the final scene, as Wendy’s last choice between Peter Pan and Mrs. Darling unfolds, Peter’s displeasure holds no weight—no influence—as he flies outside the window. For the final time, in her final line, while Peter flies outside, Mrs. Darling has the floor. “No,” she finally commands Wendy, indicating Wendy may not leave the nursery to bid Peter a last goodnight; and presumably guided by memories of previous motherly “No”s, Wendy adheres (V). In this closing scene, Mrs. Darling’s single word is the last word on the matter of returning to Peter, as Mrs. Darling carries sufficient weight and influence to direct reality. Mrs. Darling’s leveraging of memory and garnering of influence allow her to maintain agency even while time marches on, controlling others. Mrs. Darling, in accepting and understanding the passing of time, gleans an intense and exclusive power over memory, earning weight—influence—over all other persons and reality itself.

While Peter Pan; or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up at first seems to portray Peter as reigning hero, this portrayal is quickly dismantled. Tragically, Peter’s perpetual play precludes him from understanding real-world notions of time, rendering him subservient to time’s constraints. Peter, then, does not provide the lesson of his namesake play; rather, how fitting, the darling mother delivers us our instruction. In understanding and accepting time’s passing, Mrs. Darling acquires a profound power over memory, and demonstrates that memory can be leveraged to earn weight and influence over reality. While Peter is permanently weightless—his self and his stories of no influence, Mrs. Darling, through her mastery, adorns weightlessness at will—wearing an evening gown “made of nothing” in the homely opening scene, but trading it out for weight and influence in the final scene (I). Mrs. Darling thus demonstrates the capacity to leverage memory in order to weight herself with influence at will. Mrs. Darling, flightless but weighting, is the subversive, successfully reigning, Darling hero of Peter Pan.