Dystopian Elements in Peter Pan and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lotte Roelofs
In the play Peter and Alice (2013), playwright John Logan allows his audience to witness an encounter between “the real-life models for Peter Pan and [Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland]” (Clapp):
ALICE: Here’s a burden: the only reason anyone remembers me now as Alice
in Wonderland is that I decided to sell my hand-written manuscript of the book
[because] I needed the money. To heat my home, Mr Davies… Now, is that the Alice
people want to know? Or is it possible they would rather remember that little blond
girl in the dress, […] never growing old?
PETER: But we all grow old! … That’s the story of our lives: the one immutable; the
one inescapable. The crocodile in the lagoon, […] death just around the corner, tick
tick tick. I’m grasping now but –
ALICE: (Interrupts) What’s your name? (Logan 16-7)
Peter Llewelyn Davies and Alice Liddell Hargreaves, portrayed by Ben Whishaw and Judi Dench, start a conversation in which they eventually start to discuss “whether flight into fantasy is helpful or damaging” (Clapp). The play combines the stories in such a way that it shows that they have several things in common. Both deal with the adventures of children who travel to faraway lands, Wonderland and Neverland, where their most frightening enemies are grown-ups: The Queen of Hearts and Captain Hook. A more significant similarity, however, is that both James Matthew Barrie’s Peter Pan as well as Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland both contain various dystopian elements.
Many articles either examine morals or dystopian elements in Peter Pan and Alice’s Adventures, but the connection between the two in Barrie’s and Carroll’s work, however, is yet to be made. Therefore, this thesis aims to prove that a number of dystopian elements can be found in Peter Pan and Alice’s Adventures, and will explore how these elements influence the morals of the stories. Wonderland and Neverland will be examined, together with their main characters. In the case of Alice’s Adventures, the focus will primarily be on Alice and the way she experiences Wonderland and its inhabitants. Because there are so many children to be found in Neverland, the analysis of Peter Pan will primarily focus on the Darling children and their experiences, but also on Hook, and occasionally on Peter as well. The dystopian elements found in both works indeed prove to have influence on the stories’ morals, and demonstrate how children can learn from and relate to the characters’ experiences. However, for this shortened version of my paper, I will primarily focus on the (seemingly) utopian and dystopian elements and briefly discuss why dystopian elements are useful in children’s literature.
Wonderland seems to contain, at least for Alice, various utopian elements. She “[burns] with curiosity” when she spots the White Rabbit and follows him down the rabbit hole (Carroll 38). In line with the descriptions of Alice’s personality, to her, a utopian place would be somewhere where she can have adventures and gain knowledge by letting her inquisitiveness flourish. In the mocking world of Wonderland, the adults are unreasonable and ignorant, whereas Alice is the opposite. In Lewis Carroll’s time, children were seen as “a problem [;] [o]ften treated as miniature adults, [and] were often required to perform, were severely chastised, or were ignored” (Millikan). Therefore, a place where she is able to speak her mind and even appears to be more intelligent than the adults around her could be considered utopian to Alice. This idea, however, is soon spoiled, because even though Alice now speaks up and protests, the adults in Wonderland refuse to acknowledge her and remain unreasonable. The “adults [in Wonderland], especially those who resemble governesses or professors, are foolish, arbitrary, cruel, or mad” (Lurie 5). Carroll then, intentionally or not, mocked the way Victorian children were treated and how adults regarded themselves as their superiors; Alice’s Adventures could be “read as a satirical attack on children’s treatment and education” (Millikan). In Carroll’s time, children were not supposed to negotiate with or disagree with adults, but Alice disregards this completely; she protests, objects and asks questions throughout the entire novel. During her stay in Wonderland, Alice indeed remains her curious self, but concludes that Wonderland is not as utopian as she had hoped for. Events become “[c]uriouser and curiouser”(Carroll 44) and turn more and more dystopian.
Alice’s first wish is to enter the “loveliest garden” (Carroll 41), but then discovers that this garden contains fake red-painted roses and, more importantly, is part of the Queen’s court. The utopian image she had of the garden is spoiled, and perhaps even turned dystopian, when she is confronted with reality; the Queen of Hearts turns out to be cruel, unreasonable and impulsive. She frightens her people by beheading everyone who opposes her. By using violence, which is something Alice discovers to be common in Wonderland, she remains in control. Furthermore, the other creatures Alice meets are not as exciting and interesting as she wished them to be; she wanted to learn new things from them, have adventures and expand her knowledge, but instead she considers most of them mad and is frustrated because they are “easily offended” and sometimes even impolite (Carroll 57, 91). She begins to feel lonely, confused and misunderstood and even starts to question herself and who she is (Conkan). Some of the inhabitants of Wonderland, for example the Queen, the Duchess and the Duchess’ cook, are also violent by nature, which has a harmful effect on Alice. She “feels that something is terribly wrong with the society [she is in]” (NCTE). Thus, Wonderland could be seen as a dystopian place.
“The Awful Thing”
Ana Teresa Magalhães and Vera Patricia Leal are of the opinion that “Barrie’s Neverland in Peter Pan was actually a utopian world, immersed in one of the most elaborate fantasies of children’s imagination” (Magalhães 40). Indeed, Neverland is appealing to children, because this fictional world incorporates “endless fights with pirates, sea waters inhabited by mermaids, woods and clears filled up with the magic of fairies, and above all the non-existence of rules and parents” (40). Children are also given the ability to fly and can remain young forever. However, some of these seemingly utopian aspects lose their positive appeal and dystopian elements can be detected as well. The Darling children live in London, and British children at the beginning of the 20th century “were legally viewed as little adults” (Renaissance London). Neverland would therefore be a utopian place for children from that time, because it allowed them to leave their obligations behind and be children, perhaps even forever. However, Jason Marc Harris argues that Neverland is actually dystopian, because “rather than offering childish escapes from the duties and griefs of English civilization, [the narrative employs] the folkloric tradition [to] cast a thin veil of glamour over the darker shadows beneath” (86).
Neverland is not only dystopian to the Darling children and the Lost Boys, but to Hook as well. He feels tormented by Peter and as long as Peter lives, “the tortured man [feels] that he [is] a lion in a cage into which a sparrow had come” (Barrie 127). Peter, however, is not the only one to disturb Hook; there is “a gigantic crocodile” that wants to eat him, which is Peter’s doing because he fed it Hook’s hand (56). Because of these fears, Neverland is a dystopian place to Hook as long as Peter inhabits it. Hook is “unhappy” (144), and “terribly alone” (141). At one point, it even troubles him that “no children love [him]” but fear him instead (143), although he is “not wholly evil” (133). His “[struggle] to escape” Peter’s wickedness and his feeling of being “trapped” are examples of a dystopian protagonist (NCTE). Kent Lasnoski argues that “because almost nothing is impossible for [the young,] [m]en are ceaselessly jealous of [them], a jealousy which can lead them to a desire to destroy it as Hook desires to destroy Peter” (Lasnoski). This suggests that as long as Peter is around to torment him while he remains unloved by all other children, Neverland can be considered Hook’s dystopia.
Neverland is often described as a utopia for children, but contains strong dystopian elements nevertheless. The recurring theme of death and violence disturbs the Darling children and the Lost Boys, since the beasts, pirates and Indians “want blood” (Barrie 52), Tinker Bell wants to murder Wendy, and Peter is there to punish them when they disobey or grow up (52). Because of his dominant behaviour, Peter could be seen as the dystopian controlling factor (NCTE). To 20th century children, a world without parental supervision, rules, and obligations seems utopian, but because they are faced with all the above-mentioned threats, this image is soon spoiled. During their flight to Neverland, Michael and John already propose to fly back home, to which Wendy replies: “‘That’s the awful thing. […] We should have to go on, for we don’t know how to stop’” (Barrie 41). This suggests that they already had a foreboding that Neverland would not be as wonderful as they imagined.
Dystopian elements in children’s literature not only allow children to reflect on the society they live in, but can also teach them about morals and morality. Fictional worlds in children’s literature are created to entertain the readers and the dystopian elements within this world prove that in the end, no world is perfect. Due to the imperfection of this world and its characters, the reader becomes more aware of the complexity of life and human character itself. Apart from the morals in dystopian elements, characters can also teach the reader about morality and immorality. Thus, development of children’s moral values is stimulated by the lessons learned from the novels and their dystopian elements, which can help the reader become an understanding adult, because in the end, growing up is indeed “the story of our lives” (Logan 17).
If you are interested in reading the full Thesis (“Peter Pan and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: The Influence of Dystopian Elements on the Teaching of Morals”), it should be available on Igitur soon. For further reading, do check out the Works Cited.
Barrie, J.M. Peter Pan. 1911. London: Penguin, 1995. Print.
Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass. 1865.
London: Wordsworth, 2001. Print.
“Children.” Exploring 20th Century London. Renaissance London. Web. Mar. 2015.
Clapp, Susannah. “Peter and Alice; The Low Road – Review.” The Guardian. 31 Mar. 2013.
Conkan, Marius. “Dystopian Structures in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Phantasma.
“Dystopias: Definition and Characteristics.” Read Write Think. NCTE. Web.
Harris, Jason Marc. Folklore and the Fantastic in Nineteenth-Century British Fiction.
Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008. Ebook.
Lasnoski, Kurt. “A Good Man Can’t Be Found: The Im/morality of Peter Pan.” Dappled
Things. Dec. 2014. Web. Mar. 2015.
Logan, John. Peter and Alice Script. London: Oberon, 2013. 16-7. Preview via Scribd.
Lurie, Alison. Don’t Tell the Grown-Ups: The Subversive Power of Children’s Literature.
Little, Brown, 1998. Print.
Magalhães, Ana Teresa and Vera Patricia Leal. “Peter Pan: Child/Adult Relationship and the
Narrative Strategies of Time(s) and Space(s).” Letras. Web.
Millikan, Lauren. “The Feminist Approach.” Curiouser and Curiouser: The Evolution of
Wonderland. Carleton. Web.
Millikan, Lauren. “Victorian Interpretations.” Curiouser and Curiouser: The Evolution of
Wonderland. Carleton. Web.
Suggested Further Reading
Adams, John Joseph. “Dystopian Fiction: An Introduction.” Tor. 11 Apr. 2011. Web.
De Souza, Jonathan. Violence and Society in Dystopian Fiction. MA thesis. Utrecht
University. 2012. Pdf.
Elbaz, Robert and Leah Hadomi. “Alice in Wonderland and Utopia.” Orbis Litterarum. 45.1.
1990: 136-153. Print.
Hintz, Carrie and Elaine Ostry. “Introduction.” Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Children
and Young Adults. 29 (2003): 1-22. Pdf.
Rowland, Michael. “Captain Hook’s Hook: J.M. Barrie’s Mutilated Male Body.” Academia.
Web. Mar. 2015.
“The Origins of Utopia.” The Utopian Impulse. Web. Feb. 2015.
About the author:
My name is Lotte Roelofs, I’m a third-year English Language and Culture student and I hope to graduate this summer. I love utopian and dystopian stories such as the Divergent series, The Hunger Games series, but also classics such as H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and Thomas More’s Utopia, so following the course “Utopian Imagination” was a treat. While I was writing my BA Thesis on dystopian elements in Barrie’s Peter Pan and Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, I discovered that there is actually a very thin line between utopias and dystopias; one person’s utopia can be another’s dystopia, which is exactly why it’s such an interesting topic to write (and read!) about.