Peter Pan and Return of the Soldier can easily be seen as very different novels but there can be many important comparisons made. Although they were written closely together, Peter Pan in 1911 and Return of the Soldier in 1918, they have very different subject matters and seem to be intended for audiences of a different age. The style and narration of Peter Pan shows it to be a children’s novel, with humorous quotes and exciting adventures while Return of the Solider has a much darker tone, typical to war literature at the time.
Islands are used in both novels to represent themes of death and innocence as well as placing their narrators on the outside of events. In Peter Pan this idea is used to present the character of Peter as avoiding the responsibilities and feelings of adulthood through his escape to a separated world of childhood. Similarly, in Return of the Soldier, it is used to show the sadness and despair felt by Chris, and so supporting his replacement of the lost child through a return to innocence in himself. Childhood and repression are major themes in both novels and the authors use characters to portray ideas of loss and grief within the story.
In Peter Pan, Peter is used to represent the eternal child, never growing older and always remaining the same, but read deeper, he could symbolise the death of youth in all of us and the strange twisted reality that comes with it ‘to die will be an awfully big adventure’. The only way anybody can avoid age and death is death itself and to evade that brings consequences ‘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 forever barred’.
Similarly, in Return of the Soldier, Chris’ regression into his childhood innocence, in his mind compensates for the child that has died. This way, Chris does not have to feel the loss and pain that he should because he has replaced the child with himself and he finds it easier because the grief of the others has made their world open to a child ‘kept in all respects as though there were still a child in the house’. Like this, Neverland is something separate from the mainland of reality and so the children are also not connected to any truth or certainty ‘they had to do, I think, with the riddle of his existence’.
There is also the idea that the death of youth is in fact the realisation of mortality as while Peter and Chris are still children in their own minds they can never understand the concept of death. This is particularly prominent within Return of the Soldier as the purpose of living in the world and a way of achieving immortality in a way is to procreate and that reason for being has been stripped away from Chris, leaving him without a function ‘there had been the difficult task of learning to live after the death of his little son’.
This then has caused him to achieve immortality in another way, by remaining forever as a child. However the realisation that the child has died at the end of the novel reminds him of what humanity means and in a sense, reinforces his mortality ‘with his back turned on this fading happiness Chris walked across the lawn’. It is recognised by Jenny very early in the novel that Chris may well be happier in this state, as she describes it as having ‘a finality about his happiness which usually belongs only to loss and calamity’.
Peter could also be considered a representation of what childhood means and is a necessary stage that children have to go through at a certain point in their lives in order to grow up ‘she meant that he was her size in both mind and body; she didn’t know how she knew it, she just knew it’. The experience that the island gives them is required and eventually they all have to leave Neverland and forget ‘I sometimes wonder whether I ever did really fly’.
At various stages in the novel the reader is reminded of Peter’s forgetfulness ‘the strange thing was that he never knew he had missed a year’, which symbolizes the nature of childhood memories fading away and what happens when you can’t let go of Neverland. It can also be seen as a side-effect of his extended escapes into youth which, as demonstrated by Wendy and eventually the lost boys, is an avoidance of natural growth and maturity.
Neverland removes the children from the real world and puts them in a place of fantasy; somewhere free from the insecurities of age but ultimately, they must grow up and move away from this separated world. The island itself is connected with Peter in this respect, as he can never leave but is forever being left himself. The fact that the children are called the ‘lost boys’ emphasises this point as they too were stuck in an eternal childhood but finally decide to grow up ‘you see that judge in a wig coming out of the iron door?
That used to be Tootles’, suggesting that growing older somehow changes us absolutely; so much so that we are no longer the same person. This idea has very strong comparisons with Chris in Return of the Soldier as he has discarded all his adult memories of death and the war and gone back to a simpler time of innocence and safety ‘with just the boyish manner he might have used fifteen years ago’.
However what he has returned to is a world that he no longer belongs to and this creates inconsistencies and doubts in his mind, much like Peter ‘he had trusted that I at least would have been no party to this conspiracy to deny that he was young’. In this way Chris in his child-like state, as Peter is connected to Neverland, is connected to Monkey Island ‘why, Monkey Island’s real’ and the only way to restore himself completely is to take himself back to that place.
However, the memories that he carries from the island can not be relied on as they are the memories of childhood ‘it was strange that both Chris and she spoke of it though it were not a place, but a magic state which largely explained the actions performed in it’ and as he left the island and became an adult, the memories were also corrupted by the war ‘lights in our house were worse than darkness, affection worse than hate elsewhere’. Throughout Return of the Soldier the reader is placed in the position of an outsider looking into the action, largely due to the novel being narrated by a character in the story, Jenny.
This means that although she is close to Chris and has a viewpoint within the story, there are some things that the reader cannot witness ‘I was barred out of that day’. This is shown when at various points in the narrative we see things through windows and have physical barriers concealing certain things ‘from this very window I had spied on him’ and this underlines the themes of repression and concealment in the book. It also has the affect of distorting our perspective on the events and characters as we are seeing them through someone else’s eyes.
In this way, the narrative relates to the ideas of the island being something separate from the everyday world of the mainland and keeping things disconnected. This also relates to Jenny’s place in society as an unmarried woman; because she can’t conform to the roles given to women at that time, she is always outside and separate ‘as they went up the sense of separateness beat her back’. On the other hand, in Peter Pan we are told the story by someone outside of the story and so our perspective and level of knowledge is ever-changing.
Unlike many novels with covert narrators, this narrator is shown as human and flawed, with forgetful tendencies, much like Peter himself ‘I forget whether they found it, but at any rate they found corners, and they all fitted in’. The narrator is shown to be within and outside of the boundaries of the island and childhood from one moment to the next as at certain points of the story they are a nai?? ve child knowing nothing and at other points they become an omnipotent presence knowing everything.
This is disturbing to the reader as, unlike the narrator in Peter Pan, Jenny in on the outside of events but has a fixed place in a world we understand. The Peter Pan narrator changes his position from a familiar place that we are presented with to a place of knowledge from which we are restricted at various points in the novel ‘pen cannot describe the happy scene, over which we draw a veil’. This idea of being two things at once relates to the character of Chris as he is the child within an adult, never completely one thing or the other.
We are also told about a ‘magic circle’, that Chris and Margaret inhabit throughout the novel, which represents Jenny’s inability to penetrate this space of purity and innocence that only they can understand. Although it is just Chris who has truly reverted to childhood, his presence takes Margaret back to this time of ‘interminable enjoyment of his youth and love’. Repression of sexuality in both novels is an underlying subject but can be seen from many of the characters throughout. In Return of the Soldier, Chris denies this major part of adulthood as a result of his revert to a time of purity.
He chooses a time of platonic, childhood relationship and doesn’t acknowledge his wife ‘it was immediately as plain as though he had shouted it that this sad mask meant nothing to him’, showing his desire to go back to something he understands. However, in Peter Pan, there is a total rejection of anything sexual even though there are many advances from Wendy ‘she had to take his hand, as there was no indication that he would prefer a thimble’. The issue is never fully addressed in the novel as the character of Peter, being the boy who can’t grow up, shows no sign of feelings in return ‘there is something she wants to be to me, but she says it is not my mother’.
There is the sense that it is not that Peter doesn’t want to love Wendy but he is unable to feel that way towards her and as a result of this his emotions become confused ‘I’m fond of her too. We can’t both have her, lady’ Because of this he is forced to turn their relationship into make-believe with the rest of his childish thoughts and emotions ‘it is only make-believe, isn’t it, that I am their father? ‘ This way she still belongs with him on the island as the things she feels for him are unfamiliar and so he pushes them aside into the real world that she belongs to.
This idea is introduced right from the first moment they meet, as a kiss is not shown for what it is ‘I don’t mean a kiss, I mean a thimble’ and the theme of love as pretence grows on Peter’s side as they become closer while it breaks down as Wendy grows up ‘what are your exact feelings for me? ‘ This is mirrored in the part of Return of the Soldier where Kitty dresses in her wedding dress as this shows the total lack of sexuality within their relationship, making her appear beautiful but in a completely desexualised way ‘she looked cold as moonlight, as virginity, but precious; the falling candlelight struck her hair to bright, pure gold’.
This removes the aspect of desire and highlights her grief experienced from being removed from her husband’s life. Also in Return of the Soldier, sexuality becomes something that can only be experienced in the separated world of the island. Unlike in Peter Pan, the relationship between Chris and Margaret is something that is free and without the restraints of society, becoming something pure and without corruption away from the war ‘seemed to him a guarantee that theirs was a changeless love which would persist if she were old or maimed or disfigured’.