In Jacqueline Rose’s own words about The Case of Peter Pan, she states: “Instead of asking what children want, or need, from literature, this book has asked what it is that adults, through literature, want or demand of the child.” Roses selects Peter Pan because it is an enduring example of children’s literature and, because of its content, complicated authorship, and history, a useful site to excavate what she sees as the essentially problematic nature of writing for children.
Rose dismantles prevailing models and conventions of children’s literature by employing a psychoanalytic line of reasoning. Freudian childhood is not a fixed state, but rather a constantly shifting amalgam of memory, the unconscious, and the present. Because the adult can only conceive of this image of childhood, Rose asserts that adults are writing for this false child—truly, themselves–when they write children’s literature. Likewise, Freud (and many linguists who followed) also recognized a distance between what is meant and what is said via language, an essential disconnect magnified by this unbridgeable distance between adult and child. The story of Peter Pan first appeared framed within an adult work called The Little White Bird, which acknowledged these issues by having it pass from an adult narrator to a child character, the complicated relationship between whom is understood by the reader. Peter Pan, in its transformation into a purely children’s tale, loses this framing. There is no acknowledgement of the adult/child relationship between the narrator and the child reading the book.
Rose then traces a line from Locke to Rousseau and on to Alan Garner and other writers of children’s literature, and attributes to this lineage a focus on the concrete realism of the natural (or unnatural, in the eventual case of children’s fairy stories and fantasies) world. Locke and Rousseau originated the idea that the child is pure, should be sequestered from the corrupting influence of society, and should retain their purity through contact with the physical world. Language is a corrupting force because of the distance it introduces between the word and its meaning, so the best literature for children keeps them in touch with the natural world (as in Robinson Crusoe). Rose asserts that the prevailing realistic aesthetic of children’s literature, which requires them to believe the narrator and identify with the characters, can be connected to Rousseau’s concept of the child. Likewise, Rose sees a relationship between this view of the child and Western, particularly British views of “primitive” cultures, which are both more pure and under the colonizing control of the British adult.
Peter and Wendy, J.M. Barrie’s long-awaited 1911 novelization of 1911 the play Peter Pan, flouts all of these traditions. The narrator shifts from sentence to sentence, which Rose states is “…remarkable for the way that it exposes this problem of identity in language. (p. 72)” But Peter and Wendy is distinct from the beloved stage version of Peter Pan, and previous book versions of the play not written by J.M. Barrie. Exploring the difference between Peter and Wendy and the rest of children’s literature, Rose suggests that children’s literature should not be grouped by content type but by language—and nearly all children’s literature insists on a reliable narrator and realism.
Rose also investigates the troubling relationship between Peter Pan, the child, and money. While the play is now conceived of as a children’s classic, Rose insists it was produced as much for adults and gave adults the license to look at children—which she connects, obliquely, to child prostitution. She also connects Peter Pan with the creation of the child book market, and its production at different price points and its sales to children were necessary for the publishing industry to “render innocent (again) the more glaring commercial realities of the trade. (p. 107)”
Finally, Rose uses Peter Pan’s relationship to the British school system to explore how the state uses children as the site of language production. In 1912, the British Board of Education stressed teaching “natural,” or plain-spoken, language to working-class children. A few years earlier, however, the same body stressed “training the mind to appreciate English literature” to wealthier children in secondary schools. Rose stresses that both of these forms of language are manufactured by adults—that they are ideologies. When Peter and Wendy is edited for inclusion in the school curriculum, it becomes apparent that Barrie is in fact speaking to both audiences, though all instances of the shifting narrator identity are edited out. She reflects that current theories of education stress teaching mastery of language to all students.
Rose concludes that she does not intend to suggest “an ideal form of writing which I am wishing to promote for the child. (p. 140)” Instead, she intends to question how language creates identity and how adults recreate that process in children through children’s literature. This is a critical question, and one that should not be taken lightly when considering what adults give children to read. While I think it would be highly unlikely that that giving a child either the edited version of Peter Pan or Peter and Wendy in all of its identity-shifting glory would cause that child damage, I think that when you zoom out to how this text related to educational policies for different populations of children, there is a very real concern she unearthed about what we teach to which children and why. I think her argument that adults cannot truly know the mind of the child restores to them some autonomy and power. I can imagine that, perhaps, a healthy sense of mystery with regard to their inner lives contributes a certain amount of respect from adults.
However, while I think that Rose used Peter Pan to usefully probe the limits and traditions of children’s literature, I found myself constantly repeating to myself and writing in the margins “…but children do exist.” As much as adults may project onto children their current anxieties and their own complicated feelings about their childhood, children are real, and they must learn to read, and adults must communicate with them in ways that are both practical and entertaining. I understand that it was not Rose’s intention to suggest a framework for children’s literature, but declaring the impossibility of it certainly leaves the reader at a loss with what to read a kid at bedtime.
I also wonder about how necessary it was to use Peter Pan as the basis for her theories about shifting language, identity, and realism in children’s literature—whether the uniqueness of this particular text in its different incarnations is particularly helpful to her and whether the same conclusions could be drawn from other books of its time, or from books that have been published since. I am thinking here of books that explicitly play with language (and image, in the case of Chris Rascha’s jazz books) or narration/audience (a weird example, but “The Monster at the End of This Book” was a classic in my house).