First Things First: Did Peter Pan really say it?
That’s a more complicated question than you might expect! The character Peter Pan did say, “To die will be an awfully big adventure.” However, only J. M. Barrie said, “To live would be an awfully big adventure.” Peter never shared that sentiment. The more positive line comes from the end of the play, in which the narrator is more or less analyzing Peter’s way of thinking. So, in short: Barrie said both, but Peter only said the “to die” version.
Where Was Peter Pan First Published?
Peter Pan was published in 1911 in the UK (Barrie was Scottish-born, but moved to London early in his career). However, the book we know as Peter Pan was not the character’s first appearance! The Little White Bird, published in 1902, first mentioned Peter. In 1904, Barrie wrote a stage play titled Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up. In 1906, Barrie’s publishers released Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, a book collecting all of the Peter Pan chapters of The Little White Bird. And finally, in 1911, Barrie adapted the stage play into Peter and Wendy, often referred to today simply as Peter Pan.
Now Let’s Talk About The Setting
The context surrounding the Barrie quote seems to come more from his personal life than from the world around him. He was one of ten children, including his older brother David. When David was 13, he was injured in an ice-skating accident and died. David was their mother’s favorite son, and she found comfort in the idea that David would “remain a child forever.”
This incident clearly changed the course of Barrie’s life. He often tried and failed to be a “replacement” for his deceased brother. He tried to cheer up his mother, sometimes by telling stories, but often in more unusual ways—like dressing in David’s old clothes or adopting some of his mannerisms. However, Barrie and his surviving siblings grew up; no real, living offspring could’ve challenged his mother’s memory of the son that didn’t age.
Beginning in the 1890s, Barrie became close with the Llewelyn Davies family, particularly their sons, George, Jack, and baby Peter. The idea of Peter Pan began as a way to entertain the two older boys, with the idea that their little brother could fly around the nursery. Barrie’s relationship with the Llewelyn Davies was very close; when the children’s parents died, he was named as one of their guardians.
By most accounts, Barrie was more comfortable around children than with adults. Most of his works included themes of childhood or innocence, including the novel Tommy and Grizel and the play Mary Rose. As far as his personal life goes, Barrie had a wife but had no children of his own. There is no evidence that he and his wife had any sort of physical relationship. One of the Davies children described Barrie as “an innocent,” and as a person who never had romantic feelings toward anyone.
This information about Barrie’s childhood and early adult life may raise a lot of questions about his motivations in writing Peter Pan. At any rate, it paints the picture of an author obsessed with the themes of childhood, growth, innocence, and holding on to the past.
What Was The Context of The Quote
The passage appears during the children’s adventures in Neverland. Wendy and Peter find themselves stranded on a rock, with the tide rising, and a kite that can only carry one of them to safety. Peter insists Wendy take the kite, and then he is left alone on the rock. Peter is too weak to fly or swim to safety, and so his sacrifice for Wendy is essentially a death sentence. But Peter doesn’t react quite the way a person would expect. Instead, our narrator describes the scene:
Peter was not quite like other boys, but he was afraid at last. A tremor ran through him, like a shudder passing over the sea; but on the sea one shudder follows another till there are hundreds of them, and Peter felt just the one. Next moment he was standing erect on the rock again, with that smile on his face and a drum beating within him. It was saying, “To die will be an awfully big adventure.”
Of course, Peter doesn’t die in this scene; the Never bird, one of his animal friends, gives him her nest so he can float to safety. Peter, Wendy, and the lost boys are reunited, and the chapter ends on a happy note.
Explanation of Pan’s Quote
Peter’s whole existence is an adventure. He battles pirates, swims with mermaids, and saves Indian princesses (however backward some of the plot points of the novel may be to a modern reader). But his existence isn’t really a life, and that’s where the passage ties in. Peter does not age; after some time has passed, he does not remember his battle with Captain Hook, or even Tinker Bell. He eventually forgets Wendy, too, and stops coming back to get her. His adventures, although they seem so important while they’re happening, have no longstanding impact. So “to die,” as he is doing all along, would most certainly be an adventure, but it isn’t living.
We get a little more clarity on this passage in the play than we do in the novel. In the play, Wendy has come back to Neverland for spring cleaning, and finds things different than before; she has grown, and Peter has forgotten their adventures from the year before. As she prepares to return to London, she tells him she wishes he could come back with her. Peter doesn’t want this; in fact, he visibly recoils. Wendy leaves without him. As the narrator says, “If he could get the hang of the thing his cry might become ‘To live would be an awfully big adventure!’ but he can never quite get the hang of it, and so no one is as gay as he.” The play ends with him in Neverland, peacefully playing his pipes for the fairies.
So what would it mean for Peter “to live” his big adventure? Peter would have to grow up, like all of the Lost Boys do at the end of the novel. He would have to accept responsibilities, as Wendy has already done by becoming the Lost Boys’ “mother,” and as she does by deciding to return to London and grow older. It would mean saying goodbye to Neverland, and all the high-stakes adventures it holds. Peter doesn’t want any of this, and so he remains in this innocent, childish state—at the cost of relationships, memories, and the people he cares about.
It is maybe important that the subtitle of the play is The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, not The Boy Who Couldn’t Grow Up (although Barrie initially suggested the latter subtitle, which probably says more about his state of mind than it does about anything else). More than once, Peter is given the option to grow up, and rejects it at every turn. When he finally returns for Wendy, “[she] was a married woman, and Peter was no more to her than a little dust in the box in which she had kept her toys.” He’s been left behind.
In the play, when Peter is facing his imminent death, the stage direction says: “PETER (with a drum beating in his breast as if he were a real boy at last).” Peter was never a real boy because a real boy doesn’t stay a boy forever. Maybe that’s Barrie’s way of speaking to the unfairness of his mother’s favoritism—how absurd is it to favor a person who isn’t there to respond, to make mistakes, grow, and learn? As far as more universal lessons go, editor-in-chief of Erraticus Jeffrey Howard sees Peter’s attitude as a warning to the rest of us. He isn’t the hero, Howard argues, but the Darling children are, because “[they] are the ones who take the hero’s journey, accepting the call of adventure…to then return home, changed. [Peter] instead avoids the givens of existence and remains in Neverland, a place that can and never will exist.” Dying might be an awfully big adventure in Peter’s eyes, but neither Howard nor Barrie argue that it’s the correct or heroic path for Peter to choose. Instead, accepting the uncertainties that real life has to offer is a heroic, adventurous choice.