Timothy S. Hayes (Auburn University)

Posted on Friday, March 5th, 2010

‘Adventures in Neverland: Reading The Ebb-Tide through Barrie’s Eyes’

Despite his friendship with Robert Louis Stevenson and Joseph Conrad, two famous critics of European imperialism, J.M. Barrie never created a work that focused on this crucial issue during his long career. He was an avid reader of their works of adventure fiction, though. And so it is not entirely surprising that Barrie’s masterpiece, the 1904 play Peter Pan, offers us an important framework for understanding the tenuous nature of “empire” in the imaginations of its adherents in Stevenson’s 1890s adventure fiction. In Barrie’s play, there is not just a single Neverland that all children visit but an infinite number of slight or complete variations, each dependent on the shape of that child’s mind. Similarly, in Stevenson’s South Seas novellas, what becomes clear is that, partly because of the challenges that colonial environments present, many characters strive to create their own versions of “empire” on a much smaller scale. Such a reality also anticipates the most troubling features of Barrie’s Neverland and especially of Peter Pan himself—a failure to consider the consequences that these unique versions of “empire” might have for others. Indeed, while Pan is able to adapt to his surroundings effortlessly and to effectively change his world to suit his needs, he is also a dangerously unreliable leader whose ability to forget his past actions points toward the worst examples of violence committed by fictional as well as real European imperialists during the final decades of the nineteenth century. Reading Stevenson’s adventure fiction through the lens of Barrie’s fascinating and frequently disturbing exploration of the power of imagination to change reality, we can see how Stevenson’s characters often operate as though they exist within their own Neverland, making the “empire” come to life in provocative and troubling ways.

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