It is well-known that “home is where the heart is,” a cliché that has been embroidered in needlepoint by many a maternal grandmother. Home, a place of security and comfort for everyone and particularly so for the young child, is a constant in the lives of children, and as such, they tend to take it for granted. Yet, as inquisitive creatures, they crave adventure and excitement, which they seek in the form of fantasy and pretend play. Bruno Bettelheim comments that, by “spinning out daydreams—ruminating, rearranging, and fantasizing about suitable story elements,” the child can explore his or her imagination and come to understand the mysteries of the world (Bettelheim 7).
In doing so, children break away from the familiar and explore the limits of their imagination. However, even though children may cast aside their ordinary lives for those of a superhero or a mermaid, they never stray too far from home. They hold onto an invisible tether that connects them to their home, like a dog on a leash, which keeps them anchored to reality even as they explore an imaginary world.
The child knows that, no matter how many adventures he may embark on, he can always come back home, where his mother will be waiting for him. Paradoxically enough, children unconsciously seek to leave their home when they long to be a princess in a faraway land or a bloodthirsty pirate whose only home is the sea, yet their home acts as a safe base even amid such fantasy.
Barrie’s classic Peter Pan reveals home shapes the fantasy, while fantasies reveal the importance of home while still allowing them to explore their imagination and find answers to their questions about issues in their lives, such as what it means to be an adult ao be self-sufficient.
Perhaps what makes the story of Peter Pan so charming to many children is the fact that three of the main characters are perfectly normal boys and girls just like they are, and this makes it easy to fantasize that their adventures could happen to them, too. Peter, the equally captivating hero of the story, is the eternal, carefree child, who is allowed to play all day long and has no responsibilities whatsoever; this freedom coupled with his desirable powers such as his ability to fly easily endears the child. Wendy, John, and Michael Darling are delighted upon meeting him, and eagerly depart their home to follow him to Neverland, where they become a part of a fantastic world filled with all sorts of interesting characters. But despite the sheer wonder and excitement that Neverland brings, there remains a sense that something is not quite right. Apart from the family they left behind in London, the Darling children join Peter and the clan of Lost Boys, who “live underground, each in a house whose entrance fits him exactly, like a coffin” (Gilead 286). Curiously enough, considering that fantasy is meant to be an unbridled, imaginative escape from reality, the home of the Lost Boys seems almost repressive at times. The place where Wendy, John, and Michael live is completely run by the children, with no adults to scold them for misbehaving or to guide them throughout their day, or even kiss them goodnight when night falls. The idea of such a carefree life is almost too perfect, and this much freedom causes one to feel trapped, as if in a coffin.
Even the quaint, lovely little house constructed by the Lost Boys for the Lady Wendy upon her arrival in Neverland is “like a tomb” (Gilead 286), for it is merely a ghost of a proper home, a pretend version, just as Wendy pretends to be a mother to the Lost Boys. Chaos and disorder over the dinner table, where they host mock dinners, run amok in the household, and the inevitable discord between the boys and Wendy’s lack of control over the results in an unstable home. Captain Hook only furthers this notion when he attempts to usurp Peter Pan by trussing up the boys and Wendy and taking them away, using Wendy’s little house against her and her “family.” The dastardly pirate “signs to his dogs to be gone, and they depart through the wood, carrying the little house with its strange merchandise and singing their ribald song” (Barrie 1343). Symbolically speaking, the children’s fantasy home is not stable, for it is all too easily carried away by the few adults in Neverland. Despite their games and play, Wendy and her brothers realize that they are not as self-sufficient as they believed themselves to be. They understand that they are reliant on their family after all and that being self-sufficient is something that comes to them later on in life when they are mature enough to handle such responsibility.
When the subject of their mother arises and they become fully aware of the gravity of the situation, they remember what it is like to live in a home where they are the children, not the ones in charge, and where they have a mother to take care of them and love them. The children are dimly aware that everything is merely pretending, a false home, which makes them miss their true home, for they see how inadequate the substitute is. In sharp contrast with the unsound, false dwelling in Neverland, the Darlings’ home is a permanent fixture. There is no doubt in the minds of the children that their mother would be waiting for them always, with the window unlatched to welcome them home. Before their adventure to Neverland, they always took their home and their mother for granted, assuming that “[nothing) can harm (them) after the night-lights are lit” (Barrie 1316) and that the “two happy parents conspiring cozily by the fire for the good of their children” (Barrie 1314) would always be present. Even after they were whisked away to Neverland, they remained attached to their safe base, modeling their surrogate family after their literal family. Peter, the designated head of the household, learns from John how to be a father and imitates the pompous Mr. Darling: “A little less noise there!” (Barrie 1340). Wendy as well models her mannerisms after Mrs. Darling, doting on her pretend children. Because their parents were such constants in their lives, even after they left them behind to explore the world of fantasy, they remained confident that Mother would still be there when they were to return, never doubting her love for them for a minute. Bruno Bettelheim provides insight into the sanctuary of home in his work The Uses of Enchantment when he speaks of “the security from all dangers in which the substitute mother kept the child” (17). While his statement refers to a separate fairytale, “Rapunzel,” Bettelheim’s musings also apply to Peter Pan. The Darling children find warmth and security in their own home alongside their true mother and are safe from wild pirates, cruel mermaids, and even the unpredictable Peter Pan himself, as he has no qualms about forcing Wendy to stay with him forever, essentially imprisoning her. The pretend family they dreamed of in Neverland made for a un substitute, but fantasy is not a replacement for reality. Just as home shapes the fantasy, the fantasy reveals the importance of home and family.
While some jaded adults scorn fantasies as useless drivel that should be eliminated in favor of cold, solid reality, these daydreams and fairytales are necessary for a child’s development. By “spinning out daydreams—ruminating, rearranging, and fantasizing about suitable story elements,” the child can explore his or her imagination and come to understand the mysteries of the world (Bettelheim 7). Fairytales add another dimension to such daydreams by providing a framework on which children can build up their sites. In acting out these secret dreams, they essentially reveal their unconscious desires and put them into a form that they can understand. Fantasies such as those present in Peter Pan allow the child to face and deal with the issues present in their own lives, whether it’s by assuming the role of an adult, as Wendy does, or by pretending to be something you aren’t, such as Michael’s eagerness to be brave and strong enough to kill a pirate. By living out these daydreams, they become more comfortable in their skins when they return to their home, an ordinary boy or girl once more, just as the Darlings do. They have explored their fantasies and, while they may revisit them at times, they are content to be safe and happy in the normalness of reality.
But when all is said and done, the child eventually returns to his home, where he is warm and welcome. As delightful as any fantasy may be, it is no substitute for one’s true home, yet it can strengthen the comfort of this safe base by highlighting all that is good about it. The fantasy home transforms from a getaway from reality into a source of entertainment that one can wander in and out of at will, just as Wendy returns to Neverland once a year. As she grows up into a young woman, however, she finds herself becoming less and less able to “see” Peter and Neverland as a whole. However, this is merely the process of maturation as a child ages and transcends the limitations of his or her childhood. Furthermore, Bettelheim’s theory that a child needs such fantasies and daydreams to understand the world beyond him is proven correct; once he passes childhood, he doesn’t need to rely on such fantasies and leaves them behind. This form of play sheds light on issues present in the child’s real, everyday life and puts the world around him into a context that he can understand and interact with. Above all, he begins to understand that he still is a child and that while he may fantasize otherwise, he is not completely self-sufficient. Being reliant on his mother and his family as a whole is not a sign of immaturity or weakness, but rather a sign of strength and a healthy, loving relationship. The consensus is clear: the home is where the heart is.