The Anxiety of Aging: The Case of Wendy Moira Angela Darling

In the fall of 2002, I took a graduate-level class in developmental psychology with Prof. Joe Reimer at Brandeis. For one assignment, we were asked to write a case study of a fictional character. I chose Wendy, from the Peter Pan stories. 

The Darling family lived in a tidy English townhouse at 14 Kensington Gardens at the turn of the century.  The family consisted of parents George and Mary, elder daughter Wendy, sons John and Michael, as well as a dog called Nana and a servant named Liza.  Mrs. Darling made it a daily habit to spend a moment each evening after tucking her children in their beds to recollect what she had learned from each of her children that day, a process she referred to as “tidying up her children’s minds” (Barrie, 12; ch. 1).  As Wendy neared the onset of puberty, Mrs. Darling noticed during her tidying of her daughter’s mind that Wendy devoted more and more of her energy towards enacting fantasy stories involving the character of Peter Pan, a boy who lived with the fairies and wouldn’t grow up.  Although Mrs. Darling took note of her daughter’s increasing focus on her fantasy world, for the time being she dismissed any fears with the assurance that fantasy is a healthy aspect of childhood play.

Not long after she first took notice of her daughter’s new play-pattern, Mrs. Darling noted an alarming change in the way Wendy spoke of Peter Pan.  Rather than merely telling stories of Peter’s adventures in the “Neverland” of her dreams, Wendy began insisting that Peter periodically made nighttime visits to the nursery Wendy shared with her brothers.  Wendy’s alleged adventures followed the pattern Wendy had previously set in the bed-time stories she would tell her brothers.  The elements of Wendy’s stories were always the same:  meeting at night in the nursery, flight from the world of Wendy’s home, adventures involving childhood staple characters like mermaids and pirates, and Wendy assuming the role of mother to Peter and his “lost boys.”  

At first, Mrs. Darling tried to diffuse Wendy’s belief in a real Peter Pan with gentle injections of logic:

      ‘What nonsense you talk, precious.  No one can get into the house without knocking.’

‘I think he comes in by the window,’ [Wendy] said.

‘My love, it is three floors up.’

(Barrie, 16-17; ch. 1)

Regardless, Wendy’s belief in a real Peter Pan only tightened as the family approached a monumental day:  the birthday of the youngest brother, Michael.  For it was on this birthday that Michael “was getting into shirts” (Barrie, 18; ch.1), abandoning his baby clothes for a wardrobe more befitting a child of his age.  This birthday carried great symbolic weight for the entire Darling household; with Michael no longer a baby, the nursery would be obsolete.  The nursery held a special mystique within the play-lives of the children as the seat of their youthful imaginings, particularly for Wendy, who insisted it was through the nursery window that Peter Pan would come to visit.  One chronicler of Wendy’s disturbance pinpointed this event as what Erik Erikson called the “psychic stimulus” (90) in his observation of Wendy “playing at Peter Pan”.   In this episode, Wendy argued with her imaginary Peter that they must take flight immediately, underscoring her urgency with the declaration, “I have to grow up tomorrow.  Tonight’s my last night in the nursery.” (Luske, Geronimi and Jackson, 14:10)  This mandated move from the nursery literalized Wendy’s aging anxiety, formally and permanently removing her from the locus of childhood.

Wendy’s first chronicler, J.M. Barrie, related the background of Wendy’s apprehension:

“One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother.  I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs. Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, ‘Oh, why can’t you remain like this for ever!’  This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up.” (7; ch. 1)

Barries observation suggests Wendy’s dilemma of growth seems sewn up in organizing her experience of aging in her individual ego (Erikson, 98).  As her emotional and mental capacities began to open to what Piaget termed formal operations, her burgeoning ability to perform “operations on operations” (Reimer, Paolitto, and Hersh, 34) enabled her to relate her knowledge that children grow up to her own pubescence.  This somatic aspect of physical maturation suggests that Wendy’s crisis also rests in part in what Erickson calls “processes inherent in the organism” (96), i.e. Wendy’s physical growth and impending puberty act as physical signs that Wendy was beginning a transition from being “like this” to whatever her next step would be.  With this physical dilemma in sharp relief against the milestone of Michael’s birthday and all that it represented, Wendy’s crisis can be understood in its social organization as well.  Erikson postulates, “there is no individual anxiety which does not reflect a latent concern common to the immediate and extended group” (98).  In Wendy’s case, this links her physical growth of puberty to the household social reorganization inherent in shifting from aligning Wendy with the children of the nursery to beginning to consider her among the adults.  Wendy’s dilemma, then, can be summed up as a two-pronged crisis:  Why must children grow up, and why must growing up entail abandoning the rich fantasy life of Peter Pan and Neverland (as symbolized by the nursery)?  Wendy’s crisis is intensified by the presence of her siblings.  Whereas an only child may be able to smoothly transition from child to adult without a focus on what is left behind, Wendy sees her role in the family redefined from that of sibling to that of parent.  Hence, in her stories of Peter and the lost boys, she is split between the roles of mother – ie, the “grown-up” – and peer.  In one account of her first flight with Peter, Wendy connected her temptation to join the boy with appeals to both sides of her nature.  Appealing to her youthful playfulness, Peter offered Wendy the chance to “[say] funny things to the stars” and see mermaids “with such long tails,” while also engaging her nascent maternal instinct, offering “how we should all respect you” and “you could tuck us in at night” (Barrie, 48-49; ch. 3).  It would seem then from Wendy’s accounts of her conversations with Peter that her Peter Pan stories represent a strategy for comprehending the idea of growing-up, specifically the role-realignment inherent in the process.  Barrie noted that in an early conversation with her mother, Wendy indicated that on some level, Peter embodied an alter-ego of sorts:  “‘Oh no, he isn’t grown up,’ Wendy assured her confidently, ‘and he is just my size.’  She meant that he was her size in both mind and body; she didn’t know how she knew it, she just knew it” (15; ch. 1).  Wendy’s Peter Pan stories characterized her attempt to synthesize a new identity for herself combining her childhood playfulness with her yearning for adult responsibilities.  In one of the more telling Peter and Wendy stories, Wendy introduced a third option for her relationship with Peter, between cohort and parent:

PETER: You’re so puzzling.  There’s something or other you want to be to me, and it’s not my mother.

WENDY: No indeed it isn’t.

PETER: Then what is it?

WENDY: It isn’t for a lady to tell.

(Barrie & Walsh, 10’1:32)

In short, Wendy has searched for the middle ground between childhood and adulthood and as a result discovered adolescence.

Ultimately, it was Mrs. Darling’s acceptance of Wendy’s stories – and by extension, Wendy’s newly formed adolescent identity – into the narrative of the Darling family that resolved Wendy’s crisis.  Mrs. Darling offered to take Peter in as a foster child, symbolically opening the door for Wendy to carry her childhood play-world forward into her adulthood.  Of course, the offer was necessarily rebuffed by Wendy’s vision of the boy whose biggest fear was that someone “is going to catch me and make me a man” (Barrie, 230; ch. 17).  In an attempt at negotiation, Wendy makes one last attempt to bring her budding adulthood back into her fantasy world, requesting permission to fly away and take care of Peter forever, but Mrs. Darling puts her foot down at such regression:

‘Certainly not.  I have got you home again, and I mean to keep you.’

‘But he does so need a mother.’

‘So do you, my love.’

(Barrie, 231; ch. 17)

In this exchange, Mrs. Darling reveals a more appropriate way for Wendy to carry her childhood forward into her adolescence, acknowledging that despite Wendy’s need to now abandon certain childhood fantasies, she need not renounce her role as daughter.  Mrs. Darling even allows for slowing Wendy’s maturation a bit further, suggesting that once a year, on the anniversary of their resolution, Wendy may visit with Peter.  In revisiting the case, Barrie noted that Wendy abandoned her “visits” with her old friend after only one year, with no hindrance to her overall rate of maturation. “In the end she grew up of her own free will a day quicker than other girls” (Barrie, 232; ch. 17).

As a post-script to this case study, it is worth noting that many years later, Wendy was in fact faced by a similar crisis in raising her own daughter, Jane.  Based on her own therapy, “Wendy let them fly away together” (Barrie, 242; ch. 17), allowing Jane to indulge in her fantasies with an eye to the developmental issues at hand.  Treating Jane’s daydream as a sort of organic play-therapy, Wendy integrated Jane’s own fears of growing into her parenting style, continuing the family history of producing “common grown-up[s]” (Barrie, 242; ch. 17) who in turn become successful parents of their own children.

Works Cited

Barrie, J.M. Peter Pan.  London: Puffin Books, 1994.

—. Peter Pan (audio recording with members of the stage cast). Dir. John Burrell.  Record adaptation by Henry Walsh.  Columbia, CK 4312, 1950.

Erikson, Erik. The Erik Erikson Reader. Ed. Robert Coles.  New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 2000.

Peter Pan. Dir. Hamilton Luske, Clyde Geronimi, and Wilfred Jackson.  With the voices of Bobby Driscoll and Kathryn Beaumont.  Disney, 1953.

Reimer, Joseph, Diana Pritchard Paolitto, and Richard H. Hersh.  Promoting Moral Growth From Piaget to Kohlberg.  2nd ed.  Prospect Heights: Waveland Press.

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