First, A Review
Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie is rated 2 stars because I couldn’t get past the sexism and racism rampant throughout this story.
I’m still not sure how to rate this. If this hadn’t been a classic, I absolutely would have not finished this book. Not far into the story, there are several instances of sexism that is appalling. I fully acknowledge that the era in which this was written in was an era of explicit sexism, but even taking that into consideration, these instances were awful. Then the rest of the book is really a narrative about mothers and it is drenched in the sexism of the day. I read a short story in The Emerald Circus entitled, “Lost Girls,” before I read this original story and was confused as to why there was such a strong feminist statement in it. Now, I absolutely understand. I wanted to write a story like “Lost Girls” myself after reading this story.
There is also racism throughout the book, but in particular, near the end of this book, there is a long narration that is appalling racism. It stands out as particularly awful. I am fine with tolerating off-handed racist and sexist comments throughout a book that was written at a time when that was the norm, but I balk at the idea of finding enduring a story which is entirely based on a sexist and racist narrative. I find it particularly disturbing to see such things in a children’s story that is still being read to children today.
The story itself, even overlooking these issues, is not very good. Peter Pan is an annoying, spoiled boy who simply is too selfish. There is glorified violence. There is no character growth or much point to the story. It is a boys adventure story very reministent of its era. I looked for something to enjoy about it, but found it lacking. I do not understand why it is still considered a classic.
If you are interested in reading this classic, by all means do. There is probably something redeeming about this story that I missed. But please do not read it to children until you have read it and thought critically about it yourself.
Now, A Reflection
When do we chastise a book and/ or author for things like racism and sexism when the words were written at a time when such thoughts was the norm? When do we give a book and/ or author a pass and when do we say it is unacceptable? This is a hot button issue right now, as some of you may know. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the recent controversy, the American Library Association voted unanimously to remove Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from a book award for her racist depictions of Native Americans and blacks. I won’t weigh in on this controversy as I haven’t read the books and in this reflection, I’m more concerned about the actual book and not using an author’s name for an award. I personally really struggled over this while listening to Peter Pan. I wanted to read this classic children’s story and hear Jim Dale narrate it (I’ve yet to listen to one of his audiobooks), yet barely into the story, I was so angry by the sexism, I wanted to stop listening. I ended up going through the whole story hoping that it was just going to be occassional references to sexism and racism, but it wasn’t. I personally couldn’t enjoy the story because of this, but does it make sense to give the book a low rating? Should I have skipped rating it on Goodreads? How critical can I be of a book that was written at a time when sexism and racism was the norm?
I don’t have good answers to these questions. Ultimately, I did rate the book as I truly felt about it, 2 stars, instead of an average rating or 3 stars which heavily took into account the era in which the book was written. But I don’t claim this is the ideal way to handle such situations. For me, the racism and sexism was too severe to ignore and I finally settled on the more accurate rating. However, in other instances, I have overlooked sexism or racism as indicative of the times and not hard it so heavily sway my opinion of the novel. I can’t say why exactly, but these instances were too much for me to overlook. I absolutely expect to be criticized for drawing the line here and not somewhere else. After all, I am currently reading Rebecca, which is a narrative around sexism and has one-off racism in it, and I don’t expect to be writing a scathing review of that book. But I am curious to know: