Jacqueline Rose
Painting of Jean-Jacques Rousseau Download PDF Version

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Children's Literature as a Form of Seduction
  3. Why Peter Pan?
  4. Language
  5. A Problem of Address
  6. Peter and Wendy in the Schools
    Rousseau, Freud, and the Issue of Origins
  7. Commercialism and the Child
  8. Recommended Reading


Originally published in 1984, Jacqueline Rose’s The Case of Peter Pan, or The Impossibility of Children’s Fiction is now considered a foundational text in children’s literature studies. Rose, a Professor of English at the college of Queen Mary, University of London, works primarily on the intersection of psychoanalysis and literature; her research includes such diverse subjects as Sylvia Plath, Marcel Proust, modern subjectivity, and the history and writing of Israel-Palestine.

Although Rose’s sole book on children’s literature takes J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (1904, 1911) as its particular subject, the study in fact provides a more far-reaching commentary by reacting against scholarship that relies upon the assumption that children’s literature is written for the child; Rose argues that rather than addressing children’s needs, these books in fact satisfy the needs and desires of adults. Despite Rose’s position as a virtual outsider to the field, The Case of Peter Pan has been highly influential in the study of children’s literature, receiving endorsement and inciting further scholarship from many well-respected critics, including Susan Honeyman, Karin Lesnik-Oberstein, James Kincaid, Perry Nodelman, and Jack Zipes.

Children's Literature as a Form of Seduction
One of the most frequently quoted elements of The Case of Peter Pan is Rose’s definition of children’s fiction as “something of a soliciting, a chase, or even a seduction” (2). This definition works from the premise that children’s books are actually written to fulfill adult desires. As Rose argues, “if children’s fiction builds an image of the child inside the book, it does so in order to secure the child who is outside the book, the one who does not come so easily within its grasp” (2). Rather than reflecting the desires, interests, or characteristics of actual children, children’s literature perpetuates adult fantasies about childhood. Authors unconsciously “seduce” or “colonize” the child by writing books that reflect an adult ideal of childhood, which child readers are meant to identify with and emulate.

Rose is not interested, however, in discussing how children respond to such solicitations. Instead, her goal is to trace the way in which adults’ insistence on the child’s purity manifests itself not only in children’s fiction, but also in critical and cultural responses to that genre. Both children’s authors and their critics, she contends, persist in conceiving of young people as a unified group, defined above all by their primitive simplicity. This deeply essentialist definition—which fails to acknowledge children’s differences in class, culture, and education—then enables other phenomena associated with the child to be deemed unproblematically knowable as well.

For instance, positing children as a pure point of origin allows adults to indulge in the fantasy that we can create a simplified form of language that transparently reflects reality; or gain access to a primitive past; or experience selfhood and sexual identity as completely stable and secure. In raising these issues, Rose addresses some of the most complex topics of theory, psychology, and linguistics. In order to ground her argument, she uses J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan as a case study.

Why Peter Pan?
Before turning to these complicated issues, it is worth considering why Rose chooses Peter Pan as the subject of her study. Her selection rests largely upon the notion that the status of Barrie’s text as a children’s classic relies upon our cultural insistence on the story’s innocence—an insistence which mirrors society’s attitude toward children. Variously packaged as a play (Duke of York’s 1904), a children’s novel (Barrie’s 1911 adaptation, Peter and Wendy), a Broadway musical (Winter Garden 1954), and several movies, Peter Pan has come culturally to stand for eternal youth and artless naïveté.  (And by relation, it has been assumed that entertainment which depicts such “innocence” is perfect fare for children.)

This perception of Peter Pan, Rose argues, is merely a projection of what society wishes the story to be. In fact, Peter first appeared in Barrie’s adult novel The Little White Bird (1902), in which the main plot centers upon the narrator (a bachelor) and his desire to “take [the little boy David] utterly from [his mother] and make him mine” (128). As part of his attempts to woo David, the narrator tells him stories of Peter Pan playing in Kensington Gardens. Thus, as Rose is quick to note, from its very beginning the story of Peter is more closely linked with adult desires surrounding childhood than it is with innocence.

Two years after the publication of The Little White Bird, Barrie adapted Peter’s story into a play—but again, Rose suggests that its success was based on adults’ enthusiasm, more so than children’s.  Moreover, it was only as a result of the play’s tremendous popularity that Barrie eventually produced Peter and Wendy, a novelized adaptation of the play traditionally marketed to child readers. Even in the case of Peter and Wendy, however, Rose doubts whether Barrie was really engaged in an effort to address children. Instead, she maintains, this novella was born

into a world of children’s literature where it was already meant to occupy a place. It was because of that place, predestined and claimed for it by its status as a classic of childhood […] that it was written as a book at all. Writing a book in order to confirm or establish a place inside children’s literature is not, however, the same thing as writing a children’s book. (77)

In other words, Peter Pan became a legend well before he appeared in anything resembling a children’s text; furthermore, the book’s narrative and main character came to signify “an innocence, or simplicity, which every line of Barrie’s 1911 text belies” (67).  Rose points here to the perpetual disjunction between the free floating cultural image of Peter Pan as an icon of innocence and the adult-centered and arguably even pedophilic texts from which he came (the narrator’s “tremendous adventure” in The Little White Bird is to share a bed with David).

Critical appraisals of Peter Pan, Rose maintains, have continued this process of mystification. As Rose points out, at the time of The Case of Peter Pan’s publication, Barrie’s text—like that of many “Golden Age” children literature’s authors—had been read almost exclusively in biographical terms. These biographical readings are problematic for Rose because they tend to equate the author with Peter Pan, or to exaggerate his understanding of children. She persuasively suggests that such readings constitute a prime example of how the ostensible innocence of childhood works to license or justify the telling of simplistic stories about complicated issues, such as the connection between life and art, or between children’s authors and young audience members. Denying the difficulties of writing for children, she argues, is a means once again of denying the difficulties or instability of language, identity, and sexuality.

To counteract such denials, Rose focuses extensively on the randomness of language, as well as its capacity to shape or distort reality rather than merely reflect it. Building on the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, she claims that society’s denial of the arbitrary relationship between sign and signified is implicitly bound up in cultural perceptions of childhood and the production of children’s literature. In other words, by ignoring the instability or inconsistencies of language, society also eliminates any barrier to blithely offering definitions of the nature of childhood and its fiction.

For Rose, Peter and Wendy raises the question of whether or not one should (and can) take up a position or identity in language. As noted above, Rose rejects readings of Peter Pan that project an innocence (and subsequent elusiveness) onto the character and his story; such responses were not uncommon even among respected literary critics such as Roger Lancelyn Green, who explained Barrie’s self-proclaimed difficulty in writing Peter and Wendy by claiming that Peter “was beginning to develop an independent personality and dictate to his creator” (Green 65). Such critical stances ignore precisely the problem Rose’s work addresses—the inherent inability of language to provide resolution to questions concerning origins or identity. Thus, the difficulties Barrie faced in revising and completing Peter and Wendy and Peter Pan for publication were not the result of Peter being too innocent or elusive to write about, but rather the dilemma of “the ‘cannot be written or spoken’ which lies behind any attempt to constitute oneself stably in speech. Peter Pan is the story of that impossibility” (74). 

As with the rest of her study, this claim has implications beyond Barrie’s work. The impossibility of accurate representation through language can be extended from individual identity to include all representation of experience. Rose makes a point here of turning to realist literature, which professes to depict reality in an unembellished manner.

What [the realist aesthetic] denies [is] the fact that language does not simply reflect the world but is active in its constitution of the world. And this rejection of language as process, its activity, means that what is being refused is the idea that there is someone present inside the utterance ordering it, or disordering it, as the case may be. (60)

For Rose, the presence of this “someone” who manipulates the language of the narrative is particularly problematic in literature addressed to children.

The Problem of Address
Rose sees a tremendous power imbalance in the relationship between adult authors and child readers. Elaborating on her theory that children’s literature colonizes or seduces the child into imitating adult ideals of childhood, Rose asserts that in children’s literature, “any question of who is talking to whom, and why, is totally erased” (2). Because the adult author’s presence is not highlighted, she suggests, children can more readily identify with the text and assume that its messages reflect their own experience, wishes or tastes, and not those of adults.

This problem of address is one that has grown progressively more subtle as aesthetic theories pertaining to children’s fiction have changed. As Rose points out, the presence of a conspicuously didactic narrator was commonplace in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; children’s stories often incorporated a figure (such as an aunt) who explicitly told the child characters how they should behave or what they should know.  Although didacticism seemingly disappeared from children’s literature as the nineteenth century progressed, Rose claims that repressive messages remained, but were embedded more stealthily into children’s texts and thus “rendered invisible” (60).

Rose criticizes scholarship that fails to address the inevitable manipulation between an adult author and a child reader, calling this lack of attention to the problem of address a form of “censorship” (21). To this bold assertion she adds:

We cannot think about Peter Pan—its endless rewritings, confusion of address, and the adoration which it has received as if it were itself a child—without thinking about this problem of address. It has emerged constantly in the history of Peter Pan only to be ignored, forgotten, or repressed. (22)

Unfortunately, Rose does not offer a clear alternative to previous modes of criticism, leaving scholars in the children’s literature field to struggle with the dilemma of how to meaningfully incorporate this concern into their scholarship.

Peter and Wendy in the Schools
For Rose, one of the more blatant instances of censorship in the history of Peter Pan occurred when Peter and Wendy was adapted for usein British compulsory schools in the early twentieth century. Citing reports from the London Board of Education and other related documents, Rose points out that educational officials removed those elements of the text that they deemed too “literary” for publicly educated, lower-class children, expunging Latin phrases, complex sentence structures, and references to Eton (Captain Hook’s alma mater). The most radical change the schools enacted, however, was the substitution of “neutral” third person narration for the original first person narration. According to Rose, the erasure of the narrator’s presence from Barrie’s text marks yet another moment in the history of children’s literature when the presence of the adult author—along with his desires and fantasies about childhood—is intentionally hidden.

Rose’s point here, however, is not so much to “demonstrate an outrage—the repressive educational machinery clamps down on the book for the child—as to show how both language and literacy are constituted by just such ‘machinery’ in the first place” (118). In other words, the 1915 school version of Peter and Wendy exemplifies Rose’s problem with language being perceived as an innocent vehicle for communication.  Instead, she argues that educators and other figures of power in children’s lives may determine the form their literacy takes, dictating how they should read and speak in accordance with their cultural status. The excerpted educational reports she provides point to the schools’ desire, for instance, to differentiate between the kind of language a working-class child will need (concrete, visual, and aimed at physical labor) and the kind of language a middle-class child will need (abstract, classical, and Latinate).

Rose claims that Barrie’s original text—which speaks both the elementary school’s “natural” language and the secondary school’s “literary” language—exemplifies not only the instability of language (as she has previously argued), but also the instability of our conceptions of what constitutes “children’s” language.  More specifically, Peter and Wendy illustrates that the concept of a “natural” language (which even working-class children inherently possess) is a myth; in reality, “natural” language is no less learned than “literary” language, and the definition of each one relies upon the other’s existence. Barrie’s text, therefore, created a problem for the schools at a time when they were struggling to maintain some hierarchical difference between the middle class and the working class, a struggle reflected in their choice of curriculum and literature.

Concluding with a look at the 1974 Bullock Report on children’s literacy, A Language for Life, Rose examines how literacy is now seen as a unifying force which can “reconcile social differences [. . .], as if language could magically wipe out divisions of which it necessarily forms a part.” Literature, too, is implicated in this move; the Bullock report suggests that literature is something “fully integral to the child’s mind” (132).  Rose once again exposes how naïve it is to assume the existence of a unified or unifying language, one through which our identity could be clearly defined. 

Rousseau, Freud, and the Issue of Origins
We have seen how Rose’s argument connects the perceived innocence of children with the desire to see language as capable of unmediated representation. The remaining segments of The Case of Peter Pan are largely about exposing the link that has been repeatedly made between childhood and cultural infancy. Rose outlines how Jean Jacques Rousseau helped to popularize the conception of the child as the “site of a lost truth and/or moment in history, which it can therefore be used to retrieve” (43). She then traces the ways in which children’s authors from Thomas Day to Alan Garner have absorbed and perpetuated Rousseau’s belief that children should be kept separate from the contaminating forces of degenerate language and sexuality, two entities which for him are inextricably linked.

Within her discussion of origins, Rose turns also to Sigmund Freud, whose work on childhood sexuality she feels has been misrepresented in literature studies. Rose argues that at its most fundamental, Freud’s work indicates that childhood is a state that continues to affect individuals throughout their adult lives, influencing their identity through their memories of or fantasies about their childhood experiences. The opposite notion—that childhood is a wholly separate state from adulthood—has lent itself to historic cultural perceptions of the child as innocent or pure, an idea which in turn has lent itself to the upholding of the child as a literal or figurative savior of nations and races. Rose claims that contemporary scholarship perpetuates this mystification of the child by positing children’s books as the enforcers of cultural standards or traditions, and turning literature into “the chief battleground in the attempt to preserve our culture from imminent decay” (61).

Rose’s reading of Freud takes up many of the issues she raises elsewhere concerning language. According to Freud, infantile sexuality begins in part with the child’s questions concerning its origin and sexual identity. Rose argues that “by describing the child’s development in terms of a query, Freud moves it out of the realm of an almost biological sequence, and into that of fantasy and representation where things are not so clear” (16). Drawing a connection between children’s development and narrative becomes problematic because it returns us to the issues of language that Rose (and Freud) raise—namely that any claims of identity or certainty we adopt in language are largely “fictional” and therefore, Rose says, can serve to essentialize the child.

Rose’s claim that “we have been reading the wrong Freud to children” stems from her disdain of criticism that overlooks these problematics of language in favor of overly simplistic psychoanalytic readings of children’s fiction (12). Biographic or straightforward symbolic interpretations, she argues, “presuppose a pure point of origin lurking behind the text” that mirrors the supposedly pure origin of the child itself (19).

As such readings have commonly been applied to Peter Pan both as a fictional child and as a text, Rose returns to Barrie’s work to exemplify her point. Citing the various moments in which Barrie’s play and novels unsuccessfully try to avoid or obfuscate issues of origins and sexuality, Rose reiterates her claim that the cultural phenomenon of Peter Pan—the innocent idea of Peter as portrayed in the plays, movies, and other cultural productions—repeatedly wins out over the realities of the written text.

Commercialism and the Child
In the chapter subtitled “Children are a good sell,” Rose discusses Peter Pan as a commodity, exploring the ways in which the proclaimed innocence of the narrative and its main character have been used as a screen to obscure connections between the play and its financial success. Part of the history of this obfuscation hinges upon the play’s perceived departure from the pantomime tradition. Although pantomimes in the late nineteenth century were often based upon children’s books or incorporated characters that might be considered “child-like” by today’s standards, they also incorporated political humor, sexual innuendo, and garish spectacle. In contrast, Peter Pan was seen by many contemporaries “as home, balm and nursemaid, replacing vulgarity with the irrefutable niceness of the nursery—saving us from the excessive display of the material facts of theatrical life” (94).

Rose, however, views Peter Pan as part of the existing pantomime tradition and not as an innocent departure meant solely for children. As such, its primary effect was to enable adult voyeurism: “what Peter Pan gives us better than pantomime, more than pantomime […] is the right to look at the child” (98). She argues against the “easy confusion, or conflation, of child-spectacle, child-performer and child-audience,” pointing out the ways in which the play offers the image of the child as part of the entertainment (103). Rose’s argument here—similar to the one James R. Kincaid would later make in his Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture (1992)—is that by essentializing the child as an innocent, Barrie’s culture (and our own) unwittingly sexualized the child, turning its image into erotic spectacle. By way of conclusion to this argument, Rose states that Peter Pan is long overdue in taking its place in literature for the adult.

Recommended Reading
Green, Roger Lancelyn. Fifty Years of Peter Pan.  London: Peter Davies, 1954.

Honeyman, Susan. Elusive Childhood: Impossible Representations in Modern Fiction. Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press, 2005.

Jones, Katharine. “Getting Rid of Children’s Literature.” Lion and the Unicorn 30.3 (Sept. 2006): 287-315.

Gubar, Marah. Artful Dodgers: Reconceiving the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

---. “Peter Pan as Children’s Theatre: The Issue of Audience.” Forthcoming in The Oxford Handbook of Children’s Literature, edited by Julia Mickenberg and Lynn Vallone. 

Lesnik-Oberstein, Karin. Children’s Literature: Criticism and the Fictional Child. New York: Oxford UP, 1994.

---. “Children’s Literature: New Approaches.” Introduction. Children’s Literature: New Approaches. Ed. Lesnik-Oberstein. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. 1-24.

Kincaid, James. Child-Loving: The Erotic Child and Victorian Culture. New York:  Routledge, 1992.

---. Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998.

Nodelman, Perry. “The Case of Children’s Fiction: or The Impossibility of Jacqueline Rose.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 10.3 (Fall 1985): 98-100.

---. “Fear of Children’s Literature: What’s Left (or Right) After Theory?” Reflections of Change: Children’s Literature Since 1945. Ed. Sandra L. Beckett. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997. 3-14.

---. The Hidden Adult: Defining Children’s Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.

---. “The Other: Orientalism, Colonialism, and Children’s Literature.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 17.1 (Spring 1992): 29-35.

Rudd, David. “Theorising and Theories: The Conditions of Possibility of Children’s Literature.” International Companion Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature. Ed. Peter Hunt. 2nd Ed. London: Routledge, 2004. 29-43.

Zipes, Jack. Sticks and Stones: The Troublesome Success of Children’s Literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter. New York: Routledge, 2001.