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The Little White Bird

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The Little White Bird is a novel by J. M. Barrie, published in 1902, ranging in tone from fantasy and whimsy to social comedy with dark aggressive undertones. The book attained prominence and longevity due to several chapters written in a softer tone than the rest of the book, in which it introduced the character and mythology of Peter Pan. Those chapters were later published separately as Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens as a children's book. The Peter Pan story began as one chapter of a longer work and during the four years that Barrie worked on the book prior to publication, grew to an "elaborate book-within-a-book" of over one hundred pages.

The complete book has also been published under the title The Little White Bird, or Adventures in Kensington Gardens.

Contents

Plot introduction

The Little White Bird is a series of short episodes, including accounts of the narrator's day to day activities in London of its day, and fanciful tales set in Kensington Gardens and elsewhere.

Plot summary

The story is set in several locations; the earlier chapters are set in the town of London, contemporaneous to the time of Barrie's writing, and involving some time travel of a few years, and other fantasy elements, while remaining within the London setting. The middle chapters that later became Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens are set in London's famous Kensington Gardens, introduced by the statement that "All perambulators lead to Kensington Gardens". The Kensington Gardens chapters include detailed descriptions of the features of the Gardens, along with fantasy names given to the locations by the story's characters, especially after "Lock-Out Time", described by Barrie as the time at the end of the day when the park gates are closed to the public, and the fairies and other magical inhabitants of the park can move about more freely than during the daylight, when they must hide from ordinary people. The third section of the book, following the Kensington Gardens chapters, are again set generally in London, though there are some short returns to the Gardens that are not part of the Peter Pan stories. In a two-page diversion in chapter 24, Barrie brings the story to Patagonia, and a journey by ship returning to England at the "white cliffs of Albion".

Characters

  • Captain W____, the first person narrator, described by author and filmmaker Andrew Birkin as "Barrie thinly disguised", Captain W____, although narrating the story, also refers to his own writing of the story, within the story, when in the book's conclusion, he gives the newly-completed manuscript to the character Mary (mother of David, who has not yet been born), explaining to her that it is the story of her unborn child, that he describes as a "little white bird".
  • David, A boy child, 6 years old at the start of the book, but who appears at various ages throughout the story, ranging from an unborn baby in the womb to a baby, infant, and up to age 6. The character is based on George Llewelyn Davies, one of several children of the Davies family who provided inspiration for many characters in Barrie's writings. David was also the name of Barrie's older brother, who died as a boy... and thus never grew up.
  • Mary A____, "The Little Nursery Governess", David's mother, who shares a name with Barrie's wife (born Mary Ansell) but according to Birkin is "closely modeled" on Sylvia Llewelyn Davies. During the story, Captain W____ sees Mary progress from young lover, to newlywed, through pregnancy and the birth of David, and as a young mother. The narrator's feelings expressed towards and about Mary vary from affection to anger and jealousy as he competes with her for David's affections.
  • Peter Pan, A magical boy who escaped from being human as an infant, and ever since flies about and cavorts with fairies. He differs from the better known portrayal of the character, primarily being only a week old rather than an older child.
  • Maimie Mannering, a four year old girl who becomes one of Peter Pan's main cohorts in the Kensington Gardens part of the story. Her part of the adventure begins when she gets stuck inside Kensington Gardens after "lock-out time" because the fairies changed the large clock in the garden to show an earlier hour, in preparation for the fairy ball planned for that night. The Mamie character is the literary forerunner of the Wendy Darling character of the later play and novel.
  • Porthos, a very large saint bernard, based on Barrie's dog of the same name; Porthos was the literary forerunner of the character Nana, a Newfoundland appearing in the Peter Pan play and novel as the Darling family's nursemaid.
  • Solomon Caw, a crow.
  • Duke of Christmas Daisies, an Oriental fairy who is unable to fall in love.
  • Brownie, a fairy who wishes to win the Duke's heart.
  • Queen Mab, the queen of the fairies.
  • Shelley, a poet.
  • The goat.

Major themes

The main theme of the book is an exploration of the intimate emotional relationship of the narrator, a childless Victorian era retired soldier and London bachelor, with a young boy born to a working-class married couple in the same neighborhood. The narrator secretly assists the couple financially, while meeting with the young boy in various "adventures", presented in a disjointed series of episodes in the book in which the narrator seeks to find a feeling of closeness with the boy, expressed as a desire for fatherhood, as well as other less clearly defined ideas. Peter Hollindale, professor of English and Education Studies at the University of York (retired, 1999), has written extensively about James Barrie and the Peter Pan stories. He states that while modern psychology enables readers to find hints of various abnormalities in the story, it also remains "strangely innocent and asexual".

Literary significance and reception

The book is best known for its introduction of the character of Peter Pan. Although it is one of Barrie's better-remembered works based on this association, it has been eclipsed by the later stage play Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up, which introduced the characters of Wendy, Captain Hook, and Tinker Bell, along with much of the mythos of Neverland. That latter version of the character has been the basis of all popular adaptations and expansions to the material. The stage play became the basis for the 1911 novel Peter and Wendy, later published under the titles Peter Pan and Peter Pan and Wendy. The script of the stage play itself was published in 1928.

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