Desiring Unfamiliarity or Driving Segregation? The Role of the Other in Peter and Wendy, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck
The mysterious and the unknown can be intriguing, but dangerous. The new can be compelling, but we are often wary of those not like us, whether this is due to previous experience and previously held ideals. J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy and Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit and The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck explore the notion of the other, or that which is not familiar to us, through the way that characters in the work react to one another based on their differences. Through each of these works, we see otherness balancing on a teetering scale. While the unknown is intriguing and desirable in some cases, it can also drive segregation and misunderstanding through the judgement of the other as evil. This creates an interesting dichotomy in which characters are drawn to things that are mysterious and intriguing due to their otherness, but are quick to judge those who are other in an undesirable way – but what separates the alluring other from the dubious other? To explore this dichotomy is to discover how otherness is interpreted by the characters in each narrative. For both authors, otherness is compelling to the beholder, as though the unknown has an allure that cannot be replaced with something known and familiar.
In The Tale of Peter Rabbit, the rabbits’ mother advises her children, “don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden”, as this is the place where their father met a terrible fate (Potter 5). As their mother adamantly warns the children not to enter the garden, this creates a spark within Peter, who chooses to disobey his mother. Despite his mother’s emphasis on the danger of the farm, he enters it anyway, gorging himself on the fruits and vegetables that are there (7-9). No one has explained to Peter that there will be food or anything of interest to him inside of the garden, so Peter Rabbit’s choice to enter the garden anyways proves that his motive is to investigate the intrigue of this new, forbidden space. Though Peter knows of the danger of humans, he still chooses to go into the garden, but he heeds a warning from his cousin about another animal. When he encounters the white cat, “Peter thought it best to go away without speaking to her; he had heard about cats from his cousin, little Benjamin Bunny” (21). Because Peter knows about what cats do, he does not feel the need to explore the cat, but the intrigue of the garden is in the secrets it holds, in its otherness. In The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck, we see otherness take on two appealing forms: the joys of motherhood and the compelling foxy gentleman. Despite the fact that motherhood is simply not something accessible to ducks, “because the farmer’s wife would not let her hatch her own eggs”, Jemima becomes “quite desperate” to be a mother, going to great lengths to hatch her own eggs (1,3). That motherhood is foreign to Jemima makes this desire so strong, even though Rebeccah Puddle-Duck “know[s] that Jemima would “let [the eggs] go cold” (2). Because Rebeccah seems to have knowledge of the workings of motherhood, her desire is not as strong as Jemima’s, but Jemima is so enthralled by this mysterious experience due to its otherness to her. Jemima is intrigued by another other in her story, the “foxy gentleman”, who she thinks is “mighty civil and handsome” (9). Despite the fact that she should be wary of a stranger around her babies – she does not want the “the superfluous hen” hatching her eggs, she is happy to leave her eggs in the care of this stranger, who she is drawn to due to his intrigue (10). She knows the hen, and knows about her, but would rather lay her eggs in this stranger’s shed due to his intriguing personality and the fact that he is unknown to her and the farmer who takes her eggs in the morning.
We see the other as intriguing in Peter and Wendy as well, though perhaps through a more sexual and precocious lens. At Peter and Wendy’s first meeting, “She was not alarmed to see a stranger crying on the nursery floor; she was only pleasantly interested” (Barrie 37). The first moment this strange intruder is introduced to her in the middle of the night, Wendy is not afraid, as one should be when there is a stranger in the house, in fact, this new other piques her interest – so much so that, after their interaction “She also said she would give him a kiss if he liked” (41). Despite not knowing what a kiss is, Peter wants to receive one, this attraction to the unknown persisting in both of the children during their first meeting (41). In this way, a new type of relationship presents much room for the exploration of the other in the form of someone other in gender. However, Wendy, one of the main characters of the work, despite her being “every inch a woman”, is never truly given sexual agency – while Peter sees her as “a nice motherly person”, she admits herself: “I am only a little girl. I have no real experience” (40, 107). As Wendy is the most known character, and thus the least “othered”, she is not considered sexually intriguing by the characters in the story. However, the sensuality of Tinkerbell and Tiger Lily, the two sexualized characters in the story, exists due to their otherness. The intrigue of the other is conveyed in that Tiger Lily and Tinkerbell’s sexual appeal is so intertwined with their otherness. While Tinker Bell does not conceal her sensuality, as “her figure could be seen to the best advantage”, and her bedroom is referred to as a “boudoir”, it is notable that the only character who is allowed to be so overtly sexual is othered in that she is not human (37, 113). In this story, desirability is not just limited to the inhuman, but also to the racialized other. Tiger Lily “is the most beautiful of dusky Dianas and the belle of the Piccaninnies, coquettish, cold and amorous by turns; there is not a brave who would not have the wayward thing to wife” (82). Her otherness is amplified by the racialized words used to describe her, such as “dusky” and “redskin” (82, 133). This racial caricature is taken a step further through her speech, when she says, “’Me Tiger Lily… Peter Pan save me, me his velly nice friend. Me no let pirates hurt him” (151). As she articulates this exaggerated character of an accent, the narrator refers to her as a “lovely creature” (151). As a racialized person, Tiger Lily is less of a person and more of an animal in this narrative, but is assigned sexual characteristics. Even the juxtaposition of these two words, “lovely” and “creature”, further enforces the idea that to be other is to be desirable. These two concepts, the covetable and the other, are linked so intrinsically in each of these stories, whether it is the intrigue of an unknown place, the prospect of a new purpose in life, the allure of a stranger, the draw to explore new relationships, or the sexualization of the other. If the other can be used for personal gratification, then it is considered alluring. Though otherness imparts desirability in these narratives, the unknown can also be associated with evil, perceived by the protagonist or by the reader through the narration.
Otherness can be perceived as evil in both Peter and Wendy and the Potter works. It is easier for characters in the story not to dissect the motives of those that are different to them, as it is too difficult for these characters to understand the point of view of the other. In this fashion, characters attempt to distance themselves from those of other races, species, and backgrounds by further emphasizing their differences. In The Tale of Peter Rabbit, the other is a source of danger from many directions. The first mention of another species is by Peter’s mother, who explains that his father had been put into a pie by the human Mrs. MacGregor (Potter 3). Peter spies a cat, but has heard from his cousin that cats as a species are dangerous, and decides not to talk to this member of another species (21). Even Peter’s perceived negligence of the mouse, whose mouth is so full that “she [can] not answer” Peter’s question, shows any species other than the Rabbit to be unhelpful, and thus, not good (20). In fact, Peter does not have one positive interaction with any member of another species throughout his entire journey – thus reinforcing the idea that the other is to be seen as antagonistic in relation to the main character. This is reinforced further in The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck, in which Jemima is untrusting of all other species (save for the wily fox, who the reader sees as untrustworthy through the narration). The first sentence of the tale, “What a funny sight it is to see a brood of ducklings with a hen!” seeks to emphasize the divide between species (1). Jemima thinks the hen is “superfluous” and would not like the hen to hatch her eggs for her (10). Even when speaking to Kep, Jemima is in “awe of the collie” (18), further showing her wariness other species and emphasizing their differences. One might argue that because Jemima is so trusting of the fox, he is not an other and therefore not considered suspicious, however, the narrator’s treatment of the fox exhibits nevertheless the same propensity to perceive the other as a threat, calling Jemima a “simpleton” for not noticing the dubiousness of the foxy man (17). The obvious way in which the narrator mocks Jemima for being so naive as to not be wary of the other serves to reiterate the idea that the other is something to be wary of, no matter how charming it may be. The narrative serves to reiterate differences between a character and the other in order to justify that any difference that is not useful to the self is to be feared.
In Peter and Wendy, “the black pirate” Captain Hook is posited as the primary villain of the story (Barrie 187). While he is indeed a terrible man, and has committed many atrocities against not only the inhabitants of Neverland but his own pirates as well, much of the imagery used to describe his evilness has to do with how dark he is physically. While we see Wendy mistaken by the lost boys for “A great white bird” (92) and Peter referred to by the tribes as “the Great White Father” (150), and Tinker Bell exuding light, we see the evil Hook described as a “’Dark and sinister man’”, setting forth the differences in colour between the good and the evil (228). Not only is Hook dark in behaviour, but he is also dark in colour: he is “blackavised, and his hair was dressed in long curls, which at a little distance looked like black candles, and gave a singularly threatening expression to his handsome countenance” (80). When he emerges from the water, Wendy sees his “ his evil swarthy face” (131). Barrie uses negative connotations of dark colour and dark skin and hair to other Hook and associate him further with evil. Hook’s otherness in colour serves to contrast from the children, their whiteness symbolizing innocence and his darkness symbolizing evil. The blackness of Hook is used in descriptions of his ugliness. In creating this greater divide between light and dark, good and evil, Barrie achieves the same result as Potter, in that characters are wary of othering characteristics when these characteristics do not fulfil a purpose which is useful to the character.
The link between otherness, intrigue, and evil is not merely a coincidence, but a commentary. These works show that the dichotomy of otherness can be broken down in that in the cases where otherness is desirable, (such as the intrigue of a garden full of possible treats, the idea of the joys of motherhood, the exploration of a blooming relationship, or the sexualization of the exotic) it is commodifiable in the eyes of a character. Otherness is only desirable when it can be exploited such that a character can gain something from it. When a character stands to gain nothing from the other in a situation, they look at the other as an antagonist, and seek to separate themselves from the other. For example, while Tiger Lily’s “dusky” skin makes her alluring and sensual, Hook’s dark face is portrayed as evil. Whether it is due to their species or the colour of their skin, these differences will be emphasized such that the characters can segregate themselves from the other.
Barrie, James Matthew. (2008). Peter and Wendy. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved from https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/26654. Potter, Beatrix. (2005). The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved from https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/14814. Potter, Beatrix. (2005). The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved from https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/14838.
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