Readers have long debated the meaning of Mrs. Darling’s “hidden kiss” in the century since her first appearance in J.M. Barrie’s Peter and Wendy (1904). Though Barrie never clarified what he meant, a simple analysis of the Peter Pan story and Barrie’s other children’s stories reveals a simple truth about the vague reference.
In describing Mrs. Darling’s hidden kiss, Barrie hinted at the spirit of youth within her whom she could give neither to her own children nor to her husband, whom her suitors could never get, and yet whom she could not deny Peter Pan, the epitome of unabashed and proud youth. When Barrie said Peter Pan “was very much like Mrs. Darling’s kiss,” he expounded how Pan the proud child was the same as Mrs. Darling’s fierce youth.
Pan represents proud and Insolent childhood
“Proud and insolent youth,” said Hook, “prepare to meet thy doom.”Captain James Hook, Peter and Wendy, Chapter 15 – “Hook or Me This Time”, J.M. Barrie
Barrie’s adoration of youth is most obvious in works such as The Little White Bird (1902) and Peter and Wendy. Whether by focusing his attention on children as primary characters or, in Peter Pan’s case, founding the core theme of the story on the rejection of aging, itself, Barrie explored a universal human struggle to preserve the power and purity of youthfulness and innocence.
Peter Pan stands as the boldest icon of childhood, indifferent to anyone but himself and those who idolize him, and abrasive to being deepened through maturity and development. He is childhood to a fault, so much so he even gnashes his teeth at the mere witness of adults.
Barrie makes it plain both how he sees Peter Pan, and how Peter sees himself in Chapter 15.
“Pan, who and what art thou?” (Captain Hook) cried huskily.
“I’m youth, I’m joy,” Peter answered at a venture, “I’m a little bird that has broken out of the egg.”Captain James Hook and Peter Pan, Peter and Wendy, Chapter 15 — “Hook or Me This Time”
Barrie exults the purity of childhood in Peter’s attitude, his beliefs and his words. Mrs. Darling, alternatively, has embraced her role as an adult and mother, yet kindles her inner child. She saves it only for herself and the most vivid icons of childhood such as Peter.
Her hidden kiss makes her the most desirable
The way Mr. Darling won her was this: the many gentlemen who had been boys when she was a girl discovered simultaneously that they loved her, and they all ran to her house to propose to her except Mr. Darling, who took a cab and nipped in first, and so he got her. He got all of her, except the innermost box and the kiss. He never knew about the box, and in time he gave up trying for the kiss.Peter and Wendy, Chapter 1 – Peter Breaks Through, J.M. Barrie
Mrs. Darling is described as a high-quality woman — beautiful and desired by hosts of men. Her (metaphorical) kiss drew others to her, including her own children, but she never offered it to anyone.
An aspect of mystery can drive attraction, and Barrie’s portrayal of Mrs. Darling is no different. He outlined in a single paragraph how she was a woman of layers and complexity who could never be fully understood or figured out. This key aspect was part of her attraction and the inaccessibility of her innermost person.
She was a lovely lady, with a romantic mind and such a sweet mocking mouth. Her romantic mind was like the tiny boxes, one within the other, that come from the puzzling East, however many you discover there is always one more; and her sweet mocking mouth had one kiss on it that Wendy could never get, though there it was, perfectly conspicuous in the right-hand corner.Peter and Wendy, Chapter 1 – Peter Breaks Through, J.M. Barrie
He also illustrated that she was not only sweet and kind, but also had some spice in her personality, the teasing kind that can draw others. In describing her sweet, mocking mouth which bore the very kiss held so lofty, Barrie clarified that Mrs. Darling was a woman of mysteries and layers.
Childhood is the source of the kiss
Ever distrustful of adults, Peter gnashes his teeth as a warning at Mrs. Darling during their first, brief encounter.
When he saw she was a grown-up, he gnashed the little pearls at her.Peter and Wendy, Chapter 1 – Peter Breaks Through, J.M. Barrie
However, Barrie presses into Mrs. Darling’s balance of her motherhood as a value to who she was. As the Darling family’s heart, she presses against George’s stalwart number counting and fantasizes about her future children. She is the emotional yang to her husband’s logical yin, and exudes her femininity as a prime element of her identity through maintenance of her appearance and the upkeep of her home.
In fact, the loss of her children through Peter and Wendy damages her kiss, shriveling it. When Peter returns to the nursery at the end of the book, he discovers a very different Mrs. Darling, one who struggles with her identity without her children.
On that eventful Thursday week, Mrs. Darling was in the night- nursery awaiting George’s return home; a very sad-eyed woman. Now that we look at her closely and remember the gaiety of her in the old days, all gone now just because she has lost her babes, I find I won’t be able to say nasty things about her after all. If she was too fond of her rubbishy children, she couldn’t help it. Look at her in her chair, where she has fallen asleep. The corner of her mouth, where one looks first, is almost withered up.Peter and Wendy, Chapter 16 – The Return Home, J.M. Barrie
Without her children, Mrs. Darling struggled to maintain the spark which first drew others to her. Though still kind, Mrs. Darling remained insightful and poignant with George’s own difficulty in handling their children’s loss.
… For some time (George) sat with his head out of the (nursery) kennel, talking with Mrs. Darling of this success, and pressing her hand reassuringly when she said she hoped his head would not be turned by (his financial success).
“But if I had been a weak man,” he said. “Good heavens, if I had been a weak man!”
“And, George,” she said timidly, “you are as full of remorse as ever, aren’t you?”
“Full of remorse as ever, dearest! See my punishment: living in a kennel.”
“But it is punishment, isn’t it, George? You are sure you are not enjoying it?”
“My love!”Peter and Wendy, Chapter 16 – The Return Home, J.M. Barrie
Barrie manages to maintain depth in a character who could have been easily dismissed as “the children’s mother.” His choices could be attributed to his complicated relationship with his own mother and his desires to make up for the loss of his brother, her open favorite child. That he expounds on Mrs. Darling’s shriveled kiss displays a deeply personal witness to how his own mother’s terrible loss took away her spark.
After stealing her children away and dimming the light in her heart, Barrie restores to Mrs. Darling the children he couldn’t restore to his own mother, and in so doing, presumably revives her hidden kiss.
Mother’s have the best kiss, but everybody can have one
She started up with a cry, and saw the boy, and somehow she knew at once that he was Peter Pan. If you or I or Wendy had been there we should have seen that he was very like Mrs. Darling’s kiss.Peter and Wendy, Chapter 1 – Peter Breaks Through, J.M. Barrie
Mrs. Darling’s hidden kiss is a metaphor for youthfulness, maintained into her maturity. Considering Barrie’s love for and adoration of his own mother, it’s no wonder that he chose Mrs. Darling over her husband or even her children to bear the kiss. Wendy could have had that kiss, or John or Michael. Barrie chose the mother because she was the foundational anchor for the rest of the family. Carrying that spark was prime in her depiction and is one of the most well-known aspects people remember when thinking of her.
The kiss is also one of the few concepts that translate to the real world. Everyone is capable of bearing a kiss (or a spirit of youthfulness), but it’s something stoked within. Mrs. Darling loses that spark along with her missing children, but it never had to be permanently destroyed. Peter Pan’s immortality shows that the true spirit of childhood never truly dies, and we all can maintain such a connection if we truly choose to.