Inversion in “Alice in Wonderland”

I am using Havelock Ellis’ “Sexual Inversion in Women” as a lens to view “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” because the text creates the atmosphere of defining what is “normal” in the developing female maturity and sexuality. For example, an “inverted woman” has “manly” qualities, wears masculine clothes, and spends a lot of time around other women. While this is not actually accurate to reality, it calls attention to an important perspective held about developing sexuality. Ellis’ attempt at trying to logicize and simplify female sexuality can very much highlight the confusions that Alice is confronted with in her journey in Wonderland. The lens allows observations on how Alice’s attempts at thinking logically about Wonderland, or ultimately her own developing identity, does not actually lead to clarity.

Inversions are abundant throughout the novel. The inversions of “Alice and Wonderland” though are less explicitly about sex, and more generally about Alice’s journey though childhood to womanhood. Wonderland constantly inverts Alice’s expectations of what the world should logically be. Riddles have no answers, animals hold authority over humans, and games do not have rules. Alice can’t remember multiplication problems or recitations, or even who she is. In fact, trying to use logic is actually maddening for Alice. Her reality and sense of self is shattered and confused. Even her body does not stay the same, and the changing size of her body and body parts is one of her central conflicts. These changes could of course represent the actual physical changes that occur during puberty, and the frustrations that occur when your identity is subsequently questioned. Alice’s conversation with the hookah smoking caterpillar is one instance where Alice is more directly confronted with the frustrations of identity.

His repeating question of “Who are you?” leads Alice to admit out loud that she no longer remembers, and that she is losing sight of who she was before she fell down the rabbit hole. More literally, the caterpillar can represent change because of his physical transformation into a butterfly that will inevitably occur in the future. The caterpillar denies feeling uncomfortable at this future, but Alice is able to see another creature who is similar to her. Alice seeing this potential for transformation in another being can be a further element of her growth.

“I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly,” Alice replied very politely, “for I can’t understand it myself to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.”

“It isn’t,” said the Caterpillar.

“Well, perhaps you haven’t found it so yet,” said Alice; “but when you have to turn into a chrysalis—you will some day, you know—and then after that into a butterfly, I should think you’ll feel it a little queer, won’t you?”

“Not a bit,” said the Caterpillar.

Alice attempts to explain her confusion in physical, logical terms of size. She tries to say that the concept is “clear,” but the caterpillar denies this repeatedly. He opposes having any understanding as a result of Alice’s attempts to maker her confusion comprehendible and categorical. Her visit with another creature that embodies change and growth lets Alice briefly stop trying to make sense of Wonderland and allows opportunity to focus inwardly into making sense of her own identity.

Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass. Bantam Dell, 2006.

Ellis, Havelock. “Sexual Inversion in Women.” The Yellow Wallpaper, edited by David Bauer, Bedford Books, pp. 237–247.