In the preface to his book Reading for the Plot, Peter Brooks defines plot as “the design and intention of narrative, what shapes a story and gives it a certain direction or intent of meaning” (Brooks xi). Applying this definition of plot to Alice in Wonderland leads to questions such as, what is the intention of this text, where does the plot go, and what specifically drives the story to go in a particular direction? A psychoanalytic approach could be taken as well, especially given the text’s suggestion that all of Alice’s adventures were a dream (Carroll 102). If Wonderland is simply a dream, what does that reveal about Alice’s “internal energies and tensions, compulsions, resistances, and desires” (Brooks xiv)?
Brooks also claims that for nineteenth-century texts, “plots were a viable and necessary way of organizing and interpreting the world, and that in working out and working through plots, as writers and readers, they were engaged in a prime, irreducible act of understanding how human life acquires meaning” (Brooks xii). The plot of Alice in Wonderland is episodic, with each chapter consisting of a short, fairly self-contained story; this episodic nature helps the story move in a dreamlike way, as Alice moves from one adventure to another rather than tracing a complex plot from the beginning of the text to the end. The plot follows Alice as she wanders around Wonderland, trying to “organize and interpret” this confusing world, and the readers see her attempts to make sense of the confusion through her eyes. To take a psychoanalytic approach, the novel’s plot seems to focus on Alice’s place as a child trying to fit into and understand the adult world, which manifests itself as Wonderland in her dream. The text, and Alice’s subconscious, are focused on trying to understand this world where the rules (if there are any) don’t make sense. The conversation between Alice and the Cheshire Cat offers an insight into the way Alice might consider the adult world:
“‘But I don’t want to go among mad people,’ Alice remarked.
‘Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat: ‘we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.’
‘How do you know I’m mad?’ said Alice.
‘You must be,’ said the Cat, ‘or you wouldn’t have come here.’” (Carroll 50)
This bit of dialogue reveals both what Alice thinks of adults and her own anxieties about growing up. She doesn’t want to “go among mad people,” but nevertheless she finds herself among them, and therefore she must be mad too. Alice’s anxieties about her age and size can be found all throughout the text; another place where they’re particularly evident is when she finds herself stuck inside the White Rabbit’s house, and debates with herself whether childhood or adulthood is better:
“‘But then,’ thought Alice, ‘shall I never get any older than I am now? That’ll be a comfort, one way – never to be an old woman – but then – always to have lessons to learn! Oh, I shouldn’t like that!’” (Carroll 26)
In this passage, Alice conflates “growing up” with “growing older” and “growing in size.” I would argue that the growing and shrinking she experiences throughout the text can be read as her struggling to balance between adulthood and childhood; this struggle is emphasized time and time again in the novel, through the way she tries to make sense of Wonderland/the adult world and its inhabitants.
Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass. Bantam Dell, 2006.
Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. Harvard University Press, 1984.