Alice in Wonderland post-Moonstone

The Moonstone is the most explicitly colonial text that we’ve read this semester—the colonization of India permeates the text from beginning to end, involving international places and people who exist before as well as during the novel.  The intergenerational efforts of English colonialization set up the plot of the novel, and racialized appearances and objects move and circle around the characters. 

Alice in Wonderland is also engaged with themes of colonialism, and (like The Moonstone) leaves us with questions about where the text stands. The Moonstone leads to deception and chaos, but it also brings to the fore a series of declarations and relationships that would otherwise have been lost under the smothering influence of Victorian propriety. Once the restoration of Englishness has been achieved (with the addition of constructive consequencesthe Moonstone and all it brought with it can be restored to the Indian temple Herncastle stole it from. In Alice in Wonderland, once the experience of the Other has been sufficiently infiltrated by English (linguistically and nationallyorder, it falls apart and Alice can return home. 

In Alice in Wonderland, Alice is lost in her own pseudo-colonialist explorations of a strange land, introducing the elements of the land into herself by the continuing process of eating, imbibing the impossibility of a Wonderland that she would never have encountered sitting “on the bank” of England (Carroll 1). Once she leaves the bank (in a colonialist sense, sailing off) she attempts to enforce English rules, social codes, and institutions on the inhabitants of Wonderland; interestingly, she is unsuccessful in her attempts. Herein lies the ambiguity—having a young child act out the format of a colonizing mission, finding pieces of a foreign land to keep for herself while also introducing it to the ‘civilizing’ influence of England seems to set us up for aendorsement of a colonial tradition. However, in the final moments of the text that solidity is upended by the return to England (Alice) or to India (the Moonstone).  

The presence of a previous generation (the older sister who knows Wonderland but has retired to the roots of the English tree) that knows but is now relatively distant from ‘Wonderland’ mirrors the presences we were introduced to in The Moonstone. There we knew of a generation—John Herncastlethe unnamed cousin—simultaneously involved with colonization and removed from it, their story having taken place before the narrative of the present. The Moonstone explains why it’s necessary to have the sister present in Alice in Wonderland—she is the stand-in for an English tradition that Alice (the present generation) will have to engage. By bringing Alice to the bank, she fulfills the same role that Herncastle does in The Moonstone: facilitating the events of the novel by providing the means of the primary characters engagment with colonialism. Without this understanding, the sister’s presence, particularly at the end of the novel, feels sudden and unnecessary. With it, we can see the same complexity that The Moonstone captured. 

Follow this link to watch Disney’s opening scene of Alice in Wonderland: in the first 30 seconds, note the emphasis of the open water and boat waiting on the bank and Alice’s sister physically sitting on the roots of the tree while she reads an English history textbook.


English Anxiety and the Moonstone

“If he was right, here was our quiet English house suddenly invaded by a devilish India Diamond—bringing after it a conspiracy of living rogues, set loose on us by the vengeance of a dead man. There was our situation, as revealed to me in Mr. Franklin’s last words! Who ever heard the like of it—in the nineteenth century, mind; in an age of progress, and in a country which rejoices in the blessings of the British constitution? Nobody ever heard the like of it, and, consequently, nobody can be expected to believe it. I shall go on with my story, however, in spite of that” (Collins 46).  

This is the reaction of Mr. Betteredgeafter hearing the tale of the Moonstone from Mr. Franklin upon his arrival. The two men sit along the coast, separated by a rough walking path from the comforts of the English home and garden, watching the waters create a deadly pit in the form of the Shivering Sand. The instability of their environmental situation extends to their narrative ones: Mr. Franklin’s story of the “devilish Indian Diamond” is impossible to believe, and despite this Betteredge must continue it against the assumed incredulity of the reasonable reader (46).  

Franklin and Betteredge are seated at the edge of nation, reason, and the simultaneous pride and confinement of their time. This passage is full of binaries: the English versus the Indian, the living against the dead, the 19th century self-sense of “progress” versus the unbelievable, and reader versus narrator. These overlap, of course, as the sea overlaps the shore, making lethal quicksand of solid ground. The “devilish India Diamond” has “invaded” the “quiet English house,” blessed in the nineteenth century with “the British constitution” which must push back against such gothic nonsense as curses and religions-that-aren’t-Christianity (46). The Moonstone is, effectively, a stand-in for all kinds of English anxieties, ranging from the potential for rebellion by colonized nations to sexual and capitalistic competition. The “devilish India Diamond” could be—and is—immediately followed by “living rogues, set loose on us” to wreak havoc in the psychological as well as the physical world of secure English countryside life.  

The anxiety of foreign influence, interference, and invasion are not the only ones present in the passage—there is also the skepticism of the English reader. Betteredge assumes the likeness of his reader with himself: “Who ever heard the like of it?” he asks, only to answer his own question: “Nobody ever head the like of it…” (46). Who ever heard of England fearing the influence of India? he seems to ask. Nobody. It was supposed to be the other way around, and now everything has been turned upside down and the “blessings of the British constitution,” the very “age of progress” cannot coincide with such reversal (46). Betteredge sees the gothic element, the collision of the present (“the nineteenth century” “the age of progress) and the nation (“our quiet English house” “a country which rejoices in the blessings of the British constitution”) with the Other—in this case the Indian, the past, and the dead. It is this separation of the living and the dead which makes possible the entire situation— “the vengeance of a dead man” is wreaking havoc on the life of living people, and that the dead man spent significant time in India and only existed before the span of the novel connects him also with the foreign and the past.  

By establishing, on the shores of England, that the threat is not only the diamond but the “living rogues” who have enabled its influence and intensified its dangers, Betteredge and Franklin raise the stakes of the Moonstone question: it is not simply a battle over money, of religion, or of property, though it is also all of these things—it is (at the risk of being cheeky) a battle for the soul of England itself. 

He gave me the extract from the Colonel’s will.” — second illustration for the third “Harper’s Weekly” serial instalment of “The Moonstone” by Wilkie Collins (18 January 1868)


Franklin and Betteredge discussing the story at the Shivering Sands


Danger out of the West: Bertha and the Caribbean in Rochester’s Revelation

“A wind fresh from Europe blew over the ocean and rushed through the open casement: the storm broke, streamed, thundered, blazed, and the air grew pure.  I then framed and fixed a resolution.  While I walked under the dripping orange-trees of my wet garden, and amongst its drenched pomegranates and pine-apples, and while the refulgent dawn of the tropics kindled round me—I reasoned thus, Jane—and now listen; for it was true Wisdom that consoled me in that hour, and showed me the right path to follow. 

“The sweet wind from Europe was still whispering in the refreshed leaves, and the Atlantic was thundering in glorious liberty; my heart, dried up and scorched for a long time, swelled to the tone, and filled with living blood—my being longed for renewal—my soul thirsted for a pure draught.  I saw hope revive—and felt regeneration possible.  From a flowery arch at the bottom of my garden I gazed over the sea—bluer than the sky: the old world was beyond; clear prospects opened thus:— 

“‘Go,’ said Hope, ‘and live again in Europe: there it is not known what a sullied name you bear, nor what a filthy burden is bound to you.  You may take the maniac with you to England; confine her with due attendance and precautions at Thornfield: then travel yourself to what clime you will, and form what new tie you like.  That woman, who has so abused your long-suffering, so sullied your name, so outraged your honour, so blighted your youth, is not your wife, nor are you her husband.  See that she is cared for as her condition demands, and you have done all that God and humanity require of you.  Let her identity, her connection with yourself, be buried in oblivion: you are bound to impart them to no living being.  Place her in safety and comfort: shelter her degradation with secrecy, and leave her’” (Brontë 304-05).  


This story, told with heavy bias from Mr. Rochester as he attempts to convince Jane of the rightness, and even morality, of his imprisonment, abuse, and torture of his wife Bertha Mason is saturated with language of contrast and hierarchy. How Bertha has “so abused your [Rochester’s] long-suffering, so sullied your name, so outraged your honour, so blighted your youth” is unclear (Brontë 304-305). She seems guilty of marrying him, and of inheriting a temperament and (perhaps) a disease that runs in her family. He is equally guilty of one of these offenses, and the only others clearly committed at the time he describes are saying mean things about him. Strange crimes, if indeed they can be called crimes. Still, as in much of the novel, Bertha herself is almost entirely absent—she is “that woman” “her” or “not your wife,” but she is never referred to as either Bertha Mason or Mrs. Rochester throughout this passage. Instead, Rochester focuses on the weather, plants, and climate around him—they seems equally as guilty as Bertha, in his mind, for his suffering (and, like Bertha, they represent his willing entry into an environment he did not understand). “The storm,” he recalls, “broke, streamed, thundered, blazed” in a furious display of heavenly (or, by his token, hellish) ire. Much like the chestnut tree, Rochester risks being torn asunder as he stands facing the storm. Still, it is passing, as is his time in the Caribbean (Brontë 304). The “refulgent dawn” (Brontë 304) is softened by “a wind fresh from Europe…and the air grew pure” (Brontë 304); this “sweet wind” “whispers” to him the necessity of his escape back to Europe, across the (wide) Sargasso Sea into the waiting arms of his homeland (Brontë 304). The “thundering in glorious liberty” of the Atlantic contrasts with the storm that “thundered” only moments before (Brontë 304) and his heart “swelled…and was filled with living blood” as he finds hope for the first time since his marriage to Bertha began to degenerate (and, perhaps, long before that). It is in escaping, in a sense, the fiery moods, painful passions and heats of the Caribbean that Rochester sees a chance for a new beginning in an old world. The “orange-trees…pomegranates and pineapples” emphasize the exoticism of this fiery Hades, and he knows better than to taste the seven seeds—he wanders past them to the “flowery arch” which frames his view of the sea he longs to cross, “bluer than the sky” (Brontë 304).  

The question of what to do with Bertha lingers. He can run away from everything that he associates with her, all that she knows or loves. He can draw them both into the cold, rainy climes of Europe instead of lingering in the sunlight of the Caribbean—like Adèle, he can find security in an English garden. But he cannot in good conscience leave his wife behind. Hope, with startlingly coarse language for such an embodiment, tells Rochester that the “filthy burden,” “the maniac” can be “confine[d]” while he “travels to what clime [he] will,” ever to be punished for her marriage with the loss of freedom, friends, family and country. To stow her, as any other unfavorable possession, in an unused chamber of his attic will be “all that God and Humanity require of him” (Brontë 304). To let her rot in a cell of his own division is only fair compensation for her giving contradictory orders, and for having a mentally ill mother. Rochester finds outlet for his own anger at all that he has found in this part of the world, wife and weather, and nature reflects his rage and hope back to him.  

What Brontë suggests is a hierarchy of worlds, one in which the “new” world is actually a raging, dangerous beast kept in close contact with the supernatural and the mad, holding only suffering for Europeans who venture there unprepared—yes, a fortune could be secured, a wife found, but at no cost a reasonable man would ever pay. The “old” world is where Hope and Wisdom lie (Brontë 304-05), and it is where the hearts of sinners may be repaired. However, she makes clear, the only way to bring back anything from the far West is to bring back the devil with you, to infiltrate England with animalistic rage and terror, and any such thing must be kept under lock and key for fear of burns, blood, or the detection of bigamy. To allow the influence of the Caribbean and the New World to come to Europe is, in short, to embrace the destruction of the European stronghold, to draw a path to England for storms and lightning bolts to follow, and to purchase the death of not only the foreigner but the maiming and disruption of Europe besides: though Old England can, of course, master it and struggle on, it will be a painful and close fight, one nearly pyrrhic in its resolution. Far better, of course, never to leave at all.  


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Ultimately, Who Screwed This Up?

“As I have already had occasion to relate, he was angry at finding himself reduced to chopping logic about this young lady; he was vexed at his want of instinctive certitude as to how far her eccentricities were generic, national, and how far they were personal. From either view of them he had somehow missed her, and now it was too late. She was ‘carried away’ by Mr. Giovanelli.”  


If the use of ‘either’ refers to any of the three explanations above (generic, national, personal) (OED I.4) then the narrator offers three explanations for Daisy’s behavior: that it is so generalized as to be unrelated to her intent or motivation, that it is a national characteristic of Americans, or that it is a personal trait which she exhibits to a specific and unusual degree. If ‘either’ groups ‘generic’ and ‘national’ into one set, and ‘personal’ as the second option (as is perhaps suggested but not convincingly proven by the division of “how far…” across the list) then national traits become generic—but only, as the text proves by Daisy’s ostracization, explicitly noted earlier in this passage—within the physical space of that nation (it cannot be among all members of that nation or Americans like Winterbourne and Mrs. Walker would not be so scandalized (yes, you could argue that “we have been here too long” negates the suggestion of thepossessing American points of view… but then why does Mrs. Walker continue to study Europeans “like textbooks” at her parties? If her point of view has been shifted to be entirely Eurocentric and European-esque, then continued study would be unnecessary. One could more convincingly argue that Winterbourne and Mrs. Walker represent, to different degrees, an entirely different point of view—that of the transatlantic multinational. But that’s a different blog post). The final way to read the “either view of them” is to see ‘either’ as referring to one or the other of Daisy and Winterbourne. I find this third reading the most compelling—the most common use of ‘either’ is in distinguishing between two things (or people) (OED I.1) and the rest of the sentence supports the ‘them’ allusion to the two characters: “…he had somehow missed her, and now it was too late.” ‘He’ and ‘her’ would therefore make up the ‘them’ earlier in the sentence. 

 If we move forward with this third reading then the contrast provided is between two “view[s] of them [Daisy/Winterbourne]” and this means that the narrator acknowledges that, depending on which “view of them” one takes, there are different positions for the reader to position themself within. It would also mean that regardless of which of these two views the reader experienced the text from (the Winterbourne-centered view or the Daisy-centered view) in both of them, the narrator acknowledges that “he had missed her”. This is the first time the passage entertains a “he…her” construction—earlier in the passage the structure is either reflexive (Winterbourne saying to himself, asking himself, angry at finding himself, etc.) or set up between the narrator and Winterbourne (“it must be admitted that holding oneself” “came to seem to Winterbourne”). The only direct action between Winterbourne and Daisy—that of him missing her—lays at Winterbournes feet as his own failure: whether the Winterbourne or Daisy-centric view of them has been adopted by the reader, the action is the same, and who (he) missed who (her) is the same; “and now it was too late.”   

Winterbourne is the one who dropped the ball, the one who “missed” Daisy, regardless of whether you read the novel considering Winterbourne or Daisy to be at its center. So what? So ultimately the story is of “missed” opportunity and “missed” understanding on the part of Winterbourne, and it resulted in death (the next line explains that Mr. Giovanelli has now carried Daisy away). We were searching for a moral within this novel: if you squint, and splash around in the OED a bit, you can find one in the final sentence of this passage. 

Nancy’s Womanhood

“The girl’s life had been squandered in the streetsbuthere was something of the woman’s original nature left in her still… (Dickens 225, my emphasis). 

Dickens, at the opening of Chapter XL, enters into an examination of Nancy as she begins her epiphanic meeting with Rose Maylie. He explains that the girl’s [Nancy’s] life had been squandered in the streets…but there was something of the woman’s original nature left in her still…” (225, my emphasis). Dickens’s two major and contrasting portraits of womanhood are in Rose Maylie and Nancy, and here they collide–understanding the significance of having his Eve and Mary in the same room with one another, he opens the chapter immediately onto the heavy implications of “woman’s original nature” (225). His suggestion, in this sentence, is that “the streets” (more specifically “the stews and dens of London”) have worn Nancy’s innate womanly nature down to almost nothing. This “woman’s original nature” is distinct from femininity or sex appeal, from dress or general comportment; rather, “woman’s original nature” must be an impulse towards Dickens’s own ideas of morals, goodness, and doing-good.

He suggests that Nancy is a “girl” but that she retains some degree of “the woman” within her. This is the reverse of the general transition between girlhood and womanhood which comes with age, experience, and identity. To find “the woman’s original nature” in “the girl”, then, is to suggest a fundamental and indelible mark upon the soul and “nature” of women which makes them distinct from men and from their own earthly experience (all of the complex gender and sex implications of that suggestion are beyond the scope of my post). It is something that women are born with and which they carry as far as they can into the world, something that can be “squandered in the streets” via prostitution and coarse manners, male society and crime.  

Notably, Christianity teaches that all human beings are born with Original Sin—the sin of Eve, the first woman, in trusting the snake in the garden of Eden and leading humanity (and, perhaps more importantly to the Church, mankind) to Fall and lose the paradise and everlasting life which they originally possessed. As a result all children are born sinners, and women are additionally punished for this with the pain of childbirth. Dickens would have been intimately familiar with this mythology, yet he suggests that the innate impulse of women is not towards sin and the fall, but towards good-doing and morality. We see this when he suggests that, in giving in to her own ethical imperative of informing Rose Maylie about Oliver’s past and potential future, Nancy is giving into what is “left” of “woman’s original nature” within her. Though she is a “girl” rather than a “woman,” she has the germ of womanhood within her, and it is this womanhood which inspires the good deed which effectively kills her (the implications of the fact that Rose Maylie, unquestionably the pinnacle of the novel’s innate womanly goodness, is the person Nancy reveals her knowledge to, and that she dies after revealing it, is again beyond the scope of my post). Dickens is making a profound argument about gender, about women, and about the potential for redemption in this fragment of a sentence, which informs not only how we should read the femininity (and masculinity!) of this book, but how he intends to influence the moral makeup and religious influence of and over his readers.