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.

Civil Commitment Through the Lens of “The Novel and Police”

I have used D.A. Miller’s “The Novel and the Police” as a lens to while reading Heather Willis’ article, “Creeping By Moonlight: A Look at Civil Commitment Laws or Sexually Violent Predators.” (below I have included a small slide by Chrystal Ford that gives a quick explanation on what civil commitment is) Miller’s article describes policing with a source of power that stems from the upholding of a social norm. This idea spreads through “an ideal of unseen but all-seeing surveillance, which, though partly realized in several, often interconnected institutions, is identified with none.” It also describes a “regime of the norm,” in which normalized societal practices and perspectives hold power and governance. The article “Creeping By Moonlight” argues that civil commitment for sexual offenders creates the same mental decline that Jane experiences in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The article starts by introducing and summarizing the main plot and messages of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and then goes into detail on the power dynamics behind civil commitment and it’s implementation.

The enforcement of discipline, according to Miller’s article, “entails a relative relaxation of policing power. No doubt this manner of passing off the regulation of every day life is the best manner of passing it on.” (Miller, 16) This idea can be seen when looking at the points of Willis’ article. There is a distinction within the text made between prison and civil commitment. Civil commitment is supposed to be treatment of mental disorders behind sexual assault. It is a step forward into returning to society as a “functional member.” The relaxing of restraints is supposed to allow opportunity for the convicts to learn to act as they should. They taken out of a highly controlled prison system and are placed into another one, where they given a false sense of freedom and choice. Their escape from civil commitment relies on whether society, or the assigned doctor, deems they are functioning up to societal/normalized standards.

Miller expands on the modes of discipline and the institutionalized ways that they can discretely emerge. “Disciplinary power constitutively mobilizes a tactic of tact: it is the policing power that never passes for such, but is either invisible or visible only under the cover of other, nobler or simply blander intentions (to educate, to cure, to produce, to defend.)” (Miller, 17) The civil commitment that Willis describes falls under this mode is discipline. According to Willis, the true intention in many (but not all) sentences of civi commitment is continued punishment, but it hides under the intention of curing the convicts and protecting society from harm. Therefore, it is actually a mode of discipline, not mental treatment. Willis draws back to “The Yellow Wallpaper” when explaining how there is no mandated medical treatment for these individuals and that credible proof of a “medical illness” is blurry to begin with. “Sexually violent predator laws also create a class of convicted criminals outside the criminal justice system who have been infantilized and told they cannot control or take care of themselves in society.” (Willis, 182) Willis suggests that convicts are convinced of the fact that they cannot control their own actions to fit society standards. Under the best of circumstances, being able to fit into societal norms is the main policing power and deciding factor of their freedom. Many more of Willis’ points could definitely be viewed though the lens of “The Novel and Police,” especially because both prioritize social standards as forms of power.

Jane Eyre: Fairy Language and Women

Fairy language is constantly used throughout the novel Jane Eyre. Many of this language comes from the character of Rochester, that constantly compares and calls Jane magical creatures like witch, elf, sprite, fairy, and more. Jane is generally characterized with fairy-like characteristics as well, including being small statured and often compared to a bird. Besides Jane, the character of Bertha in the story is also characterized as a mythical creature, but she is instead mainly called a vampire and has a habit of being people and sucking their blood. Most of the characterization of humans as mythical creatures comes in the description of these two women. Besides this, Jane herself often focuses on, hears, and mentions mystical creatures. One of the instances that Jane brings up the subject is when she first sees Rochester arriving, and is frightened when remembering a tale Bessie had previously told her.

“….all sorts of fancies bright and dark filled my mind: the memories of nurses stores were there amongst other rubbish; and when they recurred, maturing youth added to them a vigor and vividness beyond what childhood could give. As this horse approached, I remembered certain of Bessie’s tales wherein figured a North-of-England spirit, called a “Gytrash”; which in the from of horse, mule, or large dog, haunted solitary ways, and sometimes came upon belated travelers, as this horse was now coming upon me. “

Ironically, Rochester is the traveler in this situation and he is the one who has becomes “ambushed” by an unexpected creature on the road, his horse slipping on the ice and injuring his leg. This curious reversal of the roles in the situation puts Jane once again into the role of the fairy tale creature. This furthers the point that much of the representation of mythical creatures in the novel comes from women alone, despite Jane seeming unaware of her own “mystical” roles.

Notably, even the story that Jane recalls has been taught to her by the servant Bessie. While Bessie is not characterized in a mystical manner, she represents how women can wield a certain authority in the household through these “rubbish” old wives tale stories that Jane is recounting. Despite the fact that Jane puts down this tale as childish, it undoubtably left a mark on her well past childhood. The power of women’s oral tales went so far as to cause fear in the English politician and theorist John Locke, who claimed that children may be mislead by these tales and their imaginations could get out of control. In “Some Thoughts Concerning Education,” he comments “Always whilst he is Young, be sure to preserve his tender Mind from all Impressions and Notions of Spirits and Goblings, or any fearful Apprehensions in the dark. This he will be in danger of from the indiscretion of Servants, whose usual Method is to awe Children, and keep them in subjection…” Specifically, he is relating these stories to the lower class and therefore their values, and encouraging those of higher class to separate from these fairy tales. The connotation between lower class and fairy tales is also interesting in looking at the character of Jane, who is of course infatuated with them herself despite often putting them down as unreal and childish.

Winterbourne and Sexual Ambiguity

Without making a definitive claim as to what Winterbourne’s sexuality is in Daisy Miller, it is still important to acknowledge the many instances when sexuality is not clear. Considering the true identity of Winterbourne is rather ambivalent to begin with, sexuality should not be eliminated. The use of “I” throughout the narration means that we are still viewing Winterbourne though the perspective of another, and that this is one view of Winterbourne that does not necessarily help us in identifying him as a person. We do not get clear statements on Winterbourne’s past, such as his family and possible past romances, or his true desires and reasons for being infatuated with Daisy’s manners and demeanor. Much can be drawn out of what James conceals about the character of Winterbourne and the small spaces where this gives way to seeing small glimpses into Winterbourne’s uncensored mind.

One passage that could allow the reader to attain a further glimpse into his identity and truth is during Daisy and Winterbourne’s visit to Chillon, and his allusion to Byron’s poem, The Prisoner of Chillon. He tells her the story of Byron’s “unhappy Bonivard.” (James 29) In the previous sentences, Daisy had been asking about Winterbourne’s “family, his previous history, his tastes, his habits, his intentions,” but we never hear any of his answers to these questions. The next time we know of him speaking is to portray the story of Bonivard, who was imprisoned at Chillion. It is notable that we do not actually know much of Winterbourne’s history, but instead of hearing the answers to these questions Daisy asks, we get Byron’s story instead. This establishes a relationship between Winterbourne and Bonivard. Winterbourne could be seen as relating to the imprisonment of Bonivard in that he is mentally imprisoned by over-analyzation of sexual manners and temperament. Winterbourne can also connect to the character of Bonivard in that he is always alone with his thoughts, and arguably as a result of them. “You are always going around by yourself. Can’t you get anyone to walk with you?” Daisy once asks him. (James 57) He is isolated just like Bonivard, but it is a castle of his own making. While Winterbourne can be see as relating to Bonivard, more obviously, Winterbourne is also taking the place of Byron himself in telling this story to Daisy. James would have been aware that Lord Byron was a figure who was rather well known for his sexual life and escapades, with much public speculation about his involvement with incest, pedophilia, and homosexuality. He is putting himself into Byron’s position, and possibly into the role of a man characterized by otherness and queerness in that he was certainly not the societal “norm.”

Winterbourne focuses, almost obsessively on his describing Giovanelli’s handsome face and good looks much in the same way that he constantly describes the face of Dasiy. In the same manner that Winterbourne countlessly refers to Daisy as “pretty” throughout the novel, Winterbourne uses the word “pretty” multiple times for Giovanelli, saying that he had a “pretty face” (James 41) and that he “sang very prettily.” (James 48) The word has some feminine connotations, and in using the word for Giovanelli, Winterboune seems to be framing him in a feminine light. Giovanelli overshadows Daisy in these moments and displaces Winterbourne’s attention onto him in a manner that parallels previous observations about Daisy. While it could be said that this descriptive language, used similarly for both characters, implies that Winterbourne’s interest in the two characters is more of an indifferent and intellectual manner, it could also portray desire that exists outside of the normal straight line between one romantic interest and another. It could portray Winterboure’s desires as, consistent with his character, multiplicitous and often confused. 

Without fleshing out a full argument in one blog post, it can still be acknowledged that there is language used by James to create an atmosphere of general ambivalence around Winterbourne’s character, and sexual/romantic situations are certainly not excluded from this. The “otherness” of his character and lack of clear lines makes him queer and perplexing in comparison to the straight lines of patriarchal man and wife.

Nancy, Rose, and Womanhood

By looking at the parallels between the characters of Nancy and Rose, the complexity of Dickens’ representation of “goodness” in women, most importantly Nancy’s complexity, can be further analyzed. Both women were orphaned, but ultimately ended up on two entirely different ends of society. Rose reveals what a possible outcome could have been for Nancy if she had been raised in the same environment that Rose had, and also highlights the virtues of good that Nancy might still have and could have grown further if given more time.

Nancy, despite her poor upbringing, is also capable of love. Dickens places a lot of importance on the idea of love in the ending of the first meeting between Nancy and Rose.

“When ladies as young, and good, and beautiful as you are…give you’re hearts, love will carry you all lengths…Pity us, lady—Pity us for only having one feeling of the woman left, and for having that turned, by a heavy judgment, from a comfort and pride, into a new means of violence and suffering,” Nancy tells Rose (Dickens 229).

Nancy of course is no longer a virgin, so that “feeling of woman” is gone. She is also no longer “good,” as she has been hardened to a life of crime. The only “feeling of the woman left” that she claims to have is her devotion to the character of Sikes. While Rose had turned away her love of Harry, Nancy clings onto her love for Sikes despite his brutality because she believes her love is her last shred of womanhood and perhaps pure femininity. While this continued devotion to Sikes can be seen as simply a continuation of her life of crime, analyzing Nancy’s change in character and demeanor because of her passion for Sikes could reveal another layer to her supposed last bit of womanhood.

“But the girl, being really weak and exhausted, dropped her head over the back of the chair, and fainted… (Sikes) Not knowing very well what to do, in this uncommon emergency; for Miss Nancy’s hysterics were usually of that violent kind which the patient fights and struggles out of, without much assistance.” (Dickens 216)

As demonstrated in this passage, Nancy’s character becomes increasingly less argumentative and more feverish and delicate. After being “savagely” talked to by Sikes, instead of wittily defending herself like in past circumstances, she faints. Sikes notices this change, contrasting her reaction to the “fights and struggles” that would have usually resulted. She also talks to Sikes differently, and Dickens clearly specifies that she tries to quell him in another passage “with a touch of woman’s tenderness.” (Dickens 215) The specification of it being a woman’s tenderness expands the notion that her nursing of and care for Sikes is an aspect of her true womanhood, formerly suppressed. These new kind of reactions by Nancy are paralleled by Rose, who “sank into a chair, and endeavored to collect her wandering thoughts” (Dickens 229) after speaking to Nancy, and even becomes gravely sick in earlier chapters after going on a walk that is too long, showing how easily a woman of virtue becomes lightheaded. Nancy, through her last womanly virtue of her love for Sikes, seems to be transforming in ways that draw her closer towards Rose, who is represented as the epitome of womanly purity and virtue.