So she sat on, with closed eyes, and half believed herself in Wonderland, though she knew she had but to open them again, and all would change to dull reality—the grass would be only rustling in the wind, and the pool rippling to the waving of the reeds (Carroll, Project Gutenberg).
I have watched the Disney film adaptation of Lewis Carrol’s 1865 novel Alice in Wonderland, but this is my first time reading the novel proper. Despite an abundance of surreal and absurd scenes, I am most interested in one that is grounded in reality; a sequence omitted from the Disney film: the final passage, where the older sister reflects on the contents of the dream that Alice has just awoken from and relayed. In Carrol’s novel, dreams are wonderlands that grant people an escape from their realities: from depression, dissatisfaction, and dullness. As I argue, dreams and novels in the nineteenth century are, like sex scandals, a means of escape for people; audiences encompassing “a wide range of class, gender, and geographical positions” (Cohen) that are dissatisfied with their dull and repressed lives.
Cohen writes, “Like the novel, the scandal story, which publicly broadcasts information ordinarily kept secret, supplies a rich vein of cultural material through which to investigate language about sexuality.” While I am not analyzing Alice to discover sexual undertones, I do note that Alice’s rêve happens once she gets too tired of “sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do” (Carrol). In her dream, Alice encounters talking animals, a nonsensical grand tea party with only three attendants, a twisted game of croquet, and a farcical courtroom trial. These examples are fun-house mirror inversions of the most ordinary aspects of life for most English people. Alice’s vivid imagination is infusing meaning and chaos into real world events and institutions that are (in my opinion) boring and conventional. She turns tea parties and trials into fun, zany events that demand the attention of her readers, whether they be children or adults.
Sexuality per se is neither common nor boring within the spectrum of most human civilizations. However, nineteenth century audiences are so sexually-repressed that they refrain from discussing sexuality in public unless it is in the form of a scandal story, where “the subjects of … stories [are distanced] from their audience enough to effect a divide between the exposed private life and the anonymous public reading about it” (Cohen). Sex scandals are an inversion of Victorian morality and sexual norms because they exist to be talked about by the public. Once the general population is detached enough from a sexual incident—there is no public personal connection—they may comment and critique, open up and indulge their internalized interests without fear of judgement or persecution. Likewise, Alice distances herself from normal life by retreating into her subconsciousness and explores the facets of adult life that might seem foreign to a child, such as playing croquet or the politics of being a British subject, and making them interesting.
Alice’s older sister, a “grown woman” detached from childhood and who must be close to marriage and motherhood, is swept away into Alice’s telling of Wonderland, and dreams about the pure state of childhood, because these thoughts provide her a nice sojourn from a reality where people must read books “without pictures and conversations” (Carroll). As people age, they feel more pressured to conform to the society they belong to; adults internalize the need to not stand out amongst a crowd, to fit in with others. In general, British rule and politics and industrialism, as well as gender-race-class hierarchies, prevent people from living beyond their work and homes, from diverging from the norm by stepping out of their position in life. However, dreams, like sex scandals, provide audiences with the unique opportunity to “formulate questions, discuss previously unimagined possibilities, and forge new alliances” (Cohen). While everyone is Wonderland is mad (Carroll), they are free in a sense because they are not bound to the same rules as Alice’s older sister, who recognizes that Alice will grow up soon but hopes that she will retain her imagination and spirit: the ability to dream and escape from conformity.
Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, produced by Arthur DiBianca and David Widger. Project Gutenberg EBook, 2020. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/11/11-h/11-h.htm
Cohen, William A. “Sex, Scandal, and the Novel.” Sex Scandal: The Private Parts of Victorian Fiction, Duke University Press, 1996. http://www.victorianweb.org/gender/wac.html