Wonderland: An Escape from a “Dull Reality”

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

Betteredge’s Selective Use of Evidence

In the country those men came from, they care just as much about killing a man, as you care about emptying the ashes out of your pipe. If a thousand lives stood between them and the getting back of their Diamond—and if they thought they could destroy those lives without discovery—they would take them all. The sacrifice of caste is a serious thing in India, if you like. The sacrifice of life is nothing at all (Collins 89).

In this passage taken from Wilkie Collins’s 1868 novel, The Moonstone, Mr. Murthwaite warns Mr. Betteredge and Mr. Franklin of the three Brahmins (higher caste Hindu priests) that have been stalking the Verinder-Herncastle family in search of the famed Moonstone (a great yellow diamond). Colonel John Herncastle, who stole the sacred diamond during the Siege of Seringapatam (5 April – 4 May 1799), the final confrontation of the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War between the British East India Company and the Kingdom of Mysore, recently died and bequeathed the diamond to his estranged niece, Rachel Verinder. By including this depiction of the Hindu priests as murderous thieves who value wealth and social status over human life, Betteredge perpetuates the Western discourse that demonizes the Indian population and strips blame from the real villains of history: the English colonialists.

In his 1978 book, Orientalism, Edward Said argues that Westerners created and reenforce a socio-political racial dialogue about the East (the Orient) that shapes how the West perceives the East and in turn influences the way the West perceives itself (Said 7). Said’s theory applied to The Moonstone reveals that Betteredge’s narration, and its inclusion of the racist dialogue from the people he encounters, is another contribution to a toxic discourse that teaches the English to be afraid or suspicious of Easterners. 

Early in the novel, Betteredge, the Verinder’s head servant, turns the three Indian jugglers and their young British companion away for fear that their offer to perform for Lady Verinder is an excuse to gain access to the estate’s material possessions. Later on, he mentions spotting them lurking about the estate, and grows more wary of them. Betteredge’s fixation on the Indian jugglers is fueled by his racist, colonialist mindset that assumes these foreign figures have a sinister purpose in mind. He discusses his suspicions with Mr. Franklin, a cousin to the Verinders, whose “opinion was, not only that the Indians had been lurking about after the Diamond, but also that they were actually foolish enough to believe in their own magic—meaning thereby the making of signs on a boy’s head, and the pouring of ink into a boy’s hand, and then expecting him to see persons and things beyond the reach of human vision” (Collins 64). Here, Mr. Franklin not only reenforces Betteredge’s prejudice, but paints this picture of the Indians being these supernatural figures that use their knowledge of occult, mysterious, foreign customs to manipulate an innocent British boy and exploit his clairvoyant talents for a seemingly greedy desire.

However, Betteredge does not include anything about how Colonel Herncastle was a corrupt British officer who stole the Moonstone from the Indian people. His conversation with Murthwaite and Franklin dismisses the religious significance of the gem and neglects to inform the reader that Brahmins are important Indian priests devoted to preserving Hindu culture and teachings. Instead, he records this assertion that their sacrifice of caste is for a superficial, material, colonialist in spirit reason. He selects what he wants to share, manipulating the facts to depict the Indian jugglers are thieves, murderers, and heathens. Considering The Moonstone‘s audience at the time of its original publication, Betteredge’s narration becomes another example of English revisionist writing and colonialist propaganda.

Collins, Wilkie. The Moonstone. Barnes and Nobles Classics, 2005.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. Pantheon Books, 1978.

Jane Eyre: There’s no Pride in Being Prejudiced

Prejudices, it is well known, are most difficult to eradicate from the heart whose soil has never been loosened or fertilised by education: they grow there, firm as weeds among stones (Brontë XXIX.395.15).

Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) is narrated by the titular character, whose upbringing and education afford her a place in the middle-class as a governess that would otherwise be out of her reach had she been left to the squalor of orphan life. Jane’s personality and being are defined by her education. Her experience at the Reeds’ and at Lowood Institution fortified her sense of individuality, and granted her patience and compassion for others. Even in her private thoughts, an adult Jane is slow to criticize or judge the characters she encounters.

Brontë, being an educated woman who enjoyed a special place in 19th-century London’s literary circles, is using her platform to advocate for education: if prejudices are weeds, they pervade the garden that is society and disrupt the harmony between its wildlife.

In this passage, Jane the character asserts that prejudice is borne of ignorance, and must be combated with education to achieve some kind of enlightenment. Hannah, the Rivers family’s servant, refuses to provide Jane with shelter and food when the latter arrives on their doorstep one night, hungry and unkempt and soaked from the rain. Although Jane has the manners and accent of an educated lady, Hannah distrusts her and casts her away. Jane argues that Hannah’s prejudices prevent her from helping out a stranger in need. The “weeds” harden her heart into “stone” and render her indifferent to a fellow human who is in a dire situation. While Jane makes an astute point that Hannah’s prejudices limit her ability to show compassion and mercy, she misses the point by insinuating that Hannah’s lack of education rendered her prone to bias.

The characters quickest to judge and disregard Jane throughout the novel often belong to the educated elite class. The Reed family treats her like an garbage, even though she is related to them, because she’s an orphan and the product of a unprofitable marriage; Mr. Brocklehurst is a religious hypocrite who siphons money from Lowood to support his luxurious lifestyle while making the girls live in squalor; and Rochester’s inner-circle of “friends” spend their time gossiping and insulting their social inferiors. So, contrary to Jane’s assertion, education does not enlighten the beholder with a predisposition towards charity and acceptance. If anything, the elite use their education as another quality that elevate them above the working class and the poor. Let’s not forget how Rochester, upon meeting Jane, claims or believes that his privilege—an upper-class education and the means to travel and enter different social circles—make him better than the young, humble Jane. While Rochester has these experiences under his belt, he is still an asshole.

There are plenty of educated literary characters in 19th-century novels that are quick to judge and hold immense biases. One notable example is Mr. Darcy from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), whose opening lines present a “universal truth” that sounds a lot like the passage from Brontë’s novel. Under this analysis, Brontë’s line in her seminal work becomes a diss, a calling-out: she is suggesting that the elite are as prone to prejudice—the supposed product of ignorance— as the uneducated working class; and their more fortuitous stations in life do not necessarily make them better people.

Brontë, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Barnes & Nobles Classic, New York, 2015.

Forgetting One’s Place

In Henry James’s Daisy Miller (1875), Winterbourne is an American ex-pat whose lived abroad in Europe for most of his life. He becomes fascinated with the eponymous character, an American tourist who refuses to assimilate into European cultural standards. As a result, she is judged by European society for her (lack of manners) perceived impropriety and coquettishness. By forgetting his own American origins, Winterbourne ignores Daisy’s individuality and “studies” her with a Eurocentric lens that reduces her into a caricature: a girl devoid of moral fortitude and reasoning, the product of their shared homeland. Winterbourne’s failure to recognize his American culture—to understand Daisy as her own person—alienates her and catalyzes her downfall.

Winterbourne’s European socialite aunt, Mrs. Costello, warns him against pursuing a “relationship” with Daisy because of her inappropriate (in a social-cultural context) comportment. She reminds Winterbourne is out of his depth since Daisy is an American girl: “You have lived too long out of the country. You will be sure to make some great mistake” (James, Project Gutenberg). Having inhabited Western Europe for so long, Winterbourne is not only tuned to the cultural standards and social hierarchies of places like Geneva and Rome, but detached from American society. He reserves judgement for Daisy based on her behavior in relation to their current environment, without making much of an attempt to understand where she’s coming from when she displays her affability towards suitors and resistance to the oppressiveness of European rules. Winterbourne’s mistake is that he misinterprets Daisy as being indifferent towards him—because she is friendly with other European men, or because she doesn’t listen to his “advice”—which comes off to her as him not sharing her romantic attraction.

In Remembering, Repetition and Working-Through (1924), Freud argues that “repetition is a transference of the forgotten past;” (Freud 151) the more one tries to forget their past experiences—the circumstances and actions relating to their origin—the more they are prone towards repeating those same actions (or drawn to semblances of such). Obsessed over this ‘pretty little American girl,’ Winterbourne constantly inspects the qualities of Daisy that are a product of her motherland from a Eurocentric lens. He reasons that “American women—the pretty ones, and this gave a largeness to the axiom—were at one the most exacting in the world and the least endowed with a sense of indebtedness” (James, Project Gutenberg). This generalization contains gendered and nationalistic (pro-Europe, anti-American) biases. Winterbourne’s explains away Daisy’s ‘lack of proper morals or education’ as a result of her appearance, gender and nationality; to control her by showing her a ‘better way’ through European codes of conduct. In repressing his own ties to America, Winterbourne identifies his European environment as moral and correct. He associates Daisy’s impropriety with her Americanness. Unable to sympathize with her—to understand her behavior as okay, albeit in a different cultural context—he judges Daisy doing her own thing as much as his European peers do.

Rather than accepting that Daisy can be friends with male suitors, Winterbourne interprets Daisy and Giovanelli’s relationship as romantic. He critiques Daisy for being flirty and displays faux-indifference towards her. In turn, this communicates to Daisy that he doesn’t care about her, or does only if she follows his script. She rebels against his ‘rules’ and ends up dying from malaria after a reckless outing meant to spite him. Had Winterbourne made more of an attempt to reconnect with his American identity, he and Daisy might’ve reached a mutual understanding. Healthier communication could’ve resulted in a less tragic ending.

Fagin’s Speech as a Catalyst for Fatal Consequences

‘Suppose that lad that’s laying there—’ Fagin began. […]

‘Suppose that lad,’ pursued Fagin, ‘was to peach—to blow upon us all—first seeking out the right folks for the purpose, and then having a meeting with ’em in the street to paint our likenesses, describe every mark that they might know us by, and the crib where we might be most easily taken. Suppose he was to do all this, and besides to blow upon a plant we’ve all been in, more or less—of his own fancy; not grabbed, trapped, tried, earwigged by the parson and brought to it on bread and water,—but of his own fancy; to please his own taste; stealing out at nights to find those most interested against us, and peaching to them. Do you hear me?’ cried the Jew, his eyes flashing with rage. ‘Suppose he did all this, what then?’ (Dickens 403-04).

Fagin begins suspecting Nancy’s disloyalty to their merry band of thieves because of her erratic (rebellious) behavior and anxiousness to escape Sikes’s home one Sunday night. Fagin charges Noah Claypole to follow Nancy the next Sunday night when she attends a covert rendez-vous with Mr. Brownlow and Rose. Nancy tells them of Monks’ sinister plot to deprive Oliver of his inheritance while also alluding to the roles of Fagin, Sikes, and co. in the plot. However, she refuses to implicate her associates with concrete details. Nonetheless, Noah snitches on Nancy to Fagin, who is enraged by this news.

Fagin is manipulative, possessive, and selfish throughout the novel. However, this is him at his most wicked. He wants Nancy dead but rather than kill her himself, he manipulates someone else into doing the work—similar to his employment of children to steal for him. Through his repeated use of the word “suppose,” Fagin conditions Sikes into accepting an ugly truth that he would’ve rejected had the former told him outright. Fagin gauges the barbarian’s temperament and provokes his rage by rubbing in Sikes’s face that the impeacher might’ve condemned them all while preserving his/her own freedom. Once assured that Sikes would kill the culprit, whether it be “Charley, or the Dodger, or Bet,” (Dickens 404) or even Fagin himself, Fagin reveals it to be Nancy, and unleashes Bill Sikes and his violent fury in her direction. Sikes confronts Nancy and beats her to death with a club, then flees the scene.

In this passage, Dickens places Fagin’s cunning and cruelty on full display. Fagin commits indirect murder by convincing Bill Sikes, a violent and reckless criminal, that his girlfriend betrayed him and their crew. Ironically, Fagin’s deceit betrays them all; after murdering Nancy, Sikes is captured by the authorities and the rest of the thieves go soon afterwards. Even with this plausible risk looming ahead, Fagin provoked Sikes. This shows Fagin’s willingness to do whatever it takes to preserve himself and, by extension of the gang, his wealth.

As a commentary of contemporary society, Dickens not only depicts Fagin as a racial-caricature and a criminal mastermind, but as peer to the industrialists and avaricious leaders of the Victorian Era who, like Fagin, were responsible for atrocities they themselves didn’t commit.

Dickens, Charles. Oliver Twist. Barnes and Nobles Classics, 2003.