We’re All Mad Here: Wonderland as Adulthood

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.

The Moonstone: A Gothic Disruption

The arrival of the Moonstone at Lady Verinder’s house is a sudden, unsettling disruption of everyday norms. The novel is structured in such a way that the reader first hears the legendary history of the gem and is then introduced to the normalcy of everyday life in England, 1848; immediately, a sharp juxtaposition is set up between past and present, India and England. Gothic fiction is frequently concerned with these kinds of juxtapositions of time and place (British Library “Gothic Motifs”) and the Moonstone itself acts as an interruption of one time and place into another. The prologue sets up the Moonstone’s role as an object of the past through the way its history is presented: upon its placement in a new temple, the god Vishnu “commanded that the Moonstone should be watched, from that time forth, by three priests in turn, night and day, to the end of the generations of men… the deity predicted certain disaster to the presumptuous mortal who laid hands on the sacred gem, and to all of his house and name who received it after him” (Collins 12). The language used conveys an archaic, mythological feeling to this tale, and it reads in a similar manner as a ghost story told around a campfire, with no real bearing on the modern day. The British colonizers clearly hear the tale in this way, as to them, the Moonstone is nothing but a “fanciful story” (Collins 13). Only John is taken in by the tale, and even he has no respect for the diamond’s cultural significance. He becomes the “presumptuous mortal” who takes the Moonstone from its home country and brings it – and its curse – back home to England. 

In gothic texts, beings, objects, and events of the past tend to disrupt everyday norms by “suddenly erupt[ing] within the present and derang[ing] it” (British Library “Gothic Motifs). However, before the gothic impact of the Moonstone can be felt in England, a sense of normalcy must first be established so the stone’s presence has something to affect. This sense of normalcy is set up by Betteredge’s narration of the first part of the text, in the way he describes his life and responsibilities. As house-steward and head of the servants, it falls to him to ensure day-to-day activities run smoothly. There is a disruption to his routine in the arrival of Franklin and the Moonstone, but Betteredge manages to maintain the peace by convincing Franklin to keep the Moonstone in the bank – away from the house – until Rachel’s birthday (Collins56-57). The moment the Moonstone is revealed, however, its effects are felt by the household and it is fully functional as a gothic threat. Lady Verinder is upset at the reminder of her brother (Collins 73-73), the stone’s presence negatively influences Rachel’s birthday dinner (Collins 78-81), and its disappearance and the intrusion of the police disrupt the entire household the next day. The sense of normalcy is gone, and will not be fully recovered until the issue of the Moonstone is dealt with.


Collins, Wilkie. The Moonstone. Penguin Books, 1998.

The British Library. “Gothic Motifs.” The British Library, 2014, www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/gothic-motifs.

Colonialism and the Gothic in Rochester’s Relationships

It goes without saying that Mr. Rochester is an explicitly sexual figure, who has had numerous romantic/sexual relationships in the past. He has a wife, he has had multiple mistresses, and there is even the possibility that he has an illegitimate child (his reasoning for not claiming Adele as his own is simply that she doesn’t look like him – he never denies the implication that he slept with her mother). Rochester is a sexually powerful character who does not attempt to control his desires, though he does go about fulfilling them in a controlled, thought-out manner (such as his plan to use Blanche Ingram to test Jane’s devotion to him). The novel draws on gothic tropes to allow this explicit reference to Rochester’s sexuality and provide space to discuss such taboo topics, in a way which other, non-gothic texts would not. The gothic can also be seen in the power imbalance between Rochester and Jane. When Jane enters his life, it is as his ward’s governess, and the language she uses emphasizes their relative positions to each other: she consistently refers to Rochester as “sir” and “my master,” never allowing the reader to forget their employer/employee relationship. Even once Jane becomes Rochester’s love interest, she strives to maintain their professional relationship: “I will not be your English Céline Varens. I shall continue to act as Adele’s governess: by that I shall earn my board and lodging, and thirty pounds a year besides” (Brontë 267). This determination to continue ‘earning her keep’ both emphasizes Jane’s desire for independence and the inherent power imbalance between her and Rochester. It also leads to interesting questions of agency – if she quits her place as Adele’s governess and becomes financially dependent upon Rochester as his wife, Jane must sacrifice her agency to “become a part of [him]” (Brontë 298). If, however, she retains her position as his employee, she will still be financially dependent upon him, though in a more traditionally masculine, professional sense. Regardless of her choice, if Jane remains at Thornfield the power imbalance must continue.

Along with the gothic tropes of sexuality and power, a colonialist theme can be traced through Rochester and his partners. He seems to have a love and desire for ‘exotic’ women, or at least, women who are not of his native English country, and he could perhaps be read as a sexual/romantic colonizer. His love life begins in the West Indies with Bertha Mason, and can be traced back to England through his various European mistresses (Brontë 305-306) until he meets Jane. While France, Italy, and Germany are perhaps not as ‘exotic’ as the West Indies, and do not fit as neatly into the colonialist theme, it is telling that Rochester never found a mistress or a partner among English women (at least, until he meets Jane). The argument could be made for his ‘relationship’ with Blanche Ingram; however, it is clear that he is only interested in her as a way to make Jane jealous and test her loyalty and devotion to him. Jane herself is a particularly unique love interest when compared to Rochester’s past partners. While she is English, she is also ‘othered’ and separate from the other women in Rochester’s life through her desire for independence, her strong will, her intelligence, and (in a more gothic sense) her close association with the supernatural. Despite her Englishness, Rochester senses that Jane is ‘exotic’ in her own unique way.  

Questions of power, vulnerability, control, and agency can be approached from both a gothic and a postcolonialist perspective. Though the approaches differ, they both lend themselves to discussing the juxtaposed roles of powerful and vulnerable, colonizer and colonized; the character of Mr. Rochester shows the conflation of these perspectives in the way he acts as a powerful, sexual, colonizer of ‘exotic’ women.

Winterbourne’s Choice

Throughout Daisy Miller, Winterbourne seems to hover between two cultures, European and American. By extension, he also hovers between propriety and impropriety, and the novel seems to be leading him to a point where he must make a choice between the two. Winterbourne is entirely infatuated with Daisy, and she represents his desire to break free from European societal expectations, although it seems that she pushes a little too much against convention for his comfort. 

The climax of Winterbourne’s indecision comes near the end of chapter three, when Mrs. Walker attempts to convince Daisy to ride in her carriage instead of walking around with Mr. Giovanelli. Daisy asks Winterbourne what he thinks she should do, and it seems as though she is knowingly testing him: 

“There was a little pink flush in her cheek; she was tremendously pretty. ‘Does Mr. Winterbourne think,’ she asked slowly, smiling, throwing back her head and glancing at him from head to foot, ‘that – to save my reputation – I ought to get into the carriage?’” 

Winterbourne is finally asked to choose between what is socially proper and the carefree impropriety represented by Daisy – the choice he’s been avoiding all throughout the novel. He spends a great deal of time considering how to respond, and perhaps the language used gives away his answer sooner than anticipated: “he himself, in fact, must speak in accordance with gallantry” (43). The word “must” prompts the question of “why?” Why must Winterbourne “speak in accordance with gallantry”? What does “gallantry” mean in this specific situation? “Must” implies an obligation, in this case to social rules, while “gallantry” seems to imply chivalrous, gentlemanly behavior. Winterbourne is called to act “in accordance with” the expectations of Mrs. Walker, and he finds that “the finest gallantry, here, was simply to tell [Dasiy] the truth…”. But truth is subjective, as the next phrase discreetly shows: “The truth, for Winterbourne… was that Daisy Miller should take Mrs. Walker’s advice” (43). The “truth” that Winterbourne lands upon is, in fact, the choice he makes between ‘proper’ and ‘reckless’ behavior. Perhaps by labeling it as “truth,” Winterbourne makes an effort to lift some responsibility from his own shoulders. Daisy should take Mrs. Walker’s advice; this is not Winterbourne’s own opinion, but “the truth.”

Winterbourne’s response to Daisy’s question, and his answer to the question of (im)propriety that has plagued him through the novel, is carefully considered and “very gently” delivered (43). Daisy, however, responds sharply: “Daisy gave a violent laugh. ‘I never heard anything so stiff! If this is improper, Mrs. Walker,’ she pursued, ‘then I am all improper and you must give me up.’” There is a contrast between Winterbourne’s gentle response and Daisy’s “violent laugh,” which perhaps illustrates the contrasting ways they present themselves to the world. They each flirt and carry on intimate relationships with multiple people – Daisy and her various gentlemen, Winterbourne and his implied lover in Geneva, as well as the “two or three women… who were great coquettes… with whom one’s relations were liable to take a serious turn” (12) – but they present themselves differently to society, and receive different reactions from their onlookers. Winterbourne has the air of a gentleman, and is never judged too harshly for associating with Daisy (nor, interestingly, with his married female friend Mrs. Walker, whose husband never actually makes an appearance in the text). Daisy, on the other hand, is judged incredibly harshly for her carefree, reckless behavior, to the point of being shunned at Mrs. Walker’s party. There are other layers to this, such as a cultural layer and a gendered double standard, but the point remains that Daisy and Winterbourne are similar characters who choose to go down different paths. They may have been walking along together thus far, but this point in the novel marks the place where the path splits. Daisy invites Winterbourne down one way, but he hesitatingly chooses the other, and in doing so loses Daisy forever. 

Nancy’s Death: Religion, Class, and Responsibility

“‘The gentleman, and that dear lady, told me to-night of a home in some foreign country where I could end my days in solitude and peace. Let me see them again, and beg them, on my knees, to show the same mercy and goodness to you; and let us both leave this dreadful place, and far apart lead better lives and forget how we have lived, except in prayers, and never see each other more. It is never too late to repent. They told me so – I feel it now – but we must have time – a little, little time!’” 

“She staggered and fell: nearly blinded with the blood that rained down from a deep gash in her forehead; but raising herself, with difficulty, on her knees, drew from her bosom a white handkerchief – Rose Maylie’s own – and holding it up, in her folded hands as high towards Heaven as her feeble strength would allow, breathed one prayer for mercy to her Maker.” 

(p. 271, end of ch. 48)


Upon reading this passage, I was struck by the Christian religious imagery associated with Rose Maylie and Nancy’s last moments. Rose is presented almost as a religious figure who can offer mercy and salvation to Nancy. Rose is described elsewhere in the text as angelic and heavenly (158), and she could be read as an allegory for the Virgin Mary – she is young, pure, kind, and a mother figure to Oliver. Looking closely at the language in these paragraphs, Nancy’s proposition of asking Rose and Mr. Brownlow for help has several religious connotations. The phrase “let me see them again, and beg them, on my knees, to show the same mercy and goodness to you” presents Nancy as a repentant sinner, and Rose and Mr. Brownlow as her kind and merciful saviors. “It is never too late to repent” could be taken verbatim from a sermon or a biblical passage. Nancy’s prayer as she dies parallels her desire for help from Rose. It also cements Rose in a religious context: Nancy falls to her knees and raises Rose’s handkerchief as she prays, as if asking Rose to intercede on her behalf. There is also specific language repeated in the two passages: notably, “‘on my knees’/on her knees” in supplication as Nancy asks Rose/“her Maker” for mercy. The word “mercy” is repeated in both passages as well, drawing a further connection between Rose and a merciful savior. 

Placing Rose Maylie in a religious context raises questions about the upper class as the saviors of the lower working class. What is the effect of this association? Are readers supposed to view the upper class, who have the power to help those less fortunate, as holy and superior? If taken out of context, that might be the message one takes from this passage. However, Dickens demonstrates that power and authority do not necessarily make someone a good person. Throughout the novel, corruption and cruelty run rampant amongst the middle and upper class, and Rose Maylie appears to be a kind outlier. So perhaps it is not a question of class and authoritative positions as religious allegory, but a question of responsibility. What should people do with the power that has been given to them? Who is able to save whom, and are they expected or willing to do so? There is also a point to make about goodness, cruelty, and the class divide. Nancy, despite everything about her life and her circumstances, is kind to Oliver and makes an effort to help him, even though this puts her at great risk and eventually leads to her death. Meanwhile, characters in more fortunate circumstances are often cruel, self-centered, and cynical: consider Mrs. Mann, who spends the money provided for the orphans on herself; or Mr. Grimwig, judgemental and confident that Oliver is a thief. 

In the preface, Dickens claims that “I saw no reason, when I wrote this book, why the very dregs of life, so long as their speech did not offend the ear, should not serve the purpose of a moral” (ix). One might expect these “dregs of life” to be people like Fagin, Sikes, and Nancy; however, people of power and authority are often just as rough and cruel as those within the lower class. Dickens presents the idea that the lower class is full of vice and the upper class is virtuous, then flips that idea on its head and shows goodness in “paupers” and cruelty in authority. However, neither Oliver Twist nor the real world is quite so black and white, and Rose Maylie and Nancy both demonstrate that caring for and helping others is the most admirable choice one can make.