Working-Through Surreal Childhood Experiences in Wonderland

In “Remembering, Repeating, and Working-Through,” Freud describes “experiences which occurred in very early childhood and were not understood at the time but which were subsequently understood and interpreted. One gains a knowledge of them through dreams” (Freud 149-150). Therefore, confusing events from childhood are made sense of and comprehended in adulthood through dreams. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Wonderland is only accessible through dreams; the sister’s experience in Wonderland reveals that adults who experience this alternate universe can thus understand and ‘work-through’ their childhood experiences of unclear reality.

Dreams play a central role in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, particularly at the end of the story. It is revealed that Alice’s experiences were all a “curious” and “wonderful” dream (Carroll 170). However, rather than ending with Alice’s perspective, the story shifts to describe her older sister’s reaction to hearing about Alice’s adventures. The unnamed sister slips into her own dream “alive with the strange creatures of her little sister’s dream,” living within the same world Alice just described (Carroll 171). This transference of Alice’s experience to her unconscious emphasizes the powerful influence of Wonderland. She then enters into an in-between state between dreams and reality, and predicts that Alice as an adult “would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with…the dream of Wonderland… remembering her own child-life, and the happy summer days” (Carroll 172). Her sister’s reaction reflects a nostalgia for childhood and the “happy summer days” that perhaps have already escaped her. Her description of Wonderland making children’s “eyes bright and eager” reveals that the sister’s reaction is not unique, and that Wonderland has a significant influence on whoever hears about it. Alice’s description of Wonderland then becomes a powerful escape where both adults and children can experience a world where reality is malleable, reflecting a childish innocence.

Both the vividness and transferable quality of Alice’s adventures make its revelation as a dream somewhat unexpected. In addition, we only hear briefly about Alice’s subsequent thoughts on the experience; the rest is filtered through her older sister’s perspective. Considering Freud’s description of dreams, the sister’s dream is a way for her to make sense of similar childhood experiences. Childhood is marked by not fully understanding the world around you; in her dream, Alice is frustrated by the absurdity of her environment, but eventually accepts and enjoys it. In comparison, adults typically reject and rationalize anything that does not fully make sense to them. Her sister’s reaction suggests that an adult Alice and whoever else experiences the dream of Wonderland are able to escape and make sense of their childhood experiences that felt surreal, and question and expand their own perceptions of reality.

Power, Justice, and Colonialism in “The Moonstone”

In The Moonstone, the titular stone’s origins are in India, where it is described as an object of great spiritual and monetary value. After the moonstone is violently stolen by Herncastle, it almost immediately brings paranoia and misfortune to anyone who possesses it. After it is gifted to Herncastle’s niece Rachel Veridner, three mysterious Indian jugglers start appearing in their town, even coming to their house the night the stone is stolen. Despite evidence that absolves the Indians from prosecution, the Veridner family has the societal power to arrest them anyway. Betteredge narrates, “when the police came to investigate the matter… he would contrive, by committing them as rogues and vagabonds, to keep them at our disposal, under lock and key, for a week. They had ignorantly done something (I forget what) in the town, which barely brought them within the operation of the law” (Collins 82).

This passage reveals the power dynamics related to policing in the novel. The adjectives “rouges and vagabonds” do not imply criminality necessarily, but rather that the jugglers are untrustworthy and suspicious. Their ‘crimes’ have “barely” brought them into custody, and are so trivial that Betteridge cannot even remember them, but the Veridners’ influence allows them to utilize this to arrest them. Betteridge’s language places him and the Veridners above the Indians; by describing them “at [the Veridners] disposal, under lock and key,” the Indians are completely dehumanized. The jugglers are at their disposal, revealing the Veridners’ absolute power over their fates. 

When Betteridge states that “every human institution (justice included) will stretch a little, if you only pull it the right way” further emphasizes the power dynamics at play (Collins 82). The “you” in this statement is ultimately referring to upper class, white English individuals. Betteridge assumes the reader is part of this privileged group. The Veridners’ influence allows them to treat concepts like justice as malleable to their own interests, ultimately revealing the corruption of policing. 

The language utilized to describe the Indian jugglers is related to colonialism. India is portrayed as a threatening ‘other,’ associated with unknown magical powers. The Veridners have almost absolute societal power over the Indians due to their higher class, race, and nationality, reflecting England’s colonization of India. Their suspicion and fear of the Indians is, while not completely unreasonable, ultimately based in colonialist attitudes. They are able to wield their social influence to legitimize their baseless allegations. This portrays the police as not an ultimate moral authority, but a force swayed by who is in power. While the beginning of the novel is just beginning to explore these themes, I am curious to see how colonialist views of Indians and police corruption will influence the novel. 

Colonialist Attitudes in “Jane Eyre”

In Jane Eyre, Bertha Mason serves as an unintentional antagonist since she is the major hindrance to Jane and Rochester’s marriage. Bertha’s mental illness and power are implied to be a result of her upbringing in the West Indies, reflected in the colonialist descriptions of this landscape.

In chapter 24, Rochester’s description of his marriage to Bertha demonstrates how the text characterizes Bertha and the West Indies as a source of moral corruption and entrapment. Rochester states, “it was a fiery West Indian night; one of the description that frequently precede the hurricanes of those climates…the air was like sulfur streams— I could find no refreshment anywhere” (Bronte 433). This description of a “fiery,” sulfuric environment convey images of a toxic, overpowering atmosphere. The eminent hurricane expresses the ‘instability’ of the West Indies. Rochester cannot find “refreshment,” and therefore escape from this uncomfortable, foreign setting. The environment of the West Indies is comparable to a hellish landscape, reflected in Bertha’s moral and mental degradation.

The hellish description of the West Indies is mirrored in Bertha’s actions. Rochester recalls that Bertha “threw her last bloody glance over a world quivering with the ferment of tempest… my ears were filled with the curses the maniac still shrieked out; wherein she momentarily mingled my name with such a tone of demon-hate…no professed harlot ever had a fouler vocabulary than she” (Bronte 434). The violent landscape described as a “ferment of tempest” is reflected in Bertha’s loss of mental control, leading to disturbed behavior. She is dehumanized as a “maniac” and “demon” with “bloody eyes,” creating an image of a monster rather than a woman. Bertha is also compared to a “harlot,” or prostitute, which reinforces her sinful nature connected to her sexuality. Therefore, Bertha is both mentally ill and uncontrollably immoral, which is implied to be a product of her surroundings.

These images of an unmanageable, hellish landscape combined with Bertha’s ‘insanity’ portray the West Indies as a site of  moral degradation. Rochester, since he is a foreigner, is able to ‘escape,’ yet is still tempted to succumb to sin through suicide. However, he is also permanently trapped by his experiences there through his marriage to Bertha. The portrayal of the West Indies as an overpowering force simultaneously removes Rochester’s blame for his situation and reinforces colonialist attitudes of  “civilizing” other cultures.

Daisy’s “Innocence”

In Daisy Miller, the titular character is harshly judged by society due to her deviance from societal norms. However, the novel is filtered through Winterbourne’s perspective, and he is the least confident in his conclusions about Daisy’s motivations and values. Winterbourne frequently talks to other characters about Daisy, and most of these conversations are centered around if Daisy is an innocent young women obliviously defying societal norms, or a rebellious flirt intentionally defying convention. The word “innocence” is consistently utilized and debated in these conversations, which connects to whether Daisy’s fate should be viewed as tragic or inevitable.

A significant conversation about Daisy’s innocence occurs between Winterbourne and Mrs. Costello, who is a staunch observer of European social norms. Winterbourne defends Daisy and Mrs. Miller, stating “They are very ignorant­- very innocent only. Depend upon it they are not bad,” to which Mrs. Costello replies “They are hopelessly vulgar…Whether or not being hopelessly vulgar is being “bad” is a question for the metaphysicians. They are bad enough to dislike, at any rate, and for this short life that is enough” (James 33). In this passage, the triviality of European social norms becomes evident. While Mrs. Costello appears confident in her assessment of Daisy, she ultimately acknowledges she is incapable of judging her character. She does not deny that Daisy could perhaps be innocent, but she implies this is irrelevant, saying she is “hopelessly vulgar.” However, she emphasizes her inability to make the ultimate assessment, as she acknowledges that she is not a metaphysics, or a philosopher that makes conclusions about the nature of existence. Since this ultimate judgment of character is missing, the “society” takes this role of instating moral values and expectations. Since Daisy and Mrs. Miller are “bad enough to dislike,” Daisy’s innocence becomes irrelevant. Mrs. Costello, in her “short life” is content to unquestionably follow these expectations. However, by describing her life as “short” and reverting ultimate moral assessments to philosophers, the novel emphasizes the ultimate triviality and malleability of these judgments.

Arguments about Daisy’s innocence continue throughout the novel. These conclude at Daisy’s funeral, when Mr. Giovanelli states “she was the most innocent,” to which Winterbourne questions “The most innocent?” and Mr. Giovanelli affirms “The most innocent!” (James 63). By the end of the novel, Winterbourne continues to be unsure of Daisy’s agency in her decisions. However, this conversation has more weight than before, because it questions whether Daisy is responsible for the decisions that lead to her death. Winterbourne questions Mr. Giovanelli’s confidence in Daisy’s innocence, yet never makes an assured conclusion either way.

The word “innocent” is repeated throughout the novel as Daisy’s agency is debated and questioned. By the end of the novel, Winterbourne, who once was a staunch defender of Daisy’s lack of “blame,” is left unsure of her naïveté. This reflects the novel’s critique of these judgements. The characters’ conclusions about Daisy seem confident, yet are repeatedly changed and qualified. The reader is left to decide whether Daisy is a helpless victim or intentional rebel. However, the way that her innocence is inconclusively debated highlights the ultimate triviality of these concepts.

Class and Womanhood

In Oliver Twist, Rose is described as the ideal woman, in sharp contrast to the low-class women in the novel. Her beauty, kindness, and virtue are emphasized in almost every passage she appears, which positions her as one of the few moral characters in the novel. In chapter 40, Rose and Nancy are presented as foils in respect to femininity, character, and class. This contrast highlights the novel’s theme of poverty leading to moral degradation, perhaps serving as a warning of Oliver’s future if he remains lower-class.

When Rose and Nancy meet for the first time, Rose is presented as a potential “savior” of Nancy’s abandonment of virtue and traditional womanhood. Rose’s kindness is explicitly connected to her femininity; Nancy is embarrassed when meeting her, as she has abandoned this softness and gentleness. Nancy is described as “the miserable companion of thieves and ruffians…even this degraded being felt too proud to betray a feeble gleam of the womanly feeling which she thought a weakness, but alone connected her with that humanity, of which her wasting life had obliterated so many, many traces when a very child” (225). This connects Nancy’s criminality and roughness to both her lower class and abandonment of her femininity. Her “wasting life,” or her suffering and desperation as a lifelong member of the lower class, “obliterated” her “womanly feeling,” which can be interpreted as her empathy and gentleness. Her life as a criminal, which originates in her childhood, makes her “degraded,” as she cannot express her deeply repressed softness.

Rose is the antithesis of Nancy’s class, femininity, and morality issues. Her willingness to be kind to a woman like Nancy is touted as an example of her unparalleled compassion. However, she goes further by attempting to rescue Nancy from her loss of virtue. Rose begs to Nancy, “do not turn a deaf ear to the entreaties of one of your own sex; the first, I do believe, that ever appealed to you in the voice of pity and compassion…It is never too late…for penitence and atonement” (238). As the ideal woman, Rose wants to return Nancy to her intrinsic virtue, or womanhood. Rose attempts to appeal to Nancy as “one of [her] own sex” in order to make her remember her innate goodness. Despite Nancy’s attempts to explain to Rose that her class status has trapped her in this life, Rose believes Nancy can express “penitence and atonement” and escape. This emphasizes Rose’s flawless empathy and belief in the goodness of others. However, as their conversation continues, it becomes clear that class is the ultimate division between Rose’s upmost morality and Nancy’s depravity.

The comparison between Rose and Nancy emphasizes the novel’s message of lower-class life leading to moral corruption. Nancy is just one of many women in the novel described as unattractive and unfeminine. These two women are symbolic of Oliver Twists’ two potential routes in life, as Rose and Nancy are each potential mother figures. Rose reflects and encourages Oliver’s innate goodness, while Nancy would lead him down a path of destruction, despite her attempts to save Oliver. Nancy’s death later in the novel emphasizes that she was unable to escape her life as a degenerate. Therefore, if Oliver is trapped in a lower-class life, he may also be forced to be corrupted.