Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass is a seemingly nonsensical piece. However, its chaotic flow is well thought out and relevant. The illustrations were scrutinized by Caroll and the artist, which is interesting because some have odd designs and placements. Characters will be significantly mentioned in the text on the page but the illustration does not acknowledge them. The text itself structurally also forms around the images; they make up the page together. This is because as tough to understand as they may be sometimes, Collins wants the reader to recognize the contents of the image. Even if their purpose is a “brain break” for the rest of the story on the page, because this is a children’s book after all. The way that Collins has set up this novel alludes that he does not want the reader to correlate two subject matters just because they are placed next to or near each other. To rely less on context clues, and focus on matters individually in order to explore deeper. This allows the reader to truly analyze everything on every page of the novel. The lack of order and hierarchy of importance to the situations illustrated further drives the idea that the contents are random, while they are just truly meant to stand on their own. A looking glass—or mirror—is an ideal way to explore deeper into oneself. A person may recognize herself or she may not, but at some point there will be a look in the mirror that will be the first occurrence of self recognition. When Alice is playing with the two kittens in the beginning of Through the Looking Glass, the black kitten is the naughty and bad one whereas the white kitten is innocent and pure. Alice threatens the black kitty that if he is not good, “[she’ll] put [him] through into Looking-Glass House. How would [he] like that?” (Collins 119). Alice is using this consequence like it is daunting or difficult. The black kitten, the “bad” one, being put through the looking glass would be apparently an unpleasant, potentially frightening, experience if he had to reflect on himself. The contents of the novel are not random and they all surface back to the title’s main idea of deeper reflection.
The Moonstone is the most explicitly colonial text that we’ve read this semester—the colonization of India permeates the text from beginning to end, involving international places and people who exist before as well as during the novel. The intergenerational efforts of English colonialization set up the plot of the novel, and racialized appearances and objects move and circle around the characters.
Alice in Wonderland is also engaged with themes of colonialism, and (like The Moonstone) leaves us with questions about where the text stands. The Moonstone leads to deception and chaos, but it also brings to the fore a series of declarations and relationships that would otherwise have been lost under the smothering influence of Victorian propriety. Once the restoration of Englishness has been achieved (with the addition of constructive consequences) the Moonstone and all it brought with it can be restored to the Indian temple Herncastle stole it from. In Alice in Wonderland, once the experience of the Other has been sufficiently infiltrated by English (linguistically and nationally) order, it falls apart and Alice can return home.
In Alice in Wonderland, Alice is lost in her own pseudo-colonialist explorations of a strange land, introducing the elements of the land into herself by the continuing process of eating, imbibing the impossibility of a Wonderland that she would never have encountered sitting “on the bank” of England (Carroll 1). Once she leaves the bank (in a colonialist sense, sailing off) she attempts to enforce English rules, social codes, and institutions on the inhabitants of Wonderland; interestingly, she is unsuccessful in her attempts. Herein lies the ambiguity—having a young child act out the format of a colonizing mission, finding pieces of a foreign land to keep for herself while also introducing it to the ‘civilizing’ influence of England seems to set us up for an endorsement of a colonial tradition. However, in the final moments of the text that solidity is upended by the return to England (Alice) or to India (the Moonstone).
The presence of a previous generation (the older sister who knows Wonderland but has retired to the roots of the English tree) that knows but is now relatively distant from ‘Wonderland’ mirrors the presences we were introduced to in The Moonstone. There we knew of a generation—John Herncastle, the unnamed cousin—simultaneously involved with colonization and removed from it, their story having taken place before the narrative of the present. The Moonstone explains why it’s necessary to have the sister present in Alice in Wonderland—she is the stand-in for an English tradition that Alice (the present generation) will have to engage. By bringing Alice to the bank, she fulfills the same role that Herncastle does in The Moonstone: facilitating the events of the novel by providing the means of the primary characters engagment with colonialism. Without this understanding, the sister’s presence, particularly at the end of the novel, feels sudden and unnecessary. With it, we can see the same complexity that The Moonstone captured.
Follow this link to watch Disney’s opening scene of Alice in Wonderland: in the first 30 seconds, note the emphasis of the open water and boat waiting on the bank and Alice’s sister physically sitting on the roots of the tree while she reads an English history textbook.
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.
Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland can be read as a satire on education and knowledge, which at times reminds me of Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. There are a few nurseries rhymes in the story; two of them, “How doth the little—” (Carroll 11) and “You are old, Father William” (35), Alice recited to find out if she was still the same person after having fallen into the rabbit hole. Knowledge is represented as something that is unique to its owner. Alice decided that she must have become someone else because the rhymes she remembered were different from before. It’s almost mechanical that Alice had to recite the whole rhyme and listen to herself to make that judgement, as if the rhymes were forcibly beaten into her head; she couldn’t help but reciting the whole thing. That reminded me of the use of hypnopedia in Brave New World, to teach children about things like what is the longest river in Africa. When being asked that question, the children wouldn’t know the answer but are able to recite the sentence played to them in their sleep. Likewise, Alice doesn’t think before she recites, like when she said “London is the capital of Paris, and Paris is the capital of Rome, and Rome—” (11).
Another moment that is reminiscent of Brave New World is that the Duchess finds a nonsense moral lesson in everything like “flamingoes and mustard both bite. And the moral of that is—‘Birds of a feather flock together’” (74). The moral is phrased to sound so plausible that it lures people to take it for granted and ignore what it’s actually saying; it sounds almost like a slogan from Brave New World. The slogans are also part of the hypnopedia curriculum and some of them tend to give people guidance in life, like “a gramme is always better than a damn” and “ending is better than mending” (Huxley). Ironically, as moments of satire on knowledge, there is barely any sort of knowledge or sense present in what the Duchess preaches.
Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass. Bantam Dell, 2006.
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.
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.
I will be using Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to look at a book I read for another class this semester: Gulliver’s Travels by Johnathan Swift. By comparing these two works, a pattern has emerged to me and I began thinking about the psychological implications of this pattern. Both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Gulliver’s Travels illustrate an emphasis on the importance of the physical size of the protagonist, as well as how their size impacts their environment. In Swift’s work, the protagonist, Gulliver, travels to many new islands where he is either much larger or much smaller than its inhabitants. There were many instances when Gulliver was much larger than the people of Lilliput and he makes comments about being easily able to hurt them if he wanted to, or accidentally hurting them anyway due to his size. Alice deals with this problem repeatedly when she becomes extremely large and overtakes the rabbit’s house, cries so extensively that she creates a large body of water that overtakes a bunch of animals, or even simply scaring a pigeon with her long neck, etc. As this pattern holds such a prevalent role in these two works, I wondered about the implications of this recurring theme.
Whether it was the initial intention of the work at its publication, both books have become children’s stories, either through slightly altered narratives, animations, live action films, etc. This affects the reading of these works because children often seek morals to understand these stories. In a study called, “The Psychological Significance of Children’s Literature”, Jacquelyn Sanders writes, “Literature can be of value in helping the child cope with and master those problems of importance in his life” (15). In terms of Carroll’s and Swift’s narratives, the emphasis on size and how the body rapidly changes can be indicative of puberty, which many children struggle through, but it also holds larger significance. As characters struggle to adapt to these physical changes, it seems to run parallel with fears about the uncontrollable factors of human nature. We may unintentionally hurt or scare someone or something because we don’t grasp the severity of our actions, such as Gulliver does, or we may become overwhelmed with our emotions, similar to Alice’s experiences. I also think these instances could perhaps shed light on the harmful ways humans seem to dominate over their natural environment.
There are many threads to follow in tracking the meaning of this pattern. However, I do not wish to become entirely absorbed in the psychological implications alone, because on their own, these works establish a comforting narrative for children. Using a hyperbolic comparison of size allows children, and general audiences, to immediately identify these works as fantastical narratives and let go of the stress of real life, even if perhaps, they are still learning new messages about their own reality at the same time.
Sanders, Jacqueline. “Psychological Significance of Children’s Literature.” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, vol. 37, no. 1, 1967, pp. 15-22.
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
In Dickens’s preface to Oliver Twist, he describes one of his objectives to portray the outcasts of society in all their true form but also to show how Good can survive through adverse circumstances and ultimately triumph. How can this text be used as a lens in reading Collins’s The Moonstone? Dickins writes that he will spare none in describing details of the vilest outcasts of society. Collins’s readers, rather, are exposed to villains as Dickins would describe like “meat, in delicate disguise.” John Herncastle, would appear a gentleman though likely was a murderer in addition to being a thief. Godfrey Ablewhite, likewise a thief, is described in Betteredge’s narrative as follows: “he had a beautiful red and white colour; a smooth round face, shaved as bare as your hand; and a head of lovely long flaxen hair, falling negligently over the poll of his neck…He was a barrister by profession; a ladies’ man by temperament; and a good Samaritan by choice.” More contrasting descriptions of these villains with Sikes and Fagan in Oliver Twist would be difficult to find.
But where this lens brings similarity and clarity are in two of their outcasts: Nancy and Ezra. Both are social outcasts and degraded. Both carry a heavy burden throughout their lives. Collins’s description of Ezra repulses not only Betteridge but also the reader. After receiving a clear description of his appearance, his demeanor, we as readers, also turn our heads and look the other way. He tries to make himself invisible and we also would rather hide him from view. And yet, it is interesting to note that Ezra’s profession is as someone who heals and who eases pain. Moreover he was the means of bringing about the healing of Dr. Candy as well as the riunion of Rachel and Franklin. Nancy, more than once, came to the aid of little Oliver and was fundamental in bringing about justice due him.
Both characters also loved and derived some alleviation from this. Dickins writes: “It is emphatically God’s truth, for it is the truth He leaves in such depraved and miserable breasts, the hope yet lingering behind; the last fair drop of water at the bottom of the dried-up weed-choked well.” Nancy clung to Sikes to her destruction. Ezra has been separated from his love but has worked tirelessly to provide for her. And in Ezra’s final weeks he was permitted to see “the sunny side of human life” and be reconciled with the world he was to leave. (p. 447). To that end, I think Dickins’s goal of “the principle of Good surviving through every adverse circumstance, and triumphing at last” can be confirmed by Ezra Jennings as well.
Within the world of Wonderland, things are weird and normalcy is almost nonexistent. Even the dynamics of the characters, especially those perceived to be in authority, are odd and interesting to analyze. When looking at the royalty throughout the novel is we can see that the suit of hearts is the ones in the position of power. In card games, the suit spades are the most important suit, so it is odd that hearts are in charge. The novel could be maybe playing on the other associations with the word and imagery of the word heart. Another thing that doesn’t fit is the way that although visually the characters are closer in reference to cards, the power dynamics of the characters are much closer to those of the game chess. For example, the queen appears to have much more power than the king, as she is the one who sentences others to be beheaded for minor offenses.
The queen also uses her power to make the court do seemingly nonsensical activities such as croquet with live animals. There are no rules in the game that make sense to Alice and the others there are only playing to appease the queen. In the Novel and the Police, it states that “once a power of social control has been virtually raised to the status of an ontology, the action becomes so intimidating that is effectively discouraged”(31). Wonderland could be outlining how the concept of fear in those in power is one that is ridiculous, as the people in subjugation are the ones who place them in power. The queen of hearts is a figure everyone fears but as we can see, and hear from the Gryphon, “they never executes nobody, you know”(76). This outlines the way that the people of the kingdom are blinded by the appearance of punishment from the social norms.