The White Man’s Depiction of the Exotic


As I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, I was strongly reminded of many early travel narratives that I have previously studied. Texts such as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko strongly parallel with Carroll’s narrative on a multitude of facets. Alice, similar to the two other protagonists, is exploring a land unknown to her but more importantly, she represents the colonizing invasion in this wonderland just as Behn and Conrad’s characters do in Africa. Alice, though, definitely reflects the naïve mindset of a child in addition to the ignorance of the Victorian British upper class in regards to the colonized nations and peoples. This ignorance of foreign customs is actually directly addressed in the very beginning of the narrative when Alice says as she falls down the rabbit hole, “And what an ignorant little girl she’ll think me for asking! No, it’ll never do to ask: perhaps I shall see it written up somewhere.” More interesting in Alice’s speculations about where she is falling to, something that continues throughout the narrative is the manifestation of this ignorance and where it is directed. As she falls, she thinks aloud: “I wonder if I shall fall right through the earth! How funny it’ll seem to come out among the people that walk with their heads downward!” Characterizing these “people” implies their otherness in Alice’s mind.

This idea of foreignness can also be seen in Alice’s interpretation of the landscape. Similar to Conrad and Behn’s narratives, not only are the people exoticized dramatically but so are the settings in which every protagonist is placed. Alice’s ignorance reveals itself in these encounters where she believes the land to be at her disposal, despite her complete lack of knowledge with it. This speaks to the colonizer’s mindset and the instinctive entitlement that a majority of this population demonstrated with the “conquered” lands around the world. Carroll depicts this exotic fictional world for the British people to conceptualize, just as Conrad and Behn do with the African landscape.

The artistic parallel with these representations can be seen in both the piece named “Delhi” as well as “Taj Mahal-Agra” by Robert Wallis. These images both depict India in a very grand, exotic manner. I think it is truly interesting to think about the reception of all of these works amongst the British public. Just as the authors recount a “savage” world that is not yet developed, these pictures display almost a similar idea, except for the inclusion of the grand Taj Mahal. Through these pieces, British society, it seems, thought themselves to be all knowledgeable considering these exotic, foreign places. This speaks directly to Alice’s mindset in her travels through Wonderland. How influential, then, can we perceive literature and art depicting foreign places to be in the British colonial mindset?

Waterhouse’s Shalott

Having viewed the painting of The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse before reading the poem that it was originally inspired by, I already felt struck by this incredible painting. After examining both the poem and the painting, it is evident to see how both poet and artist reject traditional Victorian ideals, while even furthering the ideologies of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. There is a constant struggle in the poem between the indoor and outdoor life, which reflects these difficulties for women in Victorian society. In Part I, it is explained that she is inside “Four gray walls, and four gray towers, / Overlook a space of flowers.” The gray color of the enclosing walls paired with an removed view of outside emphasize the contrast between the dull, trapped life of many 18th century women who were only ever considered a domestic figure. When the Lady of Shalott ventures to explore Camelot and the outside world, this is what leads to her fatal demise. Her attempt to traverse societal lines and explore what a woman should not explore is the ultimate deviation from the rigidity of Victorian society.


The poem, though, is not what intrigues me most. I found Waterhouse’s artistic interpretation of this poem intriguing in what he decided to include or not include. He incorporates the gray walls as a backdrop of the painting, an element that seems to be completely forgotten about. The stairs and the walls are also the only geometrically aligned elements to the painting, which reflects the rigidity of the life she has literally turned her back on. Waterhouse includes the lilies in the pond as well as the “willowy hills and fields among,” making sure to include the natural details that so characterize a majority of this poem. He also includes the tapestry, which was a major focus during the duration of her “entrapment” until this escape. He adds three candles, in which the last of them is about to be blown out, reflecting her soon impending death.


As we have in detail discussed this idea of the femme fatale, this painting seems to abandon this idea altogether, portraying the focal female in the virginal white, reflecting what is in the poem, but also through her physical appearance, which is not as detailed in the text. Waterhouse’s choice to depict her with long red hair, red lips, and an open chest with a tilted back head reflects her repression, and more so than just her domestic repression but the sexual repression that was so prevalent during this time. Over everything, though, it is her facial expression, which seems to be so distinctive to Waterhouse’s work over the rest. Her sorrowful, mourning countenance so clearly depicts a pained woman, on her final journey to end her suffering. However, in evaluating how she might represent the whole of Victorian female society, I think back to “In an Artist’s Studio” by Christina Rossetti and I wonder if, for the male audience, “she fills his dream,” or the opposite, because of her expression and the fact that she is not looking outwards. Did this painting intend on a sort of exposition into the repression of women and their depictions in art as well? In my opinion, I would say yes. Perhaps this is why I found it to be such an incredible piece.

The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse (1888 version)

Marian and Walter’s Profound Relationship

As we have discussed extensively in class, Wilkie Collins narrative presents ambiguities and blurred lines in every aspect of the text (i.e. characters’ motives, narrative structure, plot twists and elements). One element that Dever addresses in her critique of Collins’ works is the nature of his consistent derivation from the traditional marriage plot. In discussing The Woman in White specifically, he focalizes on the most significant ambiguity of the novel: the relationship between Marian, Walter, and Laura and their “love-triangle,” as we would call it today. She describes that, “Collins produces erotically pluralist novels under the protective, authorizing cover of the conventional marriage plot. He uses the form against itself, turning the marriage plot inside out to feature affirmative, loving, nonmarital bonds” (114). Although only broadly concentrating the relationships in The Woman in White, Dever correctly establishes a main reason behind the “pluralist” nature of Collins narrative. I was interested in this pluralism, though, and what exactly contributed to this in the text through the character developments specifically. One major factor to this triangular romance lies in the deeper relationship between Marian and Walter.

Although Walter and Laura do ultimately end up together, the friendship that grows between Walter and Marian remains a profound and intellectual bond. Nowhere else over the course of the narrative do we see these two characters talk to other characters in the manner that they talk to one another. Of course, the idea that Marian and Walter could ever be a couple is one that has been completely discarded from the very start of the text, since her introduction as a very masculine female character, something that continues to be emphasized throughout the narrative.

Nevertheless, Marian and Walter engage in a very marital-like discourse in many instances. For example, after Marian has been ill and weak for a period of time, yet she and Walter must decide on a new course of action for the two of them and Laura, the two of them share a discourse as Marian cleans the house: “She dashed [the tears] away with a touch of her old energy, and smiled with a faint reflexion of her good spirits. ‘Don’t doubt my courage, Walter,’ she pleaded, ‘it’s my weakness that cries, not me. The house work shall conquer it if I can’t.’ And she kept her word – the victory was won when we met in the evening, and she sat down to rest. Her large steady black eyes looked at me with a flash of their bright firmness of bygone days” (433). The first component of how the reader views this relationship rests in the manner in which Walter describes Marian’s actions and her appearance. He remains very endearing towards her, almost to a point of pity in this passage, as he consistently addresses her “firmness of bygone days” or the “touch of her old energy.” Furthermore, he once again addresses her “black eyes,” a reminder as to how incompatible Marian is as a woman for not just Walter but for any man. Marian’s dialogue to Walter is then the next important element to their relationship. She very assertively says to him “don’t doubt my courage.” This shows how much Marian can not only read Walter but also respond so honestly to what she knows him to be thinking. This reflects the nature of, if not a married couple, then a very close pair, and the intuitions that each could have about the other. Marian and Walter’s relationship still remains the most interesting to me in the novel and going in depth to explore then Walter and Laura and Marian and Laura’s relationships would be fascinating to bring together and how they all prove so directly Dever’s statement about Collins’ works.

Marian’s Validation

I found Marian to be, by far, the most intriguing character in the novel. Her section of the novel propels the plot more so than any other character. It is through her observations of events and her insights of these events that the reader truly begins to comprehend the varied characters traits of each protagonist. But when it comes to her part in the narrative, it seems to be constantly second-guessed and more deeply examined because of the fact that she is a woman. There is a constant obsession in this Victorian setting about the connection between thought and feeling for women and how they can’t seem to distinguish the two. The most interesting aspect of this, in my opinion, is that the narrative includes an internal commentary on Marian’s writing and narration. When Marian falls ill, Fosco takes the liberty to go into her journal and read her inscriptions, about which he exclaims: “Yes! These pages are amazing. The tact which I find here, the discretion, the rare courage […] have all inexpressibly increased my admiration of this sublime creature, of magnificent Marian. The presentation of my own character is masterly in the extreme. I certify, with my whole heart, to the fidelity of the portrait.” (336) These extreme exclamations of surprise are a statement to Fosco’s automatic discrediting of Marian’s work due to her status of being a woman. Fosco most likely believed in this theory that women let their emotions get in the way of everything they do, including writing and especially writing about people. How could a woman judge a person correctly when her feelings would get in the way of their interpretation of that person’s character? The fact that he “certifies” the accuracy of the picture painted of him leads to question if Collins included this to validate what Marian was saying for the reader. There is so much to say of this passage that can veer in so many different directions but I think that it importantly addresses the stigmas around women at the time as well as introducing a very internal commentary on the writing of the book itself. This was an extremely interesting element for Collins to include and I would be interested in how this affects the audience further on in the novel.