Colonial Imagery in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll is a story about a girl who dreams about a fantastic world full of nonsense, singular creatures and adventures. However, a deeper analysis of this timeless children’s book could reveal several implicit references to colonialism. The book was first published in 1865 and that century was marked by a fierce British expansion especially towards exotic places such as Africa and Asia.

Alice is depicted as an invasive intruder since the beginning of the novel when she moves a jar of marmalade that she sees while falling down the rabbit hole. “She took down a jar from one of the shelves as she passed: it was labeled “ORANGE MARMALADE” but to her great disappointment it was empty … so [she] managed to put it into one of the cupboards as she fell past it” (2). From the first moment she enters this new world, she shows no respect towards what or who she encounters there, moving objects as she likes and acting as if she owns the place.

Her unwillingness to accept and adapt to this new foreign world, and her effort to change and dominate it are well illustrated in the passage where Alice kicks the lizard out of the chimney. Although she is the one who has broken into someone else’s home, she feels she has the right to literally kick out the people, or animals in this case, who inhabit it. Therefore, conscious that Bill the lizard is coming down the chimney, she thinks “Oh! So Bill’s got to come down the chimney, has he?  … but I think I can kick a little!” (28), “she gave one sharp kick, and waited to see what would happen next” (29). This planned act and imperious attitude of Alice can be seen as a metaphor of the British conquerors who invaded other people’s land and either removed or subjugated its native people.

However, the passage that most exemplifies this colonial attitude is the tea party. The fact that Alice, despite not being invited, arbitrarily decides to join the unusual party is an implicit reference to the domineering attitude of British colonizers who decided to occupy other people’s territories without being given any permission. The whole scene can be therefore symbolically interpreted as the British colonization of vast areas overseas. The reaction of the March Hare, the Hatter and the Dormhouse at the sight of Alice “ No room! No room!” (53) seems to evoke the feeling of native people towards the British colonizers, whereas the perspective of the latter is given by Alice’s answer “There’s plenty of room!” (53). Carroll’s choice to write the word “plenty” in italics, together with the words of the March Hare who asserts that “it wasn’t very civil of you to sit down without being invited” (53) also convey his personal opinion on imperialism. By emphasizing Alice’s arbitrary and disrespectful attitude towards the inhabitants of the land she is venturing in, Carroll is in fact implicitly judging expansionism as uncivil.

While Alice’s domineering attitude, carelessness and disrespectfulness towards the native people of Wonderland are suggested throughout the novel, they becomes explicit only in the final passage. By stating “Who cares for you?… You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” (102), Alice finally acknowledges and asserts her superiority, and this awareness leads to the end of her dream.

Colonial imagery in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll is a story about a girl who dreams about a fantastic world full of nonsense and adventures. However, a deeper analysis of this timeless children’s book may reveal several implicit references to colonialism. Alice was in fact first published in 1865 and the 19th century was characterized by the colonial expansion of the British Empire especially towards unexplored and exotic places such as Africa and Asia.

Since the beginning of the novel, Alice is depicted as an invasive intruder who seems not to accept and adapt to this new and foreign world, but who, on the contrary, tries to change and dominate it. The passage when Alice kicks the lizard out of the chimney exemplifies her imperious attitude, and it can be seen as an obvious metaphor of the British conquerors trying to acquire a foreign land by either remove or subjugate its native people. However, the passage that most exemplifies this colonial attitude is the tea party. The fact that Alice, despite not being invited, decides anyway to join the unusual party is a clear reference to the domineering attitude of British people who decided to conquer foreign lands in Africa and India with no regard to the interests of the people who inhabited them. The unwillingness of local people to have foreigners and colonizers on their territory is therefore expressed through the words of the March Hare’s that states “it wasn’t very civil of you to sit down without being invited” (53), also conveying Carroll’s opinion who seems to find imperialism uncivil.

This cruel attitude of British colonizers towards local people is also explicitly evoked in Alexander L. Dick’s painting A scene in India. The tiger, a wild and exotic animal, that the conquerors are trying to kill symbolizes here the native people that should be civilized, subdued and deprived of their land. As in Alice, there is no attempt here to understand or adapt to the new world, but just a strong thirst of conquest. Alice is therefore similarly seen as a colonizer rather than a visitor in Wonderland, as during her journey she acts like she owns the place and seems not to care about the people who live in it : “Who cares for you?… You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” (102).

Similarities between In an Artist’s Studio and The Woman in White

The portrayal of the nameless lady in Christina Rossetti’s poem In an Artist’s Studio evokes, in many ways, Laura’s representation in the Woman in White. These two female figures are, in fact, similarly objectified and described as the center of male desires and of their own projections.

Portrayed differently in each painting, as “a queen in opal or ruby dress”, “a nameless girl”, “a saint” or “an angel” (Rossetti 5,6,7), the woman of Rossetti’s poem has been completely deprived of her real identity in order to become a mere reflection of the painter’s desires. This description seems to match almost perfectly Laura’s in Collins’ novel. The last verse of the poem, in fact, could be easily referred to her character, since Walter shapes Laura in the same way the painter depicts his lady: “not as she is, but as she fills his dream” (Rossetti 14).

Walter’s objectification of Laura, although veiled, can be seen since the beginning of the novel, when on their first meeting he describes a water colour drawing he made of her instead of describing her directly. Walter therefore portrays Laura as he sees her and as he wants her to be, while the real Laura is silenced. A perfect example of how he makes Laura “even more hazy and less individualized” (Donaghy, 393) can be seen a few pages later when he says “think of her as you thought of the first woman who quickened the pulses within you that the rest of her sex had no art to stir…Take her as a visionary nursling of your own fancy; and she will grow upon you, all the more clearly, as the living woman who dwells in mine” (Collins, 52). Laura is here generalized and her emptiness of character is seen as necessary, since she functions as a center of projection of the other characters’ desires.

Therefore, the two figures of Laura and of the nameless woman in Rossetti’s poem, seem almost to overlap, as both their identities, although in different ways, have been completely annihilated by a male figure. In fact, both the painter, through his work, and Walter, through his actions and narration, objectify the two women whose role is merely reduced to “a blank to be filled by male desire” (Donaghy, 393).

The marriage plot between unusual and conventional

Marriage was one of the most debated topics during the Victorian Era and it is interesting to see how Collins developed his personal idea on this issue throughout The Woman in White.  Marriage is a recurring theme in this novel, however, it is clear that Collins has a preference for unusual marriage plots which oppose the typical Victorian ideal. As Carolyn Denver states in her essay, there are “different meanings of “marriage” itself – as a legal contract, as a means of regulating sexual desire, as a method of property transmission, as a set of emotional bonds – he (Collins) undermines the fundamental presumption that the concept is founded on the union of a man and a woman.” (Denver, 112) We can find proof to support this claim both in the representation of the sisterly love between Marian and Laura, which is described as being more than a fraternal relationship and leaning towards a same-sex couple, even though not explicitly stated in the novel, and through recurring themes of illegitimate children and adultery throughout the novel.

One being the exact opposite of the other, Laura the vulnerable and weak woman who embodies the Victorian stereotype and Marian her intelligent and outspoken counterpart, they almost complete each other as if they were actually a real and conventional couple. Marian’s masculinity, which is present not only in her physical appearance but also in her personality, does confirm this thought and therefore becomes “a masculine companion for Walter and a feminine one for Laura” (Denver, 114) in this strange triangular love between Laura, Walter and Marian herself.

However, Collins does not stop here in his dismantling of the conventional marriage plot. The representation of illegitimate relationships and children is an important factor as well in the development of the narration. As we already know, scandals were starting to make their first appearance in newspapers during the Victorian Era and the presence of a scandal in a novel aimed to teach “punitive lessons, often deliberately intended to induce conformity in its audience” (the Victorian web). This lesson we can infer from Collins’ portrayal of illegitimacy and adultery conveys the idea that illegitimate children are doomed to a tragic end because of their status and their parents’ mistakes. Through both the figures of Anne and Sir Percival who struggle with mental insanity and violent outbursts of anger, Collins displays his want “to anchor legitimate marriage and to align illegitimacy with lunacy. Serving as a force of sexual regulation, the novel hints that extramarital sex might produce a new generation of Glydes and Annes.” (Denver, 114)

However, while he deals with adultery as something reproachable and to be condemned, exactly as Victorian society wanted, he does not seem to question or condemn the children of the marriage between Walter and Laura. Under the surface of a stereotypical marriage, lies in fact this scandalous triangular love which however seems not to undermine the transfer of property, since Walter’s son is presented in the end as “the Heir of Limmeridge” (Collins, 627).

Victorian stereotype in The Woman in White

Women in the Victorian period were expected to be docile, submissive, and were relegated to the domestic sphere. Once married, as Greg states in his essay, they became their husband’s servants and had no legal rights to own property. Laura Fairlie’s character in The Woman in White embodies all these characteristics, representing the typical Victorian woman. The Victorian stereotype that Laura impersonates can be seen not only in her personality which is described as servile, vulnerable and weak, but it does also apply to her social status. In that period, in fact, marriages used to be arranged by parents, and Laura, being engaged to an older and wealthier man she does not love, is no exception.

However, the interesting figure of Marian Halcombe in this novel completely contradicts this stereotype. From the beginning, she is described by Walter as an intelligent, curious, rational and outspoken woman. When introduced, Walter immediately notices Marian’s physical masculinity which, to a broader extent, can be read as seeping into her character personality, given that she is an independent, dominant character who has great influence in Limmeridge House. She is verbally frank and extremely critical of her own gender, as she states on her first meeting with Walter, “How can you expect four women to dine together alone every day, and not quarrel? We are such fools, we can’t entertain each other at table. You see I don’t think much of my own sex, Mr. Hartright” (36) In addition to this, Marian’s presentation as both an “ugly” and unmarried woman typifies Greg’s idea of a societally dangerous woman: “the residue who remain unmarried constitute the problem to be solved, the evil and anomaly to be cured” (159)