Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the Loss of Childhood Innocence

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a story about growing up. While her sister states that Alice “would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving heart of her childhood,” (104) if we look more closely at the conclusion of Alice’s time in wonderland, we can also see a loss of childhood innocence which brings the sister’s assertion into question.

Throughout the story, Alice tries to apply rational (if imperfect) understanding to completely irrational circumstances: as she falls down the rabbit hole, she muses about whether she’s reached the center of the earth (2-3) and applies similar lines of thought to her experiences throughout wonderland. Through it all, she never questions that the irrational things she sees are real. However, at the conclusion of the story, this begins to change and is signified by Alice’s growth at the trial.

Until this moment, when Alice changes size throughout the story, it is always due to the effect of some food or drink. Here, it is different: “in his confusion [the Mad Hatter] bit a large piece out of his teacup instead of the bread-and-butter. Just at this moment Alice felt a very curious sensation until she made out what it was: she was beginning to grow larger again” (92). What prompts her growth her is the Mad Hatter’s eating of his teacup, evidenced by Carroll’s use of “Just at this moment.” Something about this incident causes her to start growing, and it is her recognition of his action as improbable. Here, her realization is internal, and not fully formed.

Throughout the trial, she grows as she begins to point out the irrational: the narrator tells us “she had grown so large in the last few minutes that she wasn’t a bit afraid of interrupting [the king]” and tells him “‘don’t believe there’s an atom of meaning in it'” (100). She now expresses her doubts aloud.

This culminates just before Alice wakes up from her dream, in the chapter tellingly titled “Alice’s Evidence.” Again, her realization of the improbability of wonderland corresponds with a description of her growth. As the Queen threatens to chop off her head one final time, we see Alice’s growth completed, and her childhood naiveté lost: “‘Who cares for you?’ said Alice (she had grown to her full size by this time). ‘You’re nothing but a pack of cards!'” Alice makes a clear, definitive statement about the nature of the cards. The cards swarm around her and she wakes up to find that it is nothing but leaves falling on her face (102).

Only when Alice recognizes the world around her as false–a delusion–is she freed from it. As soon as she declares that the court is “nothing but a pack of cards” she is transported out of the dream world and back into “dull reality” (104). Her voice is stronger each time, beginning with thinking and ending with shouting. Finally, the correlation of this awareness and physical growth lends itself to the idea that Alice is growing, mentally and physically. Her sister might believe she will retain her juvenile mindset, we all learn, once something magical is proven false, its wondrous quality is impossible to recover.

“My Last Duchess” as Femme Fatale

Robert Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess” typifies the concept of the femme fatale in several ways. Elizabeth Lee states that the femme fatale in artwork occasioned scopophilia in two ways, of “the artist upon his nude or clothed model” and also of “the viewer upon the art object” (“The Femme Fatale as Object”). In this poem, the last duchess becomes this art object. We see the first instance of scopophilia in the depiction of Frà Pandolf, and the second in the speaker’s continued obsession over the painting.

That the artist gains some pleasure from painting the speaker’s late wife is evidenced by the speaker’s imagined exchange between the painter and his subject: “‘Paint / ‘Must never hope to reproduce the faint / ‘Half-flush that dies along her throat:’ such stuff / Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough / For calling up that spot of joy” (17-21). Lee observes that the depiction of female subjects as the femme fatale “not only objectified the woman, but also dismembered her body and her identity” (“Femme Fatale”). The femme fatale thus becomes formulaic, reduced to her womanly characteristics. This is perhaps most obviously demonstrated by Rossetti in “In An Artist’s Studio,” where the subject is recreated over and over again in paintings that all hold the same meaning. However, in “My Last Duchess” we also get a similar sense that this woman is one in a progression of many. The title itself, “My Last Duchess” perhaps suggests that the woman depicted in the painting was not the first to have married the speaker and met this fate, but perhaps just the “last” one to have done so. Furthermore, the speaker tells his companion that the Count’s “fair daughter’s self, as I avowed / At starting, is my object” (52-53). The proximity of this line to “Notice Neptune…thought a rarity” shows that the speaker is a collector of the beautiful, and that the “last duchess” depicted in the painting is just one of a collection of “rarities” (54-55).

Lee also asserts that the femme fatale held “a certain amount of power over the viewer, who is enthralled with fascination” (“Femme Fatale”). In the poem, though we suspect that the speaker exaggerates  much about the woman’s behavior, it is suggested that she was admired by many and was generous with her affections. The speaker tells us she thanked other men “as if she ranked / My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name / With anybody’s gift” (32-34). This “fascination” that many seemed to have with her further solidifies the woman’s position as femme fatale, and we can see the effect of the female gaze.

Thus, if we apply Lee’s thoughts on the femme fatale to Browning’s poem, we can see that the “last duchess” has many of the features of a femme fatale, and her preservation in artwork and the pleasure that others take from viewing her demonstrates the scopophilia that Lee defines. Lastly, we see that because the speaker retains this painting of the duchess, his “attempts to conquer” the femme fatale have failed (“Femme Fatale”).

“Hang the gentleman in London!”: Exclusion and Inclusion in The Woman in White

Mr. Fairlie’s protest about others’ propensity to burden him with unnecessary details, irrelevant, in his eyes, to his own life assures the reader of his lack of affection for anyone but himself and causes us to doubt the reliability of his narrative. He relates that Fanny was given “two letters, one for me, and one for a gentleman in London. (am not a gentleman in London–hang the gentleman in London!)” (Collins 341). While this quotation might make us laugh, we can also apply its sentiment to another character in the text, one whose exclusion of some details and selective inclusion of others is less overt. That character is Walter Hartright.

Walter, in his role as editor of the text, has chosen very deliberately and selectively whose narrative is included in this story, despite his claim that every detail “from beginning to the end of the disclosure” will be related to the reader (9). Yet, we are only offered certain perspectives, and each has been edited to an unknown extent by Walter. Pamela Perkins and Mary Donaghy go so far as to suggest that Walter has “overtly deceived [the reader] about his motives,” arguing that he claims to be recording the narrative to establish Laura’s true identity, but is in fact more concerned about property and his own heroic status (Perkins & Donaghy 394). He is editing the text according to what interests him, just as Mr. Fairlie only wishes to hear what is absolutely essential to him.

It is important to note which perspectives we are given access to, and under what circumstances. In terms of reliability, Marian’s diary is perhaps the only account in the novel which was written unprompted by Walter, and even so, we are unsure the extent to which he edited it, or even if we are presented the diary in full. Similarly, we never hear from Laura, around whom the entire plot revolves. Her trip to the continent after her marriage to Sir Percival is the largest span of time left unaccounted for by the narrative, and this in spite of “her letters” which she writes to Marian during her travels (Collins 200).

One possible explanation behind Walter’s exclusion of Laura’s written account from the narrative might be that he does not wish to read about her time with Sir Percival. Yet, Marian’s diary, to which Walter has access, informs us that “the name of her husband is only mentioned in her letters, as she might mention the name of a friend who was travelling with them” (200). We are left to wonder why, then, Walter has chosen to essentially silence Laura.

Perkins and Donaghy comment that Marian is similarly oppressed by Walter in the latter half of the novel, and that “she becomes shadowy and less interesting” (396). The Woman in White is a text in which the women are smothered under the ‘protection’ of Walter, and in spite of his good intentions, we are left with women who are shadows of their former selves. It is never made clear whether Laura’s mental faculties are fully recovered, and formerly independent Marian, content with the prospect of teaching Walter and Laura’s children to say “‘We can’t spare our aunt!'” resigns herself to a life of domesticity (621).

Marian’s “Faithful Memory” and the Reliability of the Text


“Victorian Memory” Variety of Rose

Marian’s narration is preoccupied with assuring the reader of her account of the  “reliability of [her] recollection” (Collins 284). Collins inserts a seemingly redundant scene into Marian’s narration: Laura cannot remember the alternative of taking “bills at three months” presented to Sir Percival by his lawyer if he should fail in obtaining her signature. Marian responds, “‘You complimented me on my ready memory not long since–but you seem to doubt it now. I will get my journal and see if I am right or wrong'” (284). Indeed, Marian’s recollection was correct.

This short scene prompts the reader to wonder why Collins would include it– we, of course, are also privy to Marian’s entries and already know of the second alternative. A similar scene arises later, when Marian reports “the host’s anxiety for a little quiet talk over wine and the guest’s obstinate resolution not to sit down again at the table, revived in my memory the request which Sir Percival had vainly addressed to his friend earlier in the day, to come out of the library and speak to him” (312). While these scenes may seem to be superfluous reminders of plot details, perhaps a product of the novel’s serialization, in a novel that claims “No circumstance of importance, from the beginning to the end of the disclosure, shall be related on hearsay evidence” and events will be related “word for word” (9), we may also take these assertions of the prowess of Marian’s memory to be assertions about the reliability of the text.

These moments where Marian’s memory is discussed so blatantly seem to serve no purpose in the text other than to reinforce what the reader, and furthermore, the characters, already know. We are therefore encouraged to read them more closely and seek a greater significance. Marian reflects “In the perilous uncertainty of our present situation, it is hard to say what future interests may not depend upon the regularity of the entries in my journal, and upon the reliability of my recollection at the time when I make them” (284) and goes on throughout her diary to reference her “faithful memory” (318) and the necessity of recording events “while [her] memory vividly retained them” (335). Collins’s diction, particularly “regularity” and “reliability” make assurances of the authority of Marian’s account. While we might be skeptical of her ability to write conversations down exactly as they happened hours after the fact, Count Fosco commends “the marvellous accuracy of her report of the whole conversation [between the Count and Sir Percival] from its beginning to its end” (337). We can see that the text is making assertions of its own reliability, through Marian’s own claims and their corroboration by Count Fosco.

The Woman in White is therefore not only a text which we as readers must assess the reliability of, but also a text which is aware of its own reliability and takes pains to assure readers of its accuracy. Whether that purported accuracy is substantiated will be revealed as the novel develops and the viewpoints of other characters are incorporated.