Some observations on the exoticism of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and A scene in India

Beside being a book for children, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland can also be read as an implicit reference to exoticism. At the time the novel was published (1865), in fact, such a theme was particularly topical, due to the English empire’s expansionism towards far and unexplored places, such as Africa and India.

By adopting such a lens in reading the novel, the underground world that Alice encounters is a metaphor for the other, for the exotic, for the remote reality that scares the English conqueror and thus needs to be codified and explained through familiar means. In this particular case, it is the fantasy to fulfill such a duty. Alice becomes then the English soldier exploring a new world and its new creatures, and making her experience understandable to the rest of the world through literary means which make the unfamiliar (the exotic) familiar ( that is, available to everyone, even if it is far away). At the end of the novel, Alice wakes up and discovers it was all of a dream, but as soon as she runs off, her sister is ready to experience the same dream she just had. Two implications can be drawn from this conclusion. Firstly, that English colonialism is predestined to last as little time as the time of a dream, for a variety of reasons, incomprehension of the exotic individual and in-hospitality of the exotic place being the two main ones. As soon as one soldier (or population or country) walks away, however, there is another one ready to step in. Secondly, that the exotic individual does not want any foreign invasion. We can find examples of these points all throughout the novel, when Alice is continuously changing in shape to fit in specific places and situations in her underground journey, as to to say that her ‘normal’ shape is unsuitable to such a world. What is more, a clear allusion to the unwillingness of the local people to have a colonizer clearly comes from the scene at the tea party. Here, when the creatures see Alice coming, they immediately cry out:”No room!No room!”(53), and soon after March Hare tells her:”It wasn’t very civil of you to sit down without being invited”(53). This is a clear reference to the English invaders craving for new territories to take over and new people to colonize.

By adopting this particular point of view, Alice in Wonderland is an attempt to codify the unfamiliar and exotic through the eye of a child and through the familiar means of fantasy. In other cases, the exotic individual was seen as a threat to eliminate in order to take over his territories. photo 5 This is particularly true in Alexander L.Dick’s painting A scene in India, where the tiger stands for the exotic threat that the conquerors are trying to kill to have full control over its territory. This time the representation of the exotic individual is more realistic but at the same time unrealistic, since he is dis-humanized and compared to an animal. There is no willingness to understand and make the encounter with the exotic intelligible to others here, neither any sign of  fear of such an encounter. There is just the desire of the conquest.


Some similarities between Goblin Market and The Woman in White

The sisterly bond in Christina G. Rossetti’s Goblin Market evokes, in many ways, Laura and Marian’s tie in Collin’s The Woman in White.

Many similarities seem to suggest such an association. First of all, in Goblin Market Laura and Lizzie are described as opposite but at the same time as complementary characters. If Laura is not afraid of the goblin men and “bowed her head to hear”(34), Lizzie, on the other hand, “veiled her blushes”(35) and hurries her sister to go back home. Furthermore, if Lizzie urges Laura to “get home before the night grows dark”(248), her sister “most like a leaping flame”(218) waits for the night to come in order to go to listen to the fruit-merchant men. In reading these lines, how not to recall Collins’ wise and judicious Marian and the weak and sensitive Laura? Such an association becomes even clearer when C. Rossetti writes: “Golden head by golden head,/ like two pigeons in one nest,/ folded in each other’s wings,/ They lay down in their curtained bed:/ Like two blossoms on one stem,/ Like two flakes of new-fall’n snow,/ like two wands of ivory/ Tipped with gold for awful kings”(185-192). Almost the same image is presented in “The Woman in White” when one night Marian, with a tender and innocent  glimpse, observes her sister lying on the bed. The difference between the novel and the poem is in how the sibling bond is described. While Collins does not explicitly unveil the sisterly love between Marian and Laura  but he only gives some hints, in C. Rossetti such a bond is depicted instead with a powerful sexual connotation. Lizzie and Laura’s bond is much more physical, till the point that they’re “folded in each other’s wings”(186).

As for Collins, for C.Rossetti too, the main assumption underlying this new type of  sisterly love is that it is the only true bond which can stand and win over the conventions of the Victorian society, with same-sex marriage being one of those. In a society where same-sex marriage was inspired by economic interests rather than by true love, sibling love seems the preferable alternative to escape such a conventionality, “For there is no friend like a sister/In calm or stormy weather”(563-564). The poem appears to follow this leitmotif, by insisting on Laura and Lizzie’s necessity to be together to overcome the difficulties of life, first of all the physical  dejection caused by love, which almost reduces Laura to a dead state. The conclusion, however, is pretty ambiguous. Despite praising the authenticity of sisterly love, it seems that C. Rossetti finally surrenders and conforms to the norms of her time. At the end of the poem, in fact, she says that :”Both were wives/With children of their own”(545-546). A similar conclusion happens in Collins’ novel, which ends with Laura marrying Walter and having a child. Why praising the unconventionality of sisterly love against the conventionality of the same-sex marriage all throughout their work, and then, ultimately, choosing a clashing conclusion?


A fascinating hint : Marian and Laura’s sibling love

The basic assumption of Denver’s article is that in The Woman in White Collins aims at deconstructing one of the fundamental values of  patriarchal societies: heterosexual marriage. According to Denver, while doing so, Collins’ novel is the celebration, on the other hand, of the purity and the depth of another form of love: the one between Laura and Marian, the same-sex sibling love.

On many occasions, the bond between Marian and Laura is described with all the traits of a lovers’ union, rather than as fraternal love. As such, it is both a sweet and a subtly erotic tie, of which we get a sense all throughout the novel, for example when Marian is looking at her sister one night while she is sleeping, or when she says that:”I heard her [Laura] speaking, and I knew by the tone of their voice that she was comforting me- I, who deserved nothing but the reproach of her silence![…]I was first conscious that she was kissing me[…]” (262). Just like the other dichotomies which permeate the novel (white-Laura and dark-Marianne or men’s active social role versus women’s subordination), marriage too is presented in the contrasting binary of legal marriage versus non-marital bonds. “He [Collins] often presents legal marriage as a sinkhole of deception, hostility, abuse and grubby materialism at worst, and at best a site of placid, jog-trot boredom” (Denver, 114) while, on the other hand, “the same-sex bond embodies a positive and constant emotional continuum”(Denver, 122). All the marital bonds in the novel are, in fact, presented as inspired by everything except love, or are rather not presented. In the case of Laura and Marian, for example, their parents are dead, as in the case of Walter’s father. Sir Percival’s marriage to Laura is inspired by the only desire to get her inheritance and even Count Fosco clearly asserts that his marriage is just a legal agreement , in which his wife performs “marriage obligations” (610), nothing to do with the love he feels for Marian, “the first and the last weakness of Fosco’s life”(611).

Such reflections lead the reader to believe that Collins’ novel is innovating in denouncing marital marriage as one of the miserable social conventions of the time and in proposing same-sex bonds as a more sincere and authentic form of love. Following this point of view, however, the conclusion of the novel seems incoherent with all the rest. Despite the fact that the classic marital dyad is replaced by the triad Laura-Walter-Marian, in fact, Collins “concludes invariably at the altar of convention” (Denver, 123), not only marrying Laura to Walter, but also and especially bringing everything back to the question of inheritance.

The figure of the Woman in The Woman in White

Since the very beginning of The Woman in White the reader is faced with some statements which foreshadow the conception of the woman’s role at the time the novel was written (1860), considered as subordinate to men’s authority. As Miss Halcombe says: “Being, however, nothing but a woman, condemned to patience, propriety, and petticoats, for life, I must respect the housekeeper’s opinions, and try to compose myself in some feeble and feminine way” (198). In other words, the feminine way at that time, was equal to being a docile and submissive human being, at the mercy of the men’s authority. In order for this to happen, marriage seems to be considered, at that time, the most effective way to put order in society and somehow relegate women to their natural role of subaltern individuals. Once again, is Miss Holcombe to state that: “ For the common purposes of society the extraordinary change thus produced in her (Madame Fosco), is, beyond all doubt, a change for the better, seeing that it has transformed her into a civil, silent, unobtrusive woman, who is never in the way”(216).
Such lines seem to reflect Greg’s considerations that “The residue (of women)-the large excess over this proportion-who remain unmarried constitute the problem to be solved, the evil and anomaly to be cured…” (159). Both Collins’ novel and Greg’s article, even if in different forms (the novel through irony, the article through a more serious tone) refers to women as silly and useless individuals for the society, but at the same time as a threat to get rid of, and the best way to do so is limiting their power by pressuring them to get married and becoming – to use once again Miss Halcombe’s words- their husbands “faithful dog” (216) and, consequently, harmless to the society.
It seems to me that the novel is full of hints which suggest the fear of the 19th century’s patriarchal societies of everything different to their patriarchal values (women in the first place). The fact that Anne Catherick escapes from the asylum and is a kind of ghost for all the other characters of the novel could be a metaphor of the society’s unsuccessful attempt to shut women down. The irony with which women’s silliness is described by Collins all throughout the book could stand for a defensive literary artifice and the novel itself could be seen as a way to release the unconscious 18th century’s fear of women, the ultimate of the threats.