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.

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?

Victorian Women and Menstruation

I came across this article in my research for CALM lab and I found it both fascinating and hilarious.  It provides excellent examples of Victorian discourse  surrounding sexuality and women’s health and I think because of that it ties in nicely to our class.  The link below takes you to Dickinson’s JumpStart, but the full article can be accessed through JSTOR.

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).

Who Belongs Where?

Upon viewing Jean-Paul Jamin’s engraving, “Tragedy of the Stone Age” many different themes come to mind. However, what I think is most interesting about the image is that it suggests a deeper meaning and relationship between man vs. nature, one that reflects the natural world as stronger than man. The lion in the image has clearly claimed the woman as his own and will not give her up for anyone or anything. The placement of the lions paws upon her hip and neck is a clear depiction of its dominance over the woman and is also highly sexualized. Upon discovering this scene the male within the engraving is exclaiming in horror and shock, as his face suggests in addition to his hands that are extended as he is dropping the instrument he was holding. The shock of the man when he sees his partner in jeopardy compared to the calmness and power of the lions face illuminates a moment when man cannot outsource the natural world. While the man had a successful hunt as the dead deer he is holding suggests, he ultimately cannot dominant all animals as he has been successfully doing. Additionally this animal-human paradox is translated within “Alice and Wonderland” many times as Alice discovers that she is often less knowing than the animals around here. Wonderland is a place that includes much more intelligent and powerful animals in compared to the world that Alice comes from. Despite Alice being new to Wonderland she at many times forces herself in spaces where she doesn’t exactly belong, for example the scene where she immediately sits at the table with the other animals, and is even questioned as to why she has sat down. However, through the context of the engraving one may ask themselves whether the lion has trespassed into man’s cave, or whether man trespassed within the lions den? With this in mind I am forced to question the relationships between Alice and the animals… Who is overstepping personal boundaries? Is anyone naturally given there own space? Can humans be considered animals? Why? Why not?

Expectations and the Other Reality

In Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll brilliantly defies all expectations. The form alone is very different from the standard Victorian novel and its content is even more foreign.  In fact, to Alice and her readers, everything is foreign in Wonderland.  Language is contorted, reason and logic appear senseless, and no previously learned schemas or scripts can be applied to aid our understanding of Wonderland and its inner-workings.  This is demonstrated repeatedly throughout the book.

For one, animals do not talk or wear clothing in reality.  But in Wonderland’s reality, they do.  When Alice first unfurls this nuance in meeting the Rabbit, “it all seem[s] quite natural” that the Rabbit runs around talking to itself, but when she thinks about it afterwards “it occur[s] to her that she ought to have wondered at this” (2).  Here the lines of expectations and reality are blurred.  Alice is a smart girl who has a strong sense of how the world works, but at this particular moment she allows a foreign reality (this Other reality in which animals audibly talk to themselves) to supersede any expectations or preconceived notions of the facts of her existence.

Once Alice is deeper into Wonderland, she defines her expectations and reality much more clearly. For example, when Alice enters the Duchess’s house she is appalled that the cook would throw pots and pans at the Duchess and her baby, but “the Duchess took no notice of them even when they hit her”  (48).  In Alice’s preconceived schema for what a home should look like, throwing pots and pans certainly does not jive.  But the scene does not phase the Duchess— she does not flinch or consider herself a victim of domestic violence as Alice assumes.  There is an obvious tension between Alice’s expectations of reality and the Other reality within the Duchess’s home.

I call Wonderland the Other reality because it exists in the book as a reality that exists alongside Alice’s perception of reality while also opposing it.  The Other reality is an unexpected reality whose credibility Alice chooses to accept or deny.

We can explore another example of the Other reality in examining Jean-Paul Jamin’s engraving, “Tragedy of the Stone Age.”

Upon first glance, this painting seems not unordinary, much like how the Rabbit did not appear unordinary to Alice.  After some time though, the Other reality reveals itself more clearly.  The first thing I see when I look at this painting is that the lion has killed a woman– not a terribly common situation, but it is not surprising either– which would explain the man’s anguish and grief.  But then I notice that the man is a hunter, too– a predator of does.  Knowing this, the man’s expression shifts from one of grief to one of aggression. And now a parallel reality is unveiled;  the Other reality here is the reality in which man and lion are peers of lust, power, and strength and the woman and the doe are their victims.  But it is up to the viewers to consider their own expectations and realities, like Alice, in order to actively accept or deny this Other reality.

Is Alice Free in Wonderland?

“Still she went on growing, and, as a last resource, she put one arm out of the window, and one foot up the chimney, and said to herself ‘Now I can do no more, whatever happens. What will become of me?’

Luckily for Alice, the little magic bottle had now had its full effect, and she grew no larger: still it was very uncomfortable, and, as there seemed to be no sort of chance of her ever getting out of the room again, no wonder she felt unhappy.”

I chose a passage in the beginning of the book, where Alice is first experiencing her stages of uncontrollable growing and shrinking. Throughout Alice in Wonderland, I noticed that Alice’s lack of control over anything that happens to her was a common theme. Specifically, Alice is often trapped or confined to an area, which I read as a metaphor for the boundaries women faced in the Victorian era.
In this passage specifically, in the fourth chapter of Alice in Wonderland, I felt as though her physical growth and the negativity it brought mirrored what happened as people grew older. Specifically for female children, I believe they’re given more freedom as children than they are as adults. Children can say and do things that offend people, but are excused because of their age, and lack of understanding of the consequences. But, as they grow older, they are reprimanded, and unable to do things like play outside or explore the world independently, as Alice does in Wonderland. When Alice asks the question “What will become of me?” I think it’s interesting that there’s no evidence of her panic or hysteria in this moment. She is simply asking the question, and is not asking herself what she can do to get out of the situation, but is admitting she cannot help herself further, leaving the solution to someone or something else. The ending of the passage, “there seemed to be no sort of chance of her ever getting out of the room again, no wonder she felt unhappy.” I felt was a reflection of Alice’s fears of growing older and being confined to a set of responsibilities and chores. It was a happy coincidence that Alice grew just to the point of being too big for the room, and not bigger still. I think this section would have been interesting if Alice grew so big she broke the barriers of the room and was free to the outside world.
The physical entrapment of Alice in this passage strongly alluded to the invisible barriers women faced in the Victorian era. I felt as though Alice’s situation here reflected her fears, and the eventual end to her freedom in Wonderland.

Alice’s Adventures in Puberty

Alice’s journey in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland can be interpreted as a metaphor for her transition from child to adult. This would then suggest that Wonderland becomes a place for Alice to go through puberty, and the sister’s narrative at the end of the novel suggests that she has become an adult.

Alice’s realization that Wonderland is “nonsense” suggests that she has grown out of its wonders: ‘”No, No!” said the Queen. “Sentence first – verdict afterwards.” “Stuff and nonsense!” said Alice loudly. “The idea of having the sentence first!” (102). In comparison to many earlier events in the novel, when Alice for the most part seemed perplexed or fascinated by Wonderland’s creatures and events, Alice here takes a firm stance on her beliefs of what is right and wrong. This suggests that she no longer is susceptible to possibly accept the “nonsense” of Wonderland, and goes by real life’s “rules” that she sentence should follow the verdict.

Alice also feels superior to the cards at the end of the novel: ‘“Who cares for you?” said Alice (she had grown to her full size by this time). “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!”’ (102). Her realization that they are “nothing but…cards” further suggests that she has lost Wonderland’s sense of fantasy as reality, and is “superior” to childhood’s ideas. Additionally, the note that she has grown to her full size after multiple changes to her body in the novel, and her waking up right after growing to her right size (102), further suggests that Wonderland is a place for childhood, which she no longer belongs to. The multiple changes to her body in the novel can symbolize her transition through puberty, as she does not understand all the changes that she experiences, and the end of those changes implies that she has now grown to become an adult.

The sister’s narrative about how Alice will one day tell her children of Wonderland further implies that Wonderland is only accessible to children: “…she pictured to herself how this same little sisters of hers would…be herself a grown woman… and…gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland long ago” (104). The sister’s idea of how Alice will one day gather her children is reminiscent of how Alice already told her sister her dream, which implies that she already is “a grown woman.” Alice’s leaving Wonderland, telling her sister her tale, and then running off thinking “what a wonderful dream it had been,” seems then to symbolize her leaving behind her childhood.

The Isolated Youth of the 19th Century


   I have chosen to write about Illman & Sons’ The Greek Maiden. The engraving depicts a somewhat young-looking woman alone, staring off either into the distance or simply zoning out—it’s difficult to tell where her gaze is directed. Either way, she does not seem to be engaged in the current moment. The woman appears almost unaware of the artist. Her solitariness gives off a sense of isolation. Perhaps, because of this isolation and the somewhat melancholy look on her face, she feels as though she does not belong in the society in which she resides. This may be what she is thinking about—the cause of her miserable expression. The location she sits in may be the spot she escapes to to have some alone time.

   This woman reminds me of Carroll’s character Alice. Alice, being rather strange, does not seem to fit in with what the youth of the Victorian era was expected to be. However, this may have been a common occurrence for 19th century children, for kids are often not naturally born prim and proper. I can imagine that nearly all youth felt isolated in the Victorian era, not yet respected as fully functioning members of society until their superiors felt they were mature enough. Alice and this Greek maiden, like many children, feel out of place in their environment. Alice does not fit into Wonderland either.

   This Wonderland may have been a way for Alice to rid herself, even for just a few hours, of her strict and possibly unfulfilling life. Although Alice was unconscious during her escape, this may be what the Greek maiden is seemingly lost in—a daydream. Both pieces might speak about the pressures youth and women felt and still feel today, as well as the temptation to get away from it all.

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.