Animals and the Hierarchy of Wonderland

Throughout the pieces of Victorian art and literature that we have examined so far, animals frequently stand in for savagery or primitivism. Many of these pieces of art portray humans in competition with animals, exhibiting a clear distinction between the two categories. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland perpetuates this distinction, fitting animals and humans into a hierarchy that mimics the relationship between royalty and peasantry. Through Alice, we get an objective view of this world, and can examine how its inhabitants interact.

When Alice arrives in Wonderland, she notices that the world is divided into two distinct sections. There is the region before the tiny door, and the region beyond it. Immediately, we are introduced to the difference between these two areas: before the door is a “dark hall,” while beyond it lie “beds of bright flowers” and “cool fountains” (Carroll 8). Clearly, the space beyond the door is the more desirable area of this world, and is only accessible to a select few—those who can fit through the door. The door sets up the differences between the social classes of Wonderland, as well as the lack of opportunity to move between those classes. Accordingly, the image of Alice staring longingly out the door and into the beautiful gardens shows her desire to climb the social ladder.

The inhabitants of Wonderland further establish the structure of its social classes. In the “dark hall,” Alice encounters a wide variety of animals, including the White Rabbit, the Mouse, and a group of birds. On this side of the door, there are very few humans, and many of the animals are employed in the service of one particular human—the Duchess. The positioning of most of the animals on the less desirable side of the door, as well as the traditional view of animals as inferior to humans, suggest that in Wonderland, animals are part of a lower social class. This idea is supported by the fact that the rulers of Wonderland, who live in the “loveliest garden you ever saw,” are portrayed as humans. As a human, it is Alice’s birthright to be among this ruling class, and her acceptance of this role is illustrated in her poor treatment of the animals in Wonderland.

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.

It’s All About Communication

One ongoing complexity seen in Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, is that of miscommunication. There are several examples of this throughout the novel. For example, once in Wonderland, Alice has significant difficulty reciting lessons and poems she knows. She is unable to formulate thoughts and seldom understands what other characters are trying to convey to her.

In the chapter in which Alice is talking to the caterpillar, he asks her to recite the poem “You are old, Father William,” however, she is unable to do so. The caterpillar does not hesitate in notifying her she is wrong. Further, often times a word is stated, and interpreted in a way different than what was meant. This is depicted in the chapter “A Caucus Race and a Long Tale.” In this chapter, the mouse declares that it will tell a tale, as in a story. However, Alice incorrectly interprets this as the mouse talking about its tail. Thus, Alice pays close attention to the mouse’s appendage and fails to listen to the mouse’s story. The mouse then scolds Alice for her rudeness. Alice and the mouse had previous miscommunication when she brought up her cat, Dinah, which scared the inhabitants of Wonderland, yet she continued to talk about Dinah, unable to recognize why and how this was detrimental.

These points of miscommunication, along with many others within the novel cause the reader to wonder whether it is due to Alice’s ignorance or her being in Wonderland that is causing this language barrier to happen. It is intriguing that Alice accepts all of the illogical happenings in Wonderland, such as talking creatures, however, she fails to do something as simple as recalling lessons she has learned in school. Yet, throughout her journey, Alice tries to force her for of language on the creatures she encounters. This idea makes it seem as though Alice is the one at fault, and at the end of the day, she is desperately trying to alter the ways of Wonderland, rather than adapting to her new surroundings.

Sexual Freedom in Ferrier’s “Salammbo”


In his book, The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault states in his introduction that “if sex is repressed, that is, condemned to prohibition, nonexistence, and silence, then the mere face that one is speaking about it has the appearance of deliberate transgression. A person who holds forth in such language places himself to a certain extent outside the reach of power; he upsets established law; he somehow anticipates the coming freedom” (Foucault 6). Foucault’s lens of sexuality could be corresponded with the untamable power men associated with the femme fatale, during the nineteenth century. The femme fatale can be examined as the person upholding sexual language that is “outside the reach of power; [she] upsets established law,” which the men around her dictate (6). Her ability to control the men around her with her sexuality causes a male panic that results in sexual repression over her female body. Her sexual freedom foreshadows a future of egalitarianism where the male is not the superior gender, but equal or inferior in sexuality. Salammbo, the woman engaged in sexual ecstasy in Salammbo by Gabrial Joseph Marie Augustin Ferrier, upsets the balance of sexual power beyond her identification with the femme fatale. In this drawing she controls every aspect of her sexuality through her gaze, her body language, her relationship with her snake, and most importantly through her status in society.

Salammbo is the political leader and representative of her tribe. Her ability to relate with a snake, an extremely, mysterious and solitary animal exoticizes her sexuality. The snake is a symbol of the tribe’s power, and her intimate relationship with it through sexual pleasure emphasizes her dominance over the tribe and the viewer. She is completely engaged in her own sexual enjoyment and posses her sexuality entirely. Salammbo exemplifies the ultimate femme fatale, a women who is truly independent and does not need male attention or support. The priest in the background exists in relation to her needs. He works for her, and she uses him for her political and sexual needs. Her position as a female leader, with immense sexual control expresses one of the the core pieces to Foucault’s argument. Salammbo exists unrestrained by law and sexual repression because she does not allow it bar her expression. She is entirely free and thus rises above “the regime of power-knowledge-pleasure that sustains the discourse on human sexuality” (11). Salammbo’s identity is exposed and vulnerable because it is truthful and guiltless. She is not harboring her identity by presenting a facade of power and strength. On the contrary, she empowers herself by embracing her sexuality and revealing her identity truthfully with confidence.

An Institution of Goblins

Michel Foucault is relatable not only to our modern day constructions of sexuality, but to the coded language and repression seen in our Victorian texts. Sexuality and power have a complicated and oddly paradoxical connection, especially in the production and reproduction of power, silence, and sexuality. The act of speaking about sex “has the appearance of deliberate transgression” because of the carefully maintained silence and disappearance of all non-normal sexuality (Foucault, 6). This idea that sex is both invisible yet everywhere, and that language or speaking is extremely significant, really reminded me of Goblin Market. The fruit, “sucked and sucked and sucked the more”, seem to have a strong sexual imagery (Rossetti, 476). If eating the fruit represents a sex act, then it’s even more interesting that they are sold. The goblins become more othered by their vocal and enthusiastic speech about sex. They sell and give voice to what Lizzie and Laura aren’t supposed to even look at- nothing to see, look away from sexuality. While Laura actively goes to the goblins wanting fruit, Lizzie speaks to the goblins- acting against the normal mode of sexuality, silence- but does not want fruit. Foucault also looks for “who does the speaking, the positions and viewpoints from which they speak, the institutions which prompt people to speak about it and which store and distribute the things that are said” (Foucault, 11). The goblins, as an “institution which prompt people to speak about it”, exchange sexuality for some self/identity/part of you. The poem seems reinforces this idea with references with Jeanie. Because of her transgression-eating the fruit- her identity becomes synonymous for sexual transgression. This reciprocal and strange process seems to also happen to Laura. In the last stanza of the poem Laura is the only name said and is tied to a warning about sexual transgression. The “institution” of goblins prompted speech about sex and seem to make Laura and Jeanie ‘others’ for eating the fruit. However Lizzie does not feel this same stigma. She speaks about sex, or perhaps enters into the realm of sexuality, but does not eat the fruit. The absence of the sexual act seems to let her identity remain normal or unidentified. I wonder then, why the goblins attacked Lizzie and in the way they did. Does her being covered in fruit translate to the way sexuality is being assigned by society whether you consent or not? I’m not sure where these connection might lead, or if they’re fruitful (pun intended), but I think they’re interesting.

Maternity, Society, and the Legitimization of the Female Storyteller

At the end of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice’s older sister imagines “how this same little sister of hers would, in the after-time, be herself a grown woman […] and how she would 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 of long ago; and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys” (Carroll 99, Norton 1992 Ed. Gray). Alice’s sister immediately thrusts her forward from childhood into womanhood, from an imaginative, experiential role to an informative, supporting one. Although initially problematic because it seems to sketch Alice’s future solely within the confines of motherhood, this image of Alice as a maternal figure subtly legitimizes her role as a female storyteller.

Alice’s experience in Wonderland is validated by its transmission to the next generation, whose gaze lies “bright and eager” on her tale. Through the socially accepted role of “mother,” Alice is able to use her imagination (which, despite her dream state, I would deem her female experience) to form new physical and emotional bonds within her society—to “gather about her” a group of children, and to “feel” their sorrows and joys, perhaps even giving them advice. Her role as mother empowers her to retain her dream-world in a way that other adults cannot, and to spread the lessons that she learned and the experiences that she had there to the next generation.

In “Goblin Market,” Christina Rossetti similarly paints the two sisters transitioning from an experiential otherworldly danger to the safe, idealized realm of domesticity. Although their story is more explicitly didactic than Alice’s tale, it still retains the thrilling, imaginatively provocative elements of “the haunted glen,” “the wicked […] men,” “poison in the blood,” “deadly peril,” and “the fiery antidote” (Rossetti 488). That they have access to the experience with which to tell such a tale positions Lizzie and Laura as authoritative storytellers. Furthermore, the moral of their tale, like the end of Alice’s sister’s imaginings, includes connective imagery—with their story, they “[join] hands to little hands […and] bid them cling together,” thus aligning the emotional bond and mutual reliance of sisterhood with the physical bond of clasped hands (Rossetti 488). Like Alice, the sisters bring about structural social change in the next generation by telling their story. This depiction empowers them in their role as female storytellers, underlining their experiential authority—but it does so by first legitimizing them as mothers.

Alice as a colonial force

In Alice in Wonderland, the primary message is one of everlasting childhood and embracing the whimsy of youth; the final idea the reader is left with is that of maintaining the “simple and loving heart of… childhood” (104). What requires a little more emphasis and depth in the reading of Alice is her representation as a colonial force, invading and changing the foreign environment she finds herself in. I see this definitely as a trippy commentary on British colonialism; Alice was published in 1865, and the 19th century was characterized by British imperialism particularly in the largely unknown regions of Africa and Asia.

The section in Alice that seems to represent most clearly the idea of colonial force is the tea party. Alice approaches a table, and, seeing that there are a large number of seats, sits right down without asking permission. I see this as the British furthering their interests, primarily in the example of South Africa, when they settled despite the interests both of the Africans and the Dutch Boers who had settled themselves (also being colonists). I thought it was particularly well stated when the March Hare offers Alice wine, and she states that “it wasn’t very civil… to offer it” and the Hare then responds, casually, “it wasn’t very civil of you to sit down without being invited” (53). So, Carroll, I inferred, finds imperialism and colonialism to be quite uncivil.

Alice in Wonderland is a story of a girl who lands in a new world, asserts herself as being infallible, makes derogatory comments about the new land (on page 48, “if you’re going to turn into a pig, I’ll have nothing more to do with you”, on page 56, “is that how you manage?”, and on page 102, “who cares for you… you’re nothing but a pack of cards!”) and changes many of the things she encounters. Alice herself is a tiny colonizing force, dropping into a place with the mentality that she owns it, and changing it to reflect her own knowledge and beliefs. She takes what she sees (the food and beverage which make her size change) and she even alters their political realm by literally destroying the Queen. She essentially overthrew a government; that’s a colonizing force if ever I saw one.

Alice’s Sister’s Odd Conclusion

At the conclusion of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland we are given a glimpse into the mind of Alice’s older sister.  In the final paragraph, she imagines Alice as an adult who maintains, “the simple and loving heart of her childhood”, and who “would 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 of long ago”.

Upon first reading, I found this sentiment from Alice’s sister to be rather odd.  During our extensive study of The Woman in White, the two female characters attributed with childish characteristics, Laura and Anne, were seen and treated as mentally ill persons.  In their case, maintaining  “the simple and loving hearts” of their childhoods was a sign of something being wrong with them, and not a trait to be commended. However, I soon realized that there is a large difference in the medium through which childishness is interpreted in The Woman in White and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

In The Woman in White it was very rare for a female character to be relaying the story to us.  Even with Laura’s sister, Marian, acting as narrator it is difficult to claim a truly feminine viewpoint there, as much of the story features descriptions of her as a masculine character.  The narrator in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, however, was always close to either Alice or her sister.  Taking these disparate viewpoints into consideration, it begins to seem as though it is a masculine view that women who display childish tendencies have something wrong with them, whereas the feminine view is that maintaining this childishness is a good thing.

Childishness is often associated with innocence and naiveté.  The loss of innocence, then, can be seen as the loss of childishness.  Indeed, in The Woman in White, both Marian and Laura (before she is described as mentally ill) tried to shield one another from the realities of adulthood.  Before Laura’s marriage to Sir Percival, Marian lamented the need to explain to Laura what marriage would entail, and after her marriage, Laura refused to tell Marian what her marriage was like.  In both cases, the sisters are protecting the other from this information so they can maintain the other’s innocence and naiveté on the matter; they are seeking to prevent the loss of innocence to keep some of their sibling’s childishness in tact.

In her conclusion of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice’s sister is able to imagine and envision the characters from Wonderland.  She acknowledges reality, and yet delights in her ability to access these childish fantasies, wishing for her sister to be able to do the same when she is an adult.

What all of this suggests is that women view childishness as something to protect and hold on to.  But, because men see it as a sign of mental illness, that childishness must be exposed only to other women (like in the case of Marian and Laura), or other children.

“Natural” Motherhood and the Victorian “Other”

Within the Lines

E. W. Fallerton’s etching Within the Lines Siege of Agra 1857 is more complex than it might initially seem. The figures are situated in a domestic space, enclosed in a house with a small window. Details suggest a rustic and “Eastern” setting: the bare walls; the Oriental rug; the large jars on the ground; the woman’s bare feet, her slippers lying beside her; and the woman’s draped clothing and head scarf, evocative of Indian or Middle Eastern fashion.

Even the woman’s skin tone and features are darker than the idealized European women depicted by many artists during the nineteenth century. She has dark hair, dark eyebrows, thick eyelashes, and a prominent nose. The baby’s white blanket, the central focus of the painting, emphasizes the darkness of the woman’s hands.

The title of the etching confirms this Eastern setting, as the “Siege of Agra” was a battle in India between Indian rebels and British colonialists [1]. This historical context problematizes Fallerton’s seemingly innocuous depiction of motherhood. The woman is depicted in a traditional “Mary, mother of Jesus” pose in Western art, with her eyes cast down toward the baby she holds in her arms.

Yet the baby she holds has white skin and light hair, as does the second child sleeping in the background. The etching thus suggests two possible narratives: the children are the result of “mixed” sexual relations with a British colonist; or, the children are not hers, and the Indian woman depicted is a nurse or servant. Both narratives problematize the notion of “natural” motherhood.

In his depiction of the Duchess in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll also interrogates domesticity and motherhood. The Duchess’s household, far from the nurturing environment depicted in Fallerton’s etching, is downright abusive. The cook throws frying pans at the pair, and the Duchess “toss[es] the baby violently up and down” as she sings a “lullaby” that advocates child abuse:

 “Speak roughly to your little boy,

And beat him when he sneezes” (46).

The Duchess “flings” the “queer-shaped little creature” at Alice, a mere child herself, to take care of it (47). Alice demonstrates a maternal instinct to protect the child that the Duchess clearly lacks: “Wouldn’t it be murder to leave it behind?” (48). However, when the baby starts turning into a pig, Alice thinks “it would be quite absurd for her to carry it any further,” and she is “relieved” as she watches the pig “trot quietly into the wood” (48).

The baby’s metamorphosis into a pig is unnatural, as the adjectives “queer-shaped” and “absurd” suggest. The word “unnatural” here is useful, as it historically denotes illegitimacy (OED). Like the figure in the etching, Alice is not the natural mother of the baby; by the end of the scene, they are not even the same species. The unnatural pig-child can no longer occupy the domestic sphere, and so takes refuge in the wilderness or wood. Perhaps Carroll, like Fallerton, is making a veiled commentary on race, motherhood, and illicit sexuality.

1. “Indian Mutiny.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2015. Web. 22 Mar. 2015. <>.

“Reeling and Writhing”: Victorian Education in Wonderland

Throughout Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice’s intelligence/knowledge/ability to learn repeatedly comes under scrutiny—scrutiny from herself as well as from the residents of Wonderland. For example, during her fall down the rabbit hole, Alice talks to herself, speculating as to where the rabbit hole might take her:

“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 downwards… I shall have to ask them what the name of the country is… 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.” (3)

Here, Alice seems self-conscious about her childhood curiosity and lack of worldly knowledge. Concerned that others will perceive this age-appropriate lack of information as ignorance, Alice resolves to not ask questions. Rather than seeking out information from others, Alice leaves her discovery of new information to chance: “perhaps I shall see it written up somewhere” (3).[1] Furthermore, Alice negatively associates questions and curiosity with childhood/immaturity: “what an ignorant little girl she’ll think me for asking!” (3).[2] For Alice, education and learning are tiresome tasks one must complete before becoming an adult: “‘But then,” thought Alice, “shall I never get any older than I am now? That’ll be a comfort, one way—never to be an old woman—but then—always to have lessons to learn! Oh, I shouldn’t like that!” (26). Alice views adults as possessing full knowledge with no need for “lessons” or education.

Playing on Alice’s initial fear, many of Wonderland’s residents accuse her of being ignorant or stupid: ‘“You don’t know much,” said the Duchess; “and that’s a fact’” (45). Alice’s (often misremembered) knowledge from school and understanding of the learning process fail to help her successfully interact with the characters she meets in Wonderland. After calling her “very dull,” the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle criticize Alice’s education:

I’ve been to a day-school, too,” said Alice…

“With extras?” asked the Mock Turtle, a little anxiously.

“Yes,” said Alice: “we learned French and music.”

“And washing?” said the Mock Turtle.

“Certainly not!” said Alice, indignantly.

“Ah! Then yours wasn’t a really good school!” (79)

The exchange that follows, full of puns (“Reeling and Writhing) and nonsense words (“Uglification”), seems to satirize the education system. Comparing the curriculum of their school with that of Alice’s school, the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle equate Alice’s traditional school subjects, French and music, with their foolish-sounding subjects. The utility of education and certain kinds of knowledge appears to be dynamic and subjective rather than standardized and static, like Alice’s view of adult knowledge. In Wonderland, characters like the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle, though not recipients of a formal, British education, often possess more useful knowledge than Alice. Alice’s trepidation about education as well as Wonderland’s satirical conceptions of schooling, suggest Carroll was attentive to, and critical of, issues in Victorian education.

[1] Emphasis added.

[2] Emphasis added.