Literally Columbus: Language and Colonialism in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Christopher Columbus


In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice plays the role of the traveler through the rabbit hole into a foreign land who, despite speaking the same language as the natives, perpetually finds herself confounded by their alternate interpretations of words and symbols, confusing her cultural expectations. The scene in which Alice is presented the thimble from her own pocket as a prize for having won the race along with all the other animals immediately reminded me of Christopher Columbus’s description of trading with indigenous populations in his “Letter to the Sovereigns, 4 March 1493”: “Everything they have or had they gave for whatever one gave them in exchange, even taking a piece of glass or broken crockery or some such thing, for gold or some other thing of whatever value.” Columbus presents the natives as ignorant and naive because of these trades, which he views as imbalanced. Alice is equally puzzled by the presentation of the thimble, and “thought the whole thing very absurd, but they all looked so grave that she did not dare to laugh; and, as she could not think of anything to say, she simply bowed, and took the thimble, looking as solemn as she could,” (Carroll 20). For her, the ordinary, everyday object of a thimble would not qualify as a prize, but she plays along with the animals’ assumptions just as Columbus does.

These misinterpretations of objects as symbols demonstrate the relative values of objects and therefore the different meanings created based on those values. For Columbus, gold meant wealth because an arbitrary system in his culture had decided it, but for the native Americans, who did not necessarily have a use for gold, it was much less valuable. Therefore, even broken objects which were new and potentially useful like glass would have been seen as more valuable. For Alice, likewise, the animals had perhaps (it’s difficult to tell in a book of animals running around with human objects) never encountered sewing before, and may have therefore seen thimbles as interesting, exotic, and valuable. Each member of the exchange brings with them their distinct ideology, which affects their interpretation of every word of the conversation in a way that is usually not acknowledged except in interactions between different cultures. (This kind of misinterpretation happened over and over again when Columbus was involved, often in ways that were both hilarious and tragic.) 

The wordplay and double meanings play a similar role in the books, revealing the types of misunderstandings that occur between groups who encounter each other during colonial conquest. At the same time, this confusion is used to develop the world in which Alice cannot assume anything about standards for politeness (she offends the mouse without meaning to) because none of the standards of her home apply. This sense of constant discomfort and discovery and reevaluation of “normal” that Alice experiences as she tries to converse with the inhabitants of the other world is a part of her broader challenges involved in growing up. When children reach the age in which they are moving beyond the home and their hometown school for the first time, they are forced to confront other cultural expectations and rethink the supposed universality of their own beliefs. Therefore, the use of homophones and misunderstandings plays a double role in the novel, showing both the colonial nature of Alice’s encounters and also creating a space for her to develop as a person of the wider world.  

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.