The book Alice in Wonderland was first written by Lewis Carroll as a means of entertaining Alice Pleasant Liddell, a little girl he knew (Susina 2005). The book has been studied from a variety of different angles and revealed to contain numerous themes and comments on society. One of the themes that are often traced through the book is its commentary, whether voluntary or involuntary, on the society from which it sprang. The story was published in 1865 which was during the Victorian period. This period was characterized by a strict limitation of women. Women of high status were sometimes educated to some degree, but generally, education was not considered overly important. The role of women was to decorate the home and raise the children.
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They were not expected to be clever and did not have any rights of their own that would allow them to make any of their own decisions. They were expected to be quiet and demure and to always listen to their elders and the male members of society. The most important things they had to learn were how to control themselves, how to play music, and how to sew. When it was published, many young girls saw themselves as Alice figures, identifying themselves with something they saw in Alice’s behavior. In some ways, Alice resembles the ideal female character of the period, but there are also several ways in which she breaks the mold, such as in her willingness to assert herself and her ability to think.
Alice is introduced initially as a young lady in training. She is learning to be a proper young lady as she sits along the bank of a stream with her sister, who is spending the afternoon quietly reading.
However, she quickly emerges as being incapable of keeping up the proper passive attitude or of adopting her book to read. “Once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice ‘without pictures or conversation?’ (Carroll, 1). As is demonstrated through her numerous attempts to show off her knowledge, her lessons have been learned not so much for her edification, but instead to give her the proper appearance. “Alice uses her knowledge as a marker of social status … Her education is shown to have little to do with understanding a subject but rather with making one feel superior to someone else” (Susina 2005). Her appearance, as reflected in the pictures within the book, also reinforces the concept of the stereotypical young Victorian child. She wears a dress with numerous petticoats and a bright white apron that never seems to get soiled. She also has puffed sleeves, white stockings, and patent leather shoes.
Her hair is fashionably curled into ringlets and she appears to be everything every little girl would want to be. The White Rabbit reflects these same assumptions when he sees a girl and automatically assumes she is his maid. “Very soon the Rabbit noticed Alice, as she went hunting about, and called out to her in an angry tone, ‘Why, Mary Ann, what ARE you doing out here? Run home this moment, and fetch me a pair of gloves and a fan!” (Ch. 4). Demonstrating that her manners have been well-ingrained and again reflecting the social expectations, Alice doesn’t even think to stop and correct him on his mistake, but instead turns around and does just as she’s been told.
However, Alice’s mind is incapable of staying within the limited confines of this restricted social role. “In Wonderland and Looking-Glass, Carroll ultimately suggests that both adults and children want power as well as comfort and that the domestic world of little girls and fairy tales is the unlikely site of power struggles over the comforts of home and childhood” (Geer, 2005). This need for the fairy tale is evidenced first in Alice’s chase after the White Rabbit but is continuously shown in her clever thoughts throughout the book. She is not afraid to question herself, as is seen in Chapter 2 when she attempts to sort out what has been happening to her, “I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night? Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning?
I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is ‘Who in the world am I?’ Ah, that’s the great puzzle!” As she makes her way through Wonderland, she must continuously make mental leaps to keep up with the other characters around her. It is noted in Natov (2005), that, for the child reader, “it must be particularly satisfying when Carroll allows the child to be the knowledgeable one, the one who gets the joke, since children often suffer from confusion about adult figurative language, taking it in its literal sense.” However, even as Alice is seen to have a much clearer understanding of what is going on around her than the other characters in many scenes, this doesn’t seem to change things at a fundamental level.
Perhaps more importantly, she can recognize that she is unsure of just who she is yet, something that most adults aren’t even aware of. Her journey through Wonderland becomes a journey to herself and Alice, continuously challenged to explain herself in specific and literal terms,
emerges from it with a more independent and well-defined concept of herself than the softly, externally defined female she is supposed to be. The imagery again supports this contention. According to Renee Hubert, “Carroll always conceived of Alice as an illustrated book … Carroll’s sketches show an ordinary girl who makes extraordinary encounters and undergoes incredible transformations. The girl’s reactions rather than the setting are emphasized; for example, a room conveys the idea of imprisonment” (2003). As the story begins, Alice continuously struggles through confining spaces yet as it progresses, her surroundings become increasingly open for her.
In addition to her unusual tendency to think, or at least a tendency that wasn’t often portrayed in Victorian novels of any kind, Alice also tends to act. Again, this is immediately illustrated in her headlong pursuit of the White Rabbit down the burrow. However, she is often seen to directly link her thoughts with her actions, impulsively contradicting her elders and others to whom she would otherwise be expected to defer. This is particularly evident in Chapter 12 when Alice comes into contact with the Queen of Hearts.
While the Queen begins demanding information from her, Alice realizes to herself, “Why, they’re only a pack of cards, after all. I needn’t be afraid of them!” This realization enables her to face up to this authority with unusual bravado and unfeminine strength. When the queen questions her about the cards that are prostrated at her feet, Alice answers “How should I know?’ said Alice, surprised at her courage. ‘It’s no business of Mine’” (Ch. 12). The comment that even Alice was surprised at her courage in facing down a pack of cards reveals the strength of the training she had received that had taught her to always respect her elders and to never question or otherwise disrespect authority. She moves even further in this direction when she stands up to the queen’s order to decapitate her. “Nonsense!’ said Alice, very loudly and decidedly, and the Queen was silent” (Ch. 12). Not only has she managed to overcome her proper female training, but her assertiveness has forced even the loud-mouthed Queen to back down, at least for the moment, shocked at this young girl’s temerity. Through these actions within the story, “the child takes hold and writes what it wants, taking writing in new directions” and determining the direction in which she will go rather than constantly being required to follow the directives of others (Polhemus, 2004).
Throughout the story, Alice reveals herself to be a thinking, acting, assertive girl that is quite different from the passive, sedate, and thoughtless girls of the era.
While most girls were trained to hold their tongues even when they were thinking something, Alice seems incapable of curbing her thoughts to even the slightest degree. At a time when girls were thought to be naturally suited to quiet, sedate activities, Alice is impulsive and active, easily finding herself involved in activities beyond the normal and quite capable of coping with the strangeness of any situation that presents itself. Throughout the book, she continues to demonstrate how she has been brought up within the proper English Victorian society. This is done not only through her appearance as she is depicted in drawings throughout the book, but also in her concern about tea times, appropriate appearances, and proper manners. Perhaps because she can appear ‘normal’ to Victorian society yet remains incapable of fitting herself within the proper mode of feminine behavior, she appeared to many young girls as a hero. She represented a shift out of the constrained social box of her society without alienating herself from that same society.
Carroll. Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Place of publication: Publisher name, Date of publication.
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Geer, Jennifer. “All Sorts of Pitfalls and Surprises: Competing Views of Idealized Girlhood in Lewis Carroll’s Alice Books.” Children’s Literature Review. Tom Burns (Ed.). Vol. 108. Detroit: Gale, 2005: 1-24.
Hubert, Renee Riese. “The Illustrated Book: Text and Image.” Nineteenth Century Literature Criticism. Lynn M. Zott (Ed.). Vol. 120. Detroit: Gale, 2003: 177-195.
Natov, Roni. “The Persistence of Alice.” Children’s Literature Review. Tom Burns (Ed.). Vol. 104. Detroit: Gale, 2005: 38-61.
Polhemus, Robert M. “Lewis Carroll and the Child in Victorian Fiction.” Nineteenth Century Literature Criticism. Marie C. Toft & Russel Whitaker (Eds.). Vol. 139. Detroit: Gale, 2004: 579-607.
Susina, Jan. “Educating Alice: The Lessons of Wonderland.” Children’s Literature Review. Tom Burns (Ed.). Vol. 108. Detroit: Gale, 2005: 3-9.