The struggle for identity in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass.
"She generally gave herself very good advice though she seldom ever followed it".
Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1988) and Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There (1988) focus on Alice’s identity crisis. Set against the backdrop of a nonsensical land where the inhabitants are “all mad”, the adventures Alice undergoes makes her question her role as a child, specifically a female child, in an adult world. Alice’s anxiety about her upcoming maturation is focalised through the theme of transformation. Alice’s anxiety surrounding her continuous transformation is indicated through the identity crisis she undergoes in defining her role as a child and a future woman. This post will analyse the latter in relation to three key moments from the ‘Alice’ books. These include her size, her femininity and her sense of autonomy.
Alice’s inability to remain one size is indicative of an anxiety associated with growing up. Throughout Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice’s body size transforms as a result of a number of “magical” substances in Wonderland that have the ability to both help her grow taller and shrink her in size. The continual transformation Alice undergoes results in an identity crisis. She can neither remain a child-like height or an adult height. Alice’s inability to remain constant and by extension control, her own body enhances her sense of self-doubt. Alice’s struggle for identity is first established in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when she encounters the caterpillar. In avoiding all pleasantries, the caterpillar pressures Alice to recognize her identity as something other than her name. This is seen through the direct question of “who are you?”. Alice’s reaction indicates her struggle for identity when she hesitates. In responding “shyly” she contemplates; “I-I hardly know sir”. Signified by the use of a dash, Alice’s hesitation suggests she is struggling to make sense of who she is. In addition to this, it implies that she has never properly contemplated her true identity before and is this daunted by venturing into the unknown, and by proxy discovering who is actually is. Alice’s journey to self-discovery is further implied through the caterpillar’s own identity. The caterpillar symbolizes the act of transformation. This is because caterpillars undergo their own form of maturation in the form of a transformation into a butterfly. Transformation is indicated and anticipated by the chrysalis stage where the caterpillar with metamorphosises into its mature form- a butterfly. This reflects the transformation that occurs during adolescence where the state of
childhood is left behind in order to become an adult. However, Alice appears to be stuck between her own two stages of transformation. When she is small and meek she fits into the category of ‘child’. As a child, Alice is unable to sustain the authoritative and powerful position she held whilst she was tall. Therefore, Alice’s identity is in a state of flux. Alice is constantly moving between the state of potentiality in childhood, to the state of actuality. She then, in turn, moves from the adult-like authoritative position, back to being immature. Alice’s fluctuating identity is indicated further by the Caterpillar’s insistent question “who are you?”. This use of repetition suggests that the question of who we are is difficult to answer. Thus, the caterpillar possesses a confrontational presence. He makes Alice question her own perception of herself; awakening her to her impending maturation.
Alice appears to reject her impending maturation. In particular, Alice rejects her anticipated gender identity. Alice rejects her femininity. This is seen through the transformation of the baby into a pig. When Alice picks up the baby she becomes a surrogate mother in that she is assuming responsibility for its welfare amidst the chaos of the Duchess’ kitchen. However, in the process of enacting motherhood Alice experiences a sense of repulsion. This is symbolized by the transformation of the infant into a pig. Associated with excrement, dirt and greed, the pig baby presents Alice with an insight into the depths of infant dependency and as such the hardships of motherhood. Alice’s distaste for such a role is indicated by her scorn for the animistic baby. For instance, she declares; “I’ll have nothing more to do with you”. This statement implies that Alice intends to refuse her possible role as a future mother. because she is disgusted by what it entails.
The chess analogy used in Through the Looking Glass reflects the struggle Alice experiences in outgrowing her childhood and acquiring knowledge of an adult world. In describing herself as “pawn”, Carroll identifies childhood with a lack of power and autonomy over one’s fate. This is because in a game of chess the pawn holds the least amount of power and is consequently is controlled by other players. The struggle of growing up is further illustrated by the juxtaposition created in Alice’s identification with the ‘pawn’ and the Queen’s literal identification as “Queen”, in a game of chess. In being named “Queen”, the Queen is suggested to obtain more power than Alice. In a game of chess, the Queen has the most amount of control. This juxtaposition in power mirrors that of the adult vs child interaction between the Queen and Alice. The Queen exhibits a parental authority over Alice when she dictates to her. For instance, the Queen uses imperatives such as “remember who you are!”. In giving Alice instructions about how best to play the game, the Queen is also providing her with advice concerning her own identity. This interaction whereby the Queen acts a gate-keeper reflects that of a parental figure advising and providing guidance to a child. In particular, in instructing Alice, the Queen controls and determines the flow of conversation. Here, adulthood is inextricably linked to knowledge. Therefore, in identifying herself as a piece of a chess board, Alice recognizes the role she must undertake in maturing into her role in adulthood. This is due to the fact that the game of chess can be considered an adult game of logic. This, Alice has to participate in a game of skill in order to make sense and acquire mastery over the seemingly nonsensical world of adulthood.
Finally, Alice is seen to transform into an adult through her acquisition of power. For instance, in becoming Queen at the end of Through the Looking Glass, Alice develops and adopts an adult role. In acquiring a higher status on the chess board, is not the highest status, Carroll implies that Alice has finally learnt how to play the game of adulthood. The prize for this display of skill is the obtainment of authority. Alice’s transformation into adulthood occurs when she reprimands the Red Queen and then picks her up. In exerting her physical authority, as well as physical power, the Queen is described as having “dwindled down to the size of a little doll” once Alice forcibly handles her. This action highlights a clear role reversal as Alice how now become the parental authority figure. It is now Alice and not the Queen who is telling off the small meek child. However, the completion of maturity whereby Alice has now acquired her ultimate identity results in anxiety. As a child, she is excited by the prospect of becoming an adult. For example, Alice experiences a sense of glee when she states “Queen! How grand it sounds!”. The use of repeated exclamation marks connotes enthusiasm. When Alice goes on to exclaim “the eight square at last!”, she recognizes that a sense of identity will be found along with the completion of the game of chess. The games chess substitutes the process of maturation. Alice is moving towards her future. Despite her initial pleasure, Alice’s experience as an adult is overshadowed by the realization of the true nature of adulthood, The latter is shown to be that of responsibility. Moreover, this juxtaposition in ideas of adulthood is indicated through the use of asterisk at the end of the page, which demonstrates a transformation. As a result of this transformation into a position of authority, Alice feels “dismay”. The use of the noun ‘dismay’ suggests that she is concerned by the realisation of what her role as Queen entails. Now she has gained her much desired mastery of adult knowledge, Alice becomes daunted by her newfound sense of responsibility. For instance, the “heav[iness]” pf the crown suggests that the burden of authority is metaphorically weighing her down. Further disappointment is brought about when asks herself “but how can it have got there without my knowing it”.
This rhetorical question demonstrates the confusion Alice feels. Her confusion is a result of discovering the crown to be already on her head which suggests she is unnerved by such a sudden role acquisition. In turn, this suggests that she feels anxiety towards the prospect of growing up. This due to the way that growing up although a gradual and difficult process can still be startling when one realizes that the former identity of a child is displaced by the identity of an adult. In particular, the spontaneous appearance of the crown suggests that adulthood and growing old can quickly sneak up on one. Therefore, Alice’s maturation is a bittersweet experience once she fully is able to contemplate the level of responsibility it entails.
Carroll, L. (1998) Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. London, Penguin.