How far is Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” a feminist literary work?

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Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a classic children’s novel written by Lewis Carroll in 1865. It tells a story of a young girl named Alice, who fell through the rabbit hole which led her into a new whimsical world called “Wonderland” that consists of strange and peculiar creatures she has never encountered before.

This paper will answer the research question “How far is Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” a feminist literary work?” by interpreting the novel in a feminist approach, it explores how each character emboies feminist traits in Alice in Wonderland.

Feminist literary criticism is concerned with the representation of gender in literature and “the ways in which literature (and other cultural productions) reinforce or undermine the economic, political, social, and psychological oppression of women” (Tyson 83). It analyses the messages concerning femininity and masculinity which looks at how it reinforces assumptions based on gender.

The importance of looking at Alice in Wonderland through a feminist’s perspective is because the time the author, Lewis Carroll, wrote the book in 1865 which was during the Victorian era and the role of women was usually limited to the house, doing chores and providing care to the family. In relation to that, the female characters of the book will be analysed whether they correlate to the roles of women in the Victorian era or the author intended to oppose the stereotypical roles of a female instead. This paper will also focus on the relationship of Lewis Carroll and his own protagonist, Alice, and how she has empowered women’s rights throughout her journey to Wonderland by the use of the Heroine’s Journey archetype.

Victorian Women in Wonderland

Lewis Carroll wrote “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” in the year 1865 during the Victorian era (1837-1901) which was under the reign of Queen Victoria, wherein “she came to be seen as the very model of marital stability and domestic virtue.” (Abrams, 1). A woman’s place in Victorian Britain was at home, being centered and mainly focusing on family, motherhood and aspiring to be a respectable woman: being beautiful, classy, elegant, and polite.

The term “Angel in the House” was a popular Victorian image of the ideal woman who should be devoted and submissive to her husband. An Angel has characteristics of being passive, powerless, graceful, charming, self-sacrificing, sympathetic and overall– pure. Approaching Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” in relation to the Victorian era, the main focus is to show how the female characters (Alice, the Duchess, the Cook and the Queen of Hearts) were portrayed in the story and whether or not they depicted the same roles of women in the Victorian era.

Alice is the protagonist who was set up to be a representation of the Victorian little girl, as she acts and thinks strictly according to the ideals of the Victorian era. As Auerbach has stated, “Alice herself confronting a world out of control by looking for the rules and murmuring her lessons, stands as one image of the Victorian middle-class child.” (Auerbach, 31) because her adventure in Wonderland is discovering a whole new world for her and seeking rules for her own safety. Despite that she’s only a little girl, she has demonstrated characteristics of being a Victorian woman in the story.

From the way she was dressed, she was depicted as a young girl in a short-skirt with petticoats and short-sleeved dress matched with bobby socks which is a common fashion during the Victorian era since “Victorian era fashion was long or short dresses with aprons for girls.” (Debbie and Oscar, 2018). Alice is seen as rejecting herself from stereotypical traits and “is not trapped by the confines of roles and requirements” (Irwin and Davis, 2009) by dismissing the world that she occupies as she left her sister and followed the rabbit instead which led to her falling to Wonderland.

This image is replaced by one of a young lady who finds a new female subjectivity not affected by the society in which she has been raised. Lewis Carroll intended to present an innocent young woman who is yet not aware and conscious of her societal expectation of being a woman who is required to be feminine and also living only to fulfil gender roles. But some critics believe that it is not the author’s appreciation of ungendered childhood but the passive femininity because it is a story about a little girl.

The Duchess, defining the term itself, is the title of a woman who has a very high social rank, or who is the wife of a duke, or the person of that rank. However, how she was portrayed in the book is quite different from how a duchess is defined. She was a mother of a child as seen in the phrase, “the Duchess was sitting on a three-legged stool in the middle, nursing a baby;” (Carroll, 81). Through the description of the Duchess from the book, the Duchess is a mother for she is holding and nursing a baby when Alice first saw her in the kitchen.

Nevertheless, the role of a mother in the Victorian era plays a huge aspect as to it is the main purpose of women at that time yet the Duchess was portrayed as harsh and violent and not the typical caring mother to its child. As seen in “singing a sort of lullaby to it as she did so, and giving it a violent shake at the end of every line” (Carroll, 84-85), lullabies are supposed to be calming and soothing for the baby’s sake however, the Duchess handled her baby by shaking it violently as if it wasn’t a person whom she beared.

Continuing after the first verse of her lullaby, she “kept tossing the baby violently up and down, and the poor little thing howled” (Carroll, 85) which is an evidence of how she mistreated the baby. Although, not only to her baby that she demonstrated her aggressiveness but also when Alice, who is just a little girl, came and approach her yet responded in a very rude and unwelcoming way.

This imposes how women during the Victorian era might have felt regarding their roles which is being centered in motherhood and as a result of that, it seems like having children is a must and is their obligation as part of their “role”. Relating it to how the Duchess’ actions and attitude towards children, especially her baby, it was a burden for her because it is something that women were forced to fulfill; whether in Wonderland or in the real world during the Victorian era.

The Cook, also known as the Duchess’ maid, was the second character that Alice has encountered during the meeting with the Duchess. And since the presence of a maid in a household was common during the Victorian era, maids are often perceived as a person whose devoted in their duties in the household and in comparison to being the Duchess’ maid, she is the opposite of a Victorian maid as she is disobedient to the Duchess.

When Alice said, “There’s certainly too much pepper in that soup !” (Carroll, 81), it shows that she is not the type of person who performs her duties very well in the household to satisfy the Duchess’ needs but rather makes conflict in the household together with the Duchess and at one point she starts “throwing everything within her reach at the Duchess and the baby” (Carroll, 83) which adds up to a more chaotic environment.

Through her actions, she carries a rebellious behavior towards the Duchess and also defies other higher authorities such as the King during the jury scene. The way she behaves towards the higher authorities is unimaginable for a Victorian housemaid and for women in general. As “her courage to defy the authority, and it is an attempt on the part of the lower class to disrupt the oppression/repression binary state in the social structure” (Ren, 2014) which shows that how she was portrayed in the book is a rebellious act during the Victorian era. The Duchess’ maid is a representation of a working-class woman figure of the Victorian era.

The Queen of Hearts, the last female character that Alice has interacted with and when the first time Alice has met her, she started with her most iconic line which is ““Off with his head!” or “Off with her head!” about once in a minute” (Carroll, 122), and through that phrase, she is represented as a strong and fierce woman who has the highest level of authority as all the cards were scared of her which led to considering the Queen of Hearts as the antagonist of the story. She is characterized as a tyrannical and oppressive force in Wonderland by the constant threats she made of beheading everyone that disobeys her or refuses to satisfy her demands.

And if it were to compare to Queen Victoria during the Victorian era, both figures are Queens, and ruler of a nation. However, the Queen of Hearts is not a virtuous representation of a powerful authority as some believe that Queen Victoria was. Some had thought of her as a caricature of Queen Victoria. Although she isn’t the typical queen who’s humble, nice and kind; she represents women empowerment with her stand due to her marital relationship with her husband.

The roles of Victorian society are inverted in this couple where she is the one that makes the decisions whilst he is portrayed as completely dependent, fearful and submissive. And under her control, it seems like the King has been portrayed as a person who has less power than the Queen of Hearts and submissive to her which can be interpreted to his own masculinity and dominance of power are gone which is very much the opposite of what Victorian England promoted. Even though the Queen of Hearts is perceived as a violent figure of authority, she still represents a woman in power and disregards the stereotypes of being in a patriarchal society where only men have the right to rule.

Overall, these fictional female characters were explicitly distinguished on how they act upon the story; Alice as the protagonist, the Duchess as a mother, the Cook as a maid, and the Queen of Hearts as an antagonist ruler. Despite being written in the Victorian era, Carroll deliberately chose to make these characters behave in this way. In accordance of the time when the book, Alice in Wonderland, is written, comparing the portrayal of the female characters to the women figures of the Victorian era has shown that Lewis Carroll’s environment hasn’t affected his writing as it didn’t quite based everything he’s written to the Victorian society. There were similarities for stereotyping characters to the role of a Victorian woman and differences in attitude, opposing the qualities of a Victorian woman presented in the book.

Lewis’ Marionette

Being the author of the book, they always have full control of all the fictional characters they’ve created that exist in a story. How the characters are being portrayed, the occurrence of events and scenarios, and every little detail of the story is all based on the author’s preference if he or she wants to change the plot or how the flow of the story will go. However, if we look at the relationship of Lewis Carroll and Alice, the main protagonist character in his book, Alice in Wonderland; one assumption could be made in which the idea of Alice is in the hands of its author, Lewis Carroll, through identifying the way he has transformed Alice in various sizes physically and literally in the book.

At first, the sudden appearance of the rabbit out of nowhere to capture Alice’s attention can be interpreted as to Lewis using the rabbit, which symbolizes “a sign that life will be all the more beautiful from here”, to lure the little girl away from reality wherein the following series of events is her falling into the rabbit hole that leads her to another realm which is the Wonderland.

The appearance of the bottle can be questioned to what is its main purpose and what is Carroll’s intention?

The effect of drinking the bottle on Alice is that it makes her size smaller than the average and the cake is to make her size extremely bigger. Overall this makes her so confused and lost about what is happening. “-oh dear, how puzzling it all is!” (Carroll, 19) and “I must be Mabel after all” (Carroll, 21) shows that she doesn’t know who she is anymore, she might be Ada, Mabel, or Alice, as said from her monologue. It shows how Carroll was able to control her physically by changing her size with the usage of bottle and cakes that has beautiful engravings “tied around the neck of the bottle was a paper label with the words “ DRINK ME” beautifully printed on it in large letters” (Carroll, 9) and the cake “EAT ME” were beautifully marked in currants.” (Carroll, 13) to trick Alice on drinking and eating.

Because of her transformation, when she encountered the Pigeon, she was perceived as a serpent because of her long neck, and the strange figure she had was quite bewildering for her to be considered as human. One interpretation was made in her transformation into becoming a serpent; “it is related to the Biblical serpent in Genesis, who tempts Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. This interpretation equates Alice with the role of temptress, perhaps reflecting Carroll’s (possible) temptation to view Alice as a sexual object”, (Millikan, 2011).

Also, it represents the author’s treatment of Alice as a sexual object and classifying her being as an object of the author’s sexual desires rather than a whole person which is often experienced by a woman since then up until today’s generation. Due to several changes and transformation experienced by Alice, the statement “as she remembered the number of changes she had gone through that day” (Carroll, 72) shows how much she has changed and transformed beyond the normal of how she has been for she had gone through a lot of changes within just a day.

The control of Lewis Carroll on Alice made her lose her own self in Wonderland because of the sudden and bizarre appearance of things to transform her size physically as it can impose a submissive-dominant relationship of a men and women.

This can be used to show how some women might have felt being in a relationship or in a marriage, wherein men are the ones who are dominant and women are the ones being under controlled. And the reason why the title has been labeled as “Lewis’ Marionette”, is because the definition of a marionette according to Oxford (2019) is “a person who is easily manipulated or controlled”. Therefore, it can be interpreted as Alice became a puppet of Lewis by giving her sugar-coated words and nice things to attract the little girl.

Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is known for its psychological analysis of the classical myth formula that breaks down the myths into a basic structure, showing the psychological power of the hero archetype and the Hero’s Journey. However, in 1990, Maureen Murdock wrote The Heroine’s Journey: Woman’s Quest for Wholeness as a response to Joseph Campbell’s model and is believed to be more appropriate for women’s life journeys.

When she showed it to Campbell in 1983, he reportedly said, “Women don’t need to make the journey. In the whole mythological journey, the woman is there. All she has to do is realize that she’s the place that people are trying to get to.” Joseph Campbell perceived the hero’s journey as a journey towards the wholeness of the hero, and in a patriarchal society in which men have predominant qualities compared to ladies.

Be that as it may, it appears that either Campbell appears to be uninterested in women’ recovering qualities that had been misplaced to them through enculturation or those that had never been seen as legitimately theirs, or he was blinded by the reality that the myths that he was analyzing included male figures. At any rate, Murdock got to be persuaded that women were included as a goal the character needed to achieve at the end of the story in order to complete the hero’s journey.

However, according to Alice Meichi Li, “The main difference between the hero and the heroine’s journey, is when a hero is striving to become a master, a heroine is striving for equality and normality.” (Li, 2014) but for a heroine’s journey, “A heroine is thrust into a world gone mad. Everything has flipped and turned upside down and heroines are struggling to find their way home. They feel that they are the only sane ones.” (Li, 2014) in which we can relate to Alice’s adventures in Wonderland.

She fell down to a completely new world and as the Cheshire Cat has said “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.” (Carroll, 90) is a proof that the world she fell into is a world that has gone mad, where everything she knew didn’t apply to Wonderland. Because of Alice being the only one who came from another realm, every creature in Wonderland is strange and bizarre for her, making herself only the one sane person in Wonderland.

As said earlier, often women presented in stories are usually the main goal of the protagonist. They were always needed to be saved by someone whom called as the “knight in their shining armor”. However, Alice’s character portrayal was more applicable to Murdock’s heroine’s journey rather than Campbell’s Hero’s Journey not only because she is a female, but because she portrayed as a female who had the characteristics of what it’s like being a male and female at the same time.

Alice has shown her weakness by lacking the power to do things on her own, crying and asking for help; however, she has also shown her strength, that she is capable of the madness that existed in Wonderland. Heroes tend to find a master or a trainer who will help them in developing their abilities and becoming strong in preparation for their final goal; yet for heroines, they tend to encounter people or characters who are manipulators and either trick them or use them. And it is present when Alice met the Cheshire Cat, who is mischievous and tries to manipulate Alice by making her think that they’re all mad in Wonderland.

Usually, a hero comes from an ordinary world and already knows how the world works and has mentors to help conquer any obstacles. A hero’s journey is the journey of someone who has privilege. However, for the heroine’s journey, regardless if the protagonist is male or female, the heroine does not start their journey having privileges. The privileged hero has the ability to be the master over his or her own existence, given that they have a mentor to teach them to develop their capabilities as well.

But for the underprivileged heroine’s journey, it starts from a completely new world all alone, then never had the opportunity to be trained but rather develops their personalities and strength throughout the process of their journey. And in the story, Alice needs to defeat the Red Queen, who is very powerful for her case, and shows how the patriarchy turns women against each other in a way. It’s very rare that they tend to help their fellow women out and instead see them as a source of competition.

The heroine’s journey is different from the hero’s journey because of the journey that the protagonist experiences. Literature and feminism is evolving and because of the heroine’s journey, women now have the opportunity to create and make their own journey instead of just being an end-point for the hero’s journey as a goal and perhaps “maybe eventually it will be normal for heroines to go on a hero’s journey. She’ll acquire the ideal mastery that a hero can find.” (Li, 2014).

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