Read it Again: Guest Post: The Great Puzzle: Issues of Self-identity in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Jan Susina
This post was originally published on the former Worrisome Words site on April 10, 2017
The Great Puzzle: Issues of Self-identity in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Early in the second chapter of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the protagonist becomes confused by her frequent physical changes in size, she asks herself the question, “Who in the world am I?”, but immediately adds, “Ah that’s is the great puzzle!” (17-8). The great puzzle, indeed. The question of self-identity and process by which an individual goes about deciding who they are, continues to attract child and adult readers to the Alice books. This is one of issues that draw philosophers to the Alice books. Certainly children, as well as adults, pose philosophical questions. Perhaps it is the questions that we ask ourselves, as children are some of the most difficult to answer. One might say the question of self-identity is a riddle without an answer, and yet it a question that we are persist in asking ourselves. This may also be why many adults return to “children’s” texts, be they fairy tales, fables, or novels such as E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, or Lewis Carroll’s Alice books. These books address profound and enduring questions and sometimes provide readers with methods of contemplating the solutions.
What interests me is the process by which Alice attempts to answer the question she has posed to herself: “Who in the world am I?” The text suggests that Alice began to consider all the children that she knew who were about the same as age as herself and began to consider if she might have changed into anyone of them. For Alice, her age remains the fixed, although her identify might have shifted. But for Carroll, age does not significantly change Alice’s identity. At the conclusion of Wonderland, after Alice’s older sister’s dream, Carroll explains that, “in the after-time, be herself a grown woman; and how she would keep, through all her riper years, the simple and loving hear of her childhood” (110). For Carroll, it seems that identity does not shift, or at least does not shift for Alice. Despite her initial confusion and disorientation, Alice clearly knows who she is, as she confidently announces to the Queen of Hearts, “My name is Alice, so please your Majesty” (Carroll 71).
Nor does Alice consider that she may have shifted gender. The other children that she contemplates that she might have become are all female. Even when the pigeon accuses her of being a serpent, Alice insists she is a little girl. For Alice, and perhaps for Carroll and many other Victorians, gender appears to be fixed. This is more fluid concept for many contemporary readers of the Alice books. Consider when Alice reads “Jabberwocky” in Through the Looking-Glass. While the poem mentions that a “beamish boy” as slain the Jabberwock (Carroll 132), readers after looking at John Tenniel’s illustration of the figure with long flowing hair, that does resemble Alice’s hair, have concluded that the slayer of the Jabberwock is none other than Alice herself. Alice, as she appears in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, his 2010 film adaptation, seems to be based on this reading of Tenniel’s illustration. In the film, Alice, played Mia Wasikowska, becomes a warrior princess and the destroyer of the Jabberwock.
In Carroll’s Wonderland, Alice considers her possible lost of self-identity, but only within the confines of her immediate social circle. She does not consider who she would be if she suddenly transformed into a child growing up in India, Africa, Australia, or any other part of the English Empire. But during her long trip down the rabbit-hole, she posits that she might have been transported to New Zealand, or Australia. While there some diversity in terms of social class among her companions, Alice’s self-identity is a bit more rigid that some readers might assume.
Alice first contemplates that she might have become Ada, but rejects the notion given that, “her hair goes in such long ringlets, and mine doesn’t go in ringlets at all” (Carroll 18). For Alice, at least, identity might be based on physical appearance. While contemporary readers often assume a one-to-one correspondence between Alice Liddell and the protagonist of Wonderland, Carroll’s photographs of Alice Liddell and her sisters make it clear that dark-haired girl with the short hair looks nothing like the girl featured in Tenniel’s illustrations. Carroll’s rough illustrations of Alice in Alice’s Adventures Under Ground are much more Pre-Raphaelite with Alice sporting abundant long hair are also different from the Alice of Tenniel’s illustrations. Alice’s questioning of self-identity might reflect the changing nature of her appearance in the various versions of the girl who became the inspiration and model for Carroll’s protagonist. Physical appearance is shown be a questionable method to judge self-identity.
Alice then considers that she might have been transformed into Mabel, but she quickly rejects this possibility since, “I know all sorts of things, and she, oh, she knows such a very little!” (Carroll 18). Here Alice suggests that identity has to do what you know: you are what you know. Many of us use a similar approach when identifying ourselves, or by identifying others. What is your major? What do you do for a living? Who are your favorite authors? But when Alice attempts to prove her self-identity by recalling what she knows, she runs into problems. When she attempts to recite Isaac Watts’s “Against Idleness and Mischief,” it becomes “How Doth the Little Crocodile.” So self-identity based on self-knowledge, proves to be ineffective.
Frustrated with her inability to remember what she once knew, Alice resigns herself to having been transformed into Mabel and laments that she will have to live in “that poky little house, and have next to no toys to play with, and oh, ever so many lessons to learn!” (Carroll 19). Another way that Alice thinks about self-identity is social class and economic status: you are what you own. Alice reveals herself to be a bit of snob, and she looks down on Mabel, who has far fewer material objects. Alice’s attitude reflects that of Carroll, who was very concerned with social status and upward mobility. Just as Alice delights with the opportunity to play croquet with the Queen of Hearts, Carroll often attempted to photograph the royal family when they visited Oxford. Carroll also assumed that Wonderland, “isn’t a book poor children would much care for” (Carroll, Letters 667) Both Carroll and Alice’s self-identity is very much tied up with being members of the upper-middle class and reflect the privileged and insular world of Oxford.
After finding these various ways of defining her self-identity unsatisfactory, Alice decides to allow others to define her. She declares that she will stay where she is and wait until other call out for her. Then she will, “only look up and say, `Who am I, then? Tell me that first, and then, if I like being that person, I’ll come up. If not; I’ll stay down here till I’m somebody else. “ (Carroll 19). Alice contemplates allowing others to decide and define who she is.
The issue of self-identity reappears when Alice meets the Caterpillar who pointedly asks her, “Who are you?” (Carroll 40). Due to her previous bout of self-questioning, Alice is more effective and honest in responding to the Caterpillar’s question. She responds, “I–I hardly know, Sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.” (Carroll 41). In attempting to explain herself, Alice tries to suggest her transformation will be similar to the metamorphosis that the Caterpillar will undergo from chrysalis into a butterfly. Alice seems to have accepted that change, although it occasionally feels “a little queer” (Carroll 41), is all part of the process and that physical change does not necessarily change one’s self-identity.
Despite the frequent and sometimes aggressive questioning by the creatures of Wonderland, Alice never loses her head, or forgets who she is. At the trial, which concludes Wonderland, Alice provides evidence, which proves that she is, and always has been, Alice. Her adventures have all been a part of her curious dream and she has always been in control. Throughout her adventures, Carroll provides hints that despite Alice’s momentary uncertainty and self-doubts, Alice has always been in control. This occurs when, she wishes that she could open up like a telescope and moment later discovers, “I must be shutting up like a telescope!” (Carroll 14). Alice comes to realization through her adventures that self-identity while evolving is fixed. Although Alice, like Carroll, was “fond of pretending to be two people” (Carroll 14), she remains a respectable and self-assured young girl throughout her adventures in Wonderland.
Alice in Wonderland. Dir. Tim Burton. Per. Mia Wasikowksa and Johnny Depp. Disney. 2010.
Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Ed. Hugh Haughton. New York: Penguin. 1998.
Carroll, Lewis. The Letters of Lewis Carroll. Ed. Morton Cohen. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.