Written during the Victorian Era by a male author, the novel is about the adventures of a seven years old child who is curious about the world and is ready to explore it.
Victorian age was a period when gender roles were very clearly defined. These roles were based on the “natural characteristics” of the two sexes. Women were supposedly best suited to manage the domestic sphere because they were believed to be physically weaker than men. On the other hand, men were allowed to work outside the house and earn money. It can be argued that such restriction aimed towards controlling their sexuality as being a virgin and chaste were considered “virtues” of a lady. Also, according to the Christian mythology Eve’s curiosity to explore made Adam eat the fruit of knowledge which resulted in the ‘fall’ of humankind. Hence, women’s desire to explore has had an impression of destructive consequence associated with it. In this light, presenting the story of a girl’s pursuit of her desires is ground-breaking.
‘Well! What are you?’ said the Pigeon.
‘I — I’m a little girl,’ said Alice, rather doubtfully, as she remembered the number of changes she had gone through that day.
Alice, protagonist of the novel, defines herself as a “little girl”. This is how she first identifies herself. But despite being a girl of late nineteenth century, she is a character who speaks her mind, and is adventurous. Lewis Carroll describes her as “wildly curious, and with the eager enjoyment of Life that comes only in the happy hours of childhood, when all is new and fair, and when Sin and Sorrow are but names — empty words signifying nothing!” The author has attempted 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 of which the author wrote about a little girl. Critic Carina Garland believes that Alice represents passive femininity as she is controlled by the males around her and this is the reason why the author was so attracted to little girls.
Apart from Alice, there are three other women characters in the novel- the Duchess, her cook, and the Queen of Hearts.
“I pictured to myself the Queen of Hearts as a sort of embodiment of ungovernable passion – a blind and aimless Fury” – Lewis Carroll in ‘Alice on the stage’
Queen of Hearts is a cruel monarch of the wonderland. Some believe her to be a caricature of Queen Victoria who was reigning over the United Kingdom at the time the novel was written as this made the character easier for young ones to relate to. She is a woman with power and authority. ‘Off with their heads!” is her pet dialogue and she says this even when she gets slightly annoyed. She is dominating, violent, irrational and therefore unfit for decision-making. Because of her sadistic nature, she takes pleasure in being rude. Strong and evil monster-women are often shown in children’s literature. They are usually represented as witches or cruel step mothers. This portrayal is suggestive of what the consequences are like when a woman is given power outside domestic space. This explicitly builds an impression on children that female power is wrong and women need men to handle and control them. The King, on the other hand is a merciful and kind man whom one would prefer to be a ruler. Through the portrayal of reversed gender roles of the queen and her husband, Carroll presents the result of incorrect gender performances and the destructive consequence of playing with Victorian standards. Also when contrasted to Alice, she comes forth as a very unidealistic woman for Victorian audience. Alice is an embodiment of Victorian virtues. Carroll characterised her as “loving and gentle,” “courteous to all,” and “trustful”. Being opposite to this, the Queen becomes an antagonist.
The Duchess is another women in the novel. She is a weird and confusing character. She is furious initially but when she meets Alice the second time she is friendly and cheerful. Alice thinks that her violent behaviour is probably because of the irritation from her constantly sneezing son. She represents adult women who are often associated with mood swings and being emotionally unpredictable. Also, she is not at all concerned about her son who turned into a pig which is suggestive of how maternity cannot be embraced by all women. Her carelessness and immaturity showcase her not only as an unideal mother but also as a person that Alice as well as the readers find to be unpleasant.
It can be concluded that it is refreshing to see a story that does not revolve around the typical Victorian theme of marriage. Unlike many other fairy-tales, the story ends without the protagonist finding a life-partner and still it is completely fine to the readers. The fact that she goes on the adventurous venture only in her dreams indicates author’s awareness of the reality of contemporary Victorian society and its limitations for women which do not really allow them to go out for the pursuit of their ambitions in real life. The secondary women characters in the novel are true stereotypical representatives of prevalent perception of unidealistic women. They are portrayed as horrible rulers and ‘unfeminine’. Though the novel is revolutionary in the way it deals with its lead character, yet it has undergoing anti-feminist representations that are harmful for any reader in a world that requires to break all gender based prejudices.
‘Alice for Adolescents’ by D’Ambrosio, Michael A. (November 1970)
‘The Annotated Alice’ by Martin Gardener (1960)
Sonal Chauhan (1201)