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Loss of Childhood Innocence in Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Lloyd Alexander, author of another famous novel-turned-animated Disney classic The Black Cauldron, once said that “Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It’s a way of understanding it.” Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland seeks out to do just that. The novel follows naive 7-year-old Alice from her reality as a maturing schoolgirl into her fictional world. This coming-of-age novel puts on display for readers Alice’s personal growth as she encounters many challenges in her whimsical world that force her to contemplate her inevitable and rapid growth into a young lady. Never one to conform to society’s rigid standards, the mischievous heroine must first teach herself in her own creative way how to cope with the dangers and confusion of Wonderland before returning to her daily lessons in the real world. Alice’s adventures in Wonderland are the fabricated productions of a child’s imagination which allow her to explore and cope with major personal changes she is experiencing as she transitions from childhood to adulthood in the real world, including: the discovery of one’s true identity, the brutal realizations about the cruelty of the world, and the loss of innocence.
Carroll’s use of ambiguity reveals Alice’s struggle to find her identity amongst the many mystifying changes she is undergoing. The first time Alice grows immensely large, she cries out of frustration. She wonders aloud, “But if I’m not the same, the next question is ‘Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle!” (Carroll 10). For Alice, her change in size represents her change in identity as well, whereas she begins to question not how she became large, but instead how this change impacts who she is as a human being. This grand question is one of life’s great “puzzles.” It finds its way into the minds of most youth at the stage in life when they reach an age of maturity, during which they begin to question and define who they are in terms of their relationship to the world. Alice yet again loses confidence in her sense of self when she changes size later in the book. A frightful pigeon asks her why they should believe that she is not a serpent, to which Alice gives a hesitant reply: “‘I–I’m a little girl,’ said Alice, rather doubtfully, as she remembered the number of changes she had gone through that day” (40). The sudden growth Alice is experiencing in her height within Wonderland mirrors the physical, emotional, and psychological growth she will undergo in the real world. These changes from a young girl into a woman have shaken Alice’s view of herself, causing her to feel confusion and a lack of self-assurance. Not only does she come to realize these great personal changes, but she is also shocked to discover that she must now make the burdensome decision that entering adulthood brings when one must determine which direction they will go in life.
The use of anthropomorphism in the character of the Cheshire Cat guides Alice through a contemplation of the crippling realities of adulthood by suddenly forcing her to make overwhelming, critical decisions about her life plans. She conveniently comes upon the Cheshire Cat just as she meets indecision about where to go and how to get there. Alone and unsure, she asks him, “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” to which he replies, “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to” (49). Her inability to decide on which direction to go represents Alice’s uncertainty in which metaphorical “path” to take in life. The Cheshire Cat’s ability to speak with Alice allows him to serve in an almost fairy godmother-like fashion by helping her to navigate her subconscious fears toward growing up. He assures her that although she may not have an exact plan just yet, the possibilities are out there for the taking. Not only does Alice presently not know what adventure awaits her on her journey in Wonderland, but she must now decide on her future life goals and vocations. The anxiety Alice senses toward her undetermined future and newfound responsibility resonates with the doubt she feels for the flawed condition of the adult world.
The curious world of Wonderland itself serves as an allegory for the inherent darkness of the world. Alice soon comes to know that Wonderland–like the world she is now becoming more aware of as she enters young adulthood–is full of chaos, madness, confusion, and nonsense. These motifs appear throughout the story largely in part by the ridiculous language and behavior displayed by the characters. Perhaps the most memorable character (aside from the titular Alice herself) that embodies the general oddity of “Wonderland” is the Red Queen, whose fatal rage and eager preoccupation with beheading leaves Alice confoundedly pondering “‘the great wonder is, that there’s anyone left alive!’” (68). While playing croquet with the tyrant queen, Alice tells the Cheshire Cat that she doubts there is any goodness present among her rule: “‘I don’t think they play at all fairly…and they don’t seem to have any rules in particular; at least, if there are, nobody attends to them…’” (68). In the Red Queen’s kingdom, there is no human emotion that bonds people together to prevent them from senselessly murdering one another. The government is corrupt, and its citizens do not follow any rules. As Alice ages, she begins to lose her childhood innocence and becomes more acutely aware of the existence of serious matters such as these. With her white veil removed, she sees how horrible, unfair, and dangerous the real world can be. Just as the innocent white roses are smeared with paint as red as blood (62-63), so too does Alice’s childhood become tainted by the grotesqueness of reality.
From the very beginning of the book, Alice is characterized as being quite immature and overconfident in her knowledge; however, she will soon experience a rude awakening when encountering situations in which she does not know the correct solution. Now that Alice has reached an age in which she must take on the new challenges of adulthood, it has become necessary that she also learn how to deal with these obstacles using knowledge and problem-solving. When the Mad Hatter gives her a bizarre riddle to solve, she instantly believes that she will be able to answer it correctly. The Mad Hatter asks, “‘Why is a raven like a writing-desk?’” to which Alice optimistically responds, “‘I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles–I believe I can guess that’” (54). Alice cannot remotely figure out what the correct answer to this riddle is and soon gives up trying. As it turns out, the Mad Hatter “hasn’t the slightest idea” (56) about the answer either. While this task may have seemed pointless in the end, perhaps it is to show Alice that sometimes in life there simply is no correct answer. As an adult Alice will inevitably be required to make decisions on her own without knowing what is the best choice to make for her future. She can no longer be shielded by the security of her childhood innocence, allowing others to make decisions for her–Alice must become a strong, independent, and wise young woman. However, before Alice can learn to maneuver her way through adulthood, she must first learn to cope with the loss of her childhood at this vulnerable age.
Alice’s encounter with the symbolic caterpillar in Wonderland forces her to finally accept the loss of her childhood innocence while embracing the dynamic quality of life as she unwillingly completes the transition into adulthood. The caterpillar, which unwillingly undergoes many changes throughout its lifetime during the various stages metamorphosis, can be viewed as a symbol of life’s changes. When Alice meets the caterpillar, he confronts her with a striking yet simple question: “Who are you?” (34). Noting the many literal changes in stature she had recently undergone, she replies, “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” (34). Alice cannot tell the caterpillar who she is, because she has undergone so many changes since visiting Wonderland that have made her more mature and wise than when she first arrived. Not only has she changed psychologically, but like a caterpillar, Alice has realized the physical changes her body is exhibiting as she grows up from a child into a young woman. However, Alice has a difficult time accepting these rapid changes at first and longs to still be a child whereas “one doesn’t like changing so often, you know” (37). By the time she leaves Wonderland and returns to the real world, Alice has learned many lessons about what it means to age, lose one’s innocence, and come face-to-face with the reality of her inescapable entry into the realm of adulthood.
Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a bildungsroman which follows a pubescent girl named Alice who creates a nonsensical world for herself as an outlet to explore the deep themes of adulthood. As she struggles to understand the loss of youthful innocence she is experiencing in the real world, Wonderland serves as a way to make these concepts more coherent through the use of her own childish imagination. Through her many adventures, Alice learns many valuable lessons about identity, finding a path in life, the dark and chaotic nature of the world, being able to tackle challenges as an independent adult, accepting change, and growing up. Throughout it all, Alice holds onto her ability to see the world through a child’s eyes as both she and the world she perceives around her are constantly changing and becoming increasingly different from what she’s always known. Perhaps if we could all do the same, we could experience our own feeling of wonder about the world: “Alice! A childish story take, / And, with a gentle hand, / Lay it where Childhood’s dreams are twined / In Memory’s mystic band. / Like pilgrim’s wither’d wreath of flowers / Pluck’d in a far-off land” (Carroll, Epigraph).
Carroll, Lewis, and Morton N. Cohen. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass. New York: Bantam, 1981. Print.