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Alice’s Exploration of Feminine Identity in Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass
“Growing up is losing some illusions, in order to acquire others” (Virginia Woolf). In Through the Looking-Glass, Alice, a young girl on the verge of womanhood, does just that. By creating the mad world of Wonderland, she replaces one illusion for another: Wonderland for unrealistic expectations projected upon women by her society. In the novel, a sequel to Carroll’s famous Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice returns to Wonderland for another series of nonsensical episodes that serve to reveal pieces of her fluid identity during this transitional pubescent stage of life. The novel begins with Alice and her cat, Dinah, idly playing with a ball of string in the living room of her home while catching a glimpse of the boys productively working outside from the window. Soon after, she decides to move through the mirror into an alternate version of reality. There, she navigates through the many sections of the chessboard kingdom on a quest to become a Queen in order to earn herself enough power to return safely home. Along the way she meets many eccentric—and sometimes utterly befuddling—characters who either help or hinder her on her journey. After facing many confusions and struggles, Alice is eventually able to return from her dream-world to reality, but is left wondering how she can apply her experiences in Wonderland to her real life. In Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, Alice recreates the nonsensical Wonderland in order to explore and determine for herself the meaning of the female identity by rejecting socially constructed gender norms, demonstrating that the ideology of sex affects the psychological development of youth.
Alice’s real-life experience of the oppression of women leads her to construct the looking-glass version of Wonderland, which enables her to subconsciously investigate the issue through her own ridiculous imagination. In Introduction: What is Literature?, Eagleton defines ideology as the circumstances relating to contemporary social power (Eagleton). Ideology can further be defined by historians of literature as “an interrelated set of convictions or assumptions that reduces the complexities of a particular slice of reality to easily comprehensible terms and suggests appropriate ways of dealing with that reality” (Hunt 108). This play between reality and imagination can be observed in the novel as Alice aims to deconstruct her distressing experience from the real world within the fictional world of Wonderland in order to understand more clearly her personal convictions as a woman. This concept of social ideology can be observed in traditional children’s literature such as Through the Looking-Glass, in which the “text’s playfulness only thinly masks a hostile anti-feminism… Thus the attempt to subvert a particular social ideology is actually preconditioned and controlled by an attitude which is only a darker aspect of that very ideology’s construction of a woman” (Stephens 94).
In the opening of the novel, Alice sees the boys gathering sticks, but knows that she must stay inside out of the cold while the men work: “‘I was watching the boys getting in sticks for the bonfire—and it wants plenty of sticks, Kitty! Never mind, we’ll go and see the bonfire tomorrow’” (Carroll 115). Feeling slighted for not being invited to work with the boys, Alice is stuck by herself inside left bored and with nothing else to do but talk nonsense to her cat. Girls like Alice are not allowed to do “masculine” tasks like gathering wood out in the public, but rather must stay hidden within the privacy of the home learning domestic tasks that foreshadow her future role as a mother, such as nurturing and disciplining the kitten. Though her subtle discomfort may not seem to convey any sign of troubled emotions, the event itself is significant because Alice is forced to face a situation in which her sex prevents her from participating. While she sits around lazily with nothing to do, the boys are allowed to be productive; meanwhile, she must wait for the next appropriate social opportunity to interact with them at the bonfire. In effect, it is as though society is telling Alice what girls can and cannot do—that is, that they cannot accomplish any valuable or similar work as men do. This sexist phenomenon is further described in Family Status and Criticism of Gender Inequality at Home and at Work: “Women’s prescribed roles leave them with the burden of extensive domestic and nurturance responsibilities as well as limited power within the family. These patterns constitute gender inequality within the home and are reflected in the ideology legitimating a gender-segregated labor force in which women’s earnings and opportunities are not equal to men’s” (Kane, Emily W., and Laura Sanchez 3). These gender constructs of social ideology placed on young girls by society can harm their development as multi-dimensional human beings. Preventing women—specifically, impressionable young girls—from accomplishing the same tasks as men may directly cause them to feel undervalued and isolated by society. As she begins to question the society she lives in, the imaginative Alice creates the looking-glass Wonderland as an outlet in which she can dissect her true feelings toward feminist values and rejection of sexism. She accomplishes this by leaving the physical space of reality and entering into the imaginary construct of Wonderland, in which she concocts characters that challenge her identity and call her to confront injustices aimed at women.
Alice’s interaction with the matriarchal flowers, who demean Alice for behaving un-girlishly, shows her the everyday social pressures placed on women that she will soon face as she develops into a young woman. The “matriarchal vision” is “the idea of a society of strong women guided by essentially female concerns and values. These included, most importantly, pacifism, cooperation, nonviolent settlement of differences, and a harmonious regulation of public life” (Donovan 32). Flowers, a symbol of female fertility, epitomize the matriarchal model, the ideal of women who embody society’s expectations and limitations. Immediately in their encounter, the Rose curtly reminds Alice about “manners” (Carroll 129). Her overbearing personality is revealed even further to the discomfort of Alice when she continues to judge her worth by her appearance. The Rose concludes that Alice’s petals do not pass inspection, nor is she so intelligent as to be able to “think at all”–in fact, a Violet adds that she “never saw anybody that looked stupider” (130). Alice rejects the flowers’ harsh assessment and counters their aggression with a question that undermines their passive lifestyle: “Aren’t you sometimes frightened at being planted out here, with nobody to take care of you?” (129). The flowers respond that there is a tree, a phallic symbol, who protects them from danger just as men are expected to govern women. After all, “What else is it good for?” The social passivity of the flowers—who represent real-life female examples in the lives of young girls—provides poor female role models for Alice, whose sense of self-confidence and identity is being formed. Similarly, any strong female characters such as the queens in the novel are portrayed in a negative light for digressing from the norm of submission to males.
The symbol of the queen in Alice’s Wonderland demonstrates the “bitch dichotomy,” a phenomenon in which strong women are scorned by society for not conforming to social norms, thus reinforcing the belief that a woman’s identity is defined by her subservience to powerful men. When a woman shows the strength, such as that of an independent queen, they can be perceived as being cold and controlling rather than kind and nurturing. This occurrence is what is known as the “bitch dichotomy,” which is “the phenomenon that women, when exhibiting powerful leadership traits, are seen as ‘bossy’ or ‘bitchy’” (Rosenthal). In the novel there are many characters who are queens including the White Queen, Red Queen, and even Alice herself eventually becomes a queen. By definition, a queen is the most powerful woman in a patriarchal monarchy; however, it is interesting to note that typically—though not always (think Queen Victoria of England)—this great power ultimately derives from a man (i.e.: through the death of a spouse, a family line without a male heir, arranged marriage, etc.), thus making a queen’s reign in essence still controlled by dominant male figures. As Alice examines the layout of the looking-glass Wonderland, she realizes that it resembles a checkerboard and notices it is being played on by men: “It’s a great huge game of chess that’s being played—all over the world. How I wish I was one of them! I wouldn’t mind being a Pawn—though of course I should like being a Queen, best” (Carroll 133). Essentially, the Wonderland chessboard represents the real world as a sort of “man’s game” in which Alice must fight to be a part of. The only way to achieve this is by rejecting the many social barriers she is confronted with in Wonderland to become a powerful queen. However, she is still met with self-doubt about the validity of her accomplishment, whereas the novel culminates with Alice pondering whether her dream was under the control of the Red King the entire time (230). Through this detail the novel demonstrates the deep extent into which male-dominant ideology has pervaded independent female thought.
Alice’s choice to be a powerful queen navigates the concept of the bitch dichotomy. Take, for example, the tempestuous Red Queen who constantly barks out orders, confidently claims that “all the ways about here belong to me” (132), and makes the Red King submissive to her. Perhaps the Red Queen is an effective ruler; however, the only attributes ever mentioned are those of a tyrant in order to undermine her control. By refusing to be subservient to males, Alice takes on the risk of becoming alienated like the Red Queen. Feminist critic Glen Downey analyzes the text from a similar perspective, arguing that “Although it is by no means considered a feminist work in the way that other Victorian novels have been re-appraised by contemporary critics, Through the Looking-Glass is nevertheless recognized for its keen understanding of Alice’s predicament. Carroll shows how Alice is ultimately a prisoner of her inability to change the frustrating game in which she finds herself because her only models of behavior are the helpless but amiable White Queen and the responsible but mean-tempered Red Queen” (Downey). Moreover, Alice is caught in a dichotomous predicament: if she chooses to remain a mere Pawn in the game she will have no social standing or value, but if she chooses to become a powerful Queen she will be alienated and scrutinized. Alice continues to exercise control over her position in society by refusing to be manipulated like the White Queen.
Alice overcomes society’s expectations of women to be helpless and counterproductive, as portrayed by the White Queen, by learning how to reject sexist biases and disallowing them from compromising her psychological development as she becomes a woman. When the White Queen is introduced, she is described as looking quite disheveled and out of control: she appears to be in a “helpless frightened sort of way,” quite timid, and wearing a crooked shawl (162-164). Also, the White Queen literally does things backwards, such as feeling pain before being pricked (165). As opposed to the overbearing Red Queen, the White Queen is the epitome of the subservient female model who remains bent at the will of the turbulent forces of male social dominance around her. Assumingly, a woman in this position has too little control over her own life to be a contributing member of society as would a stable male. Despite being bound to this stereotype, the White Queen does in fact surprise readers by momentarily breaking free from her mold. She gives Alice the key to her own happiness by reminding her to “Consider what a great girl you are” (166). When Alice replies to this advice by saying “There’s no use in trying, one can’t believe impossible things.” White Queen testifies to the effectiveness of this mindset, saying that as someone much older than Alice she herself has gotten through life by daring to believe in the impossible. With the presence of this strong female influence in her life, Alice chooses to now ascribe to feminist theory as she matures into a young woman. She moves forward with her decision to become a queen, thus rejecting the social ideology that had once conflicted her. By doing so, Alice prevents the “destructive masculine ideologies that govern the public world” based on “the differences between men and women [that] are principally biological” (Donovan 62) to reflect her female identity.
In Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, Wonderland serves as an imaginary construct that allows Alice to confront her subconscious challenges against gender norms caused by social ideology in order to define female identity as she prepares to transition into womanhood. Though written by a man, the feminist message of this novel is applicable to young girls who are transitioning into womanhood. Just as Alice undergoes her many adventures, so too do girls around the world face many undeniable challenges that—depending on how they react by either accepting or rejecting implied notions—will impact their concept of what it means to be a woman. The age-long quest to determine a universal definition of feminism is still an undergoing journey for modern society. Perhaps if women are taught as young girls to question their position in society, then future women will learn to say “I don’t want other people to decide who I am. I want to decide that for myself” (Emma Watson).
Carroll, Lewis, and Morton N. Cohen. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; And, Through the Looking-glass. New York: Bantam, 1981. Print.
Donovan, Josephine. “Cultural Feminism.” Feminist Theory: The Intellectual Traditions of American Feminism. New York: F. Ungar Pub., 1985. 31-63. Print.
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Eagleton, Terry. Introduction: What is Literature? Literary Theory: An Introduction, anniversary ed, U of Minnesota P, 2008, pp. 1-14.
Hunt, Michael H. “Ideology.” The Journal of American History, vol. 77, no. 1, 1990, pp. 108–115. www.jstor.org/stable/2078642.
Kane, Emily W., and Laura Sanchez. “Family Status and Criticism of Gender Inequality at Home and at Work.” Social Forces, vol. 72, no. 4, 1994, pp. 1079–1102. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2580293.
Rosenthal, Ingrid. “The Bitch Dichotomy.” Albanyhighcaorg. Albany High School, n.d. Web. 19 Oct. 2016. <http://albanyhighca.org/identity/the-bitch-dichotomy/>.
Stephens, John. Language and Ideology in Children’s Fiction. New York: Longman, 1992. Print.