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Feminism Through the Looking Glass

Feminism is “a simple concept” in that, at the end of the day it is just “about taking women seriously and respectfully” (Parker 152). With Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: and, Through the Looking-Glass written within the timeframe of first-wave feminism when women still could not vote, Carroll, undoubtedly, lacked any concept of the term or even the idea of feminism. However, he does write an unapologetically plucky little girl, relatively untouched by societal pressures regarding women’s behavior which could easily seem like a feminist figure at first glance. Alice does display bravery, intelligence, and strength. She stands up for herself and makes manifest the fragile autonomy of an unrepressed girl before a patriarchal society imposes too many rules and expectations upon her ‘proper’ feminine behavior. However, upon further inspection of three main female characters within Alice's Adventures, Carroll is clearly not, in fact, writing feminist characters. In the end, Carroll uses Alice, the Duchess, and the Queen to reinforce the Victorian ideals of femininity.

            In true feminist style, Alice challenges and questions the odd status quo of Wonderland at every turn; she feels entitled to her thoughts and opinions, and shares them freely, constantly and unbidden. Yet Carroll does not really give Alice much agency within Wonderland. Alice is constantly either “shutting up like a telescope” or eating bits of mushroom to grow larger (Carroll & Kelly 78, 118) - a process which began with a bottle Alice consumed unwittingly. Alice actually gets very frustrated with this constant “growing larger or smaller” and with always being “ordered about” by the Wonderland creatures (Carroll & Kelly 96). Alice, within the entire story, is also usually being ignored and talked over – the Caterpillar, for example, talks down to her to the point of her starting to lose her temper (Carroll & Kelly 105). Therefore, while Alice can be read as being written to signify an innocence which predates the societal expectations of femininity which will be placed on her later, she can also be read as a lauded example of passive femininity. Alice might seem to have autonomy, but she is constantly controlled by males, even anthropomorphized male animals, in a way which actually serves to reinforce the gender roles of the Victorian era. Within a subject/object structure, Alice is very much the object in Wonderland – the one to whom things happen.

Carroll also writes a Duchess, described in the introduction as “one of the most unwholesome characters in the book”, which is “ugly, masculine, sadistic, moralistic, and sexually aggressive” (Carroll & Kelly 23). And the Duchess, by virtue of being a Duchess, would be expected to be a relatively powerful female character. She has some amount of wealth and status, servants including a cook and a footman. And she clearly feels superior to Alice - as when she tells Alice to mind her own business and threatens to have her cook chop off Alice’s head (Carrol & Kelly 113). But the Duchess, for all her wealth and imagined status, is written as a confusing and mercurial character; sometimes furious, other times cheerful. She is cast as an irrational, possibly hysterical, emotionally unpredictable figure, and a blatantly bad mother. Her vapid and insipid moralizing (“and the moral of that is – ‘Take care of the sense, and the sounds will take care of themselves’” (Carroll & Kelly 139) bores and aggravates both the reader and Alice before long, therefore she is not even a paragon of moral virtue. The Duchess is written to be disliked and mistrusted; a figure which embodies everything that good Victorian girls, Alice included, should never become.

The Queen of Hearts, of course, should be seen as another powerful female character – most of Wonderland seems a worried target of her temper and at the mercy of her whims. The Queen, though she appears to wield tremendous power and terrorizes the inhabitants of Wonderland with her oft repeated threats of decapitation, can clearly be read as a cautionary tale of women in power. The queen is a woman with power outside the domestic sphere who is painted as an evil monster figure worthy of a fairy tale, and above all, she is fundamentally irrational. It is her irrationality (one of the favorite misogynist charges against women) which renders her a villain and implies that female power is therefore inherently wrong and dangerous for everyone forced to endure it. Meanwhile, the King is shown to be a kind and beneficent man – and as a couple they are, therefore, modeling incorrect gender performances for the Victorian era. Again, another example of an adult woman to which little girls should not aspire. And one cannot help but wonder if the raging madness of Carroll’s Wonderland is not meant to be seen as a result of, or at least partially attributable to, this improper (by Victorian standards) gender dynamic within the reigning couple of Wonderland.

Though we do have in the figure of Alice a boldly adventurous girl who talks back to authority and is “wildly curious … with the eager enjoyment of Life that comes only in the happy hours of childhood” (Carroll & Kelly 328), these are clearly not meant to be idealized traits within her going forward in her life, as they are not lauded traits within the adult female characters. Not only is this timeframe of childhood specified by Carroll, as the moment in which a girl can and should be eager and curious, but the examples of the adult women in the form of the Duchess and the Queen betray Carroll’s prejudice that independent, adventurous, headstrong adult women are to be feared and loathed. None of these examples of adult womanhood are admirable as written by Carroll. Such qualities as independence and boldness, while still charming in a child, are written by Carroll as fundamentally unnatural and undesirable (and sometimes simply scary) in adult women. Therefore, these feminist ideals must be repressed or removed in adult women, or else chaos and madness will surely reign, as they do in Wonderland.

 

Works Cited 

Carroll, Lewis, and Richard Kelly. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: and, Through the Looking-Glass. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2015. 

Parker, Robert D. How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.

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