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Marxism in Wonderland


Marx saw society through a rather practical “materialist” lens, understanding that life is made up largely, if not exclusively, of physical needs like food and shelter. He believed that it was our social conditions which determined our consciousness, not the other way around – so that a poor (proletariat) person and a richer (bourgeoisie) one would see the world differently because they were either poor or rich. And he saw the world as being “divided between a class of people who labor to produce goods” and a class of people who exploit them (Parker 230). Within Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass Carroll has created a literary world which brings to light social hierarchy, particularly the binary opposition of the ruling class and the working class. There are clear socio-economic stratifications on display. The treatment of the working-class playing cards by the aristocracy, the fact the bourgeoisie don’t align with and stand up for them, and the fact they themselves don’t rebel can all be explained through a Marxist perspective.

            When Alice first encounters the gardener playing cards, they are frantically trying to paint the mistakenly planted white roses red. When asked why they’re doing this, they explain that this mistake would likely cost them their heads (Carroll and Kelly 130). The queen is almost constantly threatening to behead someone, which everyone seems to believe is her right. But the most telling component to the status of the playing cards is how little they are mentioned or fleshed out. They are literal numbers, not named individuals, and we are given no inkling of their individual lives; families, hopes, ambitions are all overlooked completely. They are written as a nameless faceless monolith of servitude which makes the world go round for the upper classes. These are clearly representing Marx’s oppressed proletariat.

            In the same scene with the gardener playing cards there is an example of the bourgeoisie failing to align with the workers and revolt against the ruling class (which is oppressing them both - the Queen can order any of them beheaded). Alice is a representation of the bourgeoisie in that she is white, upper-middle class, educated, and basically conventional. And while Alice does feign ignorance in order to try and help the gardeners – when the Queen asks who the gardeners are Alice plays dumb; asking how she should know and calling it none of her business (Carroll and Kelly 132). And she does then hide the gardeners from the guards who mean to behead them by sticking them in a flowerpot which happens to be nearby (Carroll and Kelly 133). When comparing these actions to the difference in Alice’s reaction to her own threatened beheading in the very same scene, these measures are laughably weak. When the Queen, “crimson with fury” shouts to behead Alice, Alice responds “loudly and decidedly” with the retort “Nonsense!” The Queen actually falls silent for a moment, presumably in shock from being contradicted (Carroll and Kelly 132). But Alice doesn’t display similar bravado or passion for the gardeners – she merely pretends ignorance and then secrets them in an already available hiding spot. So in this instance, where the bourgeoisie (Alice) and the proletariat (the gardeners) might otherwise bond together, you have only minimal dispassionate effort put forth by the bourgeoisie.

            Not only does Alice not seem to be as acutely aware of her oppression by the ruling class as the garden playing cards do – neither are compelled to stage a revolution to overthrow an obviously irrational and murderous ruler. Marxism explains how it is that neither the bourgeoisie nor the proletariat in Wonderland are inclined to rise up in their own best interests. First, the proletariat “often believes in capitalism as fervently as the bourgeoisie” (Parker 235). Through the course of the alienation of labor (no one sees a product all the way through from start to finish and has pride in what they’ve made – everything is simply some distantly produced thing made by nameless cogs in a factory), exchange value superseding use value, which leads to the “commodity fetish” of wanting new shiny expensive things which aren’t needed, an overarching consumer society is created in which the workers aspire to have the same things as the rich – and that is their focus, rather than changing their systemic oppression (Parker 233). The process which makes this mollification of the working class possible is called interpellation. The term literally means “calling” and it signifies the ways the dominant system “hails us” to obediently do it’s bidding (Parker 243). Interpellation is basically a siren call which teaches people to continue to reproduce the system as it is rather than seek to change it (Parker 244). This can lead to a “false consciousness” in which people become “so interpellated into oppressive ideologies that it leads people to act against their own interests.” The book even gives the example of someone who votes to lower taxes, wherein their false consciousness makes them think they are lowering their tax burden. The reality, however, is that they are damaging the social fabric (and their own lives) by taking money away from schools, police, fire departments, public transportation, healthcare, libraries, and many other things that improve their own quality of life. (Parker 247). Interpellation and false consciousness can explain why no one in Wonderland, nor the outsider Alice, take any actions to alter the oppressive system that runs their world.

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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