Lois Drawmer ©: Monsters and Monstrous, May 2004

The Dysmorphic Bodies of Alice in Wonderland


Lewis Carroll, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, wrote evocatively in later life of the little girl Alice Liddell, who inspired his story, Alice in Wonderland: Still she haunts me, phantomwise Alice moving under skies Never seen by waking eyes … . In Carroll's Alice in Wonderland (1865) the little girl Alice is the protagonist in a narrative of fantastic adventures, and it is these adventures which are the driving narrative device of the book. Issues of gender are central to this book and even the author's pseudonym contravenes gender taxonomies by being apparently neither fully inscribed in the ‘masculine' or ‘feminine' sphere of language. Carroll's pen name itself was developed through a careful exploration of the (logical) ‘rules' of language and is drawn from his own interests in systems and their limitations. His name is a kind of anagram and Latinised version of his real name, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. The book is written from the point of view of the little girl: in effect Carroll transvestisises his voice into that of the young girl on the verge of adolescence. The coalescence between the adult male and the role of the little girl creates uneasy tensions about identity and sexuality primarily through systems of apparent non-logic. Indeed other theorists have noted the assimilation of girl/man in this book suggesting that: It is the child Alice who validates and preserves Dodgson-Carroll's being […] he not only loved little girls, he wanted to be a little girl, as the choice of his pen name goes to show.
Alice has been seen to repeat the iconic image of Victorian middle class girlhood. However this fails to deal with the interesting paradox of the Carroll/Alice identity crisis. Alice in Wonderland essentially asks if we are fully integrated ‘individuals' or if we exist only in relation to the (unstable and disconcertingly shifting) structures around us. Alice's identity in the story becomes a focus in her search for validity, which also becomes the search for Carroll's own sense of integrated self, rather than the affirmation of an inherent or exclusive female nature. In a departure from the dominant Victorian paradigms of empirically reinforced concepts of rational order and logical reason, Carroll expresses concerns with the transitory and arbitrary nature of the ‘self'. The focus on a pre-adolescent child marks a nostalgia for a golden past, where, from a Lacanian perspective, gender difference, adult sexuality and the conventions of language/culture of the symbolic order do not yet exist as concrete conditions. [...]

This is certainly borne out by Carroll's other passion: photography of young (and preferably naked) girls. In his diaries and prolific letters, he states that: To me [boys] are not an attractive race of beings [and]… if I had the loveliest child in the world to draw or photograph, and found she had a modest shrinking (however slight, however easily overcome) from being taken nude, I should feel it was a solemn duty owed to God to drop the request altogether.
It is difficult today to view Carroll's obsession with little girls, and with Alice Liddell in particular, as motivated entirely by artistic criteria, however there is much academic debate on this area, and it is beyond the scope of this paper to develop this further. The story takes place in a dream or parallel world, framed by a contemporary setting, based, according to many accounts on a real life riverside picnic with Lewis Carroll and the three daughters of Dean Liddell. Alice begins and ends with a framing device – the dream, but the first part of the ‘real' story begins with a birth metaphor; the embodiment of female function. Alice falls down a rabbit hole, a long, dark tunnel which parallels the journey of a baby from foetal symbiotic state of plenitude with the mother's body, to isolated individualism in the external world.

[....interrelation] between the identity of the male author, and his female creation, and the point of departure of the gender roles ordained for them by Victorian society. When Alice does find a lock which fits the key, she has become too large to get into ‘the loveliest garden you ever saw' (p.6). The birth metaphor is still resonant here, as Alice: Could not even get her head through the doorway: ‘and even if my head would go through' thought poor Alice, ‘it would be of very little use without my shoulders'. (p.6)

[ad garden in Wonderland] Carroll's relating of Alice to Eve in the state of innocence is interesting. The promise of a heavenly state symbolised in the unobtainable garden is subverted by Carroll, as it becomes instead a parody of power and tyranny, and bureaucratic institutions, dominated by the psychotic Queen of Hearts, whose sadistic desires are expressed in her repeated cry of ‘off with his head'. It is also significant that the only two adult women which feature in Alice in Wonderland , the Queen and the Duchess, are both violent, irrational and intimidating figures.
It is my contention that these represent one of Carroll's most deep-seated anxieties – mature, sexually demanding, or even menopausal women. The metamorphosis from his assumed ‘innocent' pre-pubescent stage of the female into the raging monsters of adult women is conspicuous in its extremity. The distorted form of mature womanhood in these two characters is hard to read as anything other than deeply entrenched misogyny. The Duchess is encountered by Alice in her kitchen – the Victorian ideal of the domestic sphere offering respite for the family, and the focal point of the domain of the ‘angel in the house'.

Here, as in earlier examples of the destabilising of the parallel dream world, the ordinary expectations of middle class bourgeois society becomes extraordinary. The Duchess is holding a baby who ‘sneezed occasionally; and the baby was sneezing and howling alternately ‘ (p.51). The cook throws a variety of pots and pans at the Duchess and baby, as Alice looks on in amazement. One of the first sentences she addresses to Alice is ‘talking of axes … chop off her head!' (p.52). Carroll's warped characterisation of motherhood is far removed from the Victorian chaste Madonna ideal: the Duchess sings a lullaby to the baby, but gives it ‘a violent shake at the end of every line' (p.53) and eventually flings the baby at Alice, where it subsequently changes into a pig. It is clear that Carroll's view of adult females is very different to his idealisation of pre-adolescent girls. Once those girls whom he considered to be friends had reached puberty, they symbolically died to him. [...] Reynolds and Humble suggest that underlying the ostensible playfulness of Alice is ‘an atmosphere of amoral chaos, lurking beneath the familiar furniture of Victorian bourgeois life'.The disturbing violence is, in psychoanalytic terms, the driving force of the id and sexual libido. The emphasis on constructing female traits may also be seen as displaced castration anxiety, or the repressed, or latent homosexuality of artist or writer.
Carroll avoids emotional excess: Alice is always restrained and logical, continually trying to re-assert the social framework of ‘reality' onto these strange situations in order to make sense of them. Meanings are destabilised, the threat of chaos is always imminent. When Alice asks the Cheshire Cat which direction she ought to take to get ‘ somewhere ', the cat suggests she visit the March hare and the Hatter: [...] The ‘logic' which the cat employs is an axiom which Alice is unable to contradict or refute, a reminder of the instability of fantasy which threatens to disrupt the real world of rational, scientific explanation. The Cat represents this chaos very strikingly: it appears as a head only, and disappears slowly, with its smile being the last thing to vanish. The very concept of a unified identity contained within an organic body is overturned by Carroll: Alice's ‘self' is manifested only as an incoherent and intangible set of spiritual and physical dislocations and encounters, in which alienation from her dysmorphic body is one result: All she could see, when she looked down, was an immense length of neck, which seemed to rise like a stalk out of the sea of green leaves that lay far below her. […] ‘Where have my shoulders got to? And, oh, my poor hands, how is it that I can't see you?' She was moving them about as she spoke, but no result seemed to follow.. (p.45)

[...] These characteristics of irrationality, rapid change and fragmentation are precisely the traits which patriarchy has traditionally ascribed to females as negative qualities, yet in Alice in Wonderland they are used as disruptive and radical strategies to challenge the boundaries of the everyday.
In Lacanian terms, there is: No authenticating point of origin in a ‘real' unitary self; it begins in a fantasy or mirage. Self is simply a continuous deferral of identity enacted by the displacement of desire from one social ideal to another. The Cartesian ‘I think therefore I am' has been replaced by Lacan with the notion ‘I think I am where I am not' (My italics) 10 This concept of subjectivity defined by the dysmorphic body and the fractured ‘consciousness' of the self effectively describes the narrative of Alice in Wonderland and the notion ‘I think I am where I am not' could surely have been written by Carroll himself. Eating, drinking and looking are central to the narrative. Freud describes the oral fixation of the infant in the eroticised pleasure of feeding. Food and drink therefore become central in adult relationships, offering promises of mother child plenitude. The fetishisation of food and drinks are drawn from

his drive towards unattainable perfection facilitates a split between mind and body. As Lacan develops in his seminar notes on ‘The Mirror Stage', the key moment of recognition in the mirror in the infant: Manufactures for the subject, caught up in the lure of the spatial identity, the succession of phantasies that extends from a fragmented body image to a form of its totality (1288) The mirror image, then, precipitates a split subjectivity, in which we both (mis)recognise the inverted/reflected organic unity to be ‘ourselves', but which comes at the price of the separation from the maternal body and loss of the Real and plenitude. (Maybe Carroll as author concept of shifting identities as a manifestation of his own disconnection from maternal body? Much made by scholars about the devastating impact of the death of Carroll's mother on the rest of his life).

Lacan uses the term meconnaisance to describe this moment, and, as Bennett point out, in Alan Sheridan's translation of Lacan's text, leaves the word untranslated. The French means both ‘failure to recognise' and ‘misconstruction'
For Alice, like many women with body dysmorphia, the moment of meconnaisance and its concomitant feelings of lack, fragmentation and abandonment are re-enacted through specularisation – reflected bodies, and produces this very ‘failure to recognise' or to ‘misconstruct' their body shape and size. This can be seen in both cultural terms, with the bombardment of idealised body shape images and diets which pervade all our lives, and also in terms of the ways in which we are interpellated, hailed into being, into social spaces in which the structures around us literally reflect back to us the way in which we view ourselves. This sense of dislocation raises broader concerns of being altogether. After shrinking to a small size, Alice fears that she may be ‘going out altogether, like a candle' and asks herself ‘I wonder what I should be like then?' (p.8).

Carter, in his study of Lewis Carroll, suggests that: The state of Nothingness, or Not Being, which at the very least is death and at its worst something more frightening, lies just around the corner in both Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass; and it is this that gives the books a driving purpose, even a sense of desperate urgency. This fundamental question of ontology, and self-awareness, underpins the narrative. Alice asks both the creatures around her, and then herself: ‘Who in the world am I? Ah, that's the great puzzle!' […] ‘I am sure I'm not Ada […] her hair goes in such long ringlets […] and I'm sure I can't be Mabel […] Besides she's she, and I'm I, and – Oh dear, how puzzling it all is'. (p.11) In her attempts to define herself, through the ongoing encounters with the creatures in the narrative, Alice becomes increasingly perplexed; she tries to apply the system of language as if it may yield fixed truths. Like language itself, can only see herself in terms of difference to others (Mabel, Ada), rather than perceiving herself as a fixed, organic whole. This then corresponds to Lacan's assertion that identity is ‘a series of displacements of desire to reunite with an imaginary narcissistic Ego-ideal'. Meanings of the self, as well as language, as Derrida shows, are never reached, but always deferred. If Alice is not an autonomous individual, she is still bound by being a female, part of a collective experience of female oppressions. [...]

Ultimately, Alice has no fixed, integrated identity, as nothing of her remains the same. Only the Cheshire Cat is in control of its existence; ‘This time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest had gone' (p.56). [...]
Carroll's curious transposition into Alice echoes the narrative structure of a dream, in which sophisticated wordplay, and the metamorphosis of spectacular creatures and situations, all signal the shifting of meanings from perspective to perspective, from subjectivity to object, culminating in the very collapse of that society when Alice (grown to giant proportions here) finally disavows the fantasy world as she exclaims: ‘You're nothing but a pack of cards!' (p.102). Carroll structures Alice as the pivotal protagonist in a story about unstable identities, and shifting boundaries. The monstrous and spectacular metamorphoses of Alice/Carroll produce a profoundly disturbing dystopia. In mediating and indeed fetishising the point of view of pre-adolescent young girl, Carroll effectively ventriloquises Alice's identity. But Carroll does more than this: the character of Alice serves as a repository for male anxieties about female sexuality and latent desire actually inscribed upon the transforming body. Carroll's fascination with young girls and abhorrence of sexually mature women (the Duchess, and the Queen) reveal complex responses to contemporary gender constructions which converge in a narrative framework of pastoral nostalgia. The encounters which Alice has with the fabulous and grotesque creatures in the narrative serve only to heighten the sense of unease which cannot be resolved even through the literary device of a framing ‘dream' structure, as, I hope I have shown, it emanates from the shifting, threatening, destabilised entity of ‘Alice' herself.

(Full text of the article click here - if you are interested, full reading not expected for the course)