Identity Conflict in Alice in Wonderland
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, written by Lewis Carroll, enjoys an unrivalled amount of popularity among readers across the world. It is the story of a young girl who falls down into in a fantastical world where madness is the rule and not an exception. It is a world in which nonsense is ripe: rabbits can talk, cats can easily vanish and drowning in one’s own tears is a possibility. However, at the end of the book, readers, who are starved for normalcy, are glad to understand that Wonderland is not a reality but just a figment of Alice’s imagination running wild during a dream.
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Lewis Carroll wrote in his diary on 9 February 1856: When we are dreaming, and as often happens, have a dim consciousness of the fact and try to wake, do we not say things which in waking life would be insane? May we not then sometimes define insanity as an inability to distinguish which is waking and which is the sleeping life? We often dream without the least suspicion on unreality: ‘Sleep hath its own world,’ and it is often as lifelike the other. It is through the lens of a dream world—a place where anything is possible— that Lewis Carroll showcases Alice’s conflict, both internal and external.
Alice’s struggle with her identity in Wonderland parallels the struggle that children face when they reach adolescence. During their formative years, children not only strive to discern who they actually are, they are also mistaken to be someone else by a presumptuous society and often fail to explain themselves to others. But it is only when they develop the necessary faculties to gauge the characters of others do adolescents realize their full potential. When Alice falls down the rabbit hole, she finds herself on an unfamiliar territory all alone.
After drinking the liquid out of a little bottle, she grows increasingly large, “opening out like the largest telescope that ever was” (16). Once the female protagonist “grows up,” a term that Carroll uses quite literally, she acknowledges “how queer everything is” (17). She battles out the question of self-identity by asking herself, “Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is ‘who in the world am I? ” (17).
Unable to arrive at a satisfactory answer, she wonders whether she has been changed for other children that are the same age as herself. She says, “I’m sure I can’t be Mabel, for I know all sorts of things, and she, oh, she knows very little” (18). Being unable to recite her lessons the way she had been taught, Alice starts tearing up and thinks that maybe she has been changed into Mabel after all. She finally reconciles with a shift in identity and says, “Who am I then? Tell me that first, and then, if I like being that person, I’ll come up: if not, I’ll stay down here till I’m somebody else” (19).
Alice wants to know who she is and only if she approves of that identity, she will come up the rabbit hole and back to reality. During her adventure, Alice is mistaken to be a different person by the characters she meets as well. Immediately upon looking at Alice, the Rabbit remarks, “Why, Mary Ann, what are you doing out here? Run home this moment, and fetch me a pair of gloves and a fan! Quick, now” (31). He mistakes Alice for his housemaid to which Alice thinks to herself, “How surprised he’ll be when he finds out who I am! ” (31).
When Alice takes a bite off the mushroom, her body grows disproportionately. She is “delighted to find that her neck would bend easily in any direction, like a serpent” (47). Soon, a large pigeon flies into her face and starts beating her violently with its wings. Alice, quite frustrated by being mistaken yet again for someone else, says indignantly, “I’m not a serpent! Let me alone” (47). Similarly, when the Cheshire Cat meets Alice, he calls her mad. When Alice questions him about how exactly he is so sure about her insanity, he says, “you must be, or you wouldn’t have come here” (57).
Time and again, Alice meets creatures that presume she is someone else and don’t put in the time and effort to find out who she really is. Alice is also unable to explain herself to a character that quite persistently questions her about her identity. The Caterpillar, sitting on a mushroom and smoking on a hookah, opens the conversation with a “Who are you” (40). Alice is at a loss for words because she can’t answer this seemingly simple question. In a meek voice, she replies, “I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, Sir, because I’m not myself, you see” (41).
He puts forth the same question to her rather contemptuously twice more and is not able to draw a satisfactory answer from the girl. Lewis Carroll, in a rather innovative fashion, throws light struggle of identity formation that children face as soon as they reach adolescence. They do not only have trouble deciding who they are, they are also constantly judged by the society they live in. Alice calls it the “great puzzle” (17) and many children in the twenty first century would agree with her.
However, the end of Alice’s journey occurs when she lets go over her timid nature and stands up for what she believes in. When the Queen, who is a rather frightening and unjust figure, orders to have the sentence first and the verdict afterwards, Alice says loudly, “Stuff and nonsense” (107). When the Queen, who is rather taken aback by Alice’s bold nature, commands her to hold her tongue, Alice replies courageously, “I won’t” (107). The Queen, turning purple, shouts at the top of her voice, “Off with her head” to which Alice, who is fully grown up now (literally and figuratively), says, “Who cares for you?
You’re nothing but a pack of cards” (108). This is symbolic of the peak of maturity that children reach during the adventure of their adolescence, a point when they can stand up for what they believe in and truly understand the identity of the people surrounding them. As long as they live in the world, they will continue to explore and re-discover different facets of their personality. They will also have to deal with the different types of people they meet who may not always be nice.
A struggle with self-identity and a judgmental society is a part a parcel of growing up and life. But when they develop the mental faculty to judge the characters of other people in a correct manner, they reach a high point in their adolescence, one that empowers them to face reality and humanity with a more mature and balanced perspective. Works Cited Carroll, Lewis, Hugh Haughton, John Tenniel, Lewis Carroll, and Lewis Carroll. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: And, Through the Looking-glass and What Alice Found There. London: Penguin, 1998. Print.