“To make the dream-story from which Wonderland was elaborated seem Freudian one only has to tell it.” – William Empson
Finding Wonderland: Psychoanalysis in Alice in Wonderland
Freud Lacan Fairy Tales Children’s Story Stories Lewis Carroll
Moving on from the classic fairy and folk tales which have been retold and morphed by oral tradition and often have no fixed, identifiable author, Alice in Wonderland needs no introduction. It’s common knowledge that its author, Lewis Carroll, or Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, was a man of many complex layers, and his children’s story is no exception.
A deacon, photographer and mathematician, with a habit of making ‘child-friends,’ Carroll’s behaviour has come into question over the years, and his mindset has been scrutinised through his writings, the most famous of which is, of course, the surreal Alice in Wonderland.
There are several ways to analyse literature using psychoanalysis – we can employ Barthes’ concept of the death of the author, and explore only the characters and the story, or alternatively, we can assume that nothing exists within a vacuum and look at the writer too.
Alice’s fall down the rabbit hole could be a route to the unconscious, particularly when we bear in mind that she seems to be dreaming throughout the story. The tunnel could also be a phallic symbol of penetration.
More psychosexual imagery emerges when Alice lands – the line up of doors with their locks and keyholes, and the curtain, symbolic of clothing, which Alice must move out of the way, are all potentially telling of the author’s mindset.
‘Every child at play behaves like a creative writer, in that he creates a world of his own or, rather, he arranges the things of his world in a new way,’ Freud.
When Alice finally finds the garden she has been so determined to reach, it transpires to be a nightmare of dictatorship and a scene of gory massacre. Could this be a comment from Carroll, a Church deacon, about the Garden of Eden and its falsehoods?
‘Who are you?‘
Losing identity in Wonderland
Psychoanalysis is all about identity and uncovering the true self. Alice severely lacks any concept of self-identification. Her time in Wonderland includes dysmorphic periods, (she is either too big or too small;) confusion over her very nature, (she is accused of being both a flower and a serpent and will not be heard when she insists that she is, in fact, a ‘little girl;’) and desperation to find her way home.
Most telling is Alice’s conversation with the Caterpillar, who repeatedly asks, ‘who are you?’ To which she replies, ‘I — I hardly know, sir, just at present — at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.’
In light of this, I believe Alice in Wonderland may have been the author’s way of excising Alice Liddell from his own mind, blurring and distorting her identity beyond recognition in order to evict her from his thoughts.
Alice in Wonderland Syndrome
Alice in Wonderland Syndrome, also known as Todd’s syndrome, is a disorienting neurological condition that affects human perception. People experience micropsia, macropsia, pelopsia, teleopsia, or size distortion of other sensory modalities.
Buy your copy of Lewis Carroll: the Complete Collection online to read the full Alice in Wonderland story as well as more works by the author.