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The Psychoanalysis of Lewis Carroll

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Lewis Carroll’s rough childhood and wild imagination are both represented in the novels he wrote. Because of this, his stories appeal to both children and adults. When a reader picks up a copy of Alice in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, it is easy to dismiss Lewis Carroll’s novels as the work of an insane author. Many critics read the incoherent descriptions of Carroll’s characters in Through the Looking Glass and dismiss the nonsense as justification of Carroll’s many personal problems, when in fact, it means much more than that. While Alice in Wonderland contains references to a dystopian society, the sequel, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, is a true reflection of the confusion that occurred inside Carroll’s mind. The story begins when Alice gazes up at a mirror and imagines what it would be like to step through the mirror into another world. We can interpret this scene as a metaphor for how Carroll moves between the structured, yet boring personality of Charles Dodgson into the energetic, yet exciting personality of Lewis Carroll. Lewis Carroll incorporates many parts of his life into his works,such as the time period he lived in, the people he socialized with, his knowledge of mental health, and many more.

Lewis Carroll was born under the name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, and he was the eldest son and third of eleven children born to Frances Jane Lutwidge and the Reverend Charles Dodgson. Carroll had a relatively happy childhood. His mother was patient and gentle, and despite his father’s religious duties as a Reverend, he tutored all of his children and raised them to be good people and have good morals. Carroll regularly made up games and wrote stories and poems for his siblings, some of which were similar to his later published novels. Carroll eventually met Alice Liddell, the young daughter of the head of Christ Church, who he based the main character in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland off of. He would often make up stories for Alice and her sisters over the next few years, such as one about a little girl who fell into a rabbit hole. At one point, Alice asked Carroll to write this story out for her, and he did so, calling it Alice’s Adventures Under Ground. This story ended up being the first draft of his most famous book, which was later published after some tweaks and changes. Thrilled by the book’s success, Carroll eventually wrote a second novel, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, which was also very popular. It included many of the interactions that he had with the Liddell children, such as their chess games.

Carroll lived during the Victorian era, which heavily influenced his writing. Many of the details used in his stories were based on the Victorian era, such as the flamingos, which pointed to missionary and colonial expansion in Africa, and the hookah-smoking caterpillar, which ws evidence of the profitable and encouraged trade with China in opium, according to critic Stan Walker. The world that is depicted in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a miniature model of the Victorian time period. Queen Victoria reigned during this time period, which can be seen through the female dominance that is greatly displayed in Carroll’s writing. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, the Queen of Hearts overpowers the King in both size and power. Additionally, the Duchess overpowers her husband and is in control of the household. Carroll aged during an era that had a large emphasis on punctuality. This is shown in the White Rabbit’s extremely paranoid reaction to being on time, in which he repeatedly says “I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date.” The Victorian time period was also one that had a rigid class structure, which is displayed in his writing when Alice, in addition to the Queen of Hearts, regularly insults the Wonderland creatures, especially the smaller ones. The Victorian obsession with over-consumption is represented in Alice’s constant overeating, which also simultaneously addresses the issue of contamination in the food market and water supply during the Victorian era. With Carroll’s religious background, this could also be a reference to one of the seven deadly sins, gluttony. Additionally, Carroll provides insight into how human beings are forced to adapt to cultural demands and circumstances, and shows that complying with rules and laws is not always the best solution. Alice is ordered around by almost every creature she comes into contact with, is dictated by this world’s strange rules, and is made to feel like she was constantly wrong even though she did nothing unusual for a child of her age. These irrational demands reflect the Victorian world’s strictness, specifically against children. When Alice first gets in trouble, she searches for rules as a form of direction, but it is only when Alice takes charge of her situation that she creates new rules that she can overcome her obstacles and find a way out of Wonderland. Even though many aspects of the Alice in Wonderland series contradicted Victorian values, Queen Victoria still praised Carroll’s work, possibly because Carroll subconsciously promoted female dominance within Wonderland.

Wonderland is a place that Alice came up with in her imagination, and it is full of magic and make-believe characters. The mysticality of wonderland can be a representative of the characters’ mental health. Although Lewis Carroll was not evidently mentally ill other than a slight case of insomnia, he depicted the majority of his characters as having mental illnesses. For example, Alice seems to have an eating disorder. At the beginning of the novel, Alice falls down a rabbit hole into a strange world in which food and drinks can dramatically change your size. As Alice eats and drinks, she constantly complains about being too large or too small. Additionally, rather than taking small bites, Ace binges and regrets her actions later. She eventually gets herself stuck in a cycle in which she overeats and then has to eat or drink even more to correct what she ate before. She essentially relies on food to solve her problems, which is a sign that she has an eating disorder. The Mad Hatter also displays traits of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, and bipolar disorder. These are shown in the tea party scene, in which the Hatter can be seen going through a wide range of emotions such as anger, happiness, and anxiousness in a short amount of time. Another character that displays signs of mental illness is the Queen of Hearts. She is constantly angry and yells at everyone around her with no hesitation. She displays many signs of narcissistic personality disorder, or NPD, which is described as a deep need for excessive attention, a lack of empathy for others, and an increased sense of their own importance. In addition to these characters, there are many others depicted as having anxiety, sleep apnea, and even drug addiction. An explanation to why Carroll might have written so much about mental illness was his uncle, Skeffington Ludwidge, whom he was named after. Skeffignton and Carroll were very close, until one day when Skeffington was killed by an asylum patient. Although he was not actually a patient himself, Skeffington was highly involved with psychology and frequently took Carroll on visits to the asylum, which was actually where Carroll based his mad tea party scene off of, as many of the characters displayed traits of mental illness.

Carroll also uses theme to help incorporate parts of his life. The most evident theme of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is that growing up can be confusing, challenging, and frustrating in many different ways. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland represents the child’s struggle to survive in the confusing world of adults. To understand our adult world, Alice has to overcome the curiosity that is typical for children. Though others might argue that the story was distinctly made for children because of the strange words and odd circumstances, the story has obvious dynamics that confirm the fact of it being a coming of age story. Apparently, adults need rules to live by. But most people adhere to those rules blindly now, without asking themselves ‘why’. This leads to the incomprehensible, and sometimes arbitrary behavior that Alice experiences in Wonderland. When entering Wonderland, Alice encounters a way of living and reasoning that is quite different from her own. A Duchess who is determined to find a moral in everything. Trials that seem to be very unjust. But during the journey through Wonderland, Alice learns to understand the adult world somewhat more. In fact, she is growing up. This is also represented by her physical changes during the story, the growing and shrinking. For example, Alice was confused to find out which way she would grow next while eating or drinking the food in Wonderland. Throughout the entire novel, it is very challenging for Alice to continuously keep growing or shrinking in size without any warning that it is going to happen. In addition to an eating disorder, this can also be depicted as Alice growing up, as girls constantly keep changing size as they move away from adolescence and into adulthood. Gradually, she starts to better understand the creatures that live in Wonderland. From the Cheshire Cat she learns that ‘everyone is mad here’. She learns to cope with the crazy Wonderland rules, and during the story she gets better in managing the situation. She tells the Queen of Hearts that her order is ‘nonsense’ and prevents her own beheading. In the end Alice has adapted and lost most of her vivid imagination that comes with childhood. She realizes what the creatures in Wonderland really are ‘nothing but a pack of cards’. At this point, she has matured too much to stay in Wonderland, the world of the children, and wakes up into the ‘real’ world, the world of adults. This can be interpreted as Carroll watching the Liddell girls grow and mature over time, and seeing them transform from little girls into grown women.

Carroll used diction and tone to help characterize Alice. For example, he uses the word “curious” in various different ways throughout the book to describe how curious Alice’s imagination can be. He makes the story from Alice’s point of view, and this kind of narration helps readers travel through the world of wonderland alongside Alice and discover the wonders of her mind. Carroll manipulated the meaning and context of words to reflect the unlimited sense of possibility within Wonderland. He used diction to display that it was okay to say what you want and really mean what you say, and not allowing society to dictate your language and ability to express yourself through conversation. Alice continually finds herself in situations in which she risks death, and while these threats never materialize, they suggest that death lurks just behind the ridiculous events of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Death first appears when the narrator mentions that Alice would not even think about the consequences of falling off of her own house. Alice takes risks that could possibly be fatal, but she never considers death as a possible outcome when making these daring decisions. She eventually realizes that her experiences in Wonderland are far more dangerous and threatening than they appear to be. As the Queen screams “Off with its head!” She understands that Wonderland may not just be a ridiculous world where expectations are repeatedly contradicted. Death may pose a real threat to Alice, and she starts to understand that the obstacles and dangers she encounters may not be ridiculous and absurd after all. 

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