Take A Bite Out of Nature: The Significance of Animals in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
The above clip is from the film “Spirited Away”, a film heralded as a modern day “Alice in Wonderland”
“Everything’s got a moral, if only you can find it.”
Lewis Carroll as The Duchess
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is considered one of the most beloved books of children’s literature in the modern age. Through various media incarnations, including film, television, parody, and music, this classic tale of a girl’s magical journey through the land of madness is at once both didactic and inscrutable. Perhaps one of the most memorable themes running through the book is the constant personification of animals. However, the significance of this consistent transmogriphication is often overlooked by those more interested in what the characters say than who the characters are. Indeed, while analysts and fans will often memorize a quote or witticism, they seldom look to the identity of the one speaking. During her encounter with the Caterpillar in Chapter V of the book, indeed, Alice is very concerned with identity. The Caterpillar asks her bluntly, “Who are you?” However, Alice cannot answer him, which stymies their conversation. This suggests that Carroll himself was conscious of, and careful in selecting the identities of those who spoke. Therefore, particularly in the case of the large number of talking animals, the significance of animals needs to be examined.
From the very beginning of the book, Alice’s journey is typified by movement away from the ordered world of human society, and into the chaotic world of nature. This journey is jump started by a very anxious animal, the White Rabbit. “So she was considering…whether the pleasure of making a daisy-chain would be worth the trouble of getting up and picking the daisies, when suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her.” However, it is not only the animal itself, but his unique manner that motivates Alice into action. “but, when the Rabbit actually took a watch out of its waistcoat-pocket, and looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet…”. It is worth noting here, that in the world that Carroll creates for Alice, there is nothing to suggest that this White Rabbit is anything out of the ordinary. In our world it might be ludicrous, or even frightening to see a small animal, dressed finely and muttering to itself in human speech, but in Carroll’s world, the suggestion is not that the rabbit is aberrant but that Alice herself has never looked at rabbits correctly before.
In fact, animals in Carroll’s world seem all too eager to question Alice’s preconceptions. For instance, after having fallen deeply into the earth while chasing the White Rabbit, and experiencing a strange lesson in the dangers of consumption, Alice encounters a mouse. Her mechanical niceties of conversation often cause difficulties between her and the animals she is in the company of. This perhaps begins with her utterance in French, “Ou est ma chatte?” in an effort to communicate with a Mouse she fears may be French. She soon learns that the mouse understands both French and English though, as the poor creature leaps from the pool of tears they are swimming in with fright and responds, after Alice’s quick apology, “Not like cats!” cried the Mouse in a shrill passionate voice. “Would you like cats, if you were me?” Alice continues the conversation, but stumbles onto the predatory nature of her own animal companions again and again, able only to recognize her error after the fact, instead of preventing her rude utterances to begin with. This seems to highlight Carroll’s underlying theme within Alice’s journey; Alice must learn to empathize with those who are different from her in order to grow.
Alice’s animal phantasmagoria continues with her further encounter with the White Rabbit. She finds herself placed in the awkward position of being ordered by the animal, and immediately identifies her preconceptions that animals ought to keep their place. “How queer it seems…to be going messages for a rabbit! I suppose Dinah’ll be sending me on messages next!…Only I don’t think…that they’d let Dinah stop in the house if it began ordering people about like that!” The thought of her cat making requests of her seems absurd. Yet she does as the White Rabbit asks and ends up, through her further selfish acts, trapped in the White Rabbit’s house, having grown too large to exit. The White Rabbit, along with a large group of various animals then gather to attempt and expel the giant Alice from the house. Whereas before, Alice has been beseeching the creatures she comes into contact with for help, now that she is large again, her first reaction is intimidation and violence. When the White Rabbit attempts to enter his house, she “suddenly spread out her hand and made a snatch in the air”. And later, she kicks a lizard out of the chimney, after wishing to herself that the animals could help her out of the house. Finally, when they threaten to burn the house down she responds, “If you do, I’ll set Dinah at you!” This is, to her mind, a clear threat of murder. Now that she is gigantic, she feels that the animal’s feelings and inclinations don’t matter at all, and feels free to attack and bully them as she pleases. Again, she finds that she cannot bring herself to empathize with a creature different than herself, and what little empathy she seemed to have developed through regret of her actions with the Mouse and his friends quickly evaporates when her dominant size returns to her.
Alice’s journey continues on through many more encounters with animals and their treatment in the world of Wonderland. She encounters a fish and a frog serving as messengers, and rescues a baby that turns into a pig (which she quickly discards). She has a conversation with the enigmatic Cheshire Cat, the only other predatory animal she had encountered, and attends a mad tea party, hosted by both man AND animal.
And finally, she comes to play Croquet with the Red Queen. It is here that Alice encounters the truly uncompassionate nature of mankind. In fact, it is perhaps a pun on Carroll’s part by turning these “human” characters into personified playing cards, inherently small and thin, suggesting that their self serving, self indulgent natures make them shallow excuses for human beings. From their first meeting, Alice is at odds with the Queen of Hearts, whose selfish cruelty is an exaggerated mirror of Alice’s own. “’And who are these?” said the Queen…”How should I know?” said Alice surprised at her own courage, “It’s no business of mine.” The Queen turned crimson with furty, and, glaring at her for a moment like a wild beast, began screaming, “Off with her head! Off with—“ “Nonsense!”, said Alice, very and decidedly, and the Queen was silent.” After their initial friction, Alice is invited to play croquet, where the presence of animals is decidedly different than their previous incarnations. While the White Rabbit is present and nervous as always, clearly a servant to the court, “the croquet balls were all hedgehogs, and the mallets live flamingoes”. Alice struggles to play the insane game of croquet, growing more and more perturbed at the Queen’s petulant and childish execution edicts and her blatant disregard for the feelings or status of others. When the Cheshire Cat appears, he asks, “How do you like the Queen?” To which Alice replies, “Not at all”. Then, when her friendship with the cat is challenged, Alice quickly retorts to the King of Hearts, “A cat may look at a king”. This is the first time she had stood up for the rights of those who are different than herself. The Cheshire Cat becomes the first “other” that she is able to identify with, and her defense of him causes the entire court to go to shambles in an attempt to kill the cat.
After a strange meeting with a creature called the Mock Turtle, and listening at the end to him sing a song about Turtle Soup, which the Queen of Hearts intends to turn him into, Alice comes to the climax of her first journey. She is taken to the trial of the Knave of Hearts, which is presided over by the King and Queen of Hearts. The jury however consists of an assortment of creatures, which sit in judgment of the man. Alice is able, over the course of the trial and observing the selfish injustice of the human in power, to finally “grow up”. Quite literally she becomes enormous, refusing to accept the heartless actions of her human kin. And in doing so, she is able to throw off the selfish blinders of her childhood that keep her insensitive to the diversity around her. In the end, she declares of the Queen and her court, “’Who cares for you?” said Alice (she had grown to her full size by this time). “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” She acknowledges that the cruel and heartless way these heart covered “people” act is inhumane and uncomfortable, and her epiphany returns her to the real world.
It is perhaps not readily apparent what Carroll wishes to teach us through the mad fancies and strange series of events presented by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but for the modern reader who considers not only what is said, but by whom, a strong moral becomes apparent. Though Alice begins her journey selfish, and unable even to consider the feelings of other before speaking, through her experiences with the diverse creatures of Wonderland, most significantly the personified animals, she is able to learn empathy, and to recognize the shallowness of those who exhibit unrestrained cruelty to those around them. The humanization of the animals in the story does not serve to water down their impact, but rather it is Carroll’s (perhaps unwitting) message about the universal nature of suffering. Alice must learn that animal, man, or object, all creatures must be treated with value.
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