"'Everything is Queer To-day': Lewis Carroll's Alice Through the Jungian Looking-Glass," Clifton Snider

Clifton Snider
English Department, Emeritus
California State University, Long Beach

Lewis Carroll, self-portrait, 1882

"Everything is Queer To-day":

Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Jungian Looking-Glass


    Of all Victorian children’s stories that are enjoyed equally by children and adults, none is more popular than Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1872).1 More than any other piece of literature written for children during the Victorian period, Alice in Wonderland (as the tales together are generally called) has spawned a seemingly never-ending academic industry; and, although Carroll also wrote other children’s books (The Hunting of the Snark (1876) and the Sylvie and Bruno books (1889 and 1893) are the most notable), the interest in the Alice books far outweighs the interest in the other books. Alice in Wonderland has been analyzed from virtually all critical points of view.2 The Freudian approach has been applied many times, starting at least as early as 1933 with a piece by A. M. E. Goldschmidt (see Phillips, Aspects of Alice 279-82). Carroll himself receives the Freudian treatment in Phyllis Greenacre’s Swift and Carroll: A Psychoanalytic Study of Two Lives (1955). The Jungian approach, too, has been tried on Alice in an article called “Alice as Anima : The Image of Woman in Carroll’s Classic,” published in Aspects of Alice . Although much that Judith Bloomingdale says is on the mark, she is not convincing in making Alice the anima. Alice may be, for Carroll, an incipient image of the anima, but she is far more, as Bloomingdale herself demonstrates and as I hope my own analysis will show.3

    One Freudian critic goes so far as to declare: “It is impossible to gain conscious understanding of the life of Lewis Carroll or of the meaning of his written fantasy unless a psychoanalytic approach is used” (Skinner 293). Although much nonsense has been written using the psychoanalytic approach, the approach itself is valid. At the same time, it leaves many psychological issues unexplored. In “The Spiritual Problem of Modern Man,” Jung writes: “If anything of importance is devalued in our conscious life, and perishes--so runs the law--there arises a compensation in the unconscious” (86). Jungian criticism attempts to account for the collective appeal of a classic like Alice in Wonderland. It asks, For what that is lacking in the contemporary collective psyche does the work compensate? An account for such appeal or compensation cannot be entirely provided by an examination of the author’s life, however provocative and interesting that life is--and Carroll’s life is certainly an interesting case study. First generation Jungians like Marie-Louise von Franz (in Puer Aeternus ) and Barbara Hannah (in Striving Towards Wholeness ) do examine in tandem the lives and works of literary artists, but Jung himself warned against the “reduction of art to personal factors.” Such a reduction “deflects our attention from the psychology of the work of art and focuses it on the psychology of the artist . . . the work of art exists in its own right and cannot be got rid of by changing it into a personal complex” (“Psychology and Literature” 93). In other words, the work of art is independent of and greater than its creator. It may tell us much about the artist, but ultimately, if it is to endure, its appeal must be collective--“visionary,” to use Jung’s term (ibid. 89).  

    Having said this, I must add that a brief examination of Carroll’s life can provide clues as to how he was uniquely suited to produce his classic.  Like Edward Lear, Carroll in some respects fits the profile of the puer aeternus as outlined by von Franz in Puer Aeternus. He seems to have had a mother complex; further, as one Carroll scholar states, he had a “reluctance to commit himself, to become in any way tied down” (Gattégno 215), and this is another puer trait. As a puer aeternus, Carroll had “a certain kind of spirituality which comes from a relatively close contact with the collective unconscious” (von Franz 4); Carroll was ordained a deacon, albeit he never became a priest.

    Stephen Prickett points out some surface similarities between Lear and Carroll:

            Both were shy and sensitive bachelors; both were afraid of dogs;
            both were of an ‘analytic state of mind’--Carroll indexed his
            entire correspondence, which, by his death had 98,000 cross-
            references. Both were marginal kinds of men, if in very different
            senses. (130)

Like many of the authors whose work I have examined, both Lear and Carroll are social outsiders. Although both shared some of the same friends (among them some of the Pre-Raphaelites and the Tennysons), no one has found any record of either man referring to the other, though both pioneered the nonsense genre.4 Both were visual artists. Carroll’s photography and drawing were avocations, whereas Lear’s paintings provided his livelihood and he illustrated his own books, as Carroll did not. Unlike Lear and the typical puer, Carroll hardly ever traveled abroad (he made one trip to the Continent in his lifetime). And he was different from the typical puer as described by von Franz in that he was neither a homosexual, so far as we know, nor a Don Juan.

    Lear was a homosexual. Carroll, on the other hand, was a heterosexual pedophile who “collected” little girls like so many dolls and who lost his stammer in their presence. A famous photographer, Carroll abruptly gave up photography in 1880 after having practiced the art for some twenty-four years. He gave no explanation, but one reason may have been gossip about and resistance to his photographing pre-pubescent girls in the nude. After 1880 he continued drawing them in the nude (Clark 208). His nephew and first biographer, Stuart Dodgson Collingwood, records that Carroll “always took about with him a stock of puzzles when he travelled, to amuse any little [female] companions [he detested little boys] whom chance might send him” (407). To pretend that Carroll’s predilections were not in part sexual is extremely naïve (see Gattégno 82 and Greenacre 245-46).

    Carroll’s sexual orientation provided a powerful motive for his creative work. His remaining child-like as an adult also gave him entrée into the psyche of the child. Moreover, he had, like Lear, a nature somewhat akin to the Native American berdache. In his inventions of puzzles, riddles, and games, in his visual art, in his appeal to children, and indeed in his name-giving function (both for himself and for such characters as Jabberwocky and the Bandersnatch), Carroll fulfilled the role of the berdache. The adult Carroll disapproved of “transvestite parts [in the theater], though only when it involved a man’s being dressed as a woman” (Gattégno 226), but at about the age of seventeen or eighteen he drew a curious picture as the frontispiece to a family magazine called The Rectory. The Rectory Umbrella shows a bearded man with an almost Cheshire-cat grin lying down on one elbow. He is dressed, as Greenacre points out, as “a little girl, the skirt suggesting the appearance of a closed umbrella” (131). He’s holding an umbrella on which are the words “Tales, Poetry, Fun, Riddles, Jokes.” Overhead, six little sexless imps are trying to rain down chunks of “Woe, Spite, Ennui, Gloom, Crossness, and Alloverishness.” Rushing through the air and to the safety under the umbrella are seven female fairies bringing “Liveliness, Knowledge, Good Humour, Taste, Cheerfulness, Content, and Mirth” (Greenacre 130-31). The cross-dressed man’s resemblance to the berdache in this drawing is striking, all the more so because it is no doubt unconscious.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson's drawing for The Rectory Umbrella (c. 1849-50).

    In physical appearance Carroll resembled a berdache far more than did Lear, who wore glasses and had a great Victorian beard. Not only was Carroll clean-shaven, but also, Greenacre writes, “As he grew older, his face became more feminine in cast, an effect possibly enhanced by his wearing his hair rather long. His effeminacy was sufficiently obvious that some of his less sympathetic students once wrote a parody of his parodies and signed it ‘Louisa Caroline’” (166) Although Greenacre believes “there is no expression of frustrated paternity in” Carroll, as a child “there was something of a motherly or older sisterly quality in his care for and entertainment of the young children” in his family. Furthermore,

            there was a slightly feminine cast to his charming thoughtfulness
            --his interest in tiny things, his patient arrangements of puppet
            theatricals, and his protectiveness toward small animals as well
            as small sisters. (222)

It is possible the young Lewis Carroll exhibited so-called feminine traits even earlier, like the famous Zuni berdache We’Wha (Roscoe 33). Greenacre believes “Charles . . . had much in his nature that suggests the Victorian woman” (222-23). And Camille Paglia declares: “Carroll’s spiritual identity was thoroughly feminine” (547). Furthermore, Paglia says, “Carroll’s Alice books introduced an epicene element into English discourse that . . . flourishes to this day” (549). It seems clear that in his personal appearance, in his personality and psyche, in his persona as a writer of nonsense books, and in the books themselves, Carroll fits the archetype of the berdache.

    Carroll also fits the archetype of the Trickster, which I’ve discussed at length in my article on Lear. Karl Kerényi writes in his commentary on Paul Radin’s study of the Winnebago Trickster cycle that the Trickster “could be defined as the timeless root of all picaresque creations of world literature” (176), and what are the Alice books if not picaresque?

    There is another figure in the myths of some Pueblo Indians that resembles Lewis Carroll--Thinking Woman. In his Pueblo Gods and Myths , Hamilton A. Tyler quotes nineteenth-century anthropologist John M. Gunn, who wrote a book about the Acoma and Laguna Pueblos, on Thinking-Woman: “Their theory is that reason (personified) is the supreme power, a master mind that has always existed, which they call Sitch-tche-na-ko. This is the feminine form for thought or reason” (qtd. by Tyler 90-91). Another anthropologist, L. A. White, reports that at the Santa Ana Pueblo Thinking Woman’s “function was to scheme or plan,” and that an Acoma Indian said, “She must have been quite small, for she sat on Iatiku’s [the Corn-Mother’s] right shoulder during her contests with her sister and told her what to do” (qtd. by Tyler 91). The form she takes is that of a spider. One cannot help but be reminded of the Gnat in Through The Looking-Glass, which William Empson believes “gives a touching picture of Dodgson” himself (274). The Gnat tries to help Alice develop a sense of humor: “‘That’s a joke. I wish you had made it,’” he tells her (Oxford Alice 155; all references to the Alice books are to this edition). Here the Gnat exhibits a Trickster trait--an attempt to bring humor to the serious little girl. Like Thinking Woman, Carroll excelled in reason, even as he spun out so-called nonsense tales for children. Significantly, in Western culture thinking has been designated a “masculine” function, yet here it is embodied in a rather androgynous storyteller, the protagonist of whose tale is a little girl.

    Then there is the matter of the storyteller’s name. Many critics and scholars make the point that there were really two men.5 One was named Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. He was the oldest son (and third child) in a family of eleven (seven girls, four boys), whose father was himself a clergyman. Born in Daresbury (in Cheshire) on 27 January 1832, Dodgson had a happy childhood until he was sent to Rugby. There, although he did well in his studies, he was bullied and miserable. His experience at Rugby probably began his hatred of little boys, which got worse as he grew into middle age. Shortly after he entered Christ Church, Oxford, at the age of nineteen, his mother died. One biographer remarks that Dodgson “was profoundly affected by his mother’s death,” although he tended to hide his feelings (Clark 66; another scholar, I should note, disagrees. Humphrey Carpenter declares: “it is very striking how little impression Dodgson’s mother’s death seems to have made on him,” 47). He lived at Oxford the remainder of his life (till, that is, 14 January 1898), becoming a “Student” (the Christ Church term for “Fellow”) and a lecturer in mathematics (until 1881). Under the name of Dodgson he published works on mathematics and logic.

    In 1856 Edmund Yates, editor of The Train, a small magazine in which Dodgson had published some poetry, chose the pseudonym Lewis Carroll from a list of four submitted by Dodgson. The name is a reversal and variation of Charles Lutwidge (Gattégno 229). It was, of course, as Lewis Carroll that the shy, stammering Oxford lecturer became famous as the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and other stories for children. Had Lewis Carroll not possessed the unique psyche I’ve outlined, had he not become friends with the four Liddell children (Harry, Lorina, Alice, and Edith, children of the Dean of Christ Church), had he not fallen in love with Alice, and had Alice not urged him to write down the stories he told the children, the world probably would never have become acquainted with Alice in Wonderland . All artists who produce visionary work--work stemming from the collective unconscious--have a particular psychological makeup or complex that allows them to produce such work. Only a person with the Dodgson/Carroll psyche writing in the Victorian age could have produced the Alice books. I quite agree with Derek Hudson that “Alice in Wonderland owes its unique place in our literature to the fact that it was the work of a unique genius, that of a mathematician and logician who was also a humorist and a poet” (128). What accounts for its wide and lasting collective appeal is what I intend to examine in the following pages.


    William Empson comments: “Wonderland is a dream, but the Looking-Glass is self-conscious” (257). While I agree, nevertheless, both are cast as dreams, and indeed the question of dreams, who’s dreaming what, is Alice only “a sort of thing” in the Red King’s dreams (Oxford Alice 168), is important to both books. At the end of Looking-Glass,  Alice shakes the Red Queen into her own kitten. She questions the kitten:

            “Now, Kitty, let’s consider who it was that dreamed it all.
            . . . You see, Kitty, it must have been either me or the Red King.
            He was part of my dream, of course--but then I was part of his
            dream, too! Was it the Red King, Kitty?” (ibid. 244)

And the first-person narrator--far more prominent in Looking-Glass than in Wonderland --leaves the answer up to the reader: “Which do you think it was?” The book ends with the same dream motif in an acrostic poem based on Alice Liddell’s name: Alice Pleasance Liddell. I quote the last three stanzas:

            Children yet, the tale to hear,
            Eager eye and willing ear,
            Lovingly shall nestle near.

            In a Wonderland they lie,
            Dreaming as the days go by,
            Dreaming as the summers die:

            Ever drifting down the stream--
            Lingering in the golden gleam--
            Life, what is it but a dream?6 (Ibid. 245)

One is reminded here of Poe’s poetic question “Is all that we see or seem/But a dream within a dream?” (10). Jung himself observes:

            A typical infantile motif is the dream of growing infinitely small
            or infinitely big, or being transformed from one to the other--as
            you find it, for instance, in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

But he emphasizes that the motifs he’s been discussing “must be considered in the context of the dream itself, not as self-explanatory ciphers” (Man and His Symbols 53).

    As I have noted in my book, The Stuff That Dreams Are Made On,

            whenever an imbalance in the psyche is struck . . . [an] individual may . . .
            have archetypal (as opposed to merely personal) dreams and fantasies that
            are trying to compensate for the imbalance.  The same applies to communities
            (which always have a collective consciousness). If a large group of people have
            an imbalance in their collective consciousness or their collective unconscious, then
            archetypal images will appear in myths, in folk tales, and in more formal literature. (3)

The questions to ask about Alice in Wonderland, then, are What are the archetypal images it contains? and For what collective imbalance do they compensate?

    The story about how Alice’s Adventures under Ground (as the story was first called) was first spontaneously composed on a boating excursion with the Liddell sisters suggests that the initial version of the story arose directly from unconscious sources (Gardner, Alice’s Adventures under Ground v). Later, of course, the story went through several revisions, revisions that added much conscious material and included conscious shaping. The fact that both Alice books became so popular and have remained so suggest, further, that the images in them are indeed archetypal.
As I’ve already conceded, Alice may be an image of the anima for Carroll himself, and perhaps for the Victorian age at a very elemental level--a question I shall return to. More importantly, Alice represents the archetype of the child.

Photo of Alice Liddell as a beggar
girl, by Lewis Carroll, date unknown.

Jungian analyst James Hillman writes: “Puer figures often have a special relationship with the Great Mother, who is in love with them as carriers of the spirit” (“Senex and Puer” 24-25). The puer, the archetype of the child, became extremely popular during mid-nineteenth century England, even as lower-class children were victims of horrible labor conditions and middle- and upper-class children victims of repressive and sexist education. “Victorian concepts of the child,” writes Nina Auerbach, “tended to swing back and forth between extremes of original innocence and original sin; Rousseau and Calvin stood side by side in the nursery” (42). Furthermore, Victorians “saw little girls as the purest members of a species of questionable origin, combining as they did the inherent spirituality of child and woman” (ibid. 32). Tracing the “cult of childhood” in his book by that name, George Boas claims “by the nineteenth century the identification of the child with primitive man was complete” (102). He finds the cult of childhood especially strong in “the mores of North American societies”: “If adults are urged to retain their youth, to ‘think young’, to act and dress like youngsters, it is because the Child has been held up to them as a paradigm of the ideal man” (9). These attitudes outlined by Auerbach and Boas account in part for Alice’s appeal in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. (Empson’s comment that “Dodgson envied the child because it was sexless” (260) seems not only pointless but also false.)

    Harold Bloom comments: “It is a truism of criticism to remark that the child Alice is considerably more mature than any of the inhabitants of Wonderland” (3), but that does not mean the Alice books are not stories of initiation or that Alice does not learn from the other characters. On the conscious level, Alice in Wonderland , like the nonsense poetry of Lear, was a refreshing contrast to the “improving” children’s literature of the time.7 Although in general Carroll is far more conscious, more concerned with cognition than is Lear, both nonsense writers compensate for Victorian hyperrationalism. As a child, Alice is closer to the archetypes of the collective unconscious than adults are. “The child motif,” Jung writes, “represents the preconscious, childhood aspect of the collective psyche” (The Archetypes 161). Furthermore, the child is “a symbol which unites the opposites; a mediator, bringer of healing, that is, one who makes whole” (ibid. 164). There are plenty of opposites in Alice in Wonderland , from the red and white roses to the black and white kittens to the Red Queen and the White Queen, whom Queen Alice symbolically unites as they fall asleep on her lap (Oxford Alice 230-31). The laughter of nonsense itself is healing, as I show in my Lear article. It is as if Carroll is unconsciously telling his adult readers that they have much to gain from becoming child-like.8 The fact that Alice is indeed more mature than the other characters and that she is able to use the thinking function (traditionally a male function in Western culture) is another indication she is a symbol of wholeness, or at least potential wholeness, what Jung calls the Self.

    Jean Gattégno observes: “There is no mention of God in either of the Alice books. . . . there is no justification for any, even indirect, ‘Christian’ interpretation of Alice’s adventures . . . [yet] Carroll had an extraordinary sensitivity about all things religious” (232). However, since the Alice books are visionary in Jung’s use of the word, since they are drawn from the collective unconscious, they are numinous. They are a kind of myth for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Jung writes:

            It is a striking paradox in all child myths that the ‘child’ is
            on the one hand delivered helpless into the power of terrible
            enemies and in continual danger of extinction, while on the
            other he possesses powers far exceeding those of ordinary
            humanity. This is closely related to the psychological fact
            that though the child may be ‘insignificant,’ unknown, ‘a mere
            child,’ he is also divine.

Furthermore, “Myth . . . emphasizes . . . that the ‘child’ is endowed with superior powers and, despite all dangers, will unexpectedly pull through. . . . [The child] is a personification of vital forces quite outside the limited range of our conscious mind . . .” (The Archetypes 170). Clearly, Jung’s comments could have been made about Alice in Wonderland.9

    Alice’s tasks are to build her ego, to expand her consciousness, to realize her Self, her personal myth. The child, Jung says, “represents the strongest, the most ineluctable urge in every being, namely the urge to realize itself” (ibid.). The opposite sides of her divided personality (symbolized by her conversations with herself) need to be united. Her nearly drowning in her own tears is an obvious symbol of baptism, of death and rebirth; but her crying shows that she’s developed the feeling function, a traditionally “feminine” function in Western culture. As I’ve suggested, she is also developing the traditionally “masculine” thinking function: “‘Maybe it’s always pepper that makes people hot-tempered,’ she went on, very much pleased at having found out a new kind of rule” (Oxford Alice 79). She also exercises the intuition function (traditionally “feminine”), as for example when, exasperated, she realizes during the Knave’s trial that the King and Queen of Hearts and their court are “‘nothing but a pack of cards’” (ibid. 109). The sensation function she uses as much as any typical girl of seven or seven and a half. The “very ugly” Duchess’s chin is “uncomfortably sharp” on her shoulder (ibid. 79-80); she readily eats and drinks things that change her size; she plays croquet, dances, and so on. Alice’s development of what Jung calls the functions of consciousness (see Snider, Stuff 12-13) demonstrates the growth of her conscious self and her androgynous wholeness. It is important that Alice is female because she thus compensates for the innumerable male child heroes in Western tradition. The child-hero or child-god is, archetypally, hermaphroditic (see The Archetypes 173-77), but Western myth and literature have one-sidedly emphasized the masculine at the expense of the feminine and Alice helps to compensate for this one-sidedness.

    However, she is not, except in the broadest (or paradoxically the narrowest) sense, the anima, for she does not function as the anima for anyone in the stories. Collectively, she embodies the Eros principle, and in that broad sense a case could be made for Alice as anima. If she is merely an anima-image for Carroll, that has no relevance for this study. The important point is that, as I’ve indicated, she helps compensate for patriarchal one-sidedness.

    When the Duchess repeats the old saw, “‘Oh, ‘tis love, ‘tis love, that makes the world go round!’” Alice replies, “‘Someone said . . . that it’s done by everybody minding their own business!’” Her logical nature further illustrates her wholeness. She combines what Jung calls the “feminine” Eros principle with the “masculine” Logos principle. Writing about the anima and the animus, Jung explains:

            I use Eros and Logos merely as conceptual aids to describe the fact
            that woman’s consciousness is characterized more by the connective
            quality of Eros than by the discrimination and cognition associated
            with Logos. In men, Eros, the function of relationship, is usually less
            developed than Logos. In women, on the other hand, Eros is an expression
            of their true nature, while their Logos is often only a regrettable accident. (Aion 14)

If the Logos principle is more highly developed in Alice than in most Victorian girls, it may be a reflection of Carroll’s own identification with his heroine. On a collective level, however, Alice in Wonderland demonstrates that the same Victorian girls had greater potential than they were generally given credit for. If they did not grasp this consciously, no doubt they understood on a subconscious, “spiritual” level.

    As I show in my article on Lear, the Trickster manifests himself in the form of several animals, and animals abound in Alice in Wonderland . The White Rabbit is one of the more important symbols. Although a male, the White Rabbit further illustrates the androgynous nature of the archetypal symbols in Alice , for, as J. E. Cirlot notes, the hare has a “feminine character” as its “fundamental symbolization; hence it is not surprising to find that it was the second of the twelve emblems of the emperor of China, symbolic of the Yin force in the life of the monarch” (139). Carroll’s rabbit, of course, is most famous for its anxiety about being late, as he frantically consults his watch. (One of my own most vivid childhood memories of the Alice story is the little jingle about being late for a “very important date” from the Disney version.) If the rabbit or hare is a feminine symbol, his watch, a modern product of ordered civilization, must be more rational, more “masculine.”

Illustration by Sir John Tenniel.

    The White Rabbit is the one who starts Alice on her journey down the rabbit hole. A psychoanalytic critic describes this as “perhaps the best-known symbol of coitus” (Goldschmidt 280), a comment that reduces the symbolism to the absurd. What actually has happened (the same happens when Alice steps through the looking-glass) is that Alice has fallen into the realm of the unconscious, the collective unconscious. The fact she is dreaming is further corroboration that she’s in the symbolic world of the unconscious. As James Hillman writes: “The Underworld is converse to dayworld, and so its behavior will be obverse, perverse” (The Dream and the Underworld 39). What could better describe the settings and actions of the Alice stories?10 As Alice herself exclaims, “everything is queer to-day” (Oxford Alice 21).

    As she continues falling down the rabbit hole, Alice says, “‘I wonder how many miles I’ve fallen by this time? . . . I must be getting near the centre of the earth’” (Oxford Alice 10). She then tries to figure out how many miles that would be (a parody of school knowledge-- “this was not a very good opportunity for showing off her knowledge” (ibid. 11) but also an illustration of her use of the thinking function). Again Carroll’s stories roughly parallel Native American mythology. According to Frank Waters, the Pueblo and Navajo Indians believe in “four successive underworlds” (177). Will Roscoe notes that in most versions of the Zuni myth, the original Zunis “live four worlds beneath the surface of the earth, in the womb of the Earth Mother, undeveloped and undifferentiated” (218). They seek “the Middle of the World, that place where the natural, social, and spiritual elements of life are synchronized” (ibid. 219). This is the place where they can become “cooked” or differentiated as individuals.

    Alice in the underworld temporarily has her own identity crisis. Like Jack in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest , she wants to know who she really is. Because she’s changed size so incredibly, she wonders: “But if I’m not the same, the next question is ‘Who in the world am I?’ Ah, that’s the great puzzle!” (Oxford Alice 18). She wonders if she could be Mabel, a girl who, unlike herself, knows very little. Yet Alice can’t get her multiplication table or her geography right. When she tries to recite a poem from memory, the words come out wrong. Clearly, her ego identity is confused at this point--undifferentiated, if you will. She fears the loss of her ego identity, a genuine fear for a child under such circumstances. In the Garden of Live Flowers, the Red Queen advises Alice to “remember who you are!” (ibid. 147). Yet when she reaches the woods with the Looking-Glass insects, Alice temporarily forgets her own name (ibid. 156), symbolic of who she is.

    In Zuni myth, she would be described as “uncooked” (see Roscoe 219). Interestingly, Rumi, the Persian mystical poet, uses, in a patriarchal context, the same trope in one of his mystical poems: “There is a spiritual fire for the sake of cooking you. . . . If you do not flee from the fire, and become wholly cooked like well-baked bread, you will be a master and lord of the table” (Jalal al-Din al-Rumi 144). Alice’s journeys through Wonderland and in the Looking-Glass world are efforts to become “cooked,” that is to affirm her ego identity, to develop the functions of consciousness, to become as far as possible an integrated, whole person. As an archetypal symbol (as opposed to a flesh and blood child), she is able to become whole, to become what Jung would call individuated, to an extent impossible to flesh and blood children. Like the clown Newe:kwe in Zuni myth who aids the people when crises arise by “talking backwards, speaking nonsense, and saying the opposite of what he means” (Roscoe 222) and like the Koyemshis (the “mud-heads”), trickster figures who parody Zuni prayers--just as Carroll parodies well-known poems--and otherwise provide levity during sacred ceremonials (Tyler 194-201),--like these figures from Zuni myth the nonsensical characters in Alice --the Duchess, the March Hare, the Hatter, the Dormouse, the Gryphon, the Mock Turtle, the live flowers, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Humpty Dumpty, the Lion and the Unicorn, and all the others--contribute to Alice’s own individuation process. For society at large, they provide the healing laughter Native American tricksters provide.

    Tyler observes that “the emergence of mankind is not a creation, but a bringing forth of people who already existed, though sometimes in an imperfect state” (103). The people emerge from, in Waters’ words, the “canyon-womb, the kiva sipapu, the Place of Emergence . . . from the four preceding worlds” (209). In Navajo myth Turquoise Boy and White Shell Girl, the first berdaches, the “changing twins,” not only helped the people out of a great flood (reminiscent of the pool of tears in Alice ) into the fifth world, the present-day world, but also helped the people learn to make pottery, baskets, and various useful tools (Williams, The Spirit and the Flesh 19). Carroll’s underworld, where patriarchal values are reversed and the most powerful characters are female, where, like the berdache, Alice learns to develop both “male” and “female” functions, resembles the world of Pueblo and Navajo myth. Just as the Indian peoples emerged from the underworld, so does Alice emerge from Wonderland and the Looking-Glass world a wiser, more integrated personality than she had been. No wonder she becomes a queen--a supraordinate personality, symbolizing wholeness for her Victorian readers.


    Of the other talking animals and characters, some of the most important are the Caterpillar, the King and Queen of Hearts, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Humpty Dumpty, the White Knight, and the Red and White Queens. The dance is another important symbol; so is language itself, the garden, and eating and drinking. But perhaps the most prominent symbol is the cat in its various forms. The Caterpillar, like the pool of tears, requires little explanation. They are both elements of the archetype of transformation. Alice has a symbolic baptism in the tears, a symbolic death. The caterpillar also symbolizes death and rebirth. Judith Bloomingdale is correct to compare the Duchess and the Queen of Hearts with Kali, the Hindu goddess in her terrible aspect (Bloomingdale 386). Alice herself has the potential for being destructive (her shadow side); she must learn to recognize this potential and accommodate it. While the King of Hearts presides over the trial of the Knave of Hearts, the Queen has the real power (or, better, surreal power--for in this nonsense world she never exercises her power). Her continual commands, “Off with his head,” “Off with her head,” “Off with their heads,” show her lack of Eros and threaten Alice’s new consciousness shown in the development of the Logos principle in her.

    In Tweedledum and Tweedledee the twin motif found in most mythologies is represented (see Cirlot 355-56 and Roscoe 218). In their ritualized, crazy personal combat, they are a parody of the hostile brothers motif--another attack on patriarchal mythological tradition. The amusing sub-standard dialect they use suggests their primal roots:

                “I know what you’re thinking about,” said Tweedledum;
            “but it isn’t so, nohow.”

                “Contrariwise,” continued Tweedledee, “if it was so, it
            might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t.
            That’s logic.” (Oxford Alice 160)

Alice is more interested in finding her way out of the woods and to the garden than in talking logic with the twin brothers. But she must learn from them before she can continue. The first lesson is how to begin a visit: by saying “‘How d’ye do?’” (ibid.).

    More importantly, she participates in a dance with them, “dancing round in a ring” under a tree (ibid. 161). Whereas in Wonderland Alice had merely watched the Lobster-Quadrille (ibid. 90), in Looking-Glass she participates in the dance--an indication of her psychic growth. Even though Carroll consciously keeps religion out of the Alice stories, here he includes one of the most ancient of humankind’s sacred rites. The dance symbolizes, among many things, “a series of dissolutions and rebirths . . . the ‘Great Change’ [of creation] . . . the measure of man’s achievement is his adjustment, without fear, to the universal circumstance of change” (Wosien, Sacred Dance 10). One of Alice’s tasks in Wonderland and the Looking-Glass world is to adjust to radical change. “The earliest view of time,” writes Maria-Gabriele Wosien, “was cyclic, not linear. . . . Life, from the very first, is bound up with transformation” (ibid.). Time in Carroll’s world is hardly linear (the Red Queen teaches Alice that “here . . . it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place,” Oxford Alice 145); and transformation is one of the key archetypes.11 It is no accident that the dance Alice participates in takes the circular shape of the mandala, a supreme symbol of wholeness. In the dance there is an order lacking in the anarchy of the mad tea-party, the Queen of Heart’s croquet-ground, and her court.12

    Humpty Dumpty, the White Knight, the Red and White Queens,--all are instructors, helpers, or guides to the heroine--Wise Old Men and Women, as it were. Except in this nonsense underworld everything is turned around, so that, for instance, Alice ends up helping the White Knight as he keeps falling down, head first. (He does teach Alice, albeit by negative example.) Although Cirlot notes that the alchemists believed the egg “was the container for matter and for thought” (94), Humpty Dumpty is a parody of masculine pride in his intellectual powers. For all his humorous arrogance about knowing the meanings of words, the Eros principle of relatedness is almost totally lacking in him--he doubts he would recognize Alice if he saw her again. He illustrates what Jung refers to as “the law of independence inherent in the thinking function and . . . its emancipation from the concretism of sensuous perceptions” (“Psychic Conflicts in a Child” 34). Still, he is egg-shaped and has grown from an egg into a real character, so he also symbolizes the possibility of psychic growth. The Red and White Queens are like two haughty but harmless children who talk “dreadful nonsense” with Alice (Oxford Alice 227). They show, by contrast, Alice’s new self-confidence and maturity. Humpty Dumpty, the White Knight, the Red and White Queens,--each is in fact a parody of the Wise Old Man or the Wise Old Woman.

    Language itself is symbolic in Alice in Wonderland. W. H. Auden goes so far as to maintain that “one of the most important and powerful characters [in the Alice books] is not a person but the English language” (9). The Word, the Logos, is prominent in so many ways--among them puns, riddles, the concern with meaning--that it would take another essay to discuss them all. Alice, the heroine as opposed to the hero, as I’ve indicated, develops a more complete psyche through her appropriation of the Logos principle.

    The garden is another symbol that seems hardly to require analysis. For Bloomingdale, “The garden is . . . a positive mother symbol, no longer wild nature, but cultivated, tended, fostered--in short, the Garden of Live Flowers” (387). Instead of the Edenic garden of innocence, Alice seeks the “civilized,” ordered garden of the familiar world above ground. Ironically, she must go through a hero’s journey (another of the many archetypal motifs in the Alice books) to get there.13 The garden itself stands for wholeness--the uniting of untamed nature with the conscious, controlling hand of human beings.

    Also symbolic are eating and drinking--from the bottle with the label that says “DRINK ME” and the little cake that says “EAT ME” in Wonderland to Queen Alice’s banquet at the end of Looking-Glass. Erich Neumann makes the point that “Hunger and food are the prime movers of mankind. . . . Life=power=food, the earliest formula for obtaining power over anything, appears in the oldest of the Pyramid Texts” (27). That eating is power for Alice is clear when she eats the Caterpillar’s mushroom to control her size. She is whole (her right size) when she’s able to ascertain the right amount to eat.

Illustration by Sir John Tenniel.

    The cat is perhaps the most pervasive archetypal symbol apart from Alice herself in both books. She appears as Dinah, Alice’s cat, as the black and white kittens (again with Dinah) in Looking-Glass ; she appears as a lion (with the unicorn) and as a Gryphon. “The gryphon, or griffin,” as Gardner notes, “is a fabulous monster with the head and wings of an eagle and the lower body of a lion” (Annotated Alice 124, n. 6). Like Lear’s Owl and Pussy-Cat, the Gryphon stands for the uniting of opposites--the fowl with the feline.

    The most famous cat in Alice in Wonderland, of course, is the Cheshire Cat with its mysterious grin. Carroll shares with Lear a love of the cat, and others have pointed out the conscious, personal reasons for the many cats in Alice . Here I am concerned more with the archetypal meanings of the cat in the context of Carroll’s classic.

cheshire cat
Illustration by Sir John Tenniel.

    That the cat is traditionally feminine is clearly relevant in these stories which compensate for patriarchal one-sidedness. Bloomingdale comments on the Cheshire Cat:

            The mad grin of the appearing and disappearing gargoyle,
            which literally ‘hangs over’ the heads of the participants in
            the game of life, is an insane version of the enigmatic smile
            of the ‘Mona Lisa,’ the mask of the Sphinx--supreme
            embodiment of the riddle of the universe. (385-86)

The smile thus symbolizes superior, hidden, psychic knowledge. Like Merlin’s laugh, the grin “is the result of . . . more profound knowledge of invisible connections” (E. Jung, The Grail Legend 363). “We’re all mad here,” the Cat tells Alice (Oxford Alice 58). Everyone seems mad because they are in the realm of the collective unconscious where everything seems crazy to the rational, conscious mind. Empson is correct to say the Cat stands for “intellectual detachment . . . it is the amused observer” (273). The Cat’s ability to appear and disappear at will demonstrates the autonomy of the archetype--one can not produce an archetypal image at will. The different forms the cat takes in Alice and the Cheshire Cat’s different shapes as it appears and disappears are manifestations of what Nicholas J. Saunders refers to as “the magical shape-shifting that has always been associated with cats, both large and small” (29). Hence, like Merlin, the cat is also a trickster.

    In her biographical memoir of Jung, Barbara Hannah, who was closely associated with Jung professionally and personally for over thirty years, describes four deficiencies in the Church and in Western culture which Jung cited and for which Alice in Wonderland compensates. The first is the exclusion of nature from the Church and Western culture. The modern ecology movement is a reaction against this exclusion. So is Alice in Wonderland in the way plants are personified and given value equal to human beings. Alice’s goal to reach the garden is itself an honoring of nature.

    Hannah continues:

            The second point Jung made was that the Church increasingly
            excluded animals. . . . This attitude of the Church has, more than
            anything else, alienated man from his own as well as from the larger
            impersonal instincts and has since produced a deplorable state of
            affairs all over the world. (Jung: His Life and Work 151)

Alice in Wonderland contains many animals, more than I have mentioned. Those I have mentioned, however, make clear the fact that Alice honors the animals by endowing them with consciousness equal to that of humans. Her interaction with animals and nature are manifestations of what Lévy-Bruhl calls participation mystique, a quality Alice shares with aboriginal peoples and one which adults with their ego-consciousness have lost.

    “The third exclusion,” Hannah writes, “is perhaps the worst from the psychological point of view, because it has prevented man from recognizing his own shadow. It consists in the exclusion of the inferior man.” It is Eros, “relationship,” that “the Church condemned as sinful” (ibid. 151). The sadistic cruelty shown, for example, in the poem, “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” in which the title characters befriend, then eat, the Oysters, reveals the shadow archetype which Western civilization needs to accommodate. The Freudian interpretations of Alice, in so far as they are valid, compensate for the Church’s denial of sexuality and the relatedness (the “Eros”) it needs. I agree with Bloomingdale that it is Alice’s “capacity for compassion that distinguishes Alice the Queen. . . . Love is the golden crown that makes Alice the true Queen of Hearts” (390).

    The last exclusion or “repression” Hannah cites is of “creative fantasy . . . [which] if . . . given full freedom . . . will probably lead the individual to find a divine spark in himself.” Although the Church, Hannah notes, has “apparently little influence nowadays,” it certainly had more influence in the last century (and Church here means Christianity in general, not Christ himself or any one denomination). Its negative influence today can be observed in the efforts by some to write discrimination against the marriage rights of gays and lesbians into the Constitution. Writing for children, Carroll was able to abandon his own prudery and give free reign to what was actually a new genre he and Edward Lear were creating simultaneously.

    Hannah reports that Jung, referring to his own Symbols of Transformation, described two kinds of thinking: “intellectual or directed thinking and fantastic thinking” (100). These are exactly the kinds of thinking that went into the writing of Alice in Wonderland. The happy balance of the two make it a classic which continues to appeal to collective needs in Western culture. Hannah further notes the fact that Jung liked to quote Schopenhauer, who said: “A sense of humor is the only divine quality of man” (40), and in that sense Alice in Wonderland is truly divine.


    1A fairly recent example of the popularity I refer to is an article in National Geographic: “The Wonderland of Lewis Carroll” (June 1991). More recently, yet another film version of the Alice stories (Alice in Wonderland) appeared on the 28th of February 1999 on NBC.  Brian Lowry, in the Los Angeles Times, reports: “the three-hour production sank the premiere of Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid,’ coming through the looking glass with this season’s highest rating for a single-part TV movie . . .” (F11).  An exhibit running through 24 May 2006 at the Doheny Memorial Library of the University of Southern California, "The Curious World of Lewis Carroll," coincides with a symposium, "Lewis Carroll and the Idea of Childhood," at the Doheny and at the Huntington Library, San Marino, California, on 31 March and 1 April respectively.  Morton N. Cohen deftly summarizes the popularity of the Alice books. He makes the following startling statement: “Along with the Bible and Shakespeare’s works, they [the Alice books] are the most widely quoted books in the Western world” (xxii).

    2Three anthologies published within the last thirty or so years illustrate the variety of studies: Robert Phillips’ Aspects of Alice: Lewis Carroll’s Dreamchild as seen through the Critics’ Looking-Glasses, 1865-1971 (1971), Edward Guiliano’s Lewis Carroll: A Celebration, Essays on the Occasion of the 150th Anniversary of the Birth of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1982), and Harold Bloom’s Lewis Carroll (1987), published as part of the Modern Critical Views series. In the Introduction to his 1995 biography, Cohen summarizes the “eccentric readings” of the Alice books, which, according to Cohen, include seeing Alice as “a transvestite Christ,” regarding “Carroll himself as the first ‘acidhead.’ . . . [and] explaining “that the story is about toilet training and bowel movements” (xxiii).

    3Jeffrey Stern also views Alice as the anima for Carroll, but he confines his comments to a few paragraphs in the context of his essay, "Lewis Carroll the Pre-Raphaelite" (165-166).

    4Although Carroll’s Alice stories are usually described as nonsense, unlike Lear’s verse, the issue of genre is more complex for Carroll. Carroll more than once referred to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as a “fairy-tale” (see Selected Letters 29 and Diaries 185). The complexity of the issue Nina Demurova deftly illustrates in her article: “Toward a Definition of Alice 's Genre: The Folktale and Fairy-tale Connections.” She concludes:

            The scientific, the nonsensical, the linguistic--one thing is perfectly clear about
            these two books [Wonderland and Looking-Glass], with their unexpected
            twists and depths: Carroll’s fairy tales realize in most original and unexpected
            forms both literary and scientific types of perception. And that is why philosophers,
            logicians, mathematicians, physicists, psychologists, folklorists, politicians, as well as
            literary critics and armchair readers, all find material for thought and interpretation in
            the Alices. (86)

Without discounting the other possibilities, I would here classify the Alice books as visionary nonsense--a modern myth.

    5Virginia Woolf, in her review of the Nonesuch Press “complete” Lewis Carroll, declares that after reading Alice in Wonderland “we wake to find--is it the Rev. C. L. Dodgson? Is it Lewis Carroll? Or is it both combined?” (83). Greenacre quotes a letter, dated 15 December 1875, “the only letter signed with both names [Lewis Carroll and C. L. Dodgson]. More frequently,” Greenacre adds, “Mr. Dodgson preferred to keep his identity separate from that of Lewis Carroll” (120-21). It was only in the last two months of his life, however, that Dodgson refused to accept mail addressed to Lewis Carroll (Gattégno 231).

    6Martin Gardner, in The Annotated Alice, notes: “In this terminal poem, one of Carroll’s best, he recalls that July 4 [1862] boating expedition up the Thames on which he first told the story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to the three Liddell girls” (345, n. 1).

    7Ironically, Carroll seems to have been as prudish as the stereotypical Victorian--despite or perhaps because of his forbidden sexual proclivities (to be sure no one can prove precisely what he did with those proclivities on the genital level). While he found nothing wrong with photographs and drawings of nude children, he would, in Woolf’s words, “produce an extra-Bowdlerised edition of Shakespeare for the use of British maidens” (83).

    8Bloomingdale finds the fact that Alice is a girl significant because “it affirms the androgynous nature of the presexual self” (383); however, the same is true for any child who is an archetypal symbol. The fact that Alice is female is important but for other reasons, as we shall see.

    9In Secret Gardens, Humphrey Carpenter makes a strong argument that Alice in Wonderland is actually a “parody of religion” (65). The parody here and Carroll’s later “anguished piety,” Carpenter believes, “spring from the same thing, the fact that Dodgson’s religious beliefs were utterly insecure” (64). I submit that in the Alice books Carroll has in fact compensated for that insecure belief by creating a new myth, one which, as I show below, compensates in a variety of ways for conventional Christianity.

    10Hillman cautions against the type of criticism psychoanalysts are prone to: “. . . to consider the dream as an emotional wish costs soul; to mistake the chthonic as the natural loses psyche. We cannot claim to be psychological when we read dream images in terms of drives or desires” (43).

    11Apart from the basic transformation in Alice herself, other examples of the archetype are the baby that turns into a pig and the White Queen who turns into a sheep.

    12W. H. Auden sees games, too, as an organizing principle against “anarchy and incompetence” (9). The Looking-Glass world, of course, is actually a huge chess board.

    13Alice’s train ride and the chess board moves give a modern context to Alice’s journey.

Works Cited

Auden, W. H. “Today’s ‘Wonder-World’ Needs Alice.” New York Times
1 July 1962. Rpt. in Phillips, Robert, ed. Aspects of Alice:
    Lewis Carroll’s Dreamchild as seen Through the Critics’ Looking- Glasses,
. New York: Vanguard, 1971. 3-12.

Auerbach, Nina. “Alice and Wonderland: A Curious Child.” Victorian
(18) 1973. Rpt. in Bloom, Harold, ed. Lewis Carroll.
    New York: Chelsea House, 1987. 31-44.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Lewis Carroll. New York: Chelsea House, 1987.

Bloomingdale, Judith. “Alice as Anima : The Image of Woman in Carroll’s  
    Classic.” Aspects of Alice: Lewis Carroll’s Dreamchild as seen
    Through the Critics’ Looking-Glasses, 1865-1971
. Ed. Robert Phillips.
    New York: Vanguard, 1971. 378-90.

Boas, George. The Cult of Childhood. Dallas: Spring Publications, 1966.

Carpenter, Humphrey. Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children’s
Boston: Houghton, 1985.

Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass:
    And What Alice Found There
. Ed. Roger Lancelyn Green.
    New York: Oxford UP, 1982.

---. The Diaries of Lewis Carroll. Ed. Roger Lancelyn Green. Vol. 1.
    Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1954. 2 Vols.

---. The Selected Letters of Lewis Carroll. Ed. Morton N. Cohen. New York:
    Pantheon, 1978.

Cirlot, J. E. A Dictionary of Symbols. 2nd ed. Trans. Jack Sage. New York:
    Philosophical Library, 1971.

Clark, Anne. Lewis Carroll: A Biography. New York: Schocken, 1979.

Cohen, Morton N. Lewis Carroll: A Biography. New York: Vintage, 1995.

Collingwood, Stuart Dodgson. The Life and Letters of Lewis Carroll. New
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Demurova, Nina. “Toward a Definition of Alice's Genre: The Folktale and
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    Ed. Edward Guilinano. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1982. 75-88.

Empson, William. “Alice in Wonderland: The Child as Swain.”
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. By William Empson. Norfolk, Connecticut: New
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Gardner, Martin, ed. Alice’s Adventures under Ground. New York: Dover, 1965.

---, ed. The Annotated Alice: Alices’ Adventures in Wonderland and
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Gattégno. Jean. Lewis Carroll: Fragments of a Looking-Glass. Trans.
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Goldschmidt, A. M. E. “Alice in Wonderland Psychoanalyzed.”
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--Copyright © Clifton Snider, 2006.  All rights reserved.

This article was first given in a different version as a lecture at Ph.D. seminars at Pacifica Graduate Institute, Carpinteria, California, December 1992.

Read about my book of literary criticism, The Stuff That Dreams Are Made On: A Jungian Interpretation of Literature.

See also:
Queer Persona and the Gay Gaze in Brokeback Mountain, Story and Film.
Synchronicity and the Trickster in The Importance of Being Earnest.
Oscar Wilde, Queer Addict.
The Vampire Archetype in the Brontës.
Psychic Integration in Christina Rossetti.
Shamanism in Emily Dickinson.
Edward Lear: Victorian Trickster
Eros and Logos in Oscar Wilde's Fairy Tales.

To read more about my work as a poet, go to Clifton Snider, Poet, The Age of the Mother, The Alchemy of Opposites, and Aspens in the Wind.

Read about my novels, Wrestling with Angels: A Tale of Two Brothers, Bare Roots, and Loud Whisper.

Read my short story, "Hilda."


Page last revised: 23 August 2009